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Internal Improvement Candidates: Northwest Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA continues with the Northwest Division, which doesn’t feature markets that have traditionally attracted big-name free agents. In recent years, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Kevin Love have all departed the division on less than friendly terms. As a result, almost every team in the Northwest has committed itself to building through the draft, with varying levels of success.

The Oklahoma City Thunder represent the gold standard for that model. Not only have they built an elite team almost entirely through homegrown products, they have remained committed to the draft even as they contend for titles. The Thunder have seven different guys on their rookie deals and their ability to take the final step in the playoffs will depend in large part on how well those players can grow into bigger roles over the course of the season. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the Utah Jazz, who have six recent lottery picks on their roster but appear no closer to getting out of the basement in the Western Conference. Some have seen their games stagnate as they move into bigger roles while others have struggled to find a role that allows them to maximize their skill-set. Dante Exum might be the future, but he is still a 19-year-old who played high school basketball in Australia last season. 

Somewhere in the middle are the Portland Trail Blazers, who shot up the standings last season with a starting line-up better than the sum of its parts and the Denver Nuggets, who are still looking for an identity after dumping George Karl and falling out of the playoffs. The Minnesota Timberwolves, who are in the very beginning of a new rebuilding plan, can only hope that their path looks more like Oklahoma City than Utah in the next few years. 

- Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams

The scariest part about where the Thunder go from here is how much room they still have to improve. Over the last three seasons, they’ve been one of the best teams in the NBA while giving Kendrick Perkins 20-25 minutes a game. He has some value as a post defender and a guy who quarterbacks the defense, but imagine if they had a guy with more size and athleticism than Perkins back there who was not a complete non-entity on the offensive end?

Even if Adams never develops a post game, his ability to catch and finish around the rim makes him an upgrade over Perkins. He shot 50% from the field as a rookie, a number Perkins hasn’t matched since his time in Boston. He probably won’t start for another season, but as he improves on both sides of the ball and earns more playing time, the Thunder will be even better than they are now. Where will they be when Adams is at 30-35 minutes a night?

- Portland Trail Blazers: Will Barton

After two seasons on the fringes of the rotation in Portland, Barton could be poised for a breakout year in his third year in the NBA. With Mo Williams gone, there’s room in the rotation for a guard to assume a bigger role on the second unit, which has been one of the biggest weaknesses for the Trail Blazers over the last few seasons. Portland has three young guards on their bench - Barton, CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe - and one of them needs to step up. 

The key for Barton is his outside shot, which improved between his first and second seasons in the league. If he can consistently knock down the 3, his ability to get to the rim and find the open man will give him a leg up on the other two, who are more pure shooters. This is a big year for Barton - if he can’t crack the rotation, he’s probably not long for Portland, as few NBA teams keep second round picks on the end of their bench for four seasons.

- Denver Nuggets: Kenneth Faried

No player had a better summer than Faried, who followed a breakout performance in the World Cup with a $50 million contract extension. The move signals Denver’s commitment to Faried as they try to move forward in the post Karl era. Faried is the only under-25 player slated to have much of a role on the Nuggets roster this season, so their ability to move up the Western hierarchy will depend in large part on how much room he has left to grow.

The key question with Faried is how to build a team around him - is he better off with a shot-blocking center who can protect him on defense or a stretch 4 who can open up the floor for him? Coach K solved the dilemma by pairing him with Anthony Davis, but guys with his skill-set do not grow on trees. If Faried can improve as a perimeter shooter and a defensive player, he will give Brian Shaw more options in terms of how he deploys his frontcourt.

- Minnesota Timberwolves: Gorgui Dieng

After being glued to the bench for most of his rookie season, Dieng exploded in the final few months, taking advantage of an injury to Nik Pekovic to establish himself as a legitimate NBA center. Not only was he a nightly double-double threat, he displayed a skill-set that has been in short supply in Minnesota in recent years - a shot-blocking center who could anchor a defense while also providing quality play on the offensive end of the floor.

With Pekovic likely to be the featured option in a post Kevin Love universe, it’s unclear how many minutes will be there for Dieng. Can he operate as a power forward in a Twin Towers configuration or will he be be siloed into a role as a backup center? One of the big questions for Flip Saunders is whether he can figure out a way to use Pekovic and Dieng together or whether he would be better off flipping one of his C’s to improve the rest of the roster.

- Utah Jazz: Trey Burke

There are a lot of guys who could be featured here, as there a number of talented young players in Utah who haven’t quite figured out who they are in the NBA. None will be more important to the team’s success this season than Burke, the second-year PG who will have to shoulder a huge burden on the offensive side of the ball. Not only will he need to figure out how to score more efficiently, he will have to be able to create easy shots for everyone else too.

As a rookie, Burke shot 38% from the field, struggling with the size and speed of the NBA game. At 6’0 190, he is one of the smallest PG’s in the NBA and he will need to use every bit of his offensive creativity to survive against the longer and bigger defenders he will face on a nightly basis. The key for him is becoming a knock-down shooter - a guy his size will have a hard time surviving in the lane and he has to take advantage of any opening he can create.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

The problem with most mock drafts, especially early in the draft process, is the butterfly effect. If just one team in the lottery makes a surprise selection, it causes a chain reaction up and down the board that renders a lot of the previous speculation useless. At this point, I think it’s more useful to look at what each team in the lottery needs and what will be going into their decision-making process. With that in mind, here’s a quick sketch of one way it could go. 

