The Favorites: Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets
The Minnesota Timberwolves arguably had the single best offseason acquisition when they brought in All-Star wing Jimmy Butler for one of Zach LaVine’s ACL’s, the Finnish version of Kristaps Porzingis (Lauri Markkanen), and former lottery pick Kris Dunn.
No, seriously. One of the league’s most historically inept franchises somehow snagged a top-10 player by sending away an injured super-sub (that didn’t mesh with their other stars), a late lottery pick, and a non-asset. Butler now forms a powerful trio alongside a pair of Rookie of the Year winners in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Minnesota signed Jeff Teague to fill the lead guard role, and Jamal Crawford came over to shore up a weak bench. Tom Thibodeau’s club has all the makings of a breakout team. With that said, it feels like we’ve been saying that for years with this team. It’ll start on the defensive end for them — especially when it comes to rebounding the basketball.
Thibs liked the Towns/Gorgui Dieng frontcourt pairing last year, and they still finished 29th in defensive rebounding. In regards to Butler and Wiggins, they can try some funky lineups with either of them stretching out to the four spot. That addition of athleticism could infuse some life onto the defensive boards…or it could cripple their rim protection.
On the other side of the coin, Denver feasted on the glass last year. The high-flying Nuggets out-boarded their opponents by an average of 5.6 rebounds per game in 2016. Adopting a team approach to the glass, Denver gets contributions across all positions when helping to gain control of the painted area.
Starting center Nikola Jokic is a good-not-great rebounder, but he posted higher per 36-minutes totals than guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and the aforementioned Towns. The guards do their part — with Wilson Chandler, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Emmanuel Mudiay all averaging over 3.0 RPG last year. Kenneth Faried also still gets after it in a reserve capacity.
It might be a year too early to crown the Nuggets, but grabbing an established veteran like Paul Millsap certainly expedites the process. In an offseason of rapid change, Millsap’s signing has been tragically underappreciated. He’s the perfect fit alongside Jokic, forming the best passing big man tandem in the league. There were questions as to whether Jamal Murray could convert to the full-time point guard spot. However, that concern could soon be forgotten considering the play-making ability of these two down-low.
This Nuggets team feels a bit like that 57-win team from 2013. They are young, athletic, and don’t really have a go-to scoring option (that team didn’t have a single player average over 17 PPG). This is a big year for head coach Mike Malone. He has a chance to skyrocket into the upper-echelon of coaches if he can make it work with this unconventional roster.
The Fringe: Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers
Portland rattled off 17 wins in 22 games to secure an improbable playoff berth in 2017. The Trail Blazers kicked into high gear — riding the wave of C.J. McCollum’s breakout year and the unexpected emergence of Jusuf Nurkic. The perfect storm of events turned a lottery-bound year into a successful campaign. Led by McCollum and star point guard/rapper Damian Lillard, many of the pieces are back for another go.
Allen Crabbe is in Brooklyn now largely due to a salary dump. The team also drafted Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan — which could give them far more flexibility in the front court. However, the bread-and-butter of this squad still remains in the backcourt. If Lillard and McCollum are playing at an All-Star level, they can beat anybody on any given night.
While the Blazers roster remains largely unchanged from last season, the Clippers will be moving forward with a bevy of new players they’ll need to integrate. A departing Chris Paul means a new identity for this team under Blake Griffin. We might get to see a few glimpses of this Griffin again:
The biggest question mark is now DeAndre Jordan — who’ll likely see a dip in his production with Paul out of town. So much of Jordan’s offense was predicated on Paul’s greatness. Does he get those same opportunities with Patrick Beverley or Austin Rivers running the show?
The Usual Suspects: Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks
Memphis has a talented duo in a conference that is filled with dominant trios. The firepower just isn’t there anymore for this team. Their ‘Grit ‘n’ Grind’ mantra left town when longtime stalwarts Tony Allen and Zach Randolph signed elsewhere this offseason. They didn’t do a whole lot to help themselves out in other areas. The best they can hope for is Chandler Parsons being fully-healthy for a season – and if you’re hoping for that, it’s probably not going to be a fun year.
Still, it’s hard to count this team out. Despite their old-school defensive approach, the Grizzlies have shown they are receptive to change. Marc Gasol’s 268 three point attempts in 2017 (66 attempts in eight seasons prior) is the best example of that.
I’ll trust in Rick Carlisle until my last breath. He’s the best in the league at getting the most out of his players. Time and time again, the Mavericks should have been a bottom-dweller and he’s led them to semi-relevance. This year’s roster is better than past seasons.
Dirk Nowitzki will be getting buckets for eternity. Harrison Barnes stumbled after the All-Star break, but is a quality two-way 3rd option. Nerlens Noel has another contract to play for. Wesley Matthews is healthy, and one of the league’s best 3-and-D wings. Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell are prime examples of Carlisle’s brilliance — both far exceeding what many thought they would be.
A majority of their season will be more about developing Dennis Smith Jr. than anything. Still, this doesn’t exclude them from playoff aspirations.
Wildcards: New Orleans Pelicans, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers
The Pelicans went all-in last year when trading for enigmatic All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. The fit with Anthony Davis is still in the awkward-stage, but the talent is undeniable. If they can get something out of their ragtag group of wings, they’ll be a threat.
Utah lost Gordon Hayward and George Hill during the offseason. The Jazz replaced them with Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell and a couple of journeymen. Their defense will keep them competitive, but they lack scoring punch after Hayward’s departure.
LA has a roster built to tank, but have no reason to when they don’t have their own draft pick in 2018. Lonzo Ball and dad Lavar already have the city thinking playoffs, but a lot would have to go their way for that to happen.
See You at the Lottery: Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns
Suns and Kings fans have been tortured by their teams’ play over the last decade. However, greener pastures are on the horizon. More so than ever, these two teams are stacked with young, exciting talent. Phoenix possesses a scoring savant in Devin Booker, and an Andre Iguodala clone in Kansas wing Josh Jackson. Sacramento has the dynamic backcourt of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield to look forward to. These players aren’t going to equate to wins in the immediate future, but they will be fun to watch and cheer for as the lottery balls begin to stack up.
The four teams that will grab the final four spots in the Western Conference Playoffs are the Timberwolves, Nuggets, Pelicans and Blazers. Minnesota is too talented to miss the postseason. Denver is as deep as anybody in the conference, and have one of the best home court advantages across the league. The Pelicans have two of the 20 best players in the world, and a coach that is in desperate need of a winning season. Portland has been there before, and have a talented enough starting lineup to bully the weaker teams.
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