Additions: JaMychal Green, Facundo Campazzo, Isaiah Hartenstein, R.J. Hampton, Zeke Nnaji
Losses: Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, Noah Vonleh
2019-20 Record: 46-27, lost in Western Conference Finals
Analysis: The Denver Nuggets made a somewhat surprising run to the Western Conference Finals last season, overcoming 3-1 series deficits against both the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers before falling in five games to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers. This year, Denver hopes better health and growth from young players pay off in their first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history.
Denver didn’t have a lot of roster turnover, but lost a couple of key frontcourt players in Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee. As the 19-20 season progressed, Grant became one of the team’s starting forwards, while Plumlee was Nikola Jokic’s backup for several seasons. Both left for good contracts and bigger roles with the Detroit Pistons.
In their place, the Nuggets added JaMychal Green and signed Bol Bol from his Two-Way contract to a two-year standard deal. Green will back up both Jokic and a re-signed Paul Millsap up front. Bol will likely be spotted minutes early in the season as he can play positions 3-5 for Denver. The Nuggets also signed Isaiah Hartenstein for center depth. Hartenstein never got much of a chance with the Houston Rockets, but could develop into a nice backup big man for Denver.
The Nuggets also brought Facundo Campazzo over from Spain, where he’s played for the last several years. The small guard is an exciting playmaker and solid shooter. When he shares the floor with Jokic, the ball will zip around the court and result in easy finishes for their teammates.
For Denver to legitimately take the next step to title contender, they need Jamal Murray to maintain his superstar play from the bubble. Murray was one of the best players in the NBA during the restart and is starting the first year of a five-year, maximum contract extension. If he becomes a second All-Star, alongside Jokic, the Nuggets are in a good place.
Taking the team from good to great will also have to involve Will Barton being healthy again and Gary Harris finding his game. Barton is less of a concern, as he should be good as the team’s fifth starter or first man off the bench. Harris is a bigger concern with two straight seasons on a downward trend. Harris has battled some injuries, but he just looks like a different player when he’s played. His shot has abandoned him, and he’s not finishing around the basket off cuts like he used to.
Helping to ease concerns for either player is Michael Porter Jr. Michael Malone brought him along slowly during his rookie year, but Porter was one of Denver’s key players by the restart in August. He’ll play a big role for the Nuggets this year and should eventually take over one of the team’s starting forward spots.
Everything is lined up for the Nuggets to be contenders. They have upper echelon stars in Jokic and Murray. They have up-and-coming young players in Porter and Bol (and maybe draftees R.J. Hampton and Zeke Nnaji get a shot too). They have good depth all across the roster. If Harris can get back on track and Barton can stay healthy, Denver will challenge for the title.
Additions: Anthony Edwards, Ricky Rubio, Ed Davis, Jaden McDaniels
Losses: James Johnson, Omari Spellman, Jacob Evans, Evan Turner
2019-20 Record: 19-45, 14th in the Western Conference
Analysis: The Minnesota Timberwolves have one playoff appearance in the last 16 years. It’s unlikely they’ll make it back in 2021 either. Even though the Wolves have improved, the Western Conference is too deep for them to make that big of a leap.
At the top of the draft, Minnesota selected Anthony Edwards. Edwards presumably fits as a wing scorer alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. The challenge is the Timberwolves doubled-down and re-signed Malik Beasley. And they still have Josh Okogie and last year’s first round pick, Jarrett Culver, on the roster as well. While wings are more important than ever, that’s a lot of money and roster spots invested in one place. And none have the size necessary to play up as a bigger forward either.
Up front, Gersson Rosas added Ed Davis to give the team a veteran presence behind Towns. The Wolves also re-signed Juancho Hernangomez, who played well after they acquired him from the Nuggets at the trade deadline.
Minnesota also brought Ricky Rubio back to his first NBA home. Rubio will likely back up Russell while also playing some minutes beside him. Having a veteran point guard leading the second unit should also make life easier for Edwards as he learns the NBA game.
