The NBA off-season is officially over, as teams prepare to finalise their rosters, set their structures in training camp, and enter the final stages before the 2019-20 tip-off on October 25 (AEST).
For the first time in the past decade, there is no clear favourite, no powerhouse, just a smooth filtering of superstars across the league vying to knock the Raptors off the top of the throne.
As we preview each division, we will look at the acquisitions each team made, and just how much impact they’ll make this season, along with their chances at being king of the hill come next June.
We kick off with the Northwest Division in the Western Conference, which is arguably the toughest division, with four of the five teams finishing in the post-season a year ago.
Denver Nuggets (last season: 2nd in West, 54-28)
The biggest surprise packet of last season, as the Nuggets were able to work their way to the fourth best record in the league, and second in the West, behind a breakout year by their starting point guard, Jamal Murray and star centre, Nikola Jokic.
With a similar lineup hitting training camp again, and no notable changes, how can this Denver lineup go a few steps further?
For starters, it has to be consistent on the offensive end, especially behind the arc. In a three-point dominated league, they struggled to 17th in 3P% [35%] and were outside the top 10 in FG% [13th – 46%].
The front office recognised this weakness of their game, and acquired Jerami Grant [from OKC], who can stretch the floor in a small-man lineup and be a solid contributor on the offensive side of the floor. Add in first round pick from last year, Michael Porter Jnr. who will finally take the floor after overcoming his continual back injury from his college days. An explosive wingman who was a top rated draft pick before his back issues began in college. Plus the recently drafted Bol Bol could be anything.
Can they rise to the top again in a more competitive Western Conference? Absolutely. Murray is fresh off signing a max contract extension, Jokic is arguably a top five player in the league, and Mike Malone has a real team structure that can allow them to withstand the star-studded Los Angeles teams. The only thing that is concerning is their health and the ability of being able to keep a full roster heading into playoffs.
Prediction: Home Court advantage.
Portland Trail Blazers (3rd, 53-29)
Being led by an All-Star for the last few years, the Trail Blazers have gone all in on season 2019-20. They finally rose to the occasion last season, as Lillard was able to take them all the way to the Conference Finals, before they were brushed aside in a clean sweep by Golden State.
However, with all the league moves over the off-season, the Blazers sniffed a real chance to be able to go one step further. They acquired experience, some brute strength in the paint, and added to the wing setup to relieve some pressure off Lillard. For so long, they’ve been a strong regular season team, but lacked the depth to make a deep run in the post season, until now.
Add in Hassan Whiteside, Pau Gasol, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Anthony Tolliver, draft steal Nassir Little in a draft steal, while retaining Rodney Hood and the Blazers look dangerous.
Whiteside gives them a real intimidating force in the paint, with the absence of Jusuf Nurkic until at least the beginning of next year, this is a chance for Whiteside to really prove his worth in the NBA. Gasol adds championship experience that is invaluable to a franchise who, apart from the the last few years, has really lacked deep post season runs.
While beginning to age, Gasol can still provide this team with some crucial minutes off the bench, as well as mentor Whiteside, Collins and Nurkic. Hezonja and Hood have the ability to catch fire behind the arc very quickly, and add that with the firepower and limitless range of Lillard and CJ, anything is possible.
If the depth of the roster throughout the season can spare McCollum and Lillard some major minutes, then the Blazers can go further than what they did a season ago.
Prediction: Playoffs, but no home court advantage.
Utah Jazz (5th, 50-32)
The Jazz have recovered perfectly in the post-Hayward era. Donovan Mitchell, although having a bit of stagnating year last season, is still one of the most exciting guards in the open court, and goes into games with a chip on his shoulder wanting to prove himself.
Gobert enters the season as the Defensive Player of the Year, and continues to have an intimidating presence in the paint. They’ll also regain the services of young point guard, Danté Exum, who can hopefully put his injuries behind him and remain healthy. But how can they stand out from the rest?
However, much like Portland, the Jazz went all in and put all their eggs in the basket heading into this season. Trading for Memphis favourite Mike Conley gives them a reliable and consistent leader on the offensive end, as well as a solid perimeter defender, while veterans Jeff Green and Bojan Bogdanovic will help with their depth and spacing the floor.
What halted the Jazz’s charge last season? The dependence on Mitchell. While he did deliver, sometimes inconsistently, you could see the continual dependence impacted the team offensively in the playoffs. The addition of Bogdanovic and Conley should ease the load, and help spread the floor throughout the regular season, and allow Ingles, Mitchell and Gobert fresh legs heading into the post-season.
Prediction: Playoffs, on the fringe of home court advantage.
Oklahoma City Thunder (6th, 49-33)
An era has ended, and the Thunder have made moves that can really help set up their future. Sam Presti decided to be bold, and agreed to the most surprising and unexpected move in the off-season: trading Paul George.
Why it might’ve seemed a strange move, Presti recognised the lack of cohesion, and was given a godfather offer that he could not refuse. So with that, they entered a total rebuild by also trading their All-Star point guard, Russell Westbrook to Houston, and entering a new phase for the franchise.
So what can we expect from OKC? To be fair, nothing major, which might just suit Billy Donovan. We don’t expect much output from a roster full of bad contracts and has-beens, but also don’t be surprised about what they can do. Chris Paul has a point to prove, and is still a serviceable point guard, Gallinari showed he still has the consistent output on the offensive end, and with the youth of Gilgeuous-Alexander, it may not be all doom-and-gloom after all.
It’s far from the Durant/Harden/Westbrook contending days, but these moves in the off-season may work out in the end. Only time will tell, but be assured that the Thunder aren’t done making moves just yet, watch this space.
Prediction: Lottery Pick
Minnesota Timberwolves (11th, 36-46)
A team that continues to show so much potential, but also fall short of them on an annual basis. Aside from Karl Anthony Towns, it’s a real struggle to see where the development is coming from in this side, and that is including Andrew Wiggins.
Going into each game, you know what Towns will bring: determination, crash the boards and be a real force inside, and contribute as much on the outside as possible.
However, with the loss of Derrick Rose, and finishing in the lottery a season ago, it is going to be real struggle for this side to make the playoffs. A result that can end in a few trade deadline trades involving Wiggins and Teague.
So we know the weaknesses, with their depth lacking and lack of firepower on both ends of the floor, what’s something we can look forward to? Jarrett Culver. They traded up to pick six, sending 11 and Dario Saric to Phoenix in return for one of the better wingman in the draft pool. Culver is confident, and will never shy away from the big stage, wanting to take the big shot every time down the floor. The ceiling is high, but must mature to be able to make a major impact within the NBA environment.
The season may get ugly, it will have highlights, but expect another poor season in a really tough and competitive Western conference, which could gift the chance of a LaMelo Ball or James Weisman pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Prediction: High Lottery Pick