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Around the NBA: Northwest Division Check-In

The Timberwolves haven’t gotten off to a great start, but will they be able to out-pace their Northwest Division rivals?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Even though the hope of the offseason seems like it was just yesterday, we are already roughly a quarter of the way through the 2022-23 NBA season.

With the Minnesota Timberwolves playing in one of the most intriguing divisions in the NBA, I thought it would be a good practice to check in on what else is going on around the Northwest.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers: 13-12

Following their surprisingly outstanding start, the Portland Trail Blazers have cooled down as we have gotten into the meat of the NBA schedule.

Since then, Portland has a 3-7 record in their past 10 games, and has quickly fallen from atop the Western Conference to fighting to avoid the play-in. A big part of their struggles has been the absence of franchise superstar Damian Lillard.

After missing 53 games last season, Lillard has once again found himself atop the injury report this season. While the development of some young players can keep you afloat for a little bit, it is almost impossible to keep a winning record without a go-to-guy in the modern NBA. Jerami Grant has been that guy for stretches, but isn’t at the level for his ceiling to be sustainable over an entire season.

While much of this Blazers' season can be viewed in a negative light, there are also quite a few positives that can be taken away from the first 24 games of Portland’s season.

One of these things is the development of Anfernee Simons.

Simons is currently in his fifth season after playing his final year of non-NBA basketball for IMG Academy, which made him an unknown to most fans of the NBA. But, if you didn’t know Simons’ name before, you should really know it now.

The 23-year-old is quietly having a terrific season, averaging 24.7 points, 4.5 assists, and 3 rebounds per game, and on top of those already impressive averages, he is also a terrific 3-point shooter, converting 39% of his looks from behind the arc. Simons shooting such a high percentage is even more impressive when you consider the fact that 55% of his shots come from 3-point land, and many of them are difficult looks.

In the clip above, Simons shows one of the skills that makes him such a special player, his ability to create and make difficult shots.

Here, Simons is feeling himself. He was in his bag against Utah, scoring 45 points for the game and 33 in the first half. In the clip, the Jazz defense has a goal, deny Simons the ball, and make one of the Blazers' lesser players make a shot, but Simons' ability to move off-ball allows him to quickly get the ball back after giving it up, and then he is able to perfectly diagnose the situation. Simons gets the ball from Jusuf Nurkic with 4 seconds left on the shot clock, and in those 4 seconds he is able to, recognize the time left on the clock, move back the other way to leverage the defender, and then use the leverage he created to get a step-back, and of course, he drains it.

This clip is just one example of the off-the-bounce creator that Simons has turned into, and that skill in tandem with his ability to make catch-and-shoot threes makes him a perfect partner in the backcourt for Damian Lillard, whenever he returns from injury.

Simons development, along with the flashes shown by rookie 7th overall pick Shaedon Sharpe and a surprising leap made by Grant has the Blazers atop what I feel is the play-in tier, and that is better than many thought they would be heading into the season.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Denver Nuggets: 15-10

Coming into the season, the Denver Nuggets were the perceived favorites in the Northwest, with the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., expectations were sky-high in the mile city.

While Denver is currently atop the division, they, along with many assumed Western Conference contenders, have disappointed a little bit this season.

A big reason for this is that Jamal Murray, who was once one of the bright young stars of the NBA, and the unopposed best young guard in the Northwest, has struggled to return from his torn ACL from a few years back, and is no longer in the same tier as fellow Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander atop the Northwestern young guard category.

The rust has been evident for Murray on both sides of the ball, but especially defensively. While Murray was never a strong defender, he is now a turnstile who opposing players feast on whenever they play him. Murray has a defensive rating of 116.2 this season, falling well below the 2022 league average of 104.8. Rust was expected from Murray, but his complete lack of effectiveness defensively has to be alarming for a team that wants to make a title run this season.

