A look at where the Utah Jazz and the rest of the teams in the NBA’s Northwest Division stand heading into training camp.
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Jan 13, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum (3) drives to the basket on Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood (5) and center Rudy Gobert (27) during the first quarter of the NBA game at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
What a difference a year makes. Entering the 2015-16 NBA season, the Utah Jazz were in a weird place. Expectations were heightened following the team’s epic run after the 2015 All-Star break, but the playoffs remained a lofty goal.
Even before Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert missed a quarter of the season, Dante Exum‘s ACL injury had dealt a major blow to Utah’s postseason cause.
One year later, Exum is back, the Jazz are crazy deep and anything less than a return to the playoffs would be considered failure. Of course, to avoid that fate, they’ll have to survive the Murderers’ Row that is the Western Conference.
In doing so, they’ll face stiff competition from the rest of the Northwest Division.
After years of dominance by the Oklahoma City Thunder, the division is suddenly one of the deepest in the NBA. The Jazz will have to contend with the Portland Trail Blazers, who won a playoff series last year, and two talented young squads in the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets.
Then there’s the Thunder, who still have Russell Westbrook leading the charge and will continue to be a factor in the Western Conference playoff picture.
So while the Jazz have elevated their stock, the road to success is more trecherous than ever. But how do the teams in the Northwest Division stack up today with training camps tipping off in the coming days?
Apr 10, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends against Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) in the second quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
5) Denver Nuggets
Although the Denver Nuggets are bringing up the rear in these rankings, there’s a lot to like about their roster. The team is stocked with intriguing young players — Nikola Jokic is one of the best young big men in the game, Will Barton will be a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year and Emmanuel Mudiay could be primed for a breakout season.
Meanwhile, 2016 draft picks Jamal Murray and Juan Hernangomez each have massive potential.
Unfortunately, youth doesn’t win in the league and the other young teams in the division are a few years farther along than Denver.
It’s going to be a bumpy road, Nuggets fans, but keep the faith. Either your guys will grow into a strong, young core, or the team will work to flip some of them into a difference-maker.
Apr 3, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) high fives center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) in the third quarter against the Dallas Mavericks at Target Center. The Dallas Mavericks beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 88-78. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
4) Minnesota Timberwolves
With a super-talented young core in place and a strong, defensive-minded coach at the helm in Tom Thibodeau, the Minnesota Timberwolves are the team on the rise. In many ways, they’re like the Jazz of the last two seasons. However, the T-Wolves are also fundamentally different in one crucial way.
They have a bona fide franchise player and future MVP candidate in Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns, along with former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, will be making waves around the Association for the next decade. However, like the Nuggets, they still have some growing up to do.
In the meantime, they’re a must-watch League Pass team that is probably slated for a fourth place finish in the division.
Apr 23, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (left) and center Enes Kanter (right) react during the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
3) Oklahoma City Thunder
Losing a Top 10 player in the NBA is a killer, but Kevin Durant isn’t the only OKC mainstay to pack his bags for a new home this summer. Serge Ibaka also departed as part of the trade that netted Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis.
Nevertheless, Russell Westbrook remains in the Thunder fold and is also a Top 10 talent. He, along with Oladipo, Enes Kater and Steven Adams still make for a core of players that can get a team into the playoffs.
Thunder GM Sam Presti and head coach Billy Donavan may be playing with a different hand this season, but the cupboard is far from bare.
They won’t win the Northwest again — the competition is just too stiff — but they’ll definitely win some games.
Apr 29, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) hugs guard CJ McCollum (3) after defeating the Los Angeles Clippers 106-103 in game six of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
2) Portland Trail Blazers
They got some help with the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul and Blake Griffin falling prey to injury, but the Blazers were somehow able to win a playoff series last year. Not bad for a team that was abandoned by LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez in recent years.
Having said that, I don’t see the Blazers being a better team than the Jazz this season. Despite having one of the highest scoring backcourts in the game in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and one of the game’s best coaches in Terry Stotts, PDX is at something of a talent defecit overall when compared to the West’s elite.
Even after doling out $300 million dollars in contracts this offseason. Evan Turner wha?
Still, the Blazers shocked the basketball world last season. No one is going to be sleeping on them this year.
Mar 23, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2) dunks the ball during the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
1) Utah Jazz
Did you have any doubts about who would snag the No. 1 spot on a web site called Purple & Blues? All jokes and homerism aside, the Utah Jazz did more to improve themselves than most teams did league-wide; not just in the Northwest Division.
They weren’t players for big guns like Kevin Durant or Al Horford, but the pieces they did collect look to fit the Jazz like a glove. In George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw they added the depth, shooting, defense and experience that they lacked at times during the injury-plagued 2015-16 season.
Moreover, Dante Exum should be back in action after missing all of last season. He may end up playing behind Hill, but between the two of them, the Jazz will have elite length at the point guard position once again.
If the young Aussie can come back strong and the new players mesh with the team like we think they will, the Jazz go from being a scary team to a dangerous one.