One Question Every Team in NBA’s Northwest Division Must Answer By the End of 2017-18
NBA championship odds come courtesy of Bovada and are accurate as of Thursday, March 29. While teams that have been officially eliminated from playoff contention won’t have line changes, be sure to double-check the numbers on postseason hopefuls before placing a wager, as they will shift with each passing game.
Denver Nuggets (+16000): Are They In Long-Term Trouble?
Missing the playoffs would be a borderline disaster for the Denver Nuggets. And unfortunately for them, that’s exactly what they’re projected to do.
FiveThirtyEight gives them an 11 percent chance at sneaking into the postseason. At this writing, they’re the No. 10 seed in the Western Conference, a full two games behind the eighth-place Utah Jazz. With one of the NBA’s toughest remaining schedules, the Nuggets seem destined to finish inside the lottery yet again.
Injuries have not helped their cause. Gary Harris recently missed time, and he’s their best perimeter defender. Important still, Paul Millsap missed a few months with a wrist injury and only recently returned.
Your first inclination might be to give the Nuggets a pass. That’s not completely unwarranted. But the defense has not tightened up nearly enough, even when Millsap is on the floor. The Nuggets rank inside the bottom five of points allowed per 100 possessions on the season, and they haven’t been much better with Millsap in the game since his return.
Whiffing on a postseason berth forces them to ask some tough questions, the most imperative of which is: What do they do with Nikola Jokic? They have a team option for him on next season worth under $1.7 million. If they decline it, he becomes a restricted free agent, allowing them to match whatever offer he would receive from another team. If they pick it up, he would be an unrestricted free agent in 2019. And though they could still give him more years and money than any other suitor, he would have complete control over where he signs.
Letting hm reach unrestricted free agency is too risky. At the same time, if they max him out, the Nuggets will be up against the tax next year should they wish to keep around Will Barton (unrestricted) and Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur pick up their player options. Should they look to dump salary? Should they look to create cap space by capitalizing on Jokic’s small cap hold? Should they let their collection of expiring contracts come off the books and revisit free-agency splashes in 2019?
Yes, we’re spilling a lot ink on these Nuggets. But they deserve it. Nay, they need it. Their future is cloudy, and heads are going to roll if, as anticipated, they miss out on the playoffs.
Minnesota Timberwolves (+6500): What Will Jimmy Butler Look Like Upon Return From Injury?
The Minnesota Timberwolves are lucky that neither the Nuggets nor Los Angeles Clippers is working through a hot streak. They’ve started to struggle mightily in the wake of Jimmy Butler’s absence. They ostensibly hit rock bottom with a loss to the tanking Memphis Grizzlies, during which head coach Tom Thibodeau drew the ire of Jeff Teague for not turning to the bench enough.
It would not be an overstatement to say the Timberwolves are a relative mess. Their defense is nothing without Butler, in large part because they don’t have anyone to cover up for Andrew Wiggins, who suddenly finds himself covering the toughest wing assignments in existence.
To wit: In the time Wiggins has spent with Butler this year, the Timberwolves have an above-average defensive rating. In the time he’s played without Butler, though, they’re vomiting up more than 114 points per 100 possessions—akin to the worst mark in the league.
Maybe the Timberwolves make the playoffs if Jimmy Buckets doesn’t play again during the regular season. They’re in seventh place out west, and two wins separate them from the ninth-place Clippers. They could be fine. But they’re not doing any damage in the postseason without him. And while he was recently seen shooting around at practice, the Timberwolves have to ask themselves: Is it worth it to bring Butler back?
Meniscus surgery isn’t a big deal in the NBA anymore, but it’s still surgery. Butler could re-aggravate his injury or just be plain rusty. And knowing the Timberwolves aren’t winning a title this season, it might make sense to slow-play his return—even if it ultimately results in them failing to end a 13-year playoff drought.
Oklahoma City Thunder (+2500): Can Carmelo Anthony Find His Offensive Swagger?
