With the regular season almost here, theScore basketball writers Joseph Casciaro, William Lou, Alex Wong, and Joe Wolfond sat down to chat about the major storylines impacting the Northwest Division.
Moderator: Does this strike you as the most interesting division in the league given the abundance of storylines?
Joe Wolfond: No, I'd still take the Atlantic. I mean, outside of Minnesota, I don't know if there is much suspense or drama about what these teams are gonna be. We have a pretty good sense of what the Thunder are gonna be, a pretty good sense of what the Blazers are gonna be. It's a good division, for sure. They have a lot of talent.
Joseph Casciaro: It might be the best top-to-bottom division in basketball.
JW: Yeah, I think so, actually. Conceivably, all these teams could make the playoffs. The Wolves, depending on what they get from a Jimmy Butler trade, could change. But if they all went into the season with the rosters they have now, I'd pick all of them to make the playoffs, I think.
JC: I think it's going to be a really competitive division. I think it'll be fun in that regard. Even though it's meaningless, it'll be fun to see who wins the division, and comes out of it. It might be a bit of a war of attrition. I think OKC should be the favorites. I know Utah is very good, and very well could win the division. But I think OKC, minus (Carmelo Anthony), just make a lot more sense than they did last year. And between Russ (Westbrook) and (Paul George), and Steven Adams low-key had a great year last year ...
JW: They have no shooting, though.
JC: They still need shooting. I think that's why they're not at the Golden State-Houston level. But I think for this division, they're my favorites. But yeah, this division's crazy. Minnesota's the only team that should miss the playoffs, assuming they lose Butler.
JW: I take back what I said, 'cause I don't think I would pick Portland to make the playoffs. I feel like they're going to fall out.
William Lou: The tail end of Portland's roster just keeps getting worse and worse. They used to be a great team that had nice guys off the bench, surprising amounts of depth. Now they have Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry as their primary additions. And losing Ed Davis is huge for them; it's not about Ed Davis as much as it's about the amount of bigs on that team.
JW: And Shabazz Napier, too. He had a really nice year and they let him walk for nothing.
JC: I feel like we do this every year with Portland, where we come into the year thinking they're going to fall off, and what they did the year before was a mirage, and then somehow (Damian Lillard) and (C.J. McCollum) find a way to drag this team to 45 to 50 wins.
Alex Wong: Wizards West.
JC: I actually think they're more impressive than Wizards West because they actually outperform their collective talent most years.
JW: I think the West is too good this year, though. And they didn't get any better - and if you didn't get better, and you were already sort of like a middle-of-the-pack playoff team in that conference, then you're falling behind.
WL: Does anyone have any concerns about the Jazz? Could they slip off a little bit? They had a tremendous run; from basically December onward, they were one of the best teams in the league. Could there be any slippage with them? It's a very system-based offense, right? And they get by because of their defense and because Donovan Mitchell is on that rookie Derrick Rose path when Rose led the Bulls to the playoffs in his first year. But I feel like this team can go one of two ways: it can keep growing and improving into a 50-win team, or it could fall off a little bit because, I don't know, Mitchell is scouted better, and he doesn't necessarily make the leap in his second year.
JC: I think they're good. I don't think they're going to fall off. They won 48 games. I think they'll fall off the pace they were on; they're not going to win at a 60-plus-win level. But I think in terms of their overall record, there's room for improvement there. I think Mitchell is only going to get better. And you can make the argument that teams will be game-planning for him, or he's not going to take the league by storm, but by the end of last season, teams were game-planning for him, because he was the only one legitimately running that offense. He was, on a lot of nights, a one-man show on offense, because he had to be. And that was as a rookie. And he did it very admirably.
WL: Ricky Rubio took a couple of steps forward last year.
JC: Ricky Rubio had a good year. Joe Ingles was one of the best role players in the game. We know how good Quin Snyder is. They're going to be, at worst, respectable defensively. They're always going to be good at home. I think they're very good, they're very balanced at both ends of the court. They have some continuity going for them now. They're an easy playoff team, and if everything breaks right for them, they could finish as high as two in the West. I think Houston takes a step back this year.
AW: I'm with Wolfond, though. I think Portland does fall out, just looking at the teams that made the playoffs last year. You assume Denver gets in.
JC: Are we safely assuming that Denver finally gets in?
JW: We're not safely assuming it, but they should.
WL: The issue with Denver is the same, right? They're gonna be great offensively and pretty terrible defensively. I'm not sure Paul Millsap coming back is going to change everything. Part of that issue is that you have (Nikola) Jokic, who is not a good defensive center whatsoever, so he's always going to be exploitable that way. And you have to play him a lot of minutes because he's your best player. And then you bring in Isaiah Thomas, and he's not making the defense better at all.
