As we come out of the All-Star break, it is as good a time as any to look around the Northwest Division, which has developed into one of the most competitive collections of talent in the whole NBA.
Denver Nuggets (41-18)
Let's start with the easiest team to asses in the division.
The Denver Nuggets are the best team in the Western Conference in terms of record, have the MVP frontrunner in Nikola Jokić, and improved their roster with two sneaky acquisitions, one at the trade deadline, and the other in the buyout market.
Starting with the trade, the Nuggets brought in center Thomas Bryant from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Davon Reed and three second-round draft picks. Bryant comes to the Mile High City after requesting a trade away from L.A., which came due to Bryant growing unhappy with his diminished role since Anthony Davis returned, according to ESPNs Ramona Shelburne.
Thomas Bryant fitting right in with his new squad. pic.twitter.com/m9SXCjqZx4— ProCity Hoops (@ProCityHoops) February 16, 2023
Bryant flashed the ability to be a solid NBA center in relief of Davis, averaging just over 15 points along with nine rebounds while the Lakers second star recovered from a foot injury. The newest Nuggets big man is a massive improvement over a blend of ancient Deandre Jordan and inexperienced rotational big Zeke Nnaji. His ability to pass in the high post is underrated, and the fifth-year big man also has an innate ability to roll to the rim, which allows Denver to play him with Jokić in a pinch.
While Bryant will be impactful for Denver, and he will certainly be in their shrunken playoff rotation, the Nuggets' second addition has a chance to make a noticeable difference as well, and in my opinion, he has a chance to make a real impact come playoff time.
Reggie Jackson was essentially dumped by the Los Angeles Clippers at the trade deadline. In exchange for Jackson, and more importantly in the case of the Charlotte Hornets, a second-round draft pick, the Los Angeles Clippers got Mason Plumlee, who, similarly to Bryant, will take over the backup center role in LA.
Jackson was immediately bought out by the Hornets, paving the way for him to return to Colorado, where he won the state’s Mr. Basketball award in 2008. He will replace Bones Hyland, who despite being an electric one-on-one creator and talented young player, was a terrible fit in Denver. Jackson, who shoots 42% on catch-and-shoot 3s and is used to working without the ball, fits seamlessly into the Nuggets system and is the exact type of player you want to put around Jokić.
Forever grateful for the 2021 run man! Forever cemented with LAC. Much love always to reggie jackson. pic.twitter.com/MbO1YAiI5b— Jamal Cristopher (@JamCristopher) February 9, 2023
Jackson will end up helping a lot come playoff time, with the injury histories of players like Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, there is a real chance Denver just ends up needing some people who can hit an outside shot, but still work off Jokić, and Jackson perfectly fits that mold.
So, that was the longwinded way of saying that Denver, despite not making the splashy acquisitions that teams like Phoenix and Dallas did, brought in perfect fits around the fringes, and they are co-favorites to come out of the west with the revamped Suns in my personal rankings.
Oklahoma City Thunder (28-29)
Led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who I keyed in on in my last look around the division, the Oklahoma City Thunder have become one of the friskier teams in the NBA.
In their last 15 games, OKC is sixth in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating, making them one of the best, and most dangerous, “bad” teams in recent memory.
I won’t go too in-depth on SGA again, but what was once seen as a player on a hot streak has turned into a full-blown superstar and top-15 guy in the NBA. Between his herky-jerk offense and his above-league-average defense, Shai has developed into one of the league’s premier players. Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, the trade rumors surrounding him have vanished, and they will be dealing with him for a long time, despite what Raptors fans may try and wish into existence.
Outside of SGA, OKC has quietly assembled a very good young core and one that hasn’t, and won’t, include Chet Holmgren this season.
While Holmgren was and still is seen as the gem of the Thunder’s most recent draft class, Jalen Williams has shown himself to be an elite prospect going forward as well. Williams, not to be confused with fellow Thunder rookie Jaylin Williams, has burst onto the scene in a big way as OKC’s young group has gotten used to playing with one another.
The 6-foot-6 wing from Santa Clara has shown signs of being a potential star on both sides of the ball, flashing elite playmaking and self-creation skills, along with using his ridiculous 7-foot-2 wingspan to be a pest both on the ball and in passing lanes.
