Northwest Division Season Preview: The Battle 4,226 feet Above Sea Level

Welcome to the first of the Corner Three 2019-2020 NBA division-by-division season previews. In each of these previews, we use RJ Garcia’s player-by-player ratings (based on on/off metrics and career trajectory) and per-game minutes projections (taking into account potential minutes lost to injury) to project overall team quality for the upcoming season.  RJ and Derek Reifer also provide their own analyses and commentary to provide any context and additional insights. We start in the Northwest Division:

  1. Utah Jazz – 50 wins (2017-2018: 50 wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Conley Jr., Mike 27 2.5
SG Mitchell, Donovan 32 2.5
SF Ingles, Joe 30 2
PF Bogdanović, Bojan 29 -0.5
C Gobert, Rudy 30 4.5
6 O’Neale, Royce 18 0
7 Davis, Ed 17 1.5
8 Green, Jeff 15 -1.5
9 Mudiay, Emmanuel 12 -2.5
10 Exum, Dante 10 -2
11 Niang, Georges 9 -2
12 Bradley, Tony 4 -1.5
13 Williams-Goss, Nigel 2 -2
14 Kidd, Stanton 2 -2
15 Howard, William 2 -2

RJ’s Big Picture: This team is going to be very interesting to watch. Utah staple Derrick Favors is gone and it appears that the team is going to be going smaller this year using new acquisitions like Jeff Green and Bojan Bogdanović increasingly at the forward spot. The Jazz expect Donovan Mitchell to become more efficient with his usage going down with the addition of Mike Conley. Ed Davis was an analytics community favorite who was also added to the squad. This team is deep and Quin Snyder knows how to manage his rotation. On paper, this is one of the top threats in the West. 

RJ’s Big Question: Will it work off paper? This is a team that is not only making large personnel changes, but they are also making a rather large philosophy change with the swap of Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors for Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanović. Gone are the days of Utah starting two bigs and having two strong defensive players in the frontcourt, and instead enters Bogdanović, who could be most optimistically labeled “inconsistent” on defense. Gone too are the days of lacking three point shooters, with Conley and Bogdanović both being well-above average marksmen. On paper, the losses on defense could be covered up by Gobert, but on the court this is a heavy burden for one player, even the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to carry. 

Derek’s Big Number: 10.2. Last season, Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder combined to average 10.2 three point attempts per game, of which they hit 3.4 (33%). Meanwhile, Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanović combined to shoot over 39% from downtown. This swap could make a huge difference for the Jazz’s offense, which centers around the playmaking ability of Donovan Mitchell and roll gravity of Rudy Gobert, both of which can be significantly improved with better spacing.

Derek’s Film Room:

Here is a perfect example of how personnel helped restrict the growth of Donovan Mitchell last season. The play starts with screen action by Jae Crowder to attempt to get James Harden switched onto Mitchell instead of Chris Paul:

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However, the Rockets are so okay with Crowder launching from the top of the key that the action is ineffective. Harden is able to hold his ground long enough for Paul to stick with Mitchell through the screen, while Crowder stands wide open:

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Still, Mitchell is talented enough to blow by Paul. But again, spacing hurts the young guard – Eric Gordon is happy to leave Ricky Rubio wide open in the corner, moving over to double and thereby force the turnover:

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Little plays like this will happen all game long, and if the Jazz defense is up to the task, I agree with RJ that they can certainly grab the first seed in the West.


2. Denver Nuggets – 47 wins (2017-2018: 54 wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Murray, Jamal 30 1.5
SG Harris, Gary 23 0.5
SF Barton, Will 21 -2.5
PF Millsap, Paul 22 2.5
C Jokić, Nikola 30 5.5
6 Grant, Jerami 24 0.5
7 Plumlee, Mason 21 0.5
8 Morris, Monte 21 -0.5
9 Craig, Torrey 17 -1
10 Beasley, Malik 9 -1
11 Porter Jr., Michael 9 -2
12 Hernangomez, Juancho 9 -1
13 Vanderbilt, Jarred 2 -1

RJ’s Big Picture: The Nuggets are a young team that has their best times ahead of them, but that bright future may be another year or two away, despite winning 54 games last season. Nikola Jokić impressed many with his playoff performance, impressively willing the Nuggets to success on offense. This team is deep, with lots of players who expect to get minutes, including rookie Michael Porter Jr., and my projections expect Mike Malone to be more equitable with his rotation, trying to figure things out for the playoffs, which I project to lead to fewer wins for the regular season. 

RJ’s Big Question: When Nikola Jokic has been on the floor, the Nuggets have been a top 5-caliber offense, pretty much regardless of the other players on the court. The issue for the Nuggets has been the defense, which hasn’t been horrible, but hasn’t been elite either. With the addition of Jerami Grant and hopefully a healthy Gary Harris, can the Nuggets figure out a 5 man rotation that can dominate on both sides of the ball, especially with not-so-elite defenders at both the 1 and 5? Murray, Harris, Grant, Paul Millsap, Jokić could be the unit that is the key to the puzzle. 

