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NBA Preview: Northwest Division Goes Through Utah

Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2) drives with Houston Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute (12) defending during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 6, 2018 (Ravell Call/Deseret News) ends its preview of the 2018-19 NBA season with a look at the Northwest Division. Here are the teams in the order of their projected finish:

Utah Jazz

Last season: 48-34, 3rd in Northwest Division, lost in Conference Semifinals

Key additions: None

Draft picks: Grayson Allen (1st round, 21st overall, Duke)

Key losses: Jonas Jerebko and David Stockton

General Manager Dennis Lindsey elected to not bring in any new players other than Grayson Allen in the draft. He did re-sign Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Raul Neto to new contracts.

Lindsey does have a rising star in Donovan Mitchell, who is looking to build off a season where he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. He led all rookies in scoring 20.5 points per game, he is only going to get better.

The reigning Defense Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert will look to step up even more. Not only the defensive end but on offense. His point production dropped from 14 points per game in 2016-17 to 13.5 last season, mostly due to injury, missing 26 games. Gobert has been working on his post-game and mid-range jump shot that will hope to make him an offensive threat.

A full season with the team last season will only benefit Ricky Rubio and the Jazz. If he can shoot consistently from the perimeter, it will create so many issues for opposing defenses. It will give Gobert opportunities on the offensive boards, open up Ingles for the corner three and Mitchell’s ability drive to the basket. That will be dangerous in a Quin Snyder pass happy offense.

The team is looking for Dante Exum to make the next step and become a very dangerous player not only on defense but offensively. Jae Crowder provides gives the team a needed stretch four who can also defend bigger offensive players and is extremely physical. Royce O’Neale hopes to rise and continue to stay in the rotation by using his perimeter defense. Thabo Sefolosha will be relied on for his leadership and his elite status to defend the best player on the opposing team.

Prediction: 56 wins, reach Conference Semifinals

Oklahoma City Thunder

Last season: 48-34, 2nd in Northwest Division, lost in first round of playoffs

Key additions: Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Abdel Nader, Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroder

Draft picks: Hamidou Diallo (2nd round, 45th overall, Kentucky)

Key losses: Carmelo Anthony and Nick Collison

The biggest addition for the Thunder was re-signing Paul George, after most thought he would leave and join the Los Angeles Lakers. Russell Westbrook was able to convince him to stay and form a dangerous duo. The second biggest addition was subtracting Carmelo Anthony’s ridiculous $28 million contract by trading him to Atlanta. Anthony was going to bring the Thunder down as opposed to lifting them.

Acquiring Dennis Schroder in the trade for Anthony was vital to their bench, he will be able to come in and give a boost alongside Westbrook or in relief. Averaged a career best 19.4 points per game last season, the next step for the German point guard is to improve his three point shooting which was at 29 percent last year.

Nerlens Noel hopes that the third stop is the charm, having played for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Dallas Mavericks. The sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft has a career average of 9.3 points per game and 1.4 blocks. On paper, he is a very good backup to Steven Adams, question is can he rise to the occasion?

Prediction: 53 wins, first round exit in Playoffs

Portland Trail Blazers

Last season: 49-33, 1st in Northwest Division, lost in first round of playoffs

Key additions: Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas

Draft picks: Anfernee Simons (1st round, 24th overall, IMG Academy) and Gary Trent Jr. (2nd round, 37th overall, Duke)

Key losses: Ed Davis, Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Napier

It seemed as though the Blazers took a step back once they reached the postseason, getting swept by the New Orleans Pelicans who was a No. 6 seed.

Signing Seth Curry will be a great addition to their backcourt, but with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum holding down one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league, it wasn’t necessarily a need. Curry does bring his exceptional shooting where he averaged 12.8 points per game including 42 percent from downtown.

The biggest need is depth in the frontcourt. Losing Ed Davis in free agency means that the team believes in Jusuf Nurkic to keep developing into one of the elite big men in the game, coming off a 14.3 points and 9 rebounds per game season in 2017-18.

It also means that they are ready to see the full potential of young big man Zach Collins. The 20-year old appeared in 66 games last season, averaging 4.4 points per game.

Prediction: 52 wins, reach Conference Semifinals

Denver Nuggets

Last season: 46-36, Last in Northwest Division, missed postseason

Key additions: Isaiah Thomas

Draft picks: Michael Porter Jr. (1st round, 14th overall, Missouri) and Thomas Welsh (2nd round, 58th overall, UCLA)

Key losses: Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and Devin Harris

After missing the playoffs on the very last day of the regular season, it looks like the Nuggets have come back even better. Taking a chance on rookie Michael Porter Jr. who only played three games in college, they are relying on potential.

If healthy, Isaiah Thomas will only help the Nuggets on the offensive end of the floor, his defense still needs improvement but he can come in and take a chunk of the scoring load. He averaged 15.6 points per game in 17 games with the Los Angeles Lakers after being traded by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

One of the big moves was locking down center Nikola Jokic, signing him to a five-year $148 million contract. He has already improved every season of his young three year career and is considered one of the best centers in the NBA. Scary thing is, he is still developing. He averaged 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game in 2017-18, including 40 percent from downtown. He is a player that can do it all.

Jazz fans can tell you that a healthy Paul Millsap is a big plus for whatever team he is on. He only played 38 games in his first year with the Nuggets. Hoping to get back to averaging around 18 points per game from his days with the Atlanta Hawks. Millsap still managed to score 14.6 per game in 2017-18.

Prediction: 49 wins, first round exit

Minnesota Timberwolves

Last season: 47-25, 4th in Northwest Division, reached first round

Key additions: Anthony Tolliver and Luol Deng

Draft picks: Josh Okogie (1st round, 20th overall, Georgia Tech) and Keita Bates-Diop (2nd round, 48th overall, Ohio State)

Key losses: Nemanja Bjelica and Cole Aldrich

It is blatantly obvious that the Timberwolves will not have Jimmy Butler, whether they lose him in free agency this upcoming offseason or trade him before the February deadline. Regardless of when they lose him, it will be tough to bounce back. Butler is considered one of the best two-way players in the NBA, being able to score and defend at a high level.

How good can Karl Anthony-Towns be? Averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds for most of his short career but can he get much better than 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, like he averaged last year? He has already started shooting three’s efficiently recently at 42 percent. He is also becoming an elite paint protector.

Same question goes for Andrew Wiggins, have we seen his ceiling? He dropped from 23.6 points in 2016-17 to 17.7 per game in 2017-18. The reason for that drop in his scoring production is because of Jimmy Butler’s presence. Wiggins will be expected to carry most of the load when Butler departs.

Prediction: 37 wins, miss playoffs

Atlantic Division Preview

Southwest Division Preview

Southeast Division Preview

Pacific Division Preview

Central Division Preview

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