Off-season Report Cards: The Wild Northwest

With Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets happily marrying via press conference this past week, it appears as if the final massive domino has fallen during the 2019 NBA off-season, capping off perhaps the wildest two month stretch in league history. Dozens of dynamic duos have united throughout the league, and the once-feared Warriors dynasty that scorched the NBA world for three seasons is no more. With so much player turnover and movement league wide, it is finally time I gave my take on the bloodbath that is the Western conference, and hand each team it’s report card for the Summer. Today, we’re diving into the moves made by the five teams in the Northwest division- buckle up.

Denver Nuggets

Last year’s record: 54-28 (2nd in the Western Conference)

Key Additions: Bol Bol, Jerami Grant

Key Losses: Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles

After a breakout year under head coach Mike Malone, the Denver Nuggets had perhaps the most quiet off-season around the league. They are the only team remaining that is yet to make a signing during free-agency, and head into the 2019-2020 season bearing largely the same roster as last season.

Bol Bol, once a projected lottery pick, fell into the Nuggets’ lap with the 44th pick in the second round. The 7-foot-2 big out of the University of Oregon averaged over 20 points per game before succumbing to a foot injury that sidelined him for the rest of the collegiate season. Bol will join Michael Porter Jr. as the latest low-risk, high-reward draft pick the Nuggets have snuffed out in recent years.

The Nuggets capped off their silent off-season by joining in on the clearance sale happening in Oklahoma City, trading a first-round pick that projects to be in the twenties for Jerami Grant, a promising young defender who will be vital in defending the many superstar wings that litter the Western Conference. With little roster turnover and chemistry flying high, expect another impressive performance from Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets this upcoming season.

Grade: C+

Portland Trailblazers

Last season’s record: 53-29 (3rd in the Western Conference)

Key Additions: Hassan Whiteside, Pau Gasol, Nassir Little, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja

Key Losses: Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Lake Layman, Maurice Harkless

The Portland Trailblazers seemingly came out of nowhere during the 2019 playoffs, making the Western Conference Finals and rebounding from a surprising first round exit to the New Orleans Pelicans the year prior. Despite this past season’s success, the Blazers made multiple moves in an attempt to surround Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum with enough firepower to achieve an NBA championship appearance. Being capped out with seemingly overpriced contracts, Portland flipped the expiring deals of Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard for Hassan Whiteside in a three team deal that also sent Jimmy Butler to Miami. Portland also traded Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore, a solid 3-and-D veteran who can act as a spark plug off the bench.

Moving for Whiteside, a disgruntled star who’s clearly fading, makes sense in the short-run. Whiteside will start the season for the Blazers in Jusuf Nurkic’s absence, and is a clear lob threat in the pick-and-roll with Lillard and McCollum. His $24 million dollar salary is also expiring this coming off-season, giving Portland much needed financial flexibility. However, once Nurkic returns, spending big money on two centers who are unlikely to be able to share the floor together is going to become a burden come playoff time, and Whiteside’s noted locker room issues may only amplify the issue. Gifting Jake Layman to the Timberwolves is another questionable move, as the 25-year-old provided great spacing from the three-point arc at a 33% clip.

Despite the solid selection of Nassir Little with the 25th pick in the draft, and adding additional veteran help with Pau Gasol and Kent Bazemore, the Trailblazers appear to have moved down the Western Conference ladder this Summer.

Grade: C-

Utah Jazz

Last season’s record: 50-32

Key Additions: Mike Conley Jr, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Ed Davis

Key Losses: Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors

Quietly, the Utah Jazz arguably had one of the best off-seasons league wide. The Jazz pounced on Mike Conley’s sudden availability, flipping Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and Grayson Allen for the eleven year point guard. Conley, criminally underrated for the majority of his playing career, is coming off of his best scoring season since being drafted in 2007, scoring 21 points per game on 44% shooting. Conley is an elite pick-and-roll guard with excellent defense and solid playmaking abilities- and looks to be a perfect fit for the scheme that Quinn Snyder runs. The acquisition of Conley takes some of the scoring weight off of Donovan Mitchell’s shoulders, and bolsters Utah’s shooting attack.