Losing Andre Roberson for the season completely changes the complexion of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s identity. Though their defense is finally starting to stabilize in his absence, they can no longer tout elite switchiness that makes the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets sweat.
Instead, they need to hope their offense finally reaches its intended ceiling. They’ve improved on the more glamorous end since the beginning of the season, but they’re by no means the points-piling superpower they were expected to be after trading for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony over the offseason.
Ah, yes: Anthony. He’s one of the primary culprits of the Thunder’s precarious offensive situation. So, too, is Westbrook’s declining efficiency, but Anthony’s own struggles are a bigger deal. He can still be a mismatch at the 4, and he has, by most measures, embraced his ancillary-device role. But his shot simply isn’t falling.
Since Roberson’s patellar injury, Anthony is shooting just 37.1 percent from the floor, including a lackluster 35.6 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also canning under 70 percent of his free throws and an unimpressive number of his spot-up jumpers.
Given that he doesn’t provide anything on the defensive end, this feels like a bench-able slump. But the Thunder aren’t going to leash Anthony to the pine. He still carries superstar cachet. His play doesn’t match up with the reputation, but he remains a marquee name. He will play.
And if he’s going to play, the Thunder need him to hit more shots, otherwise they’ll have no shot at making it past the second round of the postseason.
Portland Trail Blazers (+2500): Do They Have The Firepower To Survive Moe Harkless’ Absence?
This question comes off as weird, if not wholly off-base, when looking at the Portland Trail Blazers’ depth chart. They have Damian Lillard! And CJ McCollum! Evan Turner is shooting an above-average clip from three over his last 35 games!
How could they lack firepower in Moe Harkless’ absence?
Put simply: He’s been that good.
Since Feb. 1, almost 225 NBA players are averaging 20 minutes per game through at least 10 appearances. Harkless leads the entire pack in effective field-goal percentage—which is the combined measurement of two-point and three-point efficiency. He also has the Blazers’ third-highest net rating since Feb. 1, behind only Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic.
Overcoming his stay on the sidelines, as he recovers from a knee injury, won’t be easy. He’s not slated to be re-evaluated for another two weeks, which means he’ll be missing at least three weeks. Again: That’s the best-case scenario.
There’s a real chance he won’t be ready to party for the entire first round of the playoffs. And if that’s the case, the Blazers could be screwed. He’s one of their most switchable defenders and, most critically, one of the primary reasons why they’ve been able to boost both their three-point volume and overall offensive efficiency in recent weeks.
Utah Jazz (+5800): Do They Have Enough From-Scratch Shot Creation?
From-scratch shot creation figures to be a major problem for the Utah Jazz in the playoffs. Granted, they have to reach the postseason first. Nothing’s guaranteed on that front. They’re clinging to eighth place in the West, with a one-game lead over the ninth-place Clippers.
Still, FiveThirtyEight gives the Jazz an 88 percent chance of reaching the postseason. They’ve been too good overall on both sides of the floor since Rudy Gobert’s return to the rotation.
The playoffs are a different game, though—particularly in crunch time.
Donovan Mitchell is the Jazz’s best face-up weapon at the moment, and he’s only a rookie. He’s also seen his shooting percentage suffer substantive hits in recent weeks. After him, they don’t really have a reliable source of one-on-one offense. That’s going to be an issue when the game is on the line and pace slows down.
It hasn’t mattered yet. The Jazz have a solid offensive rating in crunch time. But, once more, the playoffs will pit them against better defenses. And who are they going to lean on if Mitchell is double-teamed or denied the ball altogether? Ricky Rubio? Joe Ingles? Royce O’Neale?
None of those options are absolutely terrible. From a self-sustaining perspective, they’re also not the greatest. The Jazz, as such, should use the rest of the regular season to find out which, if any, of their players beyond Mitchell is equipped to handle late-game isolation duties.
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