Jalen Williams blowing past Jabari Smith and putting Şengün on a poster— Andrew Schlecht (@AndrewKSchlecht) February 16, 2023
The clip above is one of many impressive jams Williams has thrown down this season, a part of his game that was virtually obsolete during his days at Santa Clara. Williams has flipped that on its head during his short time in the NBA, throwing down 57 dunks in his 53 appearances, a number that eclipses players like Joel Embiid, Myles Turner, and even Minnesota’s own Anthony Edwards.
Williams’ explosive athleticism has been somewhat of a surprise for OKC fans, but it has completely changed the perception of a player who was believed to have a limited ceiling during the pre-draft process. Williams’ all-around game was on full display during OKC’s nationally televised matchup with the Lakers, a game in which Lebron James setting the all-time scoring record overshadowed an impressive display by OKC’s youth. Williams spearheaded OKC’s non-SGA attack, scoring 25 points, grabbing seven rebounds, and perhaps most impressively, swiping away six steals in a winning effort.
Williams projects to be OKC’s small forward of the future, and alongside SGA, Josh Giddey, and Holmgren, the Thunder appear to have four of their future closing five locked down. While Giddey has also been coming on strong as of late, we will go a little deeper to talk about a second important player in OKC’s possible play in push.
Most of the time, guys signed off the scrap heap following training camp end up in the G-League, if they even make the roster. But, Isaiah Joe has quietly been a knockdown shooter for OKC this season, making roughly 45% of his shots from beyond the arc. Joe’s performance has catapulted him to the league lead in 3PT% on over 200 attempts.
While Joe may not be a household name, he is a valuable asset due to his catch-and-shoot ability alone, and he has also shown a surprising amount of juice off the dribble at times. The last few years may have been lean in OKC, but starting potentially this season, the Thunder are going to be relevant in playoff discussions once again.
Utah Jazz (29-31)
Once the NBA’s biggest surprise, the Utah Jazz has come back to earth after a scorching start.
Despite having similar records, similar public perceptions about them, and both sending one player to the All-Star game, Utah and Oklahoma City handled the trade deadline in very different ways.
OKC made very minimal changes, shipping out two back-of-the-rotation players in exchange for a few late draft picks. Utah on the other hand tore apart the depth that made them a competitive team, shipping Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley to the Lakers and sending Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to Minnesota. In return, Utah netted a heralded 2027 Lakers first-round pick with light protections, along with Russell Westbrook (who was bought out and has since signed with the Clippers), Juan Tascano-Anderson and Damian Jones.
With these moves clearly signaling that the Jazz want to get into the race for Victor Wembenyama, they are really the least interesting team in the division.
They have one All-star, a slew of vets looking to set themselves up for one more big deal, a potential franchise-level rookie center, at least defensively, and a creative head coach whose five out offensive system opens the door for players like Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson to become the best versions of themselves offensively.
Of everything going on in Utah, the emergence of their rookie duo, Walker Kessler (sorry to bring him up), and Ochai Agbaji, is the most important, both in the short and long term.
Kessler, despite posting a pedestrian eight points and seven rebounds a game, has shown flashes of being an ample Rudy Gobert replacement for Utah. The former Auburn Tiger is already posting over two blocks per game and is shooting 71% from the field, stats that sound eerily similar to what Gobert had done for the Jazz for years before his off-season move to the Wolves.
Rookie Walker Kessler is unironically one of the most impactful defensive players in the league RIGHT NOW. Size, timing, rebounding, instincts, positioning—all near perfect. Also shooting 76.2% at the rim and plays with great/soft hands.— NBA University (@NBA_University) February 11, 2023
A ton of All-defense teams are coming… pic.twitter.com/D8pErhd3zW
Kessler clearly isn’t on Rudy’s defensive level just yet, and he has a long way to go before catching up to the stifle tower in terms of track record, but the advanced stats love Edwards’ defense, and if he remains on his current trajectory, he will easily be one of the league’s elite rim protectors.
Now, onto the Utah rookie who was drafted higher, but has stayed under the radar more than Edwards, Agbaji.
Agbaji began to come on strong during the last month or so, playing at least 15 minutes in eight of his last ten games, and shooting the lights out of the ball in his increased role. During the month of February, Agbaji has shot 45% from beyond the arc and has shown some defensive flashes as well.
