What is going on in Utah?

It’s Day Four of 30 Teams 30 Picks. Friday I called the Southeast one of the weirdest divisions in the NBA. This one is actually the weirdest. Every team is in some state of flux, whether it’s Oklahoma City’s race to the bottom or Denver’s returning stars. But as we move into the West, we get deeper into my comfort zone, so I’m more confident than ever.

Western Conference–Northwest Division

Last year, the Utah Jazz won the Northwest, and went 15-1 against their divisional rivals. This year…I don’t know what’s going to happen but I’d bet my whole entire life the Jazz aren’t repeating as division champs.

Even if Utah had run it back, I’d be picking the Denver Nuggets to run away with the division. With perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert joining the youth movement in Minnesota, and Damian Lillard returning for Portland, I’d honestly be kind of surprised if Utah finished in the top three.

It’s less “What’s going on in Utah” and more “What’s up in the Northwest?” bets to come.

Denver Nuggets – o/u 50.5 wins

Key additions – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Wing), Bruce Brown (F/G)

Key losses – Will Barton (G/F), Monte Morris (LG), Austin Rivers (L), JaMychal Green (F)

Context is important, so let’s remember where we last saw the Denver Nuggets. Despite getting eliminated rather handily by the Golden State Warriors, this squad took a game off the eventual champs and hung around in most of them.

A team held together by paper clips, duct tape, and the all-time-great talents of Nikola Jokic. And they didn’t get run off the court by the Kings Of Running People Off The Court.

Jokic has established himself over the past three seasons as one of this generation’s top dogs. And he’s getting his pack back. Jamal Murray is an absolute killer, and the Canadian has such a unique, beautiful chemistry with the big man from Sombor that I’d have to imagine his return alone with worth five wins (and should have immeasurable impact in terms of the wear and tear Jokic will have to endure).

If you add the bucket getting Michael Porter Jr., you have a legitimate title contender. And that’s without even mentioning their two new players.

It’s borderline infuriating how perfect Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are for Denver. Bruce Brown is one of the strangest players in the league, but the things he’s great at (screening in inverted pick and rolls, and off-ball cutting) mesh perfectly with what Nikola Jokic likes his teammates to do. KCP is another slashing wing which brings a significant improvement to the Nuggets’ perimeter defense.

The KCP acquisition has the knock-on effect of bumping Aaron Gordon back to guarding power forwards, which he’s far more effective at than chasing opponents’ best wing scorer around all game. Any five-man lineup you can put together from that pool of Murray, MPJ, KCP, Brown, Jokic, and Gordon is going to be great. This team easily goes OVER 50.5 wins, and I kind of like them as a solid-value championship bet at +1700.

Minnesota Timberwolves– o/u 49.5 wins

Key additions – Rudy Gobert (C), Kyle Anderson (F), Austin Rivers (G)

Key losses – Patrick Beverley (G), Malik Beasley (G), Jarred Vanderbilt (F)

You want to talk about a team in flux? Perhaps even more so than the Jazz, I have no clue what Minnesota is going to be in the 2022-23 season. Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt were huge contributors to what made the Timberwolves surprisingly good last season, and Beverley in particular felt like a major culture-setter.

Those two were the backbone of the improved defense that propelled the Wolves to the playoffs, and now they’re gone. But they’re being replaced by Rudy Gobert, a one-man team defense improver.

I kind of like this fit for the French Rejection a little more than I like the fit for the rest of the team. Trust me, it makes sense. In De’Angelo Russell, Gobert (who has long been a very good roller in the pick and roller) will have a lead ballhandler who not only is willing to feed him the ball when he’s open, but is looking to set up lobs to his rollman.

For Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, I worry that, as much as Gobert will mask many deficiencies on defence, the spacing could get a little wonky at times.

I think Minnesota is going to be decent, and I know they’ll be interesting to watch. But the West is going to be an absolute gauntlet, and this team isn’t getting to 50 wins. I like the UNDER 49.5 wins.

Portland Trailblazers – o/u 40.5 wins

Key additions – Gary Payton II (G), Jerami Grant (F), Shaedon Sharpe (Wing)

Key losses – None, really.

I’m a little salty at this line, for two reasons. First, because I was hoping it’d be lower so I could pound the over. Second, because I think it’s a bit disrespectful to Damian Lillard’s star power. Let us not forget: The last time Dame was healthy, Portland won 42 games in a 72 game season. That’s a 48-win pace in a full season, and I really like the offseason the Trail Blazers put together.

If Shaedon Sharpe pops at all this team is going to be a problem. Gary Payton II has proven he can be a defensive gamebreaker at the highest level without sacrificing spacing, and Jerami Grant fits nicely between Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic as perhaps the best wing either has played with.

Portland isn’t a title contender, because we’ve seen the level at which Damian Lillard with small backcourt-mates like Payton and Anfernee Simons tops out.

But at the same time, we’ve seen how good the Blazers could be with Dame and CJ McCollum. I think Simons can approximate CJ’s secondary scoring, and assuming Lillard’s back to full strength, that’s a very decent squad.

That’s a scary assumption to make, but I’m making it. I have faith in my fellow Bay Area kid. Give me the OVER 40.5 wins.

Oklahoma City Thunder – o/u 25.5 wins

Key additions – Chet Holmgrem (F), Jalen Williams (G), Jaylin Williams (C), Ousmane Dieng

Key losses – This team has been tanking for years, who even cares who they lost?

A fascinating core is starting to emerge in Oklahoma City. Between Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey and Chet Holmgrem, the Thunder have three young players with elite upside who can do a little bit of everything at a high level.

Chet’s not quite ready to bang bodies with the big boys in the West – just imagining him trying to guard Nikola Jokic cracks me up – but OKC could be a sneaky fun team based on his unique blend of length and skill alone.

I’m likely going to stay away from this line altogether, because it feels like the books nailed it. I don’t think this team will be worse than last year’s Thunder, and I’m for sure not going to be caught holding the bag on the over if they spend yet another year tanking. I could see a world where Sam Presti trades Shai for even more picks, bottoming out yet again. But if forced to pick, which I am, give me the OVER 25.5 wins.

Utah Jazz – no line

Key additions – Malik Beasley (G), Patrick Beverley (G), Jarred Vanderbilt (F), Walker Kessler (C)

Key losses – Royce O’Neale (F), Rudy Gobert (C), perhaps Donovan Mitchell (G)?

The books are wisely not offering a line on the Jazz yet. There’s too much variance left in this situation. It sure seems like Donovan Mitchell is on the way out, but the Venn Diagram of teams with the requisite assets and teams who would want Mitchell doesn’t have much of an overlap.

I could see Danny Ainge holding on to Mitchell for longer than a lot of people expect, waiting for the perfect trade package. But if one comes along and Mitchell does move, all of those interesting pieces Utah got back from Minnesota are likely on the way out as well.

Vanderbilt, Beverley and Beasley could all help a contending team, and if Mitchell goes, there’s no reason for the Jazz not to bottom out.

Without Mitchell, I’d put this team’s line somewhere around OKC’s. With Mitchell, they’re probably right around .500. Either way, I’m staying away even if the season starts with Mitchell on the team, forcing the books to post a line.

You know me. I hate variance.

As always, play safe, and don’t chase.

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