PORTLAND, Ore. — In the past two weeks, the Northwest Division has added All-Stars Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague, making an already stout division arguably the deepest in the NBA.
In addition to the four new additions listed above, who boast 12 All-Star appearances between them, the Northwest Division also has Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
It seems like every team in the Northwest Division has improved. Minnesota, with a potential starting lineup of Teague, Butler, Wiggins, Anthony-Towns and Taj Gibson, looks built to contend today and into the future. The Thunder has one of the most talented two-man combos in the NBA in Westbrook and George. And the Nuggets, who came on strong in the second half last season, added Millsap and look like a strong playoff contender.
The only team that may take a step back is Utah, after star forward Gordon Hayward defected from the Jazz to the Boston Celtics. Though the Jazz, built around the defense of Gobert, may still contend for a playoff spot even without Hayward.
Where does that leave the Blazers?
“I think it’s obviously the best division in the NBA now,” said Blazers second-year forward Jake Layman after a summer-league practice on July 5.
When asked how much more difficult the Blazers’ path to the playoffs will be with all the improvement around them, Layman answered, “Obviously, a lot more difficult, with the firepower all those teams have gotten.”
Pat Connaughton, the Blazers guard entering his third season in the league, said many of the best teams in the Western Conference now reside in the Blazers’ division.
“When you look at it on a nightly basis, especially in our division now, we’re going to be facing teams that aren’t just playoff contenders but some of the better teams in the West,” he said.
Portland made the playoffs last season with a .500 record. With so much talent shifting to the Western Conference, it seems unlikely that level of performance will be enough to earn a playoff berth in 2018.
The Warriors, Rockets (now featuring Chris Paul), Spurs, Thunder, Nuggets and Timberwolves should all be as good or better than last season.
Other aspiring teams out West have question marks.
The Clippers are trying to regroup without Paul. The Jazz lost their leading scorer and an All-Star forward in Hayward. The Grizzlies are a year older. It's still unclear if the Pelicans' experiment with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins will work out.
The Blazers, meanwhile, barring any trades the rest of the offseason, will return the same team as last season, give or take a couple promising rookies.
That doesn't necessarily mean Portland is returning a .500 team, despite what way-too-early oddsmakers predict. Last season turned when the Blazers acquired Jusuf Nurkic. With Nurkic, the Blazers transitioned from a disappointing, sub-.500 team to a squad that won 18 of its final 27 games.
Can Nurkic stay healthy next season? That's the question mark attached to the Blazers. And if he does, can the Blazers sustain the level of play — a 55-win pace over a full season — that they demonstrated after Nurkic suited up in a Blazers uniform for the first time on Feb. 15?
As far as Connaughton is concerned, the Blazers won’t be intimidated by the improved competition around them.
“It’s going to bring out the best in us,” he said. “From a mental standpoint, it’s going to bring out the best in us moving forward and I think it’s going to be a battle, but that’s just going to get (us) more prepared for the playoffs and where we want to be going forward.”
Jared Cowley is a digital producer at KGW. Follow him on Twitter here.
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