Derek’s Big Number: 14.91. As calculated by ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, Jokić was worth 14.91 wins above a replacement player last season. That ranked 5th in the entire NBA; more than Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, and more. At just 24 years old, Jokić will continue to prove he’s not only cemented himself as a top 10 player, but a real MVP candidate. While he’s to me the best offensive center in the league by a mile, his defense is also underrated – he ranked 16th among centers in defensive RPM last season (better than Steven Adams, Clint Capela, and Jarrett Allen), and 5th in defensive Box Plus-Minus (better than Draymond Green, Marc Gasol, and Al Horford).

Derek’s Film Room:

Though he’s not the highest jumper or the quickest to move laterally, Nikola Jokić’s basketball genius isn’t just on offense. He’s able to provide defensive value with his instincts, being in the right place at the right time, and his quick hands, where he causes deflections and steals (he ranked 4th among all centers last season in steal percentage). Look at this play, where he really shows off his basketball IQ in a crucial playoff possession:

Jokić is fronting LaMarcus Aldridge at the beginning of the play, so Gay sees an opportunity:

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By the time the ball is in the air, though, Jokić has already spun fully around Aldridge behind him. He knows that Rudy Gay was trying to take advantage of the fronting, and therefore knows where to get into position to make a play:

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He easily pokes the pass away, and the Nuggets are already running:

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It’s a 5-point swing into a transition three pointer that essentially puts the game away, and it’s almost entirely orchestrated by Jokić’s defensive instincts. It’s his growth as a player that makes me more bullish on this team than RJ’s projections; I see them winning 50+ games once again.


3. Portland Trail Blazers – 39 wins (2018-2019 – 53 wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Lillard, Damian 34 5
SG McCollum, C.J. 33 1
SF Hood, Rodney 24 -1.5
PF Collins, Zach 23 -1
C Whiteside, Hassan 22 1
6 Bazemore, Kent 21 -2
7 Simons, Anfernee 16 -2
8 Hezonja, Mario 14 -2.5
9 Gasol, Pau 12 -0.5
10 Tolliver, Anthony 9 -2
11 Little, Nassir 9 -3
12 Trent Jr., Gary 7 -2
13 Nurkić, Jusuf 7 3
14 Labissiere, Skal 6 -1
15 Hoard, Jaylen 2 -3

RJ’s Big Picture: What a 2018-19 season for Portland, with some pretty serious lows, in the form of losing Nurkić for the year with a broken leg, and beating the odds to get to the Western Conference Finals without one of their Big 3. 

This projection is unfortunately not at the same level as their 2018-19 season. The Blazers are likely to be without Nurkić for most of the year, and have also lost key contributors in Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Meyers Leonard, and Evan Turner. 

In the current NBA, it has become more common to have a large amount of roster turnover in a given year, with more and more players choosing to have short-term contracts more frequently to get back on the market and retain flexibility. This is a team that has been about as severely hurt by free agency as a team could be while still retaining their top 3 players. Rodney Hood and Kent Bazemore are the wing core, two players that struggled to start consistently on Cleveland and Atlanta before getting to Portland. Simply put, there are a lot of poor players on this roster, and their best players outside of Dame and CJ are some level of injured, playing out of position, or bring serious chemistry issues. 

RJ’s Big Question: What Hassan Whiteside is Portland getting? Whiteside is one of the biggest enigmas in the league, a player with next level talent but also some serious lapses in judgement. Will Whiteside tear this locker room apart, a locker room filled with new guys and young players, or will he play with maturity and poise?

Derek’s Big Number19. Damian Lillard scored 19 or fewer points 19 times last season, and the Blazers were 11-8 in those games, not much of a different win rate than when he scored 20 or more. A proportional t-test in R shows the difference is not statistically significant as zero is included in the confidence interval:

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Will that continue this year? The Blazers definitely can lean on CJ McCollum for scoring as well, but without Nurkić, Evan Turner, Enes Kanter, Seth Curry, and other good offensive players, the Blazers will need to find a way to pick up the slack if Lillard’s having an off night.

Derek’s Film Room:

Outside of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers don’t have a single other positive playmaker on their roster, which could be a serious problem. Last season, the backup point ran through a combination of Evan Turner and Seth Curry, who both were able to create easy buckets for the Blazers, especially in transition. If either McCollum or Lillard were to miss time, this team could really struggle to score. Even if they’re healthy, though, Terry Stotts may need to find a way to keep one on the court at all times. Last season, the Blazers’ 4th most-used lineup was Curry, Turner, Nik Stauskas, Zach Collins, and Meyers Leonard (Collins is the lone holdover this year). Including that one, 4 of their top 12 lineups included neither McCollum nor Lillard. In my opinion, the Blazers will need to either change their approach or acquire more talent if they want to win more than 45 or so games this season.


