The NBA season begins on December 22. After an offseason in which we’ve seen contenders retool their rosters and star players change locations; this 2021 season could be one of the best ever. Here at No Limit Jumper, we’ve got you covered for the start of the season with our official 2021 NBA Season Preview. Join us as we take a look at each division and make predictions on how the 2021 season may shake out.
Next up: the Northwest Division
The NBA season is just around the corner I’m going to start right off by saying that I don’t think any team in this division is going to win the chip. This is not a slight on any of the teams in the division, however. There are teams and individual players that I will be covering in this piece who I really love watching or hope to see improve greatly. Moreover, I’m a basketball fan first and foremost and I would love nothing more than to see all of these guys have stellar seasons. With that in mind, we have to be realistic and analyze who and what will bring these teams success this year and what will hold them back. In this piece, I will discuss how I see the season panning out for the Thunder, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Timberwolves.
- Last Season: 46-27 (3-5 in the bubble), 3rd in West, 1st in NW Division
- Playoffs: 9-10, L West Finals (vs LAL)
- Key Departures: Jerami Grant (DET), Mason Plumlee (DET) & Torrey Craig (MIL)
- New Additions: Zeke Nnaji (22nd pick), RJ Hampton (24th pick), JaMychal Green (free agency) & Facundo Campazzo (free agency)
- Head Coach: Michael Malone
As of right now, it is difficult to gauge how Denver’s moves will affect them overall. Losing Jerami Grant is a huge blow given his defensive presence during the playoffs and losing another wing in Torrey Craig certainly doesn’t help the issue. Letting Plumlee go could prove beneficial if Bol Bol can stay healthy and build on his formidable cameos in the bubble. JaMychal Green was a solid acquisition and Real Madrid’s Facundo Campazzo was a low-risk move that could pay very good dividends.
RJ Hampton played in Australia last season and getting him so late in the first round was a bargain, and Zeke Nnaji could be an important post presence in the absence of Mason Plumlee while providing some exciting athleticism. All in all, I believe that this was a decent offseason in terms of roster moves. Could have been better, but could also have been a hell of a lot worse too.
The Denver Nuggets are an extremely unique team in the NBA. They have one of the best big men in the league in Nikola Jokic, who can get a triple double on any given night while ripping a team apart with his passing. Jamal Murray went from a good point guard to a real star in the bubble while dueling with Donovan Mitchell, while young guns Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol played brilliant basketball also. Solid pieces like Will Barton, Gary Harris and Monte Morris contribute in no small degree to this well-oiled machine.
They are especially unique because of their versatility on offense. Denver ranked 5th in the league for Offensive Rating in the regular season because they can play in so many different ways. They can play a pick-and-roll offense through Murray and Jokic, they can play fastbreaks through Murray, Harris and Barton or they can run plays with guys like Murray, Porter and Bol who can shoot the ball extremely well.
Where I worry for Denver this season is their defense. They ranked 16th in the league for Defensive Rating in the regular season and now they’ve lost Jerami Grant. Nikola Jokic is too slow and awkward to be reliable against more athletic big men, while Murray and Porter are far from All-Defense talents. They can’t slow the game down any further either as they already rank 29th in pace. This is not to say that they cannot fix these issues with hard work in the gym and some imaginative coaching from Mike Malone, but as of right now I cannot say decisively which way things will go for Denver this season.
The Nuggets finished 3rd in the Western Conference and topped the Northwest Division last season. I see this season panning out similarly for Denver. The division has become less competitive with Chris Paul leaving Oklahoma (more on that later), and Anthony Edwards won’t magically make Minnesota a playoff team by himself. There could be a surprise package in the West outside of this division like Dallas or New Orleans who joins the top-4 of the conference, but realistically Denver should have home advantage in the first round of next season’s playoffs. Denver should be aiming for 50-55 wins this season.
