What a coup for the Illawarra Hawks!
The Northwest division is the perfect encapsulation of today’s NBA: intriguing, entertaining as hell, and almost certainly meaningless in the ultimate scheme of things.
Outside of Golden State (and Houston, we can now say), the NBA is a heap of sound and fury signifying ‘not much’ in the race for the title. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the league isn’t interesting, or incredibly fun.
‘Interesting’ and ‘fun’ are inscribed all over the Northwest division. Five solidly above-average teams, each unique and captivating in their own way, are fighting it out for the primary goal of the division title, and the secondary goal of making the playoffs (of these five, San Antonio, New Orleans and the Clippers, two will miss the playoffs).
Minnesota are the presumptive favourite, with a two-game lead and no roster concerns beyond the terrifying prospect of talking themselves into Derrick Rose. But the Wolves, even with a light closing schedule, are hardly an intimidating leader, with a defence that has regressed to gleefully atrocious.
Andrew Wiggins is only intermittently useful, Jeff Teague is thoroughly uninspiring, and the bench is a trainwreck. But the Wolves still have Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and the old school stylings of Taj Gibson, who is ageing like a fine, relentless wine.
Butler is magnificent but often unwatchable. To see him descend at the end of games into early 2000s hero guard isolations over and over again, as he did to cost the Wolves the game against Chicago, quickly makes you want to see something else. But Butler is a champion, and as painful as those isolations can be to watch, they’re effective, because he’s so damn good at getting to the line.
And the aesthetic of Butler – rare for an ultra-efficient, elite scoring wing – comes on defence, where he is a monster and a genius. His same-possession swats on Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas to seal the Wolves’ win over the Lakers was surely the most remarkable and absurd singular defensive possession a wing has had all season.
It is plays like that which may be enough to drag the Wolves, pretty or not, to the division crown.
Ostensibly, their biggest challenge will come from the Thunder, another team heavy on star power but light on connectivity. Like Minnesota, something still just seems ‘off’ with OKC. Why are they blowing fourth-quarter leads to the Wizards without John Wall or getting blown out at home by the Pelicans?
The Thunder, by virtue of their outrageous length and nuclear athleticism and physicality, still have the highest upside of any team in the division. But outside of their big three (which Carmelo Anthony is not a part of), the roster only succeeds at making you cringe (there’s a whole lot of ‘Jerami Grant’ and ‘Alex Abrines’ going on nowadays), and that lack of two-way depth will surely be their eventual undoing.
Portland, despite having two of the most watchable stars in the league, marvellous jerseys and one of the best crowds in the game, have somehow become stale. We’ve seen this team before, and the Jusuf Nurkic wrinkle hasn’t been as provocative as we hoped.
Damian Lillard is still the smoothest, coolest point guard in the league though (in every one of his movements you can see, almost feel, that fade-away buzzer-beater against Houston in the playoffs), and the nightly possibility of he or CJ McCollum briefly breaking the universe makes the Blazers entertaining enough, although the fun factor has begun to decay.
The Nuggets have clearly usurped Portland as the most fun team in the division, re-imagining themselves post-Paul Millsap injury as the helter-skelter, constant motion, fever dream pinball machine offence that they were at the end of 2016-17. Last season, though, felt like unthreatening entertainment, a weird team that was thriving on a gimmick. This season’s Denver offence has more of an air of devastation, a majestically oiled machine that plays with the joy of both having fun and the joy of slaughtering opponents into nothing.
Nikola Jokic is surely the most watchable player in the league, an odd, magical mixture of size, intelligence, brawn, telepathy and Serbia. In Denver’s final victory before the break, a beat-down of Milwaukee, Jokic delivered a pick and roll pass to Will Barton at the rim that was somehow both one-handed and two-handed at the same time. Jokic is spectacular, and so is Jamal Murray, and Barton and Gary Harris are perfect complements to spectacular. The defence is a catastrophe, but the Nuggets are scoring at such levels that defence may be irrelevant.
For a brief stretch, Utah, almost unfathomably, were also scoring so heavily that defence might have been extraneous. Ricky Rubio touched God and held onto him, and whether he can keep holding on after the All-Star break might decide the division, given Utah’s incredibly favourable schedule down the stretch.
The Jazz are the wackiest story in the NBA, a team that was left for dead twice – first after Gordon Hayward left, and then again when they fell to 19-28. But then Rubio delivered the best stretch of his career, Rudy Gobert looked re-born, and Derrick Favors’ usefulness didn’t die like we thought it would when Gobert came back.
Royce O’Neale is a gem, and Jae Crowder, looking like himself again, is a seamless fit, unlocking shooting and switching rich line-ups for the Jazz by being able to slide between the 3 and the 4. Meanwhile, Donovan Mitchell continues to astound, and Joe Ingles is the best player in the NBA.
The length of the NBA year at times makes the regular season seem like a tired preamble to the playoffs, and given the Warriors juggernaut, perhaps more like a tired preamble to a few years from now when Golden State isn’t so cruelly dominant. But within the season, and without the overarching focus on ‘Winning The Title’, there is much to be found and savoured, like this story of the Jazz, and the building one of their wide-open, enthralling division.