The Timberwolves undoubtedly have some interesting pieces. Towns and Russell are each players who have been All-Stars. The team has to hope at least one of the young wings emerges as a consistent third scorer. If that happens, look for Beasley to be expendable via trade. The long-term power forward probably isn’t on this roster yet. That could be a place where Minnesota trades some of their wing depth to fill that hole.
It’s probably going to be another season outside of the playoffs for the Wolves. This year should be about firming up the Towns/Russell partnership and sorting out which young players are part of the future. Development of the kids, another high draft pick and some roster balancing moves and the playoffs could be in sight in 2022.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Additions: Al Horford, George Hill, Trevor Ariza, Aleksej Pokusevski, Theo Maledon, Frank Jackson, Justin Jackson, Ty Jerome, Mark Daigneault (coach)
Losses: Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schroder, Nerlens Noel, Terrance Ferguson, Abdel Nader, Billy Donovan (coach)
2019-20 Record: 44-28, lost in Western Conference first round
Analysis: The Thunder have missed the playoffs just two times in their 12 seasons in Oklahoma City. It’s a good bet that 2021 will be the third time. No team changed their roster more dramatically than OKC did this offseason.
Sam Presti saw the writing on the wall for his overachieving bunch. Chris Paul led an aging roster to the playoffs, where they fell in seven games to the Houston Rockets. Presti could have run it back, but chose instead to begin the rebuilding process.
From last year’s team, the Thunder will return just six players. Of that group, only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, Lu Dort and possibly Hamidou Diallo are part of the long-term plans.
Of the Thunder’s new additions, 2020 draft picks Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon are the only two who are assured of being on the team a year from now. Everyone else is a movable piece.
When watching Oklahoma City play this year, it may be helpful to keep a roster handy, as there is likely to be a lot of “Who is that?” happening. Presti is probably going to churn the final few roster spots throughout the year. This is part of the diamond mining process that rebuilding teams go through. The Philadelphia 76ers found Robert Covington this way, and it’s how the Brooklyn Nets landed both Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris.
While Al Horford, George Hill and Trevor Ariza give the team some veterans to help a young roster, they may want to rent in Oklahoma City vs buying. Presti has a multitude of extra draft picks over the next seven years, but he won’t hesitate to add a few more if he can get them by moving any of the veterans in trades.
This season is about the kids. Gilgeous-Alexander has the reins as the franchise centerpiece. Bazley and Dort both had moments as rookies. Pokusevski is extremely raw, but has considerable upside as a seven-foot perimeter player. And Maledon should allow new coach Mark Daigneault to play lineups with multiple ballhandlers, which is something OKC had considerable success with last season.
There is a good chance the Thunder will be the worst team in the Western Conference, and likely the entire NBA. Despite knowing nothing but success during their time in Oklahoma City, the team picked a good year to bottom out. Fans can focus on development and ping pong balls for what is considered to be a very good draft class.
Portland Trail Blazers
Additions: Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr., Enes Kanter, Harry Giles III
Losses: Trevor Ariza, Hassan Whiteside, Wenyen Gabriel, Mario Hezonja
2019-20 Record: 35-39, lost in Eastern Conference First Round
Analysis: When it was time for the NBA bubble to start, the Portland Trail Blazers made it clear they were going to Orlando make the playoffs. They accomplished that mission by winning the first-ever Play-In game. But after upsetting the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the first round, everything fell apart. Injuries hit and the Blazers lack of depth was exposed.
That lack of depth seemed to guide the offseason for Neil Olshey and Portland. The Trail Blazers improved their team as much as any in the NBA, by adding quality players and re-signing some key veterans.
With Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum signed long-term, and Jusuf Nurkic back healthy, Portland filled out their roster with great fits around that core trio. Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. are in as interchangeable forwards. Both can defend 2-4, while Covington will add some much-needed floor spacing. Jones gives the Trail Blazers their best vertical threat in a long time, and should live off cuts for layups, while attention is on his teammates.