JW: I think if I was either Denver or Portland, I would try and swing a Jimmy Butler trade. Portland needs that trade more than any team in the league.
AW: Portland was trying to land ... who were they trying to get during the offseason? (DeMarcus) Cousins?
WL: They were trying to get Cousins this summer; last summer they were trying to get Melo. Remember? They were so public about it ... "Hey, Melo, come here!" And Melo was like, "No way, I'm too good for Portland." And if Melo says he's too good for you ...
JC: But Melo thinks he's too good for anybody.
JW: If you were Denver, would you do a Gary Harris-for-Jimmy Butler trade?
JC: I think Gary Harris can still get better, and is one of the most underrated two-way players in the league. And you've got him locked up for four or five years. And I get swinging for the fences, but at the same time, you also do have to be realistic with yourselves. And I'm sorry, Denver, but Jimmy Butler isn't staying in Denver past this year.
AW: But you don't know, though. What if they win 55, and get the third seed? And they're not giving up everything, they still have Jokic.
JC: I guess the counterargument to that would be, if they're looking at winning 55 games, getting the 3-seed and keeping Jimmy Butler, at the same time ... if they keep this roster healthy, they might still get there without surrendering future assets.
AW: How good is Jimmy Butler?
JW: He's waaaaay better than Gary Harris.
JC: If I thought they even had a shot at keeping him long term ...
WL: But here's the thing: He's best friends with Demaryius Thomas, who's on the Broncos. Look at their Instagram: they're actually best friends. Demaryius has actually tried to recruit him to the Nuggets before.
AW: What does Jimmy Butler want?
WL: Even the Heat are not a good destination.
JC: Also, though ... not that I'm not saying the Nuggets' young guys don't have work ethic, because they do. They all do. But do you really want to bring Jimmy Butler into another situation where he's playing with these young guys who maybe don't see eye to eye with him?
WL: That's why Portland's the best situation for him. C.J. for Butler. There you go. You make one run, you try to convince Butler to stay, and man ... Lillard and Butler? That would be ... the second-best backcourt in the NBA? Maybe third, depending on how much you like Houston.
JW: I'd say this for comparing the Nuggets' situation to the Timberwolves: I think Mike Malone is a far better player manager than Tom Thibodeau is, and has done a pretty good job of managing big egos in the past.
AW: Malone got Boogie (Cousins) to like him.
JC: He should have got Coach of the Year for that.
AW: Instead, he got fired.
WL: After 10 games.
JW: While Boogie was out.
WL: Boogie had meningitis or something.
JW: Yeah, he did! And he came back, and Mike Malone was gone. Replaced by ... who replaced him?
AW: Ty Corbin. (audible groans)
JW: Also, Millsap is there, and I feel like there are enough grown-up voices in that locker room that Butler wouldn't be as domineering there as he was in Minnesota.
Moderator: We've talked at length about Jimmy Butler, but let's shift the focus to Andrew Wiggins. Is this the year he finally makes the leap?
JC: I'm gonna say no. In terms of how good he is, I think he's a very average-ish, athletic wing who gets a lot of touches, which inflates his numbers. If you look at the talent, the athleticism, it's easy to say it's gonna click at some point. It's gonna pop. But I'm also a big believer that, at some point, things just are what they are. And I don't know how many more years we have to watch Andrew Wiggins and basically see no improvement across the board before we just accept that this is who he is as an NBA player.
WL: It's hard to argue against that. The only thing I would say is, if he can improve his range and end up shooting more threes, then suddenly you can flip the efficiency thing on him. Because right now he doesn't play defense much, which speaks to his competitiveness. And that's a character flaw you just can't get rid of. But he's a decent shooter; there's nothing wrong with the shot - he can get it off the dribble. He just ends up taking a lot of long twos. If you end up shooting 35 percent on pull-up threes instead of 35 percent on pull-up long twos, then all of a sudden you're a more efficient player.
JW: But he doesn't shoot 35 percent on pull-up threes. He shot 35 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers last year.
WL: Which is not good enough. Right now, it's pretty clear: he's just not good enough. And he doesn't have enough complementary skills, either. Even the assists thing ... he's averaged two assists per game despite the fact that he's always led the Timberwolves in shots. You can't have these many possessions and not create for other people. He can get to the line, that's the best part of his game. But he either needs to extend his range or become a better playmaker. He basically has to follow the same path that DeMar DeRozan followed.