And of course, with the Nuggets, you have to talk about Nikola Jokić. The unrivaled best player in the Northwest and two-time reigning MVP has maintained his level of play this season, posting ridiculous averages of 23.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 8.9 assists

At this point, if you are here, reading an NBA site, you are more than aware of Jokić, and just in case you aren’t, that clip above is just another day for the Serbian big man, who is unquestionably the best passing center of all time.

The Nuggets are on pace to win this division, and if my money was on the line they would be my bet to do so, but their team will go from very good, to potential title contenders if Murray and Porter Jr. can play as well as we have seen them in the past.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Utah Jazz: 15-12

The darlings of this NBA season, the Utah Jazz are off to one of the most surprising starts in recent memory this season.

Between first-year head coach Will Hardy looking like a gem, and Lauri Markkanen blossoming into a real contender to make the all-star game, Utah is not just a scrappy team filled with underdogs, they could turn into one of those teams you don’t want to play come playoff time.

Outside of Hardy and Markkanen, the Jazz have stayed competitive through a unique, 5-out style that has amplified the skills of players who would have been considered fringe rotation guys before this season. Guys like Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk have become valuable rotation pieces, and if their front office decides to blow it up before the deadline, their hoard of picks could grow exponentially.

But, it’s time to give credit where it’s due, and the transformation of Lauri “The Finnisher” Markkanen, has been the single most surprising development this NBA season.

This clip is not some lucky, once every 30 games shot for Markkanen, this is, for whatever reason, who he has become in his sixth NBA season.

As much as you would think there would be a lot of intricate details as to what is making this team such an overachiever, I personally think it’s quite simple, they are brilliantly coached, Markkanen is playing like a real offensive star, and they have guys who fit into their scheme, and those three things combine to make a great regular season team.

After spending this offseason tearing down what they had spent years building, it seemed as if a clear rebuild was underway, but despite trading Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, Utah is one of the best watches, and best stories, of this young NBA season.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Oklahoma City Thunder: 11-14

Probably the worst team in the division, the young Oklahoma City Thunder are, like all the other teams in the Northwest, one of the scrappier teams in the league.

When you dive into OKC, one thing clearly stands out, the arrival of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as a superstar.

SGA has become an unstoppable offensive weapon, averaging 31.1 points per game and doing so on only three attempts from behind the 3-point line per game.

His leap this season has been astounding, and I would say he has jumped over Anthony Edwards (ducks), Damian Lillard, and Karl-Anthony Towns (ducks again), to become the second-best player in the division, behind only Jokić.

SGA has been a solo act in OKC this season. With the Thunder’s second-best player being Aleksej Pokusevski, depending on who you ask, Shai has singlehandedly carried the Thunder to be competitive this season, and the way he plays, it is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

SGA’s style of play is what is most unique about him. With an unorthodox, herky-jerky style SGA gets to the rim at will despite being a guard, and his ability to finish once he gets to the spot is truly special.

Gilgeous-Alexander has been unguardable this season, and as he continues to grow alongside OKC’s other young talent, the Thunder could become more and more competitive in coming seasons.

Outside of Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC has a slew of hit-or-miss guys who can hurt you on any given day but will usually underwhelm you. Players like Lu Dort, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams, and Pokusevski have all had their moments this season, but SGA has been the only player who has shown even the slightest amount of consistency this season.

The Thunder are not much to worry about this season for a Minnesota team that has its sights set on the playoffs, and that’s by design, but their hoard of picks and young talent should be something Timberwolves fans keep their eye on in coming years.

Some other players of note in OKC are Ousman Dieng, who was drafted as a project and is splitting time between the Thunder and the G-League, and Chet Holmgren, the second pick in the last NBA draft, a potential game-changing big man who will miss the season

With the surprising status of Utah, OKC is easily the worst team in the Northwest this season, but the emergence of SGA as a true superstar has muddied the water for a team that was expected to be a bottom-dweller again this season.