NBA 2023 Northwest Division Preview

Denver repeating, Edwards’ leap, Blazers’ young core, Thunders’ core’s growth, and where do the Jazz go?

Simply Ballin
16 min readOct 9, 2023

The NBA season is almost here. It’s that time of year where it’s so close that you just can’t wait for it to start because it’s been far too long now without NBA basketball.

So, for the next week or so, here are the division previews. In each preview, I’ll be going through some of the main questions for each team and discuss what’s in store in the upcoming season.

Today, we’re going through the northwest division:

  • Denver’s chance of repeating?
  • How will the Wolves look like with more continuity?
  • How will all the young guys fit and look with the Blazers?
  • Can everyone take some form of leap for the Thunder?
  • What even is the Jazz’s plan for this season?

Denver Nuggets

Fresh of winning a championship, the goals for the Nuggets are simple this season and that’s to defend their title.

Despite all the moves around the league — whether that’s Damian Lillard teaming up with Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, the Phoenix Suns forming a big three with Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, and Devin Booker, the Boston Celtics adding both Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis, or countless of other moves — I still believe that the Nuggets are and should be the favorites to win.

(also side note, that’s a lot of moves being made everywhere)

But the Nuggets didn’t make any significant moves in the off-season. In fact, you can make a case they got worse by losing two solid rotational pieces in the playoffs.

And with that, I have five questions for the Nuggets for this season:

  1. How big of a loss is losing Jeff Green and Bruce Brown?
  2. How will the young bench contribute?
  3. Do they still have the best starting five in the league?
  4. Can their offense remain to be historic?
  5. Can they defend their title and win back-to-back championships?

Both Green and Brown were key players in the playoffs. They played all 20 games and played 17.2 and 26.5 minutes per game, respectively.

Losing that is going to hurt because who do they replace that with? Will Christian Braun going to have an increase in minutes(he played 13 minutes per game)? Is it going to be Reggie Jackson? It might be done by committee with a bunch of younger players but that’s still having to replace almost 900 worth of minutes.

One thing about losing Brown is who’s going to replace his rim pressure? Did you know in the playoffs, he had a 34% rim frequency? And he shot 76% there and only 37% of it was assisted! Out of anyone with at least 20 shots at the rim, he had the lowest assisted percentage.

And what about Green? Both he and Gordon were the main reasons why they were able to survive without Jokic in the playoffs. With Jokic off, per Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets were plus 4.0 with a 108.9 defense. Whether it was Gordon or Green at the 5 is interchangeable, but they needed both to give them that versatility.

Are you replacing that with Zeke Nnaji who only played 12 minutes total? Or playing smaller with Christian Braun? That either feels worse or at least banking a lot on young guys getting better quickly.

And that’s what it looks like it’s going to be. They have six rookies heading into the season — though they are much older rookies. Regardless, after Michael Porter Jr, many young guys need to contribute.

That shouldn’t be as big of an issue if you consider that they still probably have the best starting five in the league.

Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic:

  • 706 minutes
  • 201 raw plus-minus
  • Plus 12.9 net rating
  • 127.3 offensive rating
  • 114.4 defensive rating
  • 60.6% 2pt
  • 41.9% 3pt

I don’t think anyone comes close to this. Not only did they do this during a regular season but they continued like it was nothing in the playoffs too.

A lot of it has to do with Jokic being the best player in the league and being able to make everyone and everything even better. He has reached a historic status where just because you have him on the floor, it’s a huge advantage. He’s the reason why they have a ridiculous offense that makes it seem it’s out of 2k.

Here are the Nuggets offensive rating with Jokic on:

  • In the playoffs: 121.1
  • Vs Timberwolves: 121.5
  • Vs Suns: 124.9
  • Vs Lakers: 125.3
  • Vs Heat: 112.4

Outside of the Heat(where the team shot 28% from 3 but 59% from 2), having a consistent 120+ offense against all kinds of teams is something that’s unheard of — the only thing that comes close is the 2017 Golden State Warriors with both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. And honestly, I don’t see any reason why that won’t happen again, especially with growth from Porter and Murray.

Now, despite their poor off-season, I don’t think their losses are big enough to offset all of that. They still have the best player in the league(that’s a big advantage to have). The Murray-Jokic duo is arguably the best in the league. Three elite starters.

Their only issue is depth, but even that I think it’s overrated. Plus they can still make a potential move throughout the year and hope for a breakout season from a young player.