4. Minnesota Timberwolves – 38 wins (2018-2019: 36 wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Teague, Jeff 23 -0.5
SG Okogie, Josh 22 -0.5
SF Wiggins, Andrew 32 -1
PF Covington, Robert 26 3
C Towns, Karl-Anthony 33 4
6 Culver, Jarrett 18 -1.5
7 Layman, Jake 18 -1
8 Vonleh, Noah 14 0
9 Napier, Shabazz 15 0.5
10 Bell, Jordan 14 -2.5
11 Dieng, Gorgui 13 -2
12 Bates-Diop, Keita 14 -2
13 Graham, Treveon 10 -2
14 Reid, Naz 6 -4

RJ’s Big Picture: This has all of the feelings of a transition year for Minnesota with a new front office and a ticking clock to impress Karl-Anthony Towns before potentially forcing his way out of town. The new analytically-minded front office of Gersson Rosas and Sachin Gupta is a stark departure from the previous regime that was headed by Tom Thibodeau. Gupta is reunited with a #TheProcess star, Robert Covington, and with a healthier year expected from Covington, the defense should improve. 

It is to be determined how many minutes the youth movement of this team will get in the form of Okogie, Culver, and Bates-Diop. 

RJ’s Big Question: What happens with Wiggins? It is no secret that the new regime wanted to trade Andrew Wiggins in the offseason, and it remains to be seen what that means for his mindset, effort, and most importantly, shot selection. If the new management gets Wiggins to embrace a more efficient shot selection, there is still a chance he can remove the bust moniker from his name. More likely, however, the Wolves find someone who will buy into the memory of his talent and trade for him this year.  

Derek’s Big Number49%. That was Andrew Wiggins’ True Shooting Percentage last season, which amazingly ranked 10th-worst in the entire NBA among 199 qualified players. It also represented a career low for Wiggins, a 24-year old who has yet to improve with time. For someone who took less than half a shot fewer per game than offensive superstar Karl-Anthony Towns last season, Wiggins needs to improve significantly or this offense will continue to tank.

Derek’s Film Room:

This possession, however short, really encapsulates all of the frustrations with Wiggins. He gets the defensive switch, but instead of driving to the basket, swinging the ball, or initiating any sort of play whatsoever, he steps into a 22-foot pull up contested jump shot, perhaps the most inefficient shot in all of basketball. The shot goes up with 14 seconds remaining on the shot clock for any sort of a better look. This is how a player like Wiggins, despite having undeniable offensive talent, can actually make your offense actively worse when he is on the court.


5. Oklahoma City Thunder – 36 wins (2018-2019: 49 wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Paul, Chris 22 4
SG Gilgeous-Alexander, Shai 18 0
SF Roberson, André 22 1
PF Gallinari, Danilo 28 2
C Adams, Steven 20 2
6 Schröder, Dennis 26 -2
7 Ferguson, Terrance 26 -2
8 Noel, Nerlens 20 0
9 Muscala, Mike 16 -1
10 Nader, Abdel 16 -4.5
11 Diallo, Hamidou 16 -1
12 Burton, Deonte 5 -2
13 Dort, Lugentz 4 -3
14 Grantham, Donte 4 -2

RJ’s Big Picture: The start of the next era for Thunder basketball. It is rare that an organization enters a rebuilding phase with this level of equity in the form of young players, draft assets, and veterans that can contribute to success. For Thunder fans this year, this will most likely be an evaluation year, looking at Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Terrance Ferguson, and more lottery ticket rookies such as Lugentz Dort, Hamidou Diallo, and Deonte Burton. This team will most likely be better than expected as long as there is a place in the rotation for Chris Paul, Steven Adams, and Danilo Gallinari. 

RJ’s Big Question: Will the vets stick around? Gallinari, Adams, and Paul are all players who can contribute and help teams win now, but are attached to hefty salary cap numbers. Will this team want to win some games and potentially fight for the 8th seed? If they decide to keep all three of these players, they will be much better than expected, and would be able to give a team a scare in the first round of the playoffs. If another competitor offers a decent return for Gallo, Adams or Paul, though, I expect the Thunder to take that offer and continue to acquire assets.

Derek’s Big Number5th. That’s where Danilo Gallinari ranked last season in RPM among small forwards, better than studs such as Kawhi Leonard. How did he do it? He’s an incredibly efficient offensive player, with multiple shots in his 6’10” repertoire, and the willingness to play within an offense.

Derek’s Film Room:

Here’s the kind of action the Thunder can steal from the Clippers to get some easy points. When your point guard is 6’6″ and your shooter is 6’10”, everything is easier. In this action, Gallo comes from the baseline to do what looks like set a screen for Shai:

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However, it’s really Shai setting the screen for Gallo. Gallo slips up to the top of the key, and his defender gets caught in the action:

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This is just too easy:

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If the Thunder don’t move their veterans, it would help them provide a nice litmus test for guys like Shai. Until we know the front office’s intentions, though, it will be difficult to get a confident bearing on this team’s projection.

 

By RJ Garcia, Northwestern University

Contributions from Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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