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NBA Division Previews: Northwest

We’re less than a month away from the tip of a new NBA (regular) season. Here at Fantrax, we’re busy filling our thermoses with coffee, cracking our knuckles, and ramping up the content. Over the ensuing weeks, we will be highlighting the studs, duds, and potential breakout candidates across the NBA’s fantasy landscape.

In this installation, the focus will shift to the upper left and the Northwest division. This collection of teams boasts potentially three top-ten fantasy players in Damian Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns, and reigning MVP and resident soft body Serbian, Nikola Jokic. Beyond the stars, unsettled rosters in Oklahoma City and Minnesota offer pressing rotation questions. While the ascendency of Utah and Denver to the top of the west, and the uncertainty of a new coaching staff in Portland highlights what could be the league’s most intriguing storylines.

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Northwest Division Preview

Utah Jazz

Likely forgotten by many, the Jazz boasted the best record in the league last year, and have made some key offseason additions to build on their success.

Sure Thing

Donovan Mitchell – A top-25 fantasy performer,  likely with room to improve in percentages, three-point numbers, and potentially in defensive statistics. It’s hard to believe he’s just entering his fifth year as a pro.

Which Direction is He headed?

Rudy Gobert – The 29-year-old center is clearly a rebounding and blocking machine, and the 20/21 season was no different. That being said, his scoring numbers are becoming more inconsistent, to the point where you wonder if he may end up in Draymond Green territory, an offensive liability. His FT% can cost you in a categories league as well, and making sure he fits with your overall roster strategy is important when drafting Gobert.

Bojan Bogdanovic – The Croatian forward is already 3pt field goal and FT% dependent to be rostered across most formats. That by itself makes him a risky pick, add a seasoned vet like Rudy Gay into the mix in Utah and Bogdanovic could see diminishing minutes and returns.

Rotation Questions

With the addition of Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gay, and Eric Paschall the already muddy rotations in the Utah front-court get even more complicated. It could be a year where only one, the aforementioned Gobert, is even rosterable from the season’s get-go.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are loaded with talent across the board, and should again be in contention in the west. Jamal Murray likely won’t be back until potentially the new year, leaving some opportunities for others to step into the crowded rotation.

Sure Thing

Nikola Jokic – A top-3 (minimum) talent in any format, nearly hit the 30 ppg mark last year, but saw diminishing returns on assists down to 6 a game. With Murray out for a good portion of the season, his distribution numbers could see an uptick over last year.

Michael Porter Jr. – The young Seattle product showed why he was such a bargain at 14 in the 2018 draft. The bouncy 6’11 forward was pivotal in the success of the team, and fantasy owners reaped the benefits of a 54% shooter who hit nearly three, 3s a game. With his length and athleticism, just given natural progression and closer to 36 minutes a game he should be a near 20-10 candidate with a steal and a block a contest. He’s already shown he’s an elite shooter, in fact, 7th in TS% in the league in 20-21. Entering the new season, this is the year he could become a top 25-40 fantasy option.

Bolting Into The Rotation

Bol Bol – He’s listed at fourth on the depth chart at center, but the 7’2 Bol could see an uptick in run at both the 4 & 5 this year.  I’m certainly not advocating for anything other than a last-pick flyer on a guy who could very well not play a minute. But his upside even in limited minutes is huge. From elite 3pt range for his size to multiple blocks in less than 20 minutes, Bol could finally break through into the rotation this year and have an immediate fantasy impact.

Where Does He Fit?

Aaron Gordon – There is no doubt Gordon fits the needs of Denver as a perimeter defender, whose big body can also guard bigger guys down low. But from a fantasy standpoint, he saw every single one of his major statistics drop, (pts, reb, ast, stls, and blks) after joining the Nuggets. With Michael Porter Jr. splitting time at the 3 & 4, and the likelihood of Jeff Green, JaMychal Green, and even Bol Bol also getting minutes in the frontcourt, I’d say not to spend anything other than a very late-round pick in a deep league on AG.

Portland Trailblazers

An aging superstar, an uneven roster, a fired coach. The Blazers are one of many talented teams muddled in the middle of the Western Conference, but with more questions about their future than others.

Sure Thing

The Backcourt – Sure, Damian Lillard is the clear leader in Portland, and a top 5-7 pick in any fantasy format, but don’t be confused, when healthy CJ McC0llum is a BAD man. Prior to his injury early last year his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) was not only better than his backcourt mate, but top 7 in the league. He never really regained that form, but with trade rumors swirling around him, this seems like just the scenario for a breakout campaign, and potential top 30 fantasy impact.

Bosnian Beast or Bosnian Bust?

During Jusuf Nurkic‘s time in Denver, he was always seen as sort of an underproducing enigma. In his first half-season with the Blazers, he burst onto the scene to the tune of 15 & 10 with 2 blocks and a steal. All signs pointed to him being a top 5-7 fantasy center in the league. Since then a bevy of injuries, a case of the yips around the basket, and quotes concerning his commitment to the team make Blazers fans, and fantasy managers wonder which Nurkic will be on display in 2021? Fantrax has him listed somewhere in the mid 60’s; likely a late fifth through the seventh round. There is no doubting his best version is a top-50  player, so taking a chance on the Bosnian center in the sixth could pay huge dividends. Realistically even if he’s underwhelming, as long as he stays healthy he should at least be worth no less than a mid-round pick.

