Grading The NBA’s Northwest Division
The Oklahoma City Thunder has overcome the departure of key player James Harden, the league’s reining Sixth Man of the Year, and sits atop the Northwest Division of the NBA’s Western Conference. Not only that, their 19-4 record is the best in the league. While Durant, Westbrook & Co. are thinking NBA Finals repeat next June, the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets aim to get past the first round of the playoffs. Recall the Jazz were unceremoniously ousted by the San Antonio Spurs (4-0) and the Nuggets were eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers (4-3) last season. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers are, of course, looking to end the season in the top-eight as well.
Interestingly enough, this Division has the distinction of its fifth-place team (Portland Trail Blazers) having the best record (10-12) of any other fifth place team in the remaining five divisions; they even top three 4th-place teams as well.
If the season ended today, four teams from the Northwest Division would be headed to the playoffs.
Here are HOOPSWORLD’s Northwest Division grades:
Oklahoma City Thunder (19-4) – A
It sure didn’t take long for the Thunder to integrate Kevin Martin, and even Hasheem Thabeet, into the system. No doubt Harden is missed by his teammates and fans, but Oklahoma City is finding ways to win, starting with the continuing evolution of Kevin Durant. The league’s three-time leading scorer remains a prolific scorer at 27.5 points per game and may well join the elite “50-40-90” club (which requires a player to shoot, in a single season, at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent in three-pointers and 90 percent in free throws). The club includes just five members: Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Larry Bird, Mark Price and Reggie Miller. Right now Durant is averaging .515, .439 and .897, respectively, but he’s looking for more. He wants to become a complete player. Career highs thus far in rebounds (8.4), assists (4.2), blocks (1.3), steals (1.6.), field goal percentage and three-point percentage suggest he’s doing just that. His 28.2 Player Efficiency Rating is ranked second to LeBron James.
Russell Westbrook is averaging career highs in assists (8.7), three-pointers (1.5) and steals (2.0) and remains consistent otherwise. Serge Ibaka is markedly improving offensively. Martin provides instant offense off the bench (16.0 points and 2.2 in threes at .468 efficiency) and is beyond pleased to have landed with a contender in a role where he isn’t expected to carry the full load.
The Thunder franchise is on a first-ever ten-game winning streak, but it must be noted that they haven’t faced a particularly tough schedule and have enjoyed playing 15 of the first 23 games in front of their home crowd.
Conclusion: They still struggle with bringing maximum energy to every game and sometimes have to grind out victories, but there’s no reason to think the wins won’t keep accumulating.
Minnesota Timberwolves (11-9) – B
After a shaky start to the season fraught with injuries, things appear to be looking up in Minnesota. They currently have a .550 win/loss percentage, placing second in the Division.
The Wolves are 6-5 since Kevin Love returned on November 21st; his scoring is rather inconsistent (19.4 points per game), but his rebounding has dipped below double digits only once (averaging 13.7 per game). There are issues, though, with his efficiency. He’s posting career lows in field goal shooting (.348) and free throws (.670) and a frightfully low .207 percentage in three-point shooting. His recent critical comments about the franchise and his contract were perhaps ill-timed. Trade scenarios involving his name are rampant.
Point guard Ricky Rubio may or may not make his season debut tonight, but he’s close. There will be a period of adjustment, but it won’t take long. He averaged 10.6 points, 8.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals in 2011-12 before his season-ending injury.
While Brandon Roy’s comeback was short-lived (five games, then arthroscopic knee surgery), he’s scheduled for no-restriction practice next week. No timetable has been set. Chase Budinger should return by the end of the season. The number two pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Derrick Williams, is averaging less than 19 minutes per game. Stay tuned to see if talk of a trade surrounding Williams and Anderson Varejao come to fruition.
Conclusion: Fortunately the Wolves are more than a team with a just couple players carrying the load. This team is deep; Love and soon-to-be-Rubio, newcomers Andrei Kirilenko and Dante Cunningham, rookie Alexey Shved, along with Nikola Pekovic, Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea, are poised to take the Wolves to the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
Utah Jazz (13-11) – B
The early buzz word for the Jazz was “underachieving”, and now they sit seventh in the Western Conference (third in the Division). They’ve won nine of the past 14 games, however only three came against teams having records of .500 or better. Of course, one of these was a recent thrilling buzzer-beater win (courtesy of Mo Williams) over the San Antonio Spurs. That win may prove critical in confidence-building going forward; afterwards, players were speaking excitedly about the future, without excessive self-congratulations. It may have been a turn-around moment.
Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap remain the leading scorers and rebounders. Gordon Hayward is improving and Williams is fitting in seamlessly. Derrick Favors (9.2 points/ 7.2 rebounds) has returned after a five-game absence.
A big concern is the discrepancy between their home record (9-1) vs. their road record (4-10). Over the next month, they play ten road games and six home games. It’s time to figure it out in away games.
Conclusion: For the most part, the Jazz appear to be headed in the right direction. It’s up to them to keep improving, keep building chemistry and keep giving effort.
Denver Nuggets (12-12) – C-
The Nuggets remain a team without a household name star. Perhaps Andre Iguodala qualifies, but he’s no savior. Offense isn’t the issue. Six players are averaging double-digit scoring, with Danilo Gallinari leading the pack at 15.5 points per game. The Nuggets are league-ranked second in field goals made, and third in field goals attempted. Rebounding isn’t the issue either; they are ranked second in both total rebounds and offensive rebounds in the league. The fact Denver is ranked 22nd in Defensive Efficiency (also 25th in opponents’ points per game at 100.7) is what hurts. Perhaps nobody is hurting more than head coach George Karl, but he’s showing remarkable patience with a roster he recently said was driving him crazy. They’re also third in turnovers.
Ty Lawson’s numbers have been going in the wrong direction. He’s averaging career lows in shooting efficiency: field goal (.424), three-pointers (.353) and free throws (.667), including his Player Efficiency Rating (15.0). He’s averaging 14.8 points per game, down from 16.4 last season, at a career high 36.5 minutes. His late-game execution is dismal. Is the pressure of living up to his new four-year contract proving to be overwhelming?
One of the brightest spots is hard-working Kenneth Faried, who just puts on a show for the people every time he steps on the court. Denver’s schedule has put them on the road in 17 of the 24 total games played; January’s looking much better with many home games against some lesser teams.
There’s a lack of overall aggressiveness on this team, especially down the stretch. And they can’t seem to hit upon winning rotations. Last nights’ win put them at a .500 winning percentage; if they can’t tip it convincingly going forward, it may be time to talk trade in February. Gallinari has the most tradable contract yet is an improbable move.
Portland Trail Blazers (10-12) – B-
The Trail Blazers are bringing up the rear in the Northwest Division…but just barely. The story this season in Portland is obviously rookie guard Damian Lillard. The 22-year-old starter, picked sixth in the 2012 NBA Draft, appears primed to win the league’s Rookie of the Year honors. He’s averaging 18.9 points, 6.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 3.4 rebounds along with 2.2 three-pointers per game at .366 percentage and .840 in free throws in 38.0 minutes. That impressive stat line warrants re-reading.
LaMarcus Aldridge’s shooting efficiency numbers are down a bit, but otherwise he’s solid again, leading in points (21.0). Wesley Matthews has taken advantage of his extra few minutes on the floor showing reliability in threes (2.2 per game). J.J. Hickson is quietly having a very nice season (11.4 points and a team-best 10.2 rebounds).
As a team, however, they are having defensive woes, ranking 24th in both opponents’ points per game (100.2) and Defensive Efficiency. Of special note: They made single-game history a few days ago by going 0-for-20 in three-pointers.
The Blazers have impressively come away the victors in four overtime games this season. They’ve won four of their last six games; the most recent was a marquee win against the Spurs. This time the late-shot hero was Nicolas Batum. Similar to Utah’s win over San Antonio, this may be that signature win that can be later pointed to as a defining moment.
The Blazers are in full re-building mode. It’s all about acquiring talent and assets. They should keep plugging away; of course, more talent and a right-now-success would be welcomed, but it’s really all about the future.
This is one competitive Division. Following the Thunder in the first position, there are just a handful of games separating the other four teams. With around 60 games left in this season, there’s plenty of time for shake-ups in any direction.
This is the sixth and final entry in a six-part series from HOOPSWORLD, grading each division in the NBA. Check out Joel Brigham’s analysis of the Central Division here, Derek Page’s Southwest Division grades here, Alex Raskin’s take on the Atlantic Division here, Eric Pincus’ thoughts on the Pacific Division here and Alex Kennedy’s grades on the Southeast Division here.