Having looked at the five sides in the Pacific division and how they are producing with stakes high as the regular season gets to the business end. Next the scene shifts to the Northwest division to detail how these five sides' seasons are currently shaping.
Every campaign since Michael Malone came on board as Denver's coach in 2015, the franchise has improved, now propelling into a legitimate threat. This 2022/2023 campaign arguably is a year the Nuggets have the tools to advance all the way. Holding the League's best record (44-19), led by the magic mastery of 2-time MVP Nikola Jokic, Denver holds a 5.5 game lead on top of the Western Conference. An opposing game plan to mitigate Jokic's impact is basically impossible. He might not be the most fleet-footed of all big men in the League. However he counteracts this deficiency with his savvy basketball mind.
Jokic is averaging a triple-double this season (24.8 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 10 assists). His offensive ploy by running numerous plays with star point guard Jamal Murray is the Nuggets' number one go to set. And vice-versa with Murray to Jokic for a midrange jumper or floater to Murray getting a handoff and screen, either pulling up from three or attacking the hoop. Jokic's chemistry doesn't just translate with Murray, but with Aaron Gordon. The pair have created impeccable lob plays where Jokic throws the ball to the sky allowing Gordon's majestical athleticism to complete a high-flying alley-oop dunk.
Denver's offensive weapons don't stop there with Michael Porter Jr producing solid numbers averaging 17 points on an efficient 48% shooting and a scorching 40.9% from distance. Porter Jr's pull-up threes in transition is one of the most deadly plays Denver uses when in the open court. Landing defensive stopper Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the backbone the Nuggets need come the postseason. Caldwell-Pope's asset apart from this defence is his three-point shot hitting at a 45.2% clip. He deadeye shot from distance already adds to the Nuggets' dynamic shooting, currently leading the League for three-point percentage (39.1%).
As Coach Malone described to the Denver Post about the 10-year veteran, he is "the missing piece". Bringing Reggie Jackson allows the Nuggets to utilise pairing him and Murray together at various stages during games. Likewise, the mobile Thomas Bryant to accommodate for Jokic when he needs a rest. Bruce Brown impact as the defensive glue is highly significant with his adaptability to play the power forward spot, and the evergreen no pun intended Jeff Green still has plenty of hops.
The race for supremacy in the West is wide open and potentially after deep playoff runs in recent years, this might be the season Denver claims its maiden title.\
In a move to incorporate a defensive identity with its fast pace, Minnesota acquired 3-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz. But there also comes a price for making a move of this extent. Minnesota would have to hand over four future first-round picks over to the Jazz. Current results determine a mixed bag, although the stifle tower is averaging his usual double-double. A Towns-Gobert pairing made for the quintessential "Twin Towers" lineup. Last time the franchise moulded a contrast pairing would be in the form of Kevin Love and Nikola Petkovic in the early 2010s.
Unfortunately, their partnership hasn't been able to unleash its full potential due to the fact Towns has been sidelined since straining his calf in a November 28 loss to Washington. Holding the eighth spot in the West (32-32), the Timberwolves dealt D'Angelo Russell to the Los Angeles Lakers bringing in veteran Mike Conley. In the twilight of his career, Conley brings stability and a pass-first mentality which complements well with Gobert - the pair having success together at Utah with screen and roll plays.
Third-year pro Anthony Edwards is blossoming into the franchise's main player. By dealing Russell, Edwards is shouldering further responsibility in pressure situations and rising to the challenge. In 17 games since January 21, Edwards is averaging 27.2 points, shooting 46.7% and 38.9% from downtown. His production would be key in thoroughly awarding him a maiden All-Star berth.
Minnesota are going to keep riding Edwards' masterful production and bank on Towns returning in vying for a playoff spot.
Early beginnings, the Utah Jazz were the League's early bolter starting out 10-3. As the season has progressed, the Jazz have fallen into the play-in bracket. Where the team stands isn't where it had originally slated to be. During the summer, the franchise completely retooled its roster by trading away Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland, Rudy Gobert to Minnesota, Bojan Bogdanovic to Detroit, and Royce O'Neale to Brooklyn.