1) Cleveland Cavaliers - Joel Embiid 

This is from David Griffin’s interview with ESPN last night - “I think we need to get a better fit for our roster. We’ve got an awful lot of talent and we just need to find the pieces that can serve as a conduit to make it gel.” That screams Embiid to me. When you have Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, the last thing you need is another perimeter player who needs the ball. That core needs interior defense and post scoring, which are Embiid’s two strengths.

2) Milwaukee Bucks - Jabari Parker

If Cleveland takes Embiid, some combination of Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum go in the next three picks. It’s hard to go wrong with any of them and when you have multiple elite prospects on the board, you have to look at how they fit with the players already on your roster. In other words, which one makes the most sense playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo? I want an explosive scorer who can stretch the floor next to him, which would be Parker. 

3) Philadelphia 76ers - Andrew Wiggins

This would be a great fit for Wiggins, a guy who is more comfortable in transition than playing in the half court at this stage of his career. The one thing I wonder about with Wiggins and the 76ers is that he’s not the pick if you are going by advanced statistics. Here’s the PER of lottery picks from Kansas in the last two seasons - 28.2 (Embiid), 23.2 (Ben McLemore), 21.4 (Wiggins). He’s a guy you take based off the eye test and projecting future ability, not the data.

4) Orlando Magic - Dante Exum 

Orlando will be happy to take whoever falls to them, but Exum is the best fit with the players on their roster. At 6’6 195 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s a big guard who can run point, which would allow him to cross-switch with Victor Oladipo in the backcourt. Taking Exum would free up Oladipo to hound smaller guards on defense and hunt for his own shot on offense. In a best-case scenario, those two would become Orlando’s version of John Wall and Bradley Beal. 

5) Utah Jazz - Aaron Gordon 

If the draft plays out this way, Utah at No. 5 would be one of the big swing picks in the lottery, as they would have first choice on a run of power forwards. Most people have Noah Vonleh and Julius Randle rated ahead of Gordon, but if they take one of those guys, they would have to go back to the two-post system they went away from this season. Gordon is going to be an incredible pick-and-roll player and he would allow them to play 4-out with Derrick Favors at the 5. 

6) Boston Celtics - Noah Vonleh 

In this scenario, Boston would have their pick of two fairly similar PF’s in Vonleh and Randle, which could be one of the more interesting debates in this draft. If you are going with the stats and collegiate success, you have to look at Randle, who averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds on 50% shooting and lead Kentucky to the national title game. If you are looking at it from a tools perspective, Vonleh is the better outside shooter and he has much longer arms. 

7) Los Angeles Lakers - Julius Randle

I hate to say this about a guy from Dallas, but Randle is the guy I would not want in the Top 7-8 picks. He will put up a lot of stats, but he doesn’t project as a great shooter or a great defensive player and I want my PF to do one of those two things. Given the amount of shots and minutes that could be up for grabs in the Lakers frontcourt, Randle would have a real shot at Rookie of the Year, but I don’t think his ceiling is as high as a lot of these other guys. 

8) Sacramento Kings - Marcus Smart 

Smart is one of the wild cards in the lottery - there’s a pretty high range of where he could go. It’s hard to see him sneaking into the Top 5 and if he doesn’t go to either the Lakers the Kings, the teams picking after them don’t really need a PG. Smart offers a lot of line-up versatility, as he can play as a SG next to Isaiah Thomas or a PG next to Ben McLemore, but the Kings are an interior defender away from being a solid team, so I wonder if they would reach here. 

9) Charlotte Hornets - Nik Stauskas 

This seems like the first spot where Doug McDermott could come off the board. Charlotte desperately needs outside shooting and they have the personnel to hide McDermott on defense. However, if they are committed to Cody Zeller at the 4 and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the 3, Stauskas would be the more logical pick. He’s just as good a shooter as McDermott and he’s a much better passer who has the ability to run the pick-and-roll and create shots for others.

10) Philadelphia 76ers - Doug McDermott 

Philadelphia could go in a number of different directions, depending on who they take at No. 3. McDermott, for example, would make a lot more sense next to Wiggins than Parker. Wiggins can defend multiple positions and McDermott can’t defend any while McDermott’s shooting ability would open up the floor for Wiggins and Carter-Williams to attack the rim. I prefer players with more two-way ability, but he could score a lot of points walking into transition 3’s in Philly.

11) Denver Nuggets - Jusuf Nurkic 

If Brian Shaw wants to run more offense out of the low post, Nurkic makes a lot of sense. At 6’11 280 with a 7’2 wingspan, Nurkic is a 19-year old who is already big enough to score over most NBA centers. He comes into the league with a pretty solid post game and he moves well for a player with his mammoth size. He’s not getting up and down the court particularly fast, so taking him would represent a complete turning of the page from George Karl’s small ball style.