If adding Conley wasn’t enough, the Jazz also garnered the services of Bojan Bogdanovic on a 4 year/$73 million dollar deal that will pay the forward just over $18 million dollars a season. Bogdanovic, coming off a career year with the Indiana Pacers, can score the ball in bunches when called upon and can absolutely snipe from behind the three-point line. His pairing with Joe Ingles gives the Jazz two excellent shooters and feisty defenders at the forward positions. Utah capped off their off-season by making multiple low-end deals to bolster their bench, adding NBA journeyman Jeff Green alongside Emmanuel Mudiay and Ed Davis, both rock-solid role players.

To recap, the Jazz are expected to trot out a starting five of Conley Jr, Mitchell, Ingles, Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert on opening night, with multiple solid pieces off the bench. The fit among those five guys has the potential to be perfectly balanced on offense, and elite on defense. Expect Quinn Snyder to have a lot of fun with these shiny new toys.

Grade: A

Oklahoma City Thunder

Last season’s record: 49-33 (6th in the Western Conference)

Key Additions: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Darius Bazley

Key Losses: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant

Oklahoma City’s season came to an abrupt end at the hands of Damian Lillard and a ludicrous game-winner. Following their second consecutive first-round exit with Paul George and Russell Westbrook at the reigns, there was reason to be concerned about the Thunder roster coming into this off-season, but nobody could have predicted the July 4th clearance sale that has unfolded. Paul George pushed his way to Los Angeles (alongside Kawhi Leonard), and the Thunder brought back a record setting treasure chest of first round draft choices, as well as a brilliant young guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Following George’s shocking departure, Sam Presti’s team proceeded to offload Russell Westbrook and his $170 million dollar contract in exchange for three more first round picks and Chris Paul. The Thunder are officially in full-scale rebuild mode.

Now, Thunder fans- breathe. I can sympathize with the pain of losing not one, but two MVP caliber players in the space of a few short weeks, but there is a silver lining here. The Thunder could potentially have fifteen first round draft picks and four picks swaps over the next seven drafts. Fifteen. Rarely have we ever seen a team with so much draft capital acquired in such a short amount of time- and for losing the two faces of the Thunder franchise, that’s a *fairly* good consolation prize.

Look away Thunder fans, this is the section where I discuss the upcoming season. The Thunder project to be a basement-dwelling team in a loaded Western Conference, but there are a few reasons for optimism. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander flashed all-star potential during his rookie stint as a Clipper, and the additions of Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari may push the Thunder towards thirty wins- assuming they aren’t offloaded by the trade deadline. It will be interesting to see how head coach Billy Donovan develops Gilgeous-Alexander behind Chris Paul, and finding enough minutes between the two of them may be a difficult task. Overall, the future is hopeful in Oklahoma City, but the loss of George and Westbrook is going to sting for a while.

Grade: B-

Minnesota Timberwolves

Last season’s record: 36-46 (11th in the Western Conference)

Key Additions: Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman, Shabazz Napier, Jordan Bell

Key Losses: Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose

The Timberwolves appear to be going nowhere, fast. Capped out and with very little flexibility, Minnesota’s front office did what they could to keep the team at surface level. Jake Layman should be an excellent piece off of the bench, and provide much needed spacing next to Karl-Anthony Towns. Shabazz Napier and Jordan Bell are both solid role players who are still young, and could provide some valuable minutes to a team on the outside of the playoff picture.

Losing Derrick Rose, who averaged just over 18 points per game off the bench last season, stings. Rose outperformed all expectations and was a valuable spark-plug that made Minnesota much better, and the Timberwolves did little to make up for his departure. Taj Gibson walking certainly isn’t the end of the world, but his veteran presence will likely be missed in a suddenly very young locker room.

If there is a single bright spot the front office can point to, it’s the drafting of Jarrett Culver with the sixth pick in the draft. Phoenix inexplicably traded down and Minnesota capitalized, nabbing a promising young wing with stellar defense and a good-looking stroke from deep. Minnesota’s future looks bleak for now, but the addition of Culver and the star power of Karl-Anthony Towns will keep this team relevant- for now.

Grade: D

SportsSimplified

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