Keep an eye out

With the exit of Rodney Hood,  the bulk of the backup minutes at both guard spots will likely fall to Anfernee Simons. The 22-year-old slam dunk champion is entering his fourth year on the heels of a 42% 3pt shooting campaign, where he nearly hit 2 a game. A massive uptick in usage could see his scoring jump from 8 to potentially 13-16 a game, and double his three-pointers made. He’s not worth a draft pick, but if you’re chasing points and threes he could emerge as an option. Death, taxes, Larry Nance Jr getting a steal and a half a game. With the Blazers going through an entire turnover of players on the bench, save for Simons it will be interesting to see where Nance fits in. But if he manages to see 15-20 minutes, he could be an intriguing hustle stats option in deep leagues.

Minnesota Timberwolves

For as bad as Oklahoma City’s roster is, the T-wolves finished with only one more win than the lowly Thunder. With a litany of young talent the Wolves will have few excuses for another 20 to 30 win season.

Sure Thing

Karl-Anthony Towns is a walking 25 & 10, and likely 3 three-pointers made a game. The man is elite, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ended any given season as the top-rated fantasy player. It remains to be seen if some of his stats are hollow in relation to winning games, but alas that isn’t something a fantasy owner cares about.

Second In Line

D’Angelo Russell has only played 97 games over the last two seasons, as everyone knows the best ability is availability. If D’Angelo can remain healthy he nearly always tracks to be a top-55 player, and a value pick based on current rankings, but that may be a hard bet to cash. KAT is clearly the center of the Wolves game-plan but the backcourt has many questions that Russel could answer and be the number two scoring options, and floor general.

Anthony Edwards in his second season will look to build on his impressive rookie campaign and ascend into the ranks of fantasy elites. At 19 ppg, 4 reb, 3 ast, and 1 stl the 20-year-old showed flashes of brilliance but struggled from the 3pt line shooting 32%. at SF Edwards does track to be a huge contributor in assists and rebounds so he will have to prove his value in defensive stats, and from the 3pt line. His talent is undeniable, it just remains to be seen if that talent will turn into more than a high volume scorer in the fantasy realm. At 6’5 he’s likely to be undersized in many of his matchups but that should lead to more steals, a stat where he could see his biggest growth. Between he and Russell, Minnesota certainly has secondary scoring,  playmaking, and stat generating options.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Unfortunately, the Thunder can’t roster any of the 30 draft picks they have upcoming over the next 6 years, so they’re stuck with the players they have presently. That being said, OKC’s young roster should leave fantasy owners tuning into box scores early in the season for potential pick-up candidates.

Sure Thing

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is clearly the best player on the Thunder, but it’s unclear how useful he can be in fantasy. Coming off his best scoring season as a pro, at nearly 24 a game, his 6 assists, 2 threes, and almost 1 steal a game don’t jump out at you. SGA also hits 80% of his FTs and grabs 5 boards a game, it’s obvious his best attribute seems to be the ability to check every box on the scoresheet. Shai shot 42% from distance last year, so the possibility of him adding more threes to his stat line could really boost his value. His most underwhelming area of production is clearly steals, at under 1 a game last year, his 6’5 lanky frame at PG should be a terror against opponents, if he ever develops into a steal and a half, or 2 steals a game guy he’d easily crack the fantasy top 20.

What is a Pokusevski?

Aleksej Pokusevski Could be a top-50 fantasy player, he may also be a healthy DNP. I honestly have no idea what to expect from him or the Thunder rotations. The 7’0 Serbian forward shot under 35% from the floor last year but showed signs of being the league’s next unicorn. He’s a great ball-handler and potentially the most creative passer on the team. I don’t think he’ll ever be a GOOD percentage shooter, but if he starts and plays 30+ minutes a game he should certainly flirt with 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 threes, and a block a game. He will likely go undrafted across all formats but if you’re in a deep league with a flair for risk-taking, why not?

Intrigue In Numbers

Darius Bazley, Luguentz Dort, and Isaiah Roby are likely to round out the starting lineup around the aforementioned SGA, and Pokusevski. Every single one of them helped fantasy owners pick up stats, only to see them dropped the next week. The complete lack of consistency from any Thunder player outside of SGA, isn’t just an OKC issue, it’s troubling for fantasy owners. Bazley was the best fantasy option out of the bunch last year and shows signs of being a big minutes swing-man in the future, with progressing 3pt shooting and rebounding numbers. Dort, through two seasons, hasn’t shown an ability to produce outside of points, and three-pointers made, and it’s hard to envision him taking the necessary steps forward to produce enough to be rostered.

The opportunity for the biggest break-out lies with Isaiah Roby. The third-year center split time with the now-departed Moses Brown last year, of often started games, only to play less minutes than Brown. OKC brought in veteran Derrick Favors to back up Roby and should help in his progression. Favors could contend for similar minutes, much like Brown, but with the Thunder in full re-build mode, I expect the younger Roby to get the bulk of time at the 5.  Much like everyone, who isn’t SGA Roby likely isn’t worth a draft pick, but certainly keep an eye out for some early 10pt, 10 reb performances with a block or two thrown in, it could become a regular occurrence.

For more great analysis, check out the 2021-22 Fantrax Fantasy Basketball Draft Kit!

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