12) Orlando Magic - Adreian Payne 

If the Magic go with a perimeter player at No. 4, they will probably want to look at a front-court player at No. 12. Nik Vucevic is entrenched at center, but he isn’t much of a shot-blocker, so that’s a huge need in terms of how they are going to build their roster. I’m surprised at how far Payne is sliding in some of these mocks. He is a legitimate stretch 4 with elite athletic ability who has the ability to play interior defense and rebound - that’s exactly what Orlando needs.

13) Minnesota Timberwolves - Gary Harris 

Minnesota was a perfect example of the problems with fielding a line-up of one-way players. Nik Pekovic, Kevin Love and Kevin Martin are all poor defenders, while Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer are both poor outside shooters. The result was a group that was worse than the sum of its parts. Harris doesn’t have the upside of a guy like LaVine, but he’s a safer pick who will instantly make the Wolves a better team on both sides of the ball. 

14) Phoenix Suns - Zach LaVine

I’m going to put the Suns as the floor for LaVine. They have three first-round picks in this draft, so they will be willing to roll the dice on a guy with as much pure ability as anyone on the board. He didn’t do much in his one season at UCLA, but he’s a 6’5 180 with a 6’8 wingspan, he can jump out of the gym, he has unlimited range on his jumper and he can handle the ball like a PG. LaVine has a chance to be a special player in the type of uptempo system the Suns run.

The Western Conference At The Deadline

When the clock hit 3 PM EST on Thursday, basketball fans around the globe groaned as another NBA trade deadline passed without the epic blockbusters that fill the RealGM Forums. Although the deadline lacked a true blockbuster, the trades that were made (and the ones that were left on the table) will undoubtedly shift the landscape of the Western Conference playoff picture and possibly the team that will be facing the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals (It’s a lock, nobody is seriously questioning it).

The four most notable trades in the West came from the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.

The Warriors, who picked up Steve Blake from the Los Angeles Lakers, will look for him to provide the steady hand off the bench that they have been pursuing since Jarrett Jack left in the offseason. Blake’s addition isn’t going to drastically improve the team, but he is able to give the team quality backup point guard minutes behind Stephen Curry, given Jordan Crawford’s inability to play without Brad Stevens as his coach.

The Rockets moved little used backup point guard, Aaron Brooks, to the Denver Nuggets for Jordan Hamilton. After refusing to lower their insane asking price on Omer Asik, the Rockets decided to fill their lack of a stretch four with Hamilton. Despite Hamilton blatantly not being a power forward or an elite shooter (39 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3), the Rockets apparently believe he can become one when freed up as Dwight Howard draws attention in the post. The more important aspect to this trade is that it likely allows the Rockets to call-up D-League star, Isaiah Canaan.

The Spurs traded little used point guard Nando de Colo for Austin Daye. In one of the day’s most intriguing moves, the Spurs took on another reclamation project in the form of a 6’11 shooter who was once a top prospect coming out of high school. While Daye has struggled to earn minutes outside of his second season in the NBA (when he shot 40 percent from 3), he has tremendous length, can guard multiple positions, and San Antonio has shown interest in him. If that isn’t a sign of someone that will be playing meaningful playoff minutes in May, I am not sure what is.

The last deals of any consequence in the West were by the Clippers. They traded both Antawn Jamison and BJ Mullens for the rights to a Turkish player that probably is unaware he was traded, and a conditional second round draft pick that will likely never happen. These deals, while not interesting beyond the salary implications for the Clippers, do allow open roster spots on the team for buyout candidates. Look for Glen “Big Baby” Davis to join his old coach, Doc Rivers.

While each team above made a move – albeit small – at the trade deadline, the other five teams in contention, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies all stood pat.

Although several teams are in desperate need of a big man (OKC, PDX, PHX), no one budged on Philly’s offer of two second round draft picks for Spencer Hawes.

Portland, who is without a second round draft pick until 2019, had a tremendous need for Hawes with Joel Freeland out for two months and LaMarcus Aldridge banged up.

The Thunder flirted with a deal for Knicks embattled shooting guard, Iman Shumpert, but backed off at the last moment.

As for the remaining needs, the slew of veterans that will likely be bought out this upcoming week will have to suffice. Fortunately for these teams, Glen Davis, Caron Butler, Danny Granger, Jason Terry, Emeka Okafor, Chris Kaman, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Antawn Jamison are all buyout candidates.

Many NBA teams believe it is better to trade during the offseason so that players can get familiar with a system and their teammates, while others utilize the short second half of the season as a tryout for recently acquired players to see if they’re long-term fits. It appears that teams trading in the offseason are better off. For any fan grumbling over their team not making a blockbuster yesterday, here’s a stat you need to know: one; as in the number of Championship teams during the last 25 years to trade for a starter at the trade deadline (Rasheed Wallace to the Pistons in 2004). So while fans of the Rockets clamored for Rajon Rondo and Warriors' fans hoped for Kevin Love, just know that the odds of you winning the title with those guys was slim to none.

Happy Trade Deadline everyone! Only 124 more days until the NBA Draft!

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