Ochai Agbaji showed some real flashes in his 39 minutes last night.— Jazz Stats & Analysis (@jazz_stat) February 16, 2023
1 really nice assist at the end of this video
I think it's fair to be concerned that he only had 1 rebound and 1 assist in 39 minutes, gotta figure out how to do more besides score pic.twitter.com/s9D1rCh6FW
For those who are fans of college basketball, seeing Agbaji put it together recently is no surprise. The 14th pick in the draft, Agbaji spent four years at Kansas, every year coming back better than the last, and eventually cementing himself as a first-round talent. Agbaji always had a clear pathway to becoming an impactful three-and-D player at a minimum, and despite taking a while, Agabji has begun to show that his blend of defense and shooting can complement Lauri Markkanen.
As we head into the seasons final weeks, I would expect Utah to continue to drop like a rock in the standings, as they are still a few pieces away from having a true young core, but the emergence of Kessler and Agbaji, along with Markkanen realizing his all-star potential have given the Jazz a head start on their rebuild few thought they had.
Portland Trail Blazers (28-30)
The team with the bleakest-looking future in the Northwest, the Portland Trail Blazers are headed toward a crossroads.
In terms of future assets, they have most of their draft picks, and most importantly Shaedon Sharpe. The high-flying rookie holds more value than any Blazer outside of Damian Lillard or Anfernee Simons. But, if Portland ever wants a chance to build a legitimate winner around Lillard, they must at least discuss the prospects of packaging Simons, Sharpe and future assets for the next attainable star.
The trade deadline was a puzzling one in Portland. The team traded away a win-now player in Josh Hart in exchange for Cam Reddish and a protected Knicks first-rounder, two pieces that, if ever, are not going to help with winning until next year at the earliest. The Blazers also brought in Matisse Thybulle, a move that, unlike their first, suggests they want to try and stay competitive this season.
Portland has remained committed to Lillard, and Lillard to them, but at some point, the Trail Blazers need to decide if they are going to do everything in their power to win with Lillard, or if they are going to move forward building around guys like Simons and Sharpe. To this point, the Blazers have tried to straddle the line of having future assets and building a winner around Dame, but how long until the Blazers' ownership gets sick of being a borderline playoff with no chance of getting better, and how long until Lillard grows tired of seeing his front office hold onto their firsts and give 19-year-olds real playing time. If the history of the NBA tells us anything, it is that eventually, one of those clocks will expire.
But, it is not all bad in the city of roses. Dame is on an absolute tear the last month, averaging 36 points, six assists, and five rebounds in his last 10 games and retaking his spot as one of the league's premier offensive flamethrowers. Thybulle has looked much more comfortable outside of Philadelphia, and Sharpe gets better with every passing game.
Damian Lillard over the last 11 games:— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) February 15, 2023
60 PTS, 7 REB, 8 AST
30 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST
42 PTS, 2 REB, 6 AST
42 PTS, 8 REB, 10 AST
29 PTS, 3 REB, 6 AST
40 PTS, 5 REB, 5 AST
28 PTS, 4 REB, 5 AST
33 PTS, 10 REB, 11 AST
38 PTS, 2 REB, 9 AST
40 PTS, 6 REB, 5 AST
39 PTS, 10 REB, 6 AST pic.twitter.com/EGvSglgkZ9
Even with these positives, Portland has put itself in a tough spot to end the season. They are 0-3 against OKC this season, putting themselves at a disadvantage against one of the teams they will likely be battling for the last play-in spot, they underwent a weird, not-overly significant but still relevant situation with Gary Payton II, who played just 15 games before being dealt back to Golden State. They have also been bit by the injury bug, early in the season it was Lillard, then it was Jusuf Nurkic, and now it is Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant.
Nurkic and Grant are both expected back soon, but Simons may miss a decent amount of time with a grade two ankle sprain, and by the time he gets back, Portland may have given up even more ground to OKC or the Lakers.
In most circumstances, I would say these last 25 games would be crucial for the future of the Trail Blazers, but Dame is perhaps the most loyal superstar in sports, so a trade involving him is unlikely barring a sudden change of heart. Unless they are willing to sacrifice Simons and Sharpe, along with their picks, I will be writing this same piece about them year after year, until something drastic is done, whether that be moving on from Dame, or pulling the trigger on a trade that lands Lillard his first true co-superstar since LaMarcus Aldridge.