The Western Conference is deep heading into the 2023-2024 season. As crazy as it is to say, the majority of the teams within the conference can compete to make the postseason. A few stars returning from injury, franchise-changing draft picks, and numerous free agent acquisitions in the West will all ignite some exciting basketball this year. Let’s dive into the Northwest division.
2022-2023 record: 42-40
The clunky frontcourt pairing of Karl-Anthony Towns and the underperforming three-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert headline the Timberwolves coming into this season. Albeit Towns did miss a good portion of the season due to injury, the noticeably unnatural fit was still on display when the two took the court together. The 7’1” French big averaged his lowest output in points and rebounds since 2017. Fortunately, rising superstar Anthony Edwards emphatically willed this team to the postseason in his third season, earning All-Star honors. At just the age of 21, Edwards leapfrogged KAT as the star player for Minnesota and displayed a rare blend of elite athleticism, improved shooting, and impressive patience and IQ for such a youthful player – like a young Dwyane Wade. Last season he averaged 24.6 points per game, collected 5.8 rebounds, and dealt out 4.4 assists – all career-highs and noticeable jumps from the year prior.
In their lone playoff victory last year, Edwards absolutely balled out. In game four, he scored 34 points while hitting five threes from downtown, on 41.7% shooting, accompanied by six boards and five assists. He averaged 31, 5, and 5 throughout the series, showcasing top-five player potential. Unfortunately, his team just let him down. The former number one overall pick out of Georgia is no longer on the cusp of superstardom, he’s there right now heading into the upcoming season. The Timberwolves have a decent roster that’ll most likely make the postseason once again. But for this team to ascend to the next level, it’s imperative that Gobert and Towns work out their deficiencies playing together. ANT will continue to evolve as an elite talent, and the role players will support the young star, but the All-Star frontcourt duo needs to have a bounce back year.
Oklahoma City Thunder
2022-2023 record: 40-42
The Oklahoma City Thunder far exceeded expectations coming into a season where a lottery draft pick was all but certain. Their collection of youthful stars, paired with Shai GiIgeous-Alexander, reeling off an All-NBA, MVP caliber season, shocked the basketball world, as they nearly did the impossible and made the postseason. SGA compiled one of the most impressive runs we’ve seen in recent memory from a point guard, averaging 31.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. Players such as Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams, Lou Dort and Tre Mann all provided the Thunder with superb seasons that showcased the depth and legitimacy of Oklahoma City. In addition, their stellar play garnered the attention of the league. With that being said, the Western Conference, and the entirety of the NBA, won’t allow the Thunder to sneakily maneuver their way up the standings this upcoming season – which could prove to raise the bar of competition nightly. However, Oklahoma City gets their 2022 number two overall selection Chet Holmgren back, after missing his rookie season, to push for another playoff chance. The 7’1” big man has all the tools a general manager desires in today’s NBA. Those traits being, the ability to put the ball on the floor, a post-game, impressive outside shooting, and the versatility to guard positions one through five.
Throughout the preseason, Holmgren is averaging 18.3 points with two blocks per game on 74% shooting; his addition truly creates one of the most talented, dynamic duos in the NBA paired with SGA. For how young the Thunder are, all they’ll need to rely on this season is the internal improvement of their talented nucleus. OKC’s record may only slightly improve — given how deep the Western Conference is — but this team will be a force once again vying for a playoff spot.
2022-2023 record: 37-45
Like OKC, the Utah Jazz exceeded expectations as well. The Jazz went in full rebuild mode after shipping away Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Rudy Gobert to the division rival Minnesota Timberwolves. They acquired several draft picks and various role players to fill out the roster. This collection of newly added players such as Kelly Olynyk, Ochai Agbaji, Colin Sexton, and Talen Horton-Tucker don’t necessarily sound like an impressive haul of talent, right? However, Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson and rookie Walker Kessler had other ideas in mind. Lauri had himself a career year, earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year award. He averaged 25 points and 8 rebounds on 49/39/87 shooting splits. His hot shooting and ability to stretch the floor, coupled with Walker Kessler’s dominance in the paint, allowed Utah to maximize each other’s skillset and form a versatile frontcourt. Kessler proved to replicate Gobert’s impact throughout his rookie season, giving General Manager Danny Ainge flexibility with their cap space after disposing of Rudy’s lucrative contract. In only 23 minutes, the former North Carolina Tar Heel compiled a season averaging 9.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. I’m not calling him Rudy Gobert by any means, but he truly had an exceptional rookie year. Ainge now has a great foundation, draft picks and cap space to accelerate this rebuild. Not to mention, he lucked up with the superstar awakening of Markkanen. Speaking of draft picks, the front office made two excellent selections in the 2023 NBA Draft. They selected Taylor Hendricks and Keyonte George – keep an eye out for the two rooks this season. Ahead of the 2023-2024 season, the roster, on paper, appears to be a slightly below average one. Even so, head coach Will Hardy has instilled a winning mentality into this group that has clearly resonated with the team. I’ll say we’re about one more year away from the Jazz competing for the playoffs.
2022-2023 record: 33-49
After an illustrious 11-year career with the Portland Trailblazers, beloved Damian Lillard finally demanded a trade that sent him to the contending Milwaukee Bucks. Losing an All-time top 75 player and future Hall of Famer like Lillard can be truly devastating. However, Portland made some clever draft decisions prior, along with acquiring Deandre Ayton – an 18-point, 10 rebound guy – from the Phoenix Suns. In this year’s past draft, general manager Joe Cronin selected the most NBA pro-ready prospect Scoot Henderson with the third overall pick. In the G-league, the high-flying, explosive guard averaged 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists for the Ignite. Now, add this talent along with Shaedon Sharpe, who displayed his unique potential in year one, an All-Star level player like Anfernee Simons, and now Deandre Ayton, then you can look at Cronin and see the genius behind the moves he’s facilitated. Replicating Damian Lillard’s production over the past decade is nearly impossible, but this haul of young talent can truly become a force in the Western Conference in the foreseeable future. This is the right way to start a rebuild: acquiring future star-level assets through either the draft or trades. Additionally, more deals are to be made this season with Jerami Grant currently on the roster. That being said, Portland is on the right track. At this time, don’t expect this crop of players to make noise this season. An accomplished season for Rip City would be to see improvement in all areas from their young players, and, perhaps, to see an All-Star jump in production from Ayton and Simons.
2022-2023 record: 53-29
The reigning NBA champions decided to run it back with mainly the same squad that allowed them to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy by season’s end. Apart from Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, the roster from last season remains intact. Players such as Christian Braun, Justin Holiday, Peyton Watson and rookie Julian Strawther will all step into a larger role this year to assist the Nuggets goal of repeating. Denver, undoubtedly, has one of, if not, the deepest roster in the NBA. Their multitude of rotation players buying into their roles, along with 6’10” sharpshooter Michael Porter Jr., athletic, versatile Aaron Gordon, Three-and-D wing KCP, along the superstar duo of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic allows this team to pose as the favorites to win it all this season, even with the improvements of Boston and Milwaukee. Playoff Murray was in full effect in the postseason. In 20 games, the guard from the University of Kentucky averaged 26 points, 7.1 assists, and 5.7 rebounds. On some nights he single-handedly closed out games without the help of two-time MVP Jokic (i.e., Game 2 against the Lakers). He scored 23 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter, propelling the Nuggets to a 108-103 come-from-behind victory. Jokic is always going to do “Jokic” things. There’s no stopping that, but this roster can come at you from multiple different angles, making them nearly impossible to guard. I believe MPJ is still just scratching the surface of his talent, while Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will continue to be highly serviceable starters. Along with steady improvement from the role players and Jamal Murray, 26, continuing to compliment the Joker, I see no other team standing in the way. Due to the competition in the West, Denver’s record will not drastically improve, but they’ll remain the number one seed next season once again.