- Last Season: 19-45, 14th in West, 5th in NW Division
- Playoffs: N/A
- Key Departures: James Johnson (traded), Omari Spellman (traded), Jacob Evans (traded)
- New Additions: Anthony Edwards (1st pick), Jaden McDaniels (28th pick), Ricky Rubio (via trade), Ed Davis (via trade) & Juancho Hernangomez (free agency)
- Head Coach: Ryan Saunders
Minnesota performed reasonably well this offseason. Not many teams can magically put a package together to acquire a superstar (though few would be willing to move to the T’wolves), so getting Ricky Rubio and Juancho Hernangomez is far from a terrible showing. Anthony Edwards may or may not prove to be the best player in the draft class, but he fits the team and was a safe pick. Jaden McDaniels could well prove to be a coup at the 28th pick. The Timberwolves are still lacking at the power forward position, but time remains for a couple of extra signings to bolster the roster.
The Minnesota Timberwolves may have been one of the worst teams in the league for the better part of twenty years now, but there’s reason to be optimistic if you’re a fan. Karl-Anthony Towns is still improving, and this will be his first full season with D’Angelo Russell. Anthony Edwards is a reasonably polished player for a one-and-done, which will definitely help on both sides of the court. He may not be an All-NBA playmaker, but Russell is no slouch as a passer. Jarrett Culver may not be Brandon Clarke or Tyler Herro, but he’s a good player in his own right. It’s hard to gauge how good the team is when they were an aggressive tanker last season, but they have reasonable balance even if they lack a superstar three-point shooter like Harden, Curry, Thompson or Beal.
Inexperience could be the biggest hindrance to this squad. Ricky Rubio and Ed Davis are the only players on the roster who have been around the block, and in a hyper-competitive Western Conference every little edge counts. Ryan Saunders isn’t a terrible coach by any means, but he is as inexperienced as most of his players (interesting side note: he’s only three years older than Ed Davis). No one on the team has been an important player in a squad that has reached the second round of the playoffs, so it’s difficult to see who will be the locker room leaders.
I have little faith in the Timberwolves with regards to making the playoffs this season. They have some good players, and have definitely improved their lineup compared to last season. However, the conference is just too strong right now for them to make it to the postseason without some injuries or calamities happening elsewhere. The real question is whether they tank aggressively or not.
Their 2021 first-round pick belongs to the Warriors, but is top-3 protected. If things do not materialize straight away for the Timberwolves, then I expect them to tank again in the hopes of keeping hold of their draft rights next summer to bring in another young star. There are two outcomes for them this season: either they win less than 25 games or they win between 35 and 43 games in the pursuit of a playoff berth. I think the former is more likely, but anything is possible in the Wild West.
Oklahoma City Thunder
- Last Season: 44-28 (4-4 in the bubble), 5th in West, 2nd in NW Division
- Playoffs: 3-4, L First Round (vs HOU)
- Key Departures: Chris Paul (PHX), Steven Adams (NOP), Dennis Schroder (LAL), Terrance Ferguson (PHI) and Danilo Gallinari (ATL) (all traded) & Andre Roberson (free agency)
- New Additions: Al Horford, Trevor Ariza, Ty Jerome, TJ Leaf, Jalen Lecque, Darius Miller, Admiral Schofield, Joshia Gray, Kenrich Williams, Zylan Cheatham, Justin Jackson and Vincent Poirier (all via trade) & Aleksej Pokusevski (17th pick)
- Head Coach: Mark Daigneault
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what direction the Thunder are trending for the next couple of seasons. Six of their eight or nine best players from last season have left, as well as head coach Billy Donovan. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, and Darius Bazley are the only players left on the roster who averaged ten or more minutes per game in last season’s playoffs. This new squad isn’t terrible though. Al Horford and Trevor Ariza are good players, SGA is one of the most promising young players in the league and Lu Dort is one of the most intriguing young players after his huge defensive performance against the Rockets.
The strengths of this squad lie with their defense. The Thunder ranked seventh in the league in Defensive Rating last season. Although they have lost some key defenders in Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams, their replacements are good players and could improve their poor rebounding numbers. Added youth may also help them to improve their pace, which was ninth-worst in the league last season.
Similar to the Timberwolves, this is an inexperienced side. SGA and Lu Dort may have shown maturity beyond their years in the bubble, but they haven’t been around the block like former teammates Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari have. Their middle-of-the-road offense has definitely deteriorated with their personnel losses too. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Thunder as I will now discuss.