So, the answer to the last question is an easy yes right now.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Two seasons ago, they doubled their win total from 23 to 46 wins, and they also made the playoffs for the first time since 2018. Then in the off-season, they decided to change things up and trade for Rudy Gobert — that was one hell of a trade.

I was pretty high on the Wolves entering this season. I thought the Gobert trade was going to make them better and address their weaknesses. But their season was just unfortunate.

The whole point of the Gobert trade was to pair him with Karl Anthony Towns. That had to wait with Towns only playing 29 games. That eventually happened, but it was obviously too late.

I don’t know how I’d describe this season for them. They also ended up trading for Mike Conley, which ended up being a good thing. They played well in the playoffs against the Nuggets. Anthony Edwards improved. There were plenty of positives within this unfortunate, underwhelming season.

Their off-season was rather quiet. It seems they just want to ride this core out and focus on continuity. But with that, here are the Wolves questions for the season:

  1. Will the Towns-Gobert pairing work with more chemistry?
  2. Is Gobert regressing?
  3. What kind of leap can we expect from Edwards?
  4. Is relying on a 36-year-old Conley a good idea?
  5. Are we finally going to see healthy Towns?
  6. What even is their ceiling with this core in a best-case scenario?

The Towns-Gobert duo have only played 529 minutes together. They were barely positive with plus 0.4 but had a 109.3 offense(did shoot 34% from 3). In the playoffs, they were minus 8.3 with a 116.6 offense in 119 minutes(shot 39%).

It’s tough to make any conclusions from this because of such a low sample, especially when there’s going to be more shooting noise. But even with that considered, a 109 offensive rating is concerning. Is a 5% difference that big of a deal here? Or is that a more fit issue?

This was always going to take time to sort out and see how each can play with the other. But because of Towns’ injury, we might have to sit and wait until we actually know if this duo fits well. There are still questions on both ends of this.

What has been encouraging is that their defense was good even in a low sample and also when considering just when Gobert was on, they did have a top-7 defense. BUT what was strange is Gobert not having the same level of defensive impact as he did in Utah.

This was by far the worst defensive impact he had in a long while. For the first time in his career, he ranked outside of the top-8 in D-LEBRON(which was his rookie season and after that, he was in the top-3 from 2016 to 2022). This dropped to 23rd this year.

Obviously, different schemes and different teammates play a part here but does it warrant such a drop-off? Was this a blip from Gobert or a trend going forward(he is now in his 30s)?

This was his interior defensive stats this year compared to anchor bigs:

And this was last year in Utah:

That’s a drop-off in six of the nine metrics. This is extremely concerning for the Wolves going forward with this duo if there’s this sign of regression already. What if this is the end of the elite defensive impact from Gobert?

What can help with this is a potential leap from Edwards. He’s entering his fourth year after becoming an All-Star averaging 24.3 points per 75 possessions on 56.4% true shooting. These aren’t some eye-popping numbers when it comes to scoring and are less popping when considering the playmaking side too.

There seems to be a lot of hype around Edwards, especially after his FIBA performance and I don’t know how much I’m sold on that. His scoring has got to improve drastically to even be in that conversation. He does get to the rim a lot and he finishes well, it’s just everywhere else that’s the issue.

  • 67% at the rim(0–3ft)
  • 37% 3–10ft
  • 38% 10–16ft
  • 35% 16–3pt

That has slowly improved in each season but if the Wolves are serious about contending with him as the best player, the improvement has got to be quicker — it is encouraging though that he has stepped up from every area in the playoffs where he posted a 60% TS in both runs. There is a clear trajectory and hope when it comes to his scoring.

The leap that has to take place is with his decision-making and passing. That is severely lacking when compared to other on-ball players:

  • D+ in passing creation volume
  • F in passing efficiency
  • F in passing versatility
  • C+ in passing creation quality
  • B in on-ball gravity
  • C in playmaking talent

That’s what their season depends on. It’s growth there from Edwards. Otherwise, it’s relying on a 36-year-old.

In 24 games, Conley had a good season with the Wolves. 16 points and 6 assists per 75 on 63% TS is extremely good for his role. And they needed him in the playoffs. In 62 minutes without him, they were minus 22.1 with a 102.4 offense — that jumped to minus 3.7 with a 112.3 offense with him on.

But with older players, it’s easy to fall off a cliff all of the sudden without any warning. And if Edwards doesn’t take a leap as a ball handler, then this could get ugly for them.

The most important question is what will healthy Towns look like? Town’s last four seasons are weird — 35 games in 2020, 50 in 21, 74 in 22, 29 in 23. It’s just been odd. It’s tough to see where he’s at with his game with such big differences in games played each season.