With the starting lineup full, the Blazers re-signed Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood, traded for Enes Kanter and signed Harry Giles to round out the rotation. Anthony was a revelation last year as he embraced his role and got his career back on track. He gives Portland a bench scorer, and some forward depth, that Terry Stotts can trust.
Hood is fully recovered from a torn Achilles and brings some size to the Portland backcourt. He can play off either Lillard or McCollum. And the Blazers are also returning Gary Trent Jr, who broke out in a big way in the bubble. He’ll give Portland a 3&D presence on the wing.
Up front, Kanter and Giles will allow Stotts to spot Nurkic rest whenever he needs it. Kanter played the best basketball of his career during his previous trip through Portland. Giles is continuing to develop as one of the game’s more underrated young centers. Zach Collins also returns to give the team a young option at both big man spots.
The Trail Blazers season was undone by injuries last year. Nurkic was out until the re-start and the forward positions were a revolving door until Anthony stabilized one spot. Now, Portland has the depth necessary to compete with the top teams in the Western Conference. Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic would have had the team in the playoff hunt no matter what. With all of their additions and re-signings, the Blazers should be in the mix for homecourt advantage when the playoffs start.
Additions: Derrick Favors, Udoka Azubuike
Losses: Tony Bradley, Ed Davis, Emmanuel Mudiay
2019-20 Record: 44-28, lost in Western Conference first round
Analysis: The Jazz had the Nuggets down 3-1 in the first round, before Denver waged an epic comeback. Game 7 finished on a wild scramble that saw Mike Conley’s potential series-winner rim out at the buzzer.
Instead of overreacting to the playoff disappointment and making a bunch of changes, the Jazz focused on retaining their own players and they brought home an old friend.
Utah re-signed Jordan Clarkson after he became their key bench scorer last season. Clarkson was efficient in his first season with the Jazz and provided an offensive lift whenever he got in games. His presence gives Quin Snyder a nice three-guard rotation with Clarkson joining Conley and Donovan Mitchell in the backcourt.
The Jazz are also welcoming back Derrick Favors. After going small around Rudy Gobert up front, and mixing and matching backup minutes, Utah now has both of those issues solved. If the team wants to go big up front, they can start Favors, and he’ll slide right back into his “starting power forward, backup center” role that he had for years. If the Jazz want to stay small with Bojan Bogdanovic at the four, Favors will still see plenty of time as the primary backup big.
Bogdanovic is a bit a of an “addition” himself. He missed the entirety of the restart in Orlando because of a wrist injury. Reports came out that Bogdanovic had played through the injury for some time, which makes his shooting numbers that much more remarkable. With him back in the lineup, it takes pressure off Mitchell and Conley to create all of the offense for the Jazz.
While re-signing Clarkson and adding Favors are nice moves, the most important thing Utah did this offseason was to reach a five-year, maximum contract extension with Mitchell. He’s become one of the best guards in the NBA in his short career and after seeing previous franchise player Gordon Hayward leave town, the Jazz couldn’t afford to risk losing Mitchell.
Now, eyes turn to a potential contract extension with Gobert. He’s the best defensive center in basketball and has improved to become a good offensive player as well. There have been murmurs that Gobert and Mitchell don’t get along, but both players have done their part to quell that talk. Re-signing Gobert may become a strictly financial one. With Mitchell locked up, Utah’s payroll is more expensive than it usual is. If the team can’t reach an extension with Gobert, look for them to at least consider trade options. Otherwise, they may risk losing him for nothing as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
All the pieces are in place for the Jazz to be a very good team. They go at least eight deep in quality rotation players. They’ve got All-Stars in Mitchell and Gobert, and a healthy Bogdanovic isn’t far off. Health will be a key, as an injury to a key player is tough to overcome given the depth of the Western Conference. Look for Utah to be in the mix for homecourt advantage and to try to finally make that deep playoff run that’s avoided them for years.