Monday 11 December 2017 / 01:19 PM

NBA SEASON PREVIEW: NORTHWEST DIVISION

The NBA season kicks off tomorrow, and we’ve been previewing the league over the course of the last few weeks to get you ready for what should be a ripping campaign.

Lastly, we take a look at the Northwest division, featuring five teams that are young and hungry, and four that are legitimate playoff contenders.

The offseason was dominated by the loss of Kevin Durant to the Warriors, but people forget just how close the Thunder were to playing for all the marbles. They ran away with the division toward the end last year.

The Trail Blazers shocked the NBA last year and took a team of just Damian Lillard and supporting staff all the way to a first-round upset of the Clippers. CJ McCollum arrived in a big way.

The Jazz inched closer to the postseason, and the young and intriguing Timberwolves added another piece. The Nuggets also doubled down on their rebuild.

So what comes this season? Are the Thunder still the rulers of the roost? Or did the loss of KD relegate them down to second-class status? Are the Trail Blazers a one-hit wonder, or did Lillard and company do enough to ensure they will be around a while? Are the Jazz finally ready to contend? Will the T-Wolves make the postseason? And are the Nuggets any closer to being a legit team?

Let’s take a look.

1. Utah Jazz

The Jazz finally look like a team ready to make some headlines. Gordon Hayward and company narrowly missed the playoffs a year ago, losing out on the last day of the regular season. They got to look up at the Thunder and Blazers a year ago, as the rebuild continued to take place. But things are different this year, with the Jazz adamant that this is the roster that will propel them into the upper level of the Western Conference. And it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.

The additions to the roster include some veteran leadership to the rotation, with George Hill finally hammering down a point guard position that has been lacking in the last few years. The rest of the starting lineup – minus the point guard – were among the most efficient in the NBA last year, and with a steady hand at the top of the key, it could unlock an explosive force. The additions of Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson also give some spark to the bench, a unit that wasn’t the best a year ago.

While there are some holes, namely on the offensive side of things, and without a real star to lead the team, the roster has the makeup of a contender for the conference. But Hayward gives me some pause, as he was among the least efficient scorers in the league a year ago. If he can take the next step, along with players like Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, this team is ready for a trip to the postseason. But more importantly, the talent on this roster points more towards a top-four seed.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder got the major shake-up of the offseason, losing Kevin Durant and dealing Serge Ibaka for parts to the Orlando Magic. Gone is the former MVP and the other member of the trio that was left after Harden’s departure. All of that Presti magic will be tested this season, with three-quarters of the core group of promising draft picks gone, leaving just Russell Westbrook. But at least they kept one.

While the loss of Durant and Ibaka is going to rattle the roster, there’s far from a lack of talent to go around. Westbrook’s backup went down, and will likely miss time, but the guard situation in OKC is still potent. Victor Oladipo takes over as the first true threat at SG of the Thunder era. They’ll fly up and down the court, but don’t expect shooting. Three-pointers will be hard to come by, and that will be a problem. But the size and rebounding down low with Kanter and Adams make up for it.

OKC is going to struggle against the upper ranks of the Western Conference, but it’s still hard to think they are just going to disappear. There’s still talent on this team, and Westbrook won’t let them fall too hard down the rankings. We’re going to see a lot of fast breaks and hard-nosed basketball. It may not be pretty, but if it works, do it.

3. Minnesota Timberwolves

Ask any NBA fan who their favorite sleeper is in the NBA, and you’ll get the Timberwolves 90 percent of the time. The Wolves have become the ideal of NBA rebuilding, trading Kevin Love and picking up some solid players and an amazing young core.

They added Kris Dunn to that core over the offseason, and it should be incredibly interesting to see this starting lineup and what they do with it. New head man Tom Thibodeau should shore up the defense, and it could be time to go. They’ve finally got a deep roster, so this should be the year of improvement.

The trio of Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine is like a new Dunk City, and Ricky Rubio and Shabazz Muhammad have helped make this lineup potent. They could use some shooting, while the interior is going to hurt with the loss of Nikola Pekovic. But Gorgui Dieng, Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill are all serviceable. Kris Dunn could give a new explosive wrinkle to the offense, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see some Rubio trade rumors as this team isn’t expecting to compete this year.

The holes on this team could keep them from their first postseason, however. The defense is pretty average, and that’s the be expected from the youth. Nine players on this roster were born in the 1990s, so they are going to make mistakes. The shooting is a massive concern, as the best shooter in the lineup is Muhammad, or maybe LaVine. They’ll need some in-house improvement or maybe a trade to really be a lock for the playoffs.

4. Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers kicked things off in 2015, starting the season just 19-26. But post-All Star break, there were few better teams in the NBA, as the Blazers rocketed up into the postseason and knocked off a depleted Clippers club. They even gave Golden State a brief scare before bottoming out of the postseason. And in the offseason, the club made the decision to lock the group up going forward.

The Blazers spent big money on extending Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Mo Harkless, and gave CJ McCollum a four-year max deal. Not to mention adding Evan Turner on $16 million per season. This roster appears to be the one they’ll have for a while.

In fact, the Blazers already have the second-highest payroll in the NBA this season, behind just Cleveland. And when put in that context, it certainly makes you turn your head. See, the Blazers moved up last season by defying expectations, but they also got fortunate. The Rockets and Grizzlies struggled, and they took advantage of massive injuries to the Clippers.

They can achieve again this season, for sure. But the defense was a massive liability last year, and they can’t afford to be that bad on that end again. With all the money invested in this young core, they are going to need to see some big improvements. Otherwise, all that money may end up getting Portland exactly where we thought they were last year: the lottery.

5. Denver Nuggets

Pretty much everything you heard about Denver last year was a trade rumor – and you should probably expect more of the same this year. The Nuggets added some young players with some big upside in Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez and Jamal Murray. They should see a lot of playing time as they look for a transition over to a youthful roster. That means a lot of losses and a lot of bad play on defense.

Danillo Gallinari is a solid wing player, but injuries always keep him out. Kenneth Faried has stagnated in recent years after looking like a future star. Wilson Chandler is a good player, but he’s always being talked about as trade bait. Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic are great on the inside, and should again be counted on for large minutes. Will Barton came alive last year and should feast off the bench. But the star power is lacking and the talent is concerning.

The defense is pretty bad, with a lot of young players and aging veterans. And outside of Danillo, the team can’t really shoot. That means a lot of long possessions and stagnant isolation. The rookies should get some solid minutes, but that’s never a good thing in the NBA. It looks like another trip to the lottery – and maybe the bottom of the conference.

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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