He’s also going to be 28 soon. He’s not some young player looking to enter his prime. This is most likely his prime right now and I’m not entirely sure what that even is.

He’s a very talented scorer. Since his rookie season, he’s had a 60%+ TS in each season(even his rookie season was 59%). For his career, he’s been 11% better than average efficiency-wise. He’s arguably the best 3pt shooting ever. He’s a versatile scorer. He can drive. He’s a great passer and he’s improved each year.

But that has dropped in each of his playoff runs. His scoring goes down. His assists go down. His efficiency goes down. And he’s also not changing your team on defense either. I have questions about his impact on the offense at the moment.

And that leads me to the final question of what even is their ceiling in a possible best-case scenario. I don’t think it’s that high. Maybe it’s just them being unknown and having lots of questions to get to their best-case scenario. Right now, their most likely ceiling is a 2nd round exit at most with a good matchup early.

Portland Trail Blazers

They finally did it. It’s not easy having a franchise have the guts to trade their franchise player after so many years of trying to build around them. But after not much success and constantly wanting Lillard to go somewhere else where he could win, they finally decided to move on.

And they did a good job transitioning to the new era.

It surely helped that they hit well with the lottery by landing on Scoot Henderson. That speeds up the rebuilding process when you have a talented player like that.

It also helped that after the Lillard trade, they’re left with:

  • Scoot Henderson
  • Shaedon Sharpe
  • Anfernee Simons
  • Deandre Ayton
  • Robert Williams

That’s a pretty fun roster going forward. But that’s what the season is going to focus on. Developing and being fun.

  1. What does Ayton look like in a new environment?
  2. What’s the growth from Simons and Sharpe in a rebuilding situation?
  3. What will Henderson’s rookie season look like?
  4. Can Williams stay healthy?
  5. What will Jerami Grant bring to this team?

Ayton has had a weird career so far as a number one overall pick and it feels very underwhelming. Out of the last 24 number-one picks, 15 of them have been either an All-Star or All-NBA(with the last three still being very young, of course).

So far, he hasn’t been close to that. I don’t think he’s a bad player but he’s not a great one either. He’s a solid big man who does his job well but isn’t going to be either WOW or YIKES. Maybe the team played a big part in that. A new environment can change a lot for a young player.

He is just 25 years old, and under a new coach with new players and much different expectations can change his career. The Blazers' trajectory going forward can be entirely different if they turn a recent number-one pick to that standard and pair him with another top-3 pick.

Speaking of different expectations. I wonder what that’s going to look like for both Sharpe and Simons.

In the last 10 games of the season, Sharpe averaged 23 points per 75 poss on 54% eFG and 57% TS, including 38% from 3. He also shot 38-for-54(70%) at the rim. That’s pretty good even in a small sample.

Simons had a career year in scoring. Improved in his assists. Had a higher usage but remained the same when it came to his efficiency. These numbers only get better without Lillard on the court:

Let's now hope that this translates over the course of the season.

The big question is also what Henderson is going to like. Rookies rarely have a significant impact on winning, but that’s also not the main point here. It’s looking at the from the development view and seeing what could translate going forward with him.

Although they have Ayton as their big, I wonder what the plan is with Williams. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the best defensive players. He was likely going to be the defensive player of the year two years ago before going down. That’s a significant addition. Adding a DPOY to a young team is needed to not fall down the hole of not taking defense seriously.

Finally, what about Grant? His role has probably changed significantly. He’s on a rebuilding team again. Similar to what he was doing in Detroit and that’s not the best role for him. We’ve seen what he is with more offensive responsibility and what he can be in a lesser role. I know they just gave him the huge deal, but I wonder if they’ll look to shop him around.

Overall, this team is likely not winning games and is entirely focused on developing their young core because they have a good one there. All of their pieces can work together and if everyone develops as they should, then this is going to be fun.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Speaking of fun. This team is going to be a must-watch. After two sub-30-win seasons, they hit 40 wins this year. It’s fair to assume they’ll exceed that this season. They were so close to making the playoffs too with advancing to the eighth seed game against the Timberwolves.

This year, I probably expect them to be closer to making the actual playoffs rather than making it through the play-in.

They are still a very young team, but that shouldn’t be a reason for them not being great. With Shai Gilgeous Alexander solidifying himself as a legit All-NBA player. Bringing back a fully-healthy Chet Holmgren. Growth in all of their young players.