The Thunder are going to win 75 games and go 16-0 in the playoffs, right? Well, maybe not. OKC fans need not be embarrassed though, because they have a treasure trove of draft picks and young assets from their various trades. Whether these are turned into higher draft positions in the short term or packaged for superstar trades remains to be seen. However, smart management means that OKC have a bright future ahead of them. Patience is all that is needed from fans and head office. I expect Oklahoma to win in the region of 15 and 23 games.
- Last Season: 35-39 (7-2 in the bubble), 8th in West, 4th in NW Division
- Playoffs: 1-4, L First Round (vs LAL)
- Key Departures: Trevor Ariza (every team), Hassan Whiteside (SAC)
- New Additions: Enes Kanter (via trade), Robert Covington (free agency), Derrick Jones Jr. (free agency), CJ Elleby (46th pick)
- Head Coach: Terry Stotts
The Portland Trail Blazers have been quite astute this offseason. Robert Covington is one of the most reliable 3-and-D wings in the league, while Enes Kanter should be a solid partner for Jusuf Nurkic in the frontcourt. Derrick Jones Jr. is still only 23 years old and could well be a standout player in the second unit. The 2020 All-Star Slam Dunk champion was impressive off the bench for last season’s Eastern Conference-champion Miami Heat and should represent a good purchase (even if he was slightly overpaid). No crazy changes here, but the Blazers have definitely improved.
The Portland Trail Blazers are a competitive middle-of-the-road team because of their superstar point guard Damian Lillard. Dame was exceptional throughout last season, especially in the bubble. Lillard is only one man though, and luckily his supporting cast is more reliable this season. Jusuf Nurkic is now healthy after a gruesome leg injury while the acquisitions listed above have improved the roster. The Blazers’ Offensive Rating was the third best in the league last season but their Defensive Rating was the third worst. All three new players are good defenders, as is the returning Jusuf Nurkic. The West may have become more competitive but, barring injuries, this group of players is trending upwards.
The entire side must provide more intensity on defense. Only three other teams had a lower opposition turnover rate last season. From Lillard to Nurkic, there absolutely needs to be more effort exerted on their side of the court. Their average pace could improve as a result of this, with Lillard and McCollum more than capable of hitting opponents on the fastbreak if they can force more turnovers. When the game is slowed down, this team has shooters. Carmelo Anthony is more than capable of knocking shots down despite his age, while Covington is a very viable option from beyond the arc.
The Trail Blazers need to be making the playoffs. They only made it into the postseason via the play-in system last season, and this roster is too talented to be fighting an injured Memphis team just to make it into the playoffs. The return of Jusuf Nurkic from injury and the roster additions should counteract the improvements made by the Suns and Pelicans, while the Thunder’s rebuild opens up another playoff spot. The Western Conference may be extremely competitive, but they have a certified winner in Damian Lillard. I expect Portland to win 42-47 games this season.
- Last Season: 44-28 (7-2 in the bubble), 6th in West, 3rd in NW Division
- Playoffs: 3-4, L First Round (vs DEN)
- Key Departures: Tony Bradley, Emmanuel Mudiay & Jeff Green (all free agency) & Ed Davis (traded)
- New Additions: Udoka Azubuike (27th pick) & Elijah Hughes (39th pick)
- Head Coach: Terry Stotts
The Jazz were just about above-average in most things last season. Their pace lagged behind the league in 24th while they lacked tenacity on the offensive glass. Their eFG% of .549 was second-best in the NBA, but they were dreadful at both winning turnovers and keeping hold of the ball. The issues faced by Utah are mostly fixable with adjustments and hours in the gym.
Utah will come into the season with fire in their stomachs after the manner of their elimination in the bubble. An intense 7-game series saw insane performances from Utah and Denver, with the Colorado outfit edging the series in the end. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have repaired their relationship after the COVID debacle too. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic as a Utah fan.
It’s difficult to gauge what would be a success for the Jazz this season. They were sixth in the West last season, and definitely have the ability to improve on that. Unfortunately, there is a limit to what can be achieved without a third star. Utah should finish between 3rd and 7th in the conference, but in the long run I’m curious as to what this side’s ceiling is. I expect Utah to win between 45 and 50 games next season.
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