The Gobert trade saw Utah receive four first-round picks, a 2026 pick swap, Patrick Beverley, Leandro Bolmaro, Malik Beasley Jarred Vanderbilt - Beasley and Vanderbilt no longer with the team. Out of those picks on draft night landed a future star in Walker Kessler. One Minnesota thought it had won the trade by acquiring Gobert. Since his first NBA start against Golden State on December 7, Kessler has been a defensive anchor. Known for his elite shot blocking and rebounding during his one year at North Carolina and Auburn, Kessler is putting it together in the pros.
Kessler has been a cog in decisive victories for Utah this season, especially in their first game after the All-Star break against Oklahoma City with a game saving block on Isaiah Joe in regulation on route to a double overtime victory. He went off grabbing 18 rebounds and 7 blocked shots - he now has three games of at least seven blocks in a game.
Lauri Markkanen's transcendency into an All-Star is the reason for the team being in the playoff hunt. Possessing shooting like the legendary Dirk Nowitzki, Markkanen has become Utah's go-to guy. The seven-footer hasn't had a single game this season under 10 points, whilst having two 40-point performances. In a career-best season, Markkanen is averaging 25.2 points, 8.6 rebounds on 51.4% shooting and 40.9% from beyond the arc.
Utah might not be in Championship contention but behind Markkanen and Kessler, the franchise has two valuable pieces to build around.
Portland Trail Blazers
Franchise superstar Damian Lillard's production has been off the charts. After a 2021/2022 campaign cut short by a lingering abdominal injury restricting him to a career-high 29 appearances, "Dame Time" is back. Portland has ridden the inconsistency wave sitting at 28-31, but not Lillard. In January, the 7-time All-Star went ballistic averaging 34.5 points and 7.6 assists shooting 49.7% from the floor and 36.9% from deep. So far in February, Lillard has upped those numbers to 40 points and 7 assists on 50.2% shooting and 41.7% from distance.
Amongst Lillard's scoring avalanche include a dazzling career-high 71 points against Houston, 60 points against Utah, and 50 points in a loss to Cleveland. It's evidently clear Lillard's jumper and movement on-ball and off-ball is a million times more fluent, with last season's abdominal injury having a significant effect minimising the superstar to career-lows in shooting (40.2%) and three-point percentage (32.4%).
Lillard's backcourt partner Anfernee Simons continues to perform from last season's breakout. The Lillard-Simons backcourt has been one of the toughest to contain, however teams are targeting them defensively due to their size. It's where second-year coach Chauncey Billups has put together a team filled with defensive-minded players including recent acquisition Matisse Thybulle to complement Lillard.
Jerami Grant's rapid ascension from bench player to role player to a reliable scoring option has considerably taken the pressure from Lillard's offensive mastery. Losing its best defender Josh Hart to the New York Knicks at the trade deadline is a definitive blow, but acquiring Cam Reddish should fill the void. It's a new start for Reddish who completely fell out of the Knicks rotation by early December.
Portland are eager for the "Bosnian Beast" Jusuf Nurkic to return from a calf injury which has sidelined him since February 1 against Memphis. His backup Drew Eubanks has given solid minutes, but Nurkic's underrated passing and physical screens provide many open looks for Lillard and Simons to thrive on.
Despite its meddling play, Portland like many teams in the West pursuing playoff positioning sits only half a game out of the play-in and 2.5 games from sixth.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Carrying more draft picks than any other team - 15 first-rounders and 19 second-rounders, the OKC rebuild is firmly heading on the right path. Casting into the season, the Thunder weren't even a consideration for a play-in spot, instead competing for a lottery pick in June's draft. Wrong. OKC is just a game out of the play-in all behind the play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Australian Josh Giddey.
Gilgeous-Alexander is evolving into one of the best guards averaging 31 points and 5.7 assists while shooting a super-efficient 50.7% from the field and 90.8% from the charity stripe. The steady guard carries a level of poise with his foray mid-range jumper torching opposing defences to generating a number of drives to the basket accumulating with a tad over 10 free throws per outing.
Inserting Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams into the starting unit gives the Thunder extra athleticism. Imagine once number two pick Chet Holmgren returns from a season-ending foot injury. That's a young scary team. It contrasts reminiscences of the team back in the early 2010s with a young Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden stamping their mark.
Even if the Thunder don't or do qualify for the play-in, its future is bright and it won't be long before regularly competing again in the postseason. Their rebuild has been swift, just as Memphis and Cleveland have done in recent years.