  1. What does Holmgren look like in his rookie season?
  2. Will we see another leap from Shai?
  3. What about every other young guy?
  4. Should the Thunder accelerate their build?

I think a lot of their season will depend on how Holmgren looks like. This isn’t putting all the pressure on him, but their ceiling for this season without any other changes depends mostly on him. He can be the difference-maker on the defensive end for them. That would give them a rim protector and size that they need. At the same time, it wouldn’t be a failure if he doesn’t change their season.

Now, another player to watch out for a potential leap is surprisingly Shai again. I know he quite literally had a jump this year but after watching his FIBA performance, it’s looking like he’s definitely going to be one of the best players in the league.

He already was and that’s what’s scary. He’s already capable of being a 30-point scorer on elite efficiency. His ability as a scorer inside the arc was amazing to see. And to think that it can only get better.

Similar to all of this, everything depends on the growth of every player. They are a young team. Out of their top 10 players in minutes played, the oldest player was Kenrich Williams at 28. Their average age was 22.6.

Out of 19 players that played at least one game, 16 were 25 or younger — also add Holmgren to that now and their rookies. Just look at their rotation:

  • Gilgeous Alexander: 25
  • Holmgren: 21
  • Jalen Williams: 22
  • Jaylin Williams: 21
  • Josh Giddey: 21
  • Cason Wallace: 20
  • Ousmane Dieng: 20
  • Aleksej Pokusevksi: 21
  • Tre Mann: 22
  • Jeremiah Robinson Earl: 23
  • Isaiah Joe: 24
  • Lu Dort: 24

Even their “old” players aren’t closer to 30 than 20.

Because of that, as good as they may be this early on in their rebuild, everything still depends on their development. That should be the focus. I don’t think it makes sense for this team to be making any win-now moves for aging stars.

Just ride it out with this group. See where everyone gets better. Focus on development. And if that leads to winning, so be it. But that should be the Thunders’ season.

Utah Jazz

Although the Jazz had some success early in the season, I don’t think that should or will continue this season. For starters, this year, they will be without Conley, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt from the start. That’s losing almost 4k minutes worth of rotation. Those 4k minutes are going to younger guys.

After they traded those guys, the Jazz went 10–17 and had the 24th-worst net rating. They weren’t winning after that and that should follow into the season.

But that’s fine because this year is going to be focusing on their younger guys, development, and seeing what they even have because I’m confused about their plans.

  1. What is the core and plan for this team?
  2. How will each rookie play?
  3. Will Lauri Markkanen continue his elite play?

Last year, once they decided to blow up the team by trading Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, I expected them to bottom out. I also wasn’t expecting Markkanen to be this good either. But now because of that success, I’m not sure what the plan is with this team for the season, and that can raise a few questions.

What does the core consist of:

  • Markkanen(26 years old)
  • Taylor Hendricks(rookie)
  • Keonte George(rookie)
  • Brice Sensabaugh(rookie)
  • Ochai Agbaji(23)
  • Walker Kessler(21)
  • Talen Horton-Tucker(22)
  • Collin Sexton(24)
  • Jordan Clarkson(31)
  • Kelly Olynyk(32)
  • John Collins(26)
  • Kris Dunn(29)

Their best players are closer to 30 — with two being over 30. I assume they could be on the move if they decide to fully rebuild. And after that, it’s two forwards who are 26 and a bunch of young guys who are good but not great or are completely unknown right now.

This feels like one of those young teams that have plenty of good young players but the core isn’t special enough like the Thunders or don’t have a legit star that can develop into a top 15 player.

I think this is something that they will have to see throughout the season and decide what is the priority. Is it going all in on the youth by trading the older players? Is it trying to remain competitive with them but also balance the development?

There are a lot of players needing minutes but all of it will depend on what the goal is.

Outside of that, I wonder what Markkanen’s season is going to look like. He had a breakout season like no joke. Increase in:

  • Points
  • Rebounds
  • Assists
  • Usage
  • FG%
  • 3pt%
  • 2pt%
  • FTA
  • TS%

He had a jump everywhere across the board. But based on his play and the areas he improved in, he didn’t strike me as a player that you build around. Sure, he’s a great piece that can still improve but he’s also not 22 or a player that’s likely to develop into a legit number one or two option on a team.

I’m not entirely sure what to expect from this team though. I don’t think they’ll be bad but I also don’t think they’ll have a similar season to what they had last year either. To me, they’re in an odd place right now going forward with their core and that should be addressed in season.