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NBA Northwest Division preview: Can Denver take an extra step or will they be dethroned?

Gary Harris of the Denver Nuggets goes for the ball against Anfernee Simons of the Portland Trail Blazers at Pepsi Center in October 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Lizzy Barrett/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
14th December, 2020
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The Denver Nuggets made history in the playoffs last season after they came back from 3-1 deficit twice against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers.

They eventually lost to the champions Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. But they’ll be hoping to take an extra step forward in 2020-21.

Click here to read Nelson’s other previews.
There haven’t been major changes to Denver’s roster, but they lost and replaced certain role players. The major players that departed Denver were Mason Plumlee, Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig.

Denver lost athleticism and defence with those three players but have brought in JaMychal Green and Facundo Campazzo who can hopefully contribute after being a star in Europe.

Everyone knows that the Nuggets are going to go as far as Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic can take them.

Murray burst onto the scene after he dominated in the playoffs and formed a strong partnership with Jokic who consistently flirts with triple doubles.

The wildcard for Denver will be whether their supporting cast can show up to assist their two stars. Denver lost Gary Harris and Will Barton for a significant portion of their season through injuries and they will be crucial in providing defence and shooting from outside.

Additionally, can Michael Porter Jr continue to develop and improve from his breakout season in 2019-20?

After an injury plagued rookie season, Porter Jr really shined during the NBA Bubble showcasing his offensive repertoire and talent.

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Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

During the playoffs in 2020, they managed to secure victories by clamping down on defence whereas in games that they had lost, they always leaked plenty of points placing too much pressure for their offense to produce. Where games and series will be won for the Nuggets is on the defensive end.

The Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the league when they managed to have the fifth best record in the Western Conference. It was a weird collection of players which came together and rallied to play quality basketball.

Heading into 2020-21 however, this team is vastly different. It’s clear that the Thunder want to focus on youth and development after they shipped out their core from last season and received plenty of prospects and draft picks in return.

Led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, this season should be focusing on the future and analysing who can be long-term players in this franchise. Oklahoma City shouldn’t be relevant in 2020-21.

The Utah Jazz have had an uneventful off-season having retained their core group of players from 2019-20. They had a disappointing exit in the first round after they squandered a 3-1 lead in the playoffs to divisional rivals Denver.

They did lose Bojan Bogdanovic to injury unfortunately and he will definitely be the x-factor that will determine how far Utah progresses in the playoffs. His shooting and dynamic scoring ability will only ease the pressure off Donovan Mitchell having to create offense consistently for himself and the team.

Another season together for Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Bogdanovic should only improve their chemistry and the Jazz could be poised for big things as they’ll aim to challenge Denver again for top spot of the division.

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The Jazz managed to bring back Derrick favours and you would assume he will be the backup centre for Rudy Gobert allowing both players to cover for each other in case of injuries.

Having a centre come off the bench the calibre of favours cannot be underestimated. There were many times where Utah struggled defensively with Gobert off the floor last season.

Another team who will make things interesting at the top will be the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland were best associated for their performance inside the bubble where Damian Lillard willed his team into the playoffs.

They showcased that on their day, they can beat any team in the NBA the Blazers have reloaded to achieve big things in 2020-21.

The Blazers have had a successful offseason after they traded for Enes Kanter and Robert Covington for a decent price. They also signed Harry Giles, Derrick Jones Jr while retaining Rodney Hood and Carmelo Anthony.

Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard is Portland’s talisman. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

A number of players missed significant due to injury and they should now expect everyone starting the season fully healthy.

The depth on this squad has increased immensely which has been a weakness and detriment to Portland during previous regular seasons. Now they have a legitimate 10-man rotation where every player can provide meaningful minutes.

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We know what their backcourt duo of Lillard and CJ McCollum are capable of. If Jusuf Nurkic can remain healthy, it will aid their chances in the postseason significantly as you don’t want Enes Kanter who is a defensive liability to be the primary option.

Early on in the preseason, it seems that Terry Stotts is starting Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr at small and power forward. That leaves the bench with plenty of firepower with the likes of Gary Trent Jr, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Collins, Enes Kanter, Harry Giles, Rodney Hood and Anfernee Simons as options available off the bench.

While depth tends to be shortened during the playoffs, the amount quality on the bench allows Stotts to try a variety of options when Portland is struggling both offensively and defensively. This roster is loaded and set to go on a deep run.

Finally, the Minnesota Timberwolves are on their own timeline as they aim to become relevant once again. They to engaged in a busy offseason as they brought back Ricky Rubio to the Timberwolves and acquired Ed Davis from Utah.

They also retained restricted free agents Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez who they hope can be key contributors this season.

Plenty of eyes will be monitoring number one pick Anthony Edwards to see how he performs. While they were aiming to go for the best player available, Minnesota have an odd construction of their roster.

Coach Ryan Saunders is going to have a headache keeping all their guards happy with playing time. As constructed currently, Minnesota have D’Angelo Russel, Ricky Rubio, Josh Okogie, Beasley, Edwards, Jarrett Culver and Jaylen Nowell as their guards, and they are all capable of earning playing time on an NBA team.

There’s plenty of youth in the team and they are definitely not ready to compete with the top teams just yet. It will be interesting to see what philosophies the Timberwolves employ. They can certainly surround Karl Anthony Towns with guards and small forwards playing small ball.

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Additionally, the logjam of guards may be cleared through trade where they may acquire a better fitting piece or additional assets for the future.

Either way, the start of the season brings optimism for every team and Minnesota fans have a group which they can look forward to.

Overall, the Denver Nuggets are going to be tough to bring down but there are some major contenders that could vie for the divisional title. Portland and Utah will be on Denver’s doorstep and ultimately, the Trail Blazers should be the stronger contenders with their roster being more well-rounded.

Meanwhile, Minnesota and Oklahoma City will be focusing on themselves internally. A bold prediction would be for Minnesota to potentially gel and surprise teams this season. You just have to wonder when their playoff struggles will end and if they can sneak in as an eighth seed, it will do wonders for their young group.

But this should be a fun division to watch out for with the Nuggets, Jazz and Blazers doing battle throughout the season.

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