JC: But with one-tenth the work ethic, right? Because that is who a lot of people have compared him to. He could be a Demar DeRozan-type, this freak athlete who refined his skill with actual basketball skills. Except that, by year four with DeRozan, they might have been incremental improvements, but they were visible. You could watch DeMar DeRozan from one year to the next and be like, "Wow, I didn't know he had that pass in his repertoire, I didn't know he had that vision." And you don't see that with Wiggins. The other thing I'd say is that, with these polarizing young players that everyone sees as hyper-gifted that should be better, there's usually a time in their career you can point to and say, "Look what he did then. This is what this guy can do." Maybe you have to go back to college, but it's there. But with Andrew Wiggins, what are we talking about? Going back to his last year of prep school?
AW: He plateaued the minute he came into the league.
JC: That's what I'm saying. What are we even pointing at with Andrew Wiggins to say, "That right there is how good this guy can be?" At Kansas, he was a good college player, but the knock was that he wasn't competitive enough and didn't take games over. How far back are we going with Andrew Wiggins to point out, "Oh, this is when he was a dominant player among his peers?"
JW: I feel like it was that one possession where James Harden tried to shake him with multiple crossovers and Wiggins stayed in front of him.
JC: Minnesota should hang a banner for that.
JW: That's the best thing that's happened to their franchise in the past 15 years. But I think that it's telling, too ... how often do you hear anybody come out and defend Wiggins, and be like, "I know he has this reputation, and I'm here to say that I've seen Andrew Wiggins work, and the guy puts in the work, and he does care." I haven't heard a single person say that.
AW: No one is denying anything that Jimmy Butler has said.
JW: That's right. (Karl-Anthony) Towns isn't coming out and saying, "Man, Andrew's like a dog, he can get after it. He's gonna have a great season." Thibodeau obviously isn't out there saying the same things about Wiggins. Nobody vouches for the guy.
AW: There's nothing to vouch for.
JW: So this is the season where he has to prove it.
WL: But he doesn't have to prove anything. He already got his money.
JW: But if he's going to show that he can be more, that he actually has a leap in him, then this is the season where I feel like he has to prove it.
WL: He got exposed (last) year, for sure.
JC: I think it tells you a lot about Andrew Wiggins and the wasted talent, but the fact that there's a report that Glen Taylor, the Timberwolves owner, needed a sit-down with him and needed to look Andrew Wiggins in the eye and have him tell him, "I will get better, I'll make the most of this." If you have to do that, you should think twice about giving the guy that money.
Moderator: Let's talk about the Thunder. Assuming everything falls right, what is the ceiling for this team in a loaded Western Conference?
JC: Conference finals. I think they can be the second-best team in the West, I really do. I think Houston is going to take a step back. And with the addition by subtraction in replacing Melo with anyone who will put forth an honest effort on defense, and fill their role, and not take the ball out of Russ and PG's hands. And I know (Dennis) Schroder doesn't address their need for shooting, and he's a spacey defender in his own right, but I do think they needed someone who could ... not necessarily go at Russ's pace, but who could still create havoc off the bench and get the offense flowing a bit. And I do think Schroder will do that. I think they're better than they were last year. I think they're winning 50-plus this year, which they somehow didn't do last year. They also got off to that terrible start ... so just by getting off to a better start, and staying healthy, I think they could be the second-best team this season. But we're talking about the West, so their ceiling is conference finals, because ... you know.
WL: Any team with Russell Westbrook, based on the way he plays ... he's going to impose a very high floor and a bit of a ceiling on the team. Look at him in the playoffs: any time there's any hint of desperation, he just abandons the game plan and says, "I'm Russell Westbrook, and I'm gonna shoot 40 times." If you're the point guard and you decide you're not going to play team basketball for a solid two quarters anytime anyone misses three shots in a row, that's just not going to work. It's not how teams succeed in the playoffs.
JW: That was also a function of the roster they had last year. Outside of him and Paul George, what other offensive creators did they have?
WL: You can still run the system. Steven Adams is always going to be a guy where, if you trust the system, he's always going to be open, he's a reliable finisher.
JW: Right. but if you watch that game where Westbrook shot it, what, 47 times ... everyone else on that team was in a full panic. Nobody wanted to shoot the ball, and they would just give it to him. He basically had to shoot that many times.
AW: It's a different narrative if they win that game.
JW: I love their three-man core - Westbrook, Paul George, and Adams. I just wish that the pieces around them fit better.
JC: Throw some shooting around that, and it's absurd.
Moderator: Let's wrap this up with some Northwest Division predictions.
JW: I think the Jazz take it. I don't know if they're the most talented team in the division. I just think they have the most well-built roster.
WL: I say the Thunder win 55 games.
JC: Jamal Murray becomes a borderline All-Star this year.
AW: The Thunder lose in the first round.
Other entries in this series: