This week we take a look at the Northwest Division, which boasts some exciting teams to watch, some great individual offensive talents, and one seriously unresolved soap opera situation. This division is filled with teams that keep coming at you; hardworking, team-oriented outfits that don’t stop until the whole tree is on the ground. In other words, what the Timberwolves want to be.
Denver Nuggets – We won’t miss by one game this year!
The Nuggets came out determined to not miss the playoffs this year, as last year it came down to the final contest versus the T-Wolves. While it doesn’t look like the T-Wolves will be the issue this year, the entire West is as tough as ever. A 9-2 start is a great beginning, and a top 10 offensive and DEFENSIVE rating has been the result. Nikola Jokic is performing better at the defensive end, while still being an offensive machine. Paul Millsap is the glue and having him for the entire year will be a huge plus. Internal improvement by the young players, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez, Trey Lyles, and Monte Morris have also fueled the impressive start.
The Nuggs get ready to hit the road for a rough patch in the schedule – but if they can hold their own, they will be in good shape. Remember that Will Barton and Isiah Thomas should be on the court sometime in the next couple of months, providing more options and firepower. This team could be a top four seed and host a series in the playoffs.
Gary Harris and Jamal Murray both average exactly 18.5 PPG – while providing other positive counting stats (3.8 & 4.5 RPG with 3.1 & 3.7 APG respectively with a steal each) and hitting open threes when Nikola Jokic, the best passing big man in the Association, draws double teams. The Joker demands the attention, since he contributes 15.8 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 7.4 APG, and with a couple more blocks he would have the coveted 3/STL/BLK combination. Paul Millsap is also a couple of threes away from the combo, but his percentages and scoring (12.7) are down. He is only playing 26 minutes, as Trey Lyles and Juan Hernangomez are getting 20 minutes a game. It could be that they want to insure Millsap’s health via limited minutes, since he is no longer a spring chicken, and clearly the lynchpin to their defensive success.
If Millsap goes down, and he better not since I own him, jump on the other two quickly. Lyles is still getting 10.5 PPG and 5.5 RPG and, if he could break out of his shooting slump, might still do enough to warrant a roster spot since Will Barton looks to be at least 6-8 weeks away. Monte Morris has been solid as a backup PG, if Harris or Murray have a mishap, he or Malik Beasley are worth looking at. The other thing about the Nuggs is with that inside out offense, the slickness of the Joker’s passes, quick hair triggers from Harris and Murray, this team is just fun to watch. After the first of the year, with Barton and IT, they will be more explosive. Imagine if Michael Porter Jr. didn’t have a 70-year-old back. What fun they would be then!
Minnesota Timberwolves – Dumpster Fire Alert!
The Minnesota Timberwolves were a playoff team last year and looked like a good bet to repeat, until we heard those famous words from Jimmy Butler, “Get Me out of Here!” Since then, the TimberPups – I guess you can’t call them that anymore with greybeards Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, and Luol Deng on the roster. Deng is the “more than a million dollar a minute” player who got paid $17M for appearing in 13 minutes in one game for the Lakers last year.
Once Butler uttered those words, the T-Wolves were done, as he has been deciding what games to play, knowing that the Timberwolves:
- Won’t make the playoffs without him.
- Thibs probably won’t keep his job if they don’t make the playoffs.
- The team won’t get equal value for one of the stronger two-way players in the game.
Moreover, Butler’s warrior mentality is needed to prod the youngsters to put forth maximum effort on a nightly basis. Funny, I thought player motivation was in the Coach’s job description.
But then, the Rockets offered FOUR first rounders and Thibs still didn’t make a deal. I can’t figure out who is crazier – the Rockets for offering that or Thibs for not taking it in a heartbeat. Amidst all of this dysfunction, we have a 4-8 team that still has some bright spots. Derrick Rose put up half a hundred in a victory against the Jazz and Butler has been his usual all-around superb self, when he plays. When Butler decides not to, play, he blames it on “general soreness.”
Thibs has still been unwilling to use his bench pieces as much as he should, which is normal. Tyus Jones was promised less pine time in order to remain in Minny, but hasn’t received it, while shoot-em up Anthony Tolliver and the defensive-minded rook, Josh Okogie, have all done well when called upon. It is the two highly paid Wolves who drew the ire of “General Soreness,” Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. They have responded to the criticism by underperforming their contracts and fantasy ADP. Jeff Teague has missed a couple of games – so it all adds up to a huge Dumpster Fire. Until a decision is made on Butler, the T-Wolves will languish in purgatory.
For all the general soreness and no training camp, Jimmy Butler is still averaging 22.2 PPG, 5 RPG, 4 ASP, 2.4 SPG, a block, and almost 2 three-pointers a game. Great production for any fantasy owner, but you have to play in the games. Karl-Anthony Towns is averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds, not chopped liver, but not commensurate with his draft cost. Moreover, he is shooting 44%, which is way below par for him. Andrew Wiggins scores 17 points a game with 1.8 SPG, but he is shooting 42%. Derrick Rose, who is the healthiest in years, has found a fountain of youth, producing 18.6 PPG, 4.6 APG, and 3.5 RPG. He is shooting 46% from the floor overall and the same 46% from the three-point line, which may not be sustainable over time, but is impressive nonetheless.
Jeff Teague has missed almost half the games and is at 12.7 PPG and 6.9 APG, while shooting an abysmal 36%. He is clearly a better shooter than that, and may be a buy-low target for an opportunistic owner in need of assists. Taj Gibson is his usual, steady but unspectacular 11.2 PPG, 7 RPG, a block, a steal while shooting 54% from the field. If Butler is traded, a lot of FGA’s go with him, so depending on who comes back, you might want to add Josh Okogie or swipe Wiggins. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the Suns haven’t tried harder to get Tyus Jones, the kid is a winner.
Oklahoma City Thunder — Hurry Back Andre!
The Thunder started off 0-4, Russell Westbrook missed the first two, but have reeled off six straight wins since. The game against the Pelicans may have been costly though, as Westbrook went down with a badly sprained ankle. Westbrook’s healing powers are unworldly – but even he may miss a few games. Paul George is the Thunder equivalent to Jimmy Butler, a defender who willingly takes the other team’s best scorer, throttles him, while still getting his numbers. Steven Adams is a very large and strong human, who does a great job protecting the middle, and is also an inside scoring threat. Dennis Schroeder, who was given away by the Hawks to make way for Trae Young, is perfect to reprise the James Harden/Reggie Jackson role, as he can play backup PG, keep the tempo high while Russ sits, attack the rim with abandon, and even play alongside Russ at times to let him play off the ball. The Thunder may struggle as long as Westbrook is out, but they have enough to stay in the playoff race. We just won’t know what they are until Andre Roberson comes back – which looks like a full two months away. Roberson, PG13, Westbrook, Jerami Grant, and Steven Adams pose one of the most fearsome defensive fivesome in the league.
In seven games, Russell Westbrook is averaging 24.1 PPG, 8.9 APG, 8.3 RPG, 2.1 SPG, and is shooting 49% from the field. The 10% from 3, 64% FT, and 4 TO’s are a little troubling, but if he stays at 49% overall, the rest is just nitpicking. Owners of Russ have learned to live with the fact that some nights he will get thrown out trying to steal third base. For you non-sports analogy readers, baseball managers usually hate players who steal third. Although it provides some advantages over being at second, being at second means you are already in scoring position, and an attempt of third is a high risk maneuver. If he is successful, it is gravy, but….if you ever see a player thrown out stealing third, don’t expect a shot of the manager in the dugout, as he is probably cursing up a blue streak. Similarly, with Russ, he takes some risks that lead to turnovers and bad shots, but Scott Brooks and fantasy owners alike feel that the good outweighs the bad.
Paul George is the perfect Robin to Batman Russ: 22.2 PPG, 4.1 ASG, 6.7 RPG, and 2.5 SPG. OKC leads the league in steals as a team and PG’s 2.5 leads the league, while Russ (2.1) is fourth. Everything is not perfect for PG13, though, as he has marksmanship issues so far: 39% from the floor and 33% from three. Dennis Schroder is poised for bigger minutes if Russ misses time. He looks so much better since he got rid of the blonde streak he sported in Atlanta. So far, he is averaging 16.7 PPG, 5 APG, 4.3 RPG, with a three and a steal. Steven Adams helps the team FG % with his gaudy 57%. He also produces 13.4 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.6 SPG, and 1.3 BPG. When Roberson is healthy, this team is a defensive dynamo.
Alex Abrines is supposed to be a sharpshooter, but 39% belies the fact. Jerami Grant has been getting 30 min a game and is trending up. He is a player to watch, as he has been averaging 11.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, a block, a steal, and a three. He will make hay while they wait on Roberson. In deep leagues, keep your eye on Hamidou Diallo, as he has been outplaying Terrance Ferguson in fewer minutes.
Portland Trailblazers — Now I’m a Believer
Count yours truly among those who thought the smack-down sweep the Blazers got from the Pelicans would result in a bad hangover going into this year. I was more convinced when they let their bench mob (Patt Connaughton, Shabazz Napier, and Ed Davis), a big part of their success last season, get away. But color me dead wrong. The Blazers sit at 8-3 and have a new bench mob that is contributing nightly. They are still led by the fire-bombing backcourt of Damian Lilliard and Christian James McCollum. Jusef Nurkic is playing like he did when he first joined the Blazers. The forward combo of Al-Farouq Aminu and Jake Layman is uninspiring, but so far not deleterious to the team success.
Moe Harkless has missed the last seven games and the team is hopeful that he can contribute when his knee is better. The Blazers seem to enjoy playing with each other, like Terry Stotts, and accept the leadership of Lilliard, who took another step as a scorer last year, until Jrue Holiday hounded him to death in the playoff series. He and the others in Red and Black seem determined to make that last year’s news.
You have to start with Damian Lilliard: 26.7 PPG, 5.5 APG, 5.1 RPG, a steal, and almost 3 threes a game – plus the heart of a lion. Amazingly, he was traded in my league already. The owner who got him is now in first place. Then there is Christian James (CJ McCollum), who backs him up with 20.8 PPG and other positive counting stats. Admittedly, CJ has not shot as well as he has in the past, so you may have a buy-low opportunity. Jusuf Nurkic is chipping in 15 PPG and 9.9 RPG while shooting 54%. If Zach Collins is available in your league, get him, as he is trending up. Not rebounding yet in the Ed Davis tradition, but as the first big off the bench, Collins is scoring in double figures at a 58% clip, adding 1.5 BPG, and growing in confidence by the game. Al-Farouq Aminu gives you 8 points and 8 rebounds, but so far is a pitiful 36% shooter.
Nik Stauskas aka Sauce Castillo started out shooting real hot, but teams have worked hard to ensure he does not get catch-and-shoot looks, which has cooled him off. Seth Curry was signed as a free agent, but can’t get enough floor time to be relevant. Monitor the return of Moe Harkless, as he earned the trust of Stotts last year and will play when healthy. Evan Turner still gets 10 PPG off the bench with 5 RPG and 4 APG. He is also shooting 51%. You could do a lot worse, especially if your league is bigger than 12 teams. If anything happens to Lilliard or CJ, grab him immediately.
Utah Jazz – Return of the Spida
Donovan Mitchell took the lead dog role vacated by Gordon Hayward last year, and ran full speed ahead with it. He is a prime example of “You always need to judge the size of the fight in the dog, and not the size of the dog in the fight.” Once he got comfortable in his role, and Rudy Gobert returned from injury, the Jazz took off, which makes their 5-6 start all the more confusing. Mitchell has missed a couple of games, but that is no excuse. The Jazz may still be trying to figure out the new freedom of movement NBA, since they are a physical defensive bunch, but as Gobert calmly stated the other day, “We will be fine.”
The Jazz are a true team, and when they start playing together, all the pieces fit seamlessly. Secondary ball handlers in Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles keep the ball moving, Crowder hits open threes created by the slashers, and Gobert cleans up everything offensively and defensively on the boards. Derrick Favors serves is a competent big, while Dante Exum, Royce O’Neal, and Alec Burks provide scoring for the second unit. The Jazz have seven players who average double figures. The wing players are not afraid to play aggressively out front, knowing the Stifle Tower is back there. Spida Mitchell will get his team going just like last year, so don’t be surprised by a two or a three seed for the group from Mormon country.
Rudy Gobert won Defensive Player of the Year last season, which causes people to overlook his offense. He is currently putting up 16.4 PPG, 13.1 RPG, a steal, and 2.4 BPG. 58% FT shooting is the only negative, but it is far outweighed by the 72% from the field. He is second on the team in scoring to Spida, who is providing 22.4 PPG, 4.4 APG, 1.8 SPG, and 2.5 three-pointers. Jae Crowder seems more comfortable in Utah this year and is helping immensely, to the tune of 14.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, and 2.3 threes. Joe Ingles (41%) and Ricky Rubio (32%) have had shooting woes early on, but they are helping in other statistical areas, 4 RPG, 1.7 SPG, and 4 APG for Ingles and 8 APG and 1.5 SPG for Rubio. Ask the owner in your league about them, as you might be able to trade for them and get yourself a solid asset. Dante Exum has been on breakout lists for three years now. Finally healthy, this may be the year. He gave a glimpse of what he can be in the playoffs. So far, he is not getting enough time to up his avg from the current 8.6. Alec Burks is a solid scorer, averaging 10 PPG, but can’t get enough minutes from a defensive-minded coach in Quin Snyder. Derrick Favors, the former #3 overall draft choice, still provides solid defense, 11.1 PPG, 7 RPG, and 1.5 BPG in only 22 minutes per contest. If the Jazz suffer an injury, any of their bench players could become waiver wire darlings.
Odds and Ends
You are a Genius – if you drafted Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, or Steven Adams
You need Tums – if you drafted any Portland forward or General Soreness, Jimmy Butler
Don’t Drink and Draft – if you picked Andrew Wiggins. Leave the Coronas alone until after the draft is complete next year
Run, Don’t Walk – grab Zach Collins, Jerami Grant, and Joe Ingles