Three years ago, the eighth seed in the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors, edged out the Memphis Grizzlies by one win to capture the last spot in the NBA playoffs, at a total of 51 wins. Now, the once-deep Western Conference faces a downshift in competition, with the likes of the Thunder and the Spurs — a combined 122 wins between the two — definitely loosening the concentrations of victories to a number of up-and-coming franchises.
The revamped and restructured Utah Jazz are positioned nicely as perhaps the biggest benefactor from the Spurs and Thunder slide. Utah continually draws attention from NBA analysts who remain high on head coach Quin Snyder’s young core as well as the Jazz’s newly acquired veteran duo Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson, providing both playoff experience and depth off the bench.
In fact, ESPN analyst Zach Lowe expects this Utah team to surpass the 50-win threshold this year, despite missing the playoffs last season after going two games below .500. However, I’d still argue that the rising Pacific Northwest, although intriguingly more competitive than any other division in the nation, still remains the Oklahoma City Thunder’s throne to lose, even though their once-famed Big 4 has now dwindled to one.
While Kevin Durant’s departure still leaves questions about Russell Westbrook’s ability to lead an efficient team in the modern NBA, the Thunder’s only projection could be based off their roller coaster of a season just two years ago, in which Westbrook nearly led a much more depleted team single-handedly into the playoffs.
During that 2014-15 campaign, Oklahoma City’s core during the time of Westbrook, Durant and Serge Ibaka was condensed to just the point guard for the majority of the season. Instead of tanking for the rest of the season, the Thunder rode Westbrook’s 28 points per game and near triple-double averages in rebounds and assists as well, losing the tiebreaker to an Anthony Davis-led Pelicans team.
While they didn’t make the playoffs in the absence of Kevin Durant, the Thunder posed a threat in a far deeper Western Conference. In fact, if the Thunder won 45 games this past season, Oklahoma would still rank fifth in last year’s Western Conference standings, even with a far weaker roster than Oklahoma possesses as of now.
This year, the Thunder won’t have to rely on Westbrook’s 22-plus shots per game in order to win. Center Steven Adams, 21 years old and in the second year of his career during that failed playoff attempt, has increased his rim presence entering this year and should pair nicely with the more offensive-minded forward Enis Kanter. Andre Roberson offers the Thunder a viable three-point option in the small forward position that can space the field.
But the biggest addition comes in the form of shooting guard Victor Oladipo who has steadily increased his field goal percentage, both from the mid-range and the three-point line. While dropping his points per game, Oladipo can definitely assume some of the shots vacated by Kevin Durant in the Thunder rotations.
FiveThirtyEight.com uses its CARMELO NBA player projections to categorize Victor Oladipo as a future All-Star with, interestingly enough, similar plus/minus numbers to Gordon Hayward’s 2014-15 year with the Jazz. If Oladipo can keep trending upwards in his efficiency and truly become an All-Star offensive threat, the Thunder roster poses threats to numerous rotations around the league, both in the paint and on the perimeter.
Overall, however, the best path to the playoffs for Oklahoma City rests on the shoulders of franchise icon and Oklahoma hero Russell Westbrook. Following his extension and one-year delay of Westbrook’s looming free agency, the Southern California native ensured his immediate future remains in a Thunder jersey.
If Billy Donovan fails to learn the lesson of KD’s departure and Westbrook assumes the modern embodiment of Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, Oklahoma City will once again lose to the modern efficient teams, which could ultimately be this young Utah Jazz team mentioned before. Instead, Westbrook’s lack of shooting excellence could be shaped into an engineering role for the offense, elevating the rest of the Thunder lineups and adjusting his style of play.
Outside of just Utah and Oklahoma, the Pacific Northwest also features the new-look Portland Trail Blazers behind a blatant All-Star, despite not getting the recognition, in point guard Damian Lillard and the true dark horse of the league, the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Trail Blazers transformed from being projected a total 28 wins last season into earning the fifth spot in the West and making the second round of the playoffs, but this season now comes with expectations as Portland splashed over $400 million this past offseason on acquisitions Evan Turner and Festus Ezili.
While both Turner and Ezili have proven efficiency off the bench in recent years for Boston and Golden State respectively, Portland’s hopes of challenging for the top spot in the Northwest hinge on whether these two role players can step into the responsibilities that come with the starting position. Ezili fulfills Portland’s need of a rim protector, but his injury concerns also cause problems when imagining his role down the season.
The Timberwolves also pose a threat to the Jazz’s ascendance in the Western conference standings by virtue of another year for future all-stars Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony-Towns and (debatably) slam dunk champion Zach LaVine. With that young core, gaining another year of experience provides so much potential for upswing that the Wolves could transform from a 29- to a 40-win team.
Also working for this young core is a refreshing change at the coaching position to the vaunted and highly esteemed Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau’s extensive defensive knowledge and playoff experience almost ensures that this team gains at least five if not more wins this year.
Ultimately, despite being a dark horse pick from NBA analysts for the past couple years, the Jazz players simply haven’t proven consistent over a regular season nor enough of the postseason experience in their franchise to garner the 50-win discussion yet. Injuries may have been the reason for Utah’s absence from the playoffs, but this young core still has to prove their worth consistently before I’ll be convinced that Utah can become a 50-win team.
In a Pacific Northwest division boasting four playoff contenders with the fifth being a solid, young Denver Nuggets, I still believe that the roster surrounding superstar point guard Russell Westbrook will surprise analysts and fans alike this upcoming season.
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