We are now officially one week into this NBA season and so far, so good.
With the Hamptons Five disbanded, we believed that this was the most parity in the history of the NBA. The season may still be young, but this newfound competitiveness has definitely shown itself.
We have some standouts, of course, and, for the most part, they were the ones we expected to see: Both Los Angeles-based teams, Milwaukee, Houston, Philadelphia, etc. We knew they were going to be the league’s elite, but we have seen our fair amount of twists so far as the 2019-20 season hits its infant stages.
This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at the biggest surprises in the NBA thus far and we’re doing it by division. Today, we’re taking a look at the Northwest Division, which might be the toughest sector in the entire league.
Minnesota’s good… maybe?
Man, what happened to the Minnesota Timberwolves?
It was only two years ago that they were supposed to be one of the league’s powerhouses led by Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins. This season, they were supposed to be a lottery team whose best thing going for them was Towns blossoming into an undeniable superstar and not much else.
What’s funny is that basically is what has happened so far. Towns has been as phenomenal as he’s ever been. Wiggins is still badly overpaid and the rest of the Timberwolves’ roster is usually average at best. Only thing is, however: Minnesota stands as one of the four remaining undefeated teams in the NBA.
How have they done this? Well, it begins and ends with Towns, really, but that’s a little unfair to the other players on their roster. Last year, Minnesota’s team was depleted often by injuries. Jeff Teague, Robert Covington and Derrick Rose all missed significant portions of the 2018-19 season. While Rose is killing it in Detroit, having Teague and Covington back healthy does fill in the gaps for the Wolves.
It’s not just them this time either. Their second unit has been doing its part during their early successes, which stems from a productive offseason that doesn’t get enough credit. Despite Minnesota missing out on the prize they set out to get this summer — D’Angelo Russell — their summer was filled with under-the-radar additions like as Jake Layman, Shabazz Napier, Noah Vonleh and Treveon Graham.
This writer would elaborate more on that, but Douglas Farmer already did it.
Minnesota hasn’t exactly beaten the toughest competition — Brooklyn, Charlotte, Miami — but they’ve made it clear that they’re not going away anytime soon. It’s a small sample size, but the Timberwolves have come out this season throwing some good punches. Only time will tell if they continue to land.
Utah’s still winning the way they always have
The Utah Jazz are 3-1 to start the season. No surprises there. The surprise is that they’re still doing it in the fashion that they’ve prided themselves on: Defense. That isn’t a bad thing, it’s just that Utah’s offense was supposed to hold up on their end and, so far, they’re still not crisp.
Donovan Mitchell is playing like the future star we’ve been expecting him to be by averaging 24 points on 51/44/77 splits. Following a shaky preseason, Bojan Bogdanovic has given the Jazz their money’s worth too — 23.7 points on 53/45/100 splits.
It’s clear as day that the Jazz now have two excellent scorers on the team, so why is it that they still rank 28th in offensive rating — 99.5 points per 100 possessions — even after all the offensive firepower they added this summer?
Because said firepower still hasn’t kicked in full gear just yet. You know who the third-highest scorer on the Jazz currently is? Emmanuel Mudiay at a paltry 10 points a game. That’s a problem when you have the likes of Mike Conley Jr., Joe Ingles and, yes, even Rudy Gobert.
Conley, in particular, has been about slow-to-start as the Jazz could have reasonably feared. So far, he’s averaging just 7.8 points a game while putting up 20/15/83 splits. He’s done this while also averaging 4.3 assists to go along with 2.8 turnovers. That shouldn’t continue as the season goes on, but this is something to monitor as the 32-year-old is not getting any younger.
The Jazz are still an excellent team. As we can see from their record, they can still win games leaning on their championship-caliber level defense. But, what was supposed to vault them to the next level was their new and improved all-around offense, which we still have yet to see.
Seeing the glass half-full, the fact that they’re still winning games despite their offensive struggles has to make fans wonder what they’ll be like should they figure it out. Glass half-empty, however, this could very well be a problem if Utah fails to put the ingredients together.
The new face of the Thunder
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander! Who’d have thunk? Something else needs to be brought to our attention. This Oklahoma City Thunder team, even after all they lost this summer, is still a good team. Further, they may even be the NBA’s best-kept secret.
Chris Paul, even in decline, is still a fantastic player. Steven Adams is one of the league’s better interior rebounders and defenders. Danillo Gallinari is an exceptional scorer. Dennis Schroder, Andre Roberson and Terrence Ferguson are all capable rotation players on a good team. And then there’s SGA.
Gilgeous-Alexander was the centerpiece behind the Paul George trade following a very promising rookie campaign with the Clippers. It’s only been four games, but Gilgeous-Alexander has looked every bit like the franchise cornerstone that will segue the team away from the Russell Westbrook.
We already knew he was the future — and that he’d produce fairly well for the Thunder — but this much? This soon? In an admittingly-tiny four-game sample, the second-year standout has wasted no time elevating his play by notching 23.8 points on 48/36/68 splits while also being a pest on the defensive end.
Drew Mays has already gone into lengthy detail explaining why Gilgeous-Alexander is next up in Oklahoma City, which is definitely worth a read. Seeing him produce this much this quickly has got to make everyone in Thunder management so giddy for what could lie ahead.
It stands to mention that the Thunder are 1-3, but they have lost to two of the league’s best in Houston and Utah, while their one win was their long-awaited vengeance-driven blowout of the now-depleted Golden State Warriors.
Whether they decide to keep their current roster together will depend on how the team has done leading up to the trade deadline. In what could be the league’s most notorious anti-surprise at the moment, Paul should be in a lot of trade rumors leading up to the deadline on Feb. 7. Among all the uncertainty, one thing is for certain: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the new face of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Between Minnesota, Utah and Oklahoma City — alongside with two other postseason hopefuls in Denver and Portland — the Northwest Division has brought the early-season noise already. The jury remains in waiting on these results — but improvements, adjustments and outright stardom always appear to be right around the corner.