Northwest Division Breakout Players
The Northwest Division is a conundrum if you have ever looked at a map of America. The only team really in the Northwest is the Portland Trail Blazers, but there are still four other teams that are not in the Northwest. Despite its geographical mysteries, the Northwest Division stands to be much improved this season with all five teams capable of making the playoffs and two quasi contenders in the Timberwolves and Thunder. Here’s a look at potential breakout players for each team.
The Jazz lost George Hill and Gordon Hayward this summer. They have added a great deal of serviceable players like Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, and Jonas Jerebko in their absence, but it is one of their returning players that seems to be poised for a breakout year. The player that stands to get the opportunities given to Hill and Hayward is recently re-signed Joe Ingles. Ingles signed a 4 year 52 million dollar deal after averaging only 24 minutes per game. During the playoffs that number shot up to 30 minutes per game and he looks to be a huge part of the team moving forward. Ingles is the type of player that requires you to really pay attention for the impact that he makes on the game. He does not score a ton of points, does not grab a lot of rebounds, or get many assists, but he plays great defense (ask J.J. Redick), he is an amazing shooter, and he is a great ball mover. He shot 44% from three last season and will need to continue with that kind of shooting in addition to becoming more of a playmaker for the Jazz.
Ingles does not strike me as a player that is going to average 20 points per game, but after averaging only 7 points per game last season, there is no reason to believe that he cannot up his scoring average to 12-15 points per game. Ingles seems to be a likely starter and his ability to switch between the 2 and 3 positions and being able to play some point guard with 2nd units means that he is going to get more minutes and more opportunities to shoot and pass the ball. Last season, Ingles took the majority of his shots from three, while the majority of his two point shots took place at the rim. He is going to face more attention from opposing defenses without Hayward. Ingles is going to have a tough time with his increased responsibility, but the Jazz will need his game to expand and he is going to have to score more for them. The Jazz will need points and Ingles has to find a way to provide it for them with more minutes and more opportunities.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers tried very hard this summer to secure the services of Carmelo Anthony in the form of some light tampering. They did not get Carmelo and they are stuck with the roster that they have. The player that the Trail Blazers desperately need to step up is Evan Turner. The Trail Blazers are extremely reliant on their two star guards and they desperately need another player to step up and take some of the burden off of them. Turner has the ability to be that player, but it is going to require the team allowing Turner to play as the point guard with the 2nd unit. He is going to need the opportunity to have the ball in his hands. Evan Turner is not a player that is going to score a lot of points, he is a player that can give you 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. He needs the ball to be effective and he just is not getting those opportunities with this team. He is the third highest paid player, but he is not being put in a position to succeed. He is not better than CJ McCollum or Damian Lillard, he is a different player. He is the type of player that can help Portland succeed. Some of Portland’s best lineups from last season in terms of net points featured Turner and that is not by accident.
Looking at Turner’s offensive stats, he does some things incredibly well. Unfortunately, when playing with Lillard and McCollum he turns into a spot up shooter and that is not his strength. According to Synergy, spot ups accounted for 18.5% of his offensive possessions and he ranked in the 21st percentile with just 0.81 points per possession. He made just 31 of his 118 three point attempts last season, which is not good. The majority of Turner’s possessions on offense came as a pick and roll ball handler, where he had a decent ranking in the 58th percentile. Turner rated well as an isolation player and even better in post up situations. This is where Portland could truly unlock Turner’s effectiveness for their team. Playing him alongside a stretch big and allowing him to post up can unlock him as an offensive weapon as a scorer and passer for your team. In terms of post ups, Turner averaged one possession per game and ranked in the 93rd percentile. He has the ability to score down low and can really exploit certain match ups. The Trail Blazers need Turner to be very good for them to take a leap and compete in the West.
Jamal Murray has endured a summer of discussion about whether or not the Nuggets should include him in deals this offseason. The Nuggets kept Jamal Murray and now are going to look to him to help the franchise move forward in a year with higher expectations than the Nuggets have had in some time. The Nuggets have played their first preseason game and Jamal Murray started as the point guard even though it seems that Nikola Jokic is their point guard on the floor. Murray is not a natural point guard, but he can defend that position and he can handle the ball well enough to bring it up the floor on occasion. Murray had a good rookie season averaging 10 points per game in only 20 minutes. Murray did not shoot the ball particularly well. His percentages do not look good, but as a catch and shoot three point shooter he shot 37% according to nba.com/stats. With the addition of Paul Millsap and the passing of Jokic, Murray stands to get more open looks for three.
Murray’s ability to have a breakout year is up to the opportunity that he gets from head coach Mike Malone. During the preseason game, the broadcasters quoted Malone as saying that the starting point guard could be Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, or Jameer Nelson. Murray might benefit from the opportunity to be a 6th man, but as a starter you have a chance to see the future of your team get heavy minutes together. The Nuggets have made it clear that Jokic, Gary Harris, and Murray are the future. Jokic and Harris have had their breakout seasons and it makes sense that Murray is next.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Carmelo Anthony trade has drastically changed the roles of some of the players on the Thunder. Russell Westbrook and Paul George have another offensive weapon to help get shots and Patrick Patterson will be coming off the bench apparently. Even with the addition of Paul George, Patterson, and Melo, the Thunder are going to need Jerami Grant to have a great season if they are really going to contend in the West. Grant came to the Thunder two games into the season last year and in just 20 minutes per game played pretty well for the Thunder. He only got four shots per game, but he provided some good minutes for a Thunder team that relied way too heavily on Westbrook. He may not have scored a great deal per game, but the intriguing stat about Grant is that he shot 37% from deep. He also upped his scoring in the playoffs to nearly 10 points per game. Although not perfect, Grant’s defensive playtype numbers courtesy of Synergy look great. He is an athletic big that covers a lot of ground and blocks at least one shot per game. Check out some of these highlights.
Grant is the perfect complement for this Thunder team. He is big enough to play in the paint for the Thunder and quick enough to play the wing. Billy Donovan has some interesting choices to make on how he will use Patterson and Grant. The Thunder are going to defend and Grant is going to be a big part of their success when it comes to getting rest for George and Melo. With more opportunities and the chance to play alongside a great offensive player at all-time, Jerami Grant has the chance to really break out.
Shabazz Muhammad took his time signing a contract this summer. He has always been an offensive force in the minutes he plays. He can score in the post and is quite good in transition as well. He is not very good defensively and that can hopefully change as he gets more experience. The Timberwolves added a great deal to their roster this summer including Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford, and Taj Gibson. Needless to say, the Timberwolves should be much improved this season. Muhammad will be a very important piece for their second unit. In their first preseason game, Muhammad destroyed the Lakers with an array of post ups and mid range jumpers. He also got to the foul line. He finished with 22 points and although it is preseason, it is a good omen for the Timberwolves. Muhammad could very well contend for 6th man of the year this season. It will be interesting to see how Tom Thibodeau chooses to play Muhammad and whether he plays him with Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler or allows him to carry 2nd units offensively without the other two. Muhammad is perfect with Minnesota because most of his minutes come alongside bigs that can shoot allowing him to play in the paint and post up. Last season, 75% of his shots were two point attempts and almost 60% of those two point attempts came within 10 feet according to basketball-reference.com. He knows what he does well and he sticks to it. This will be a big season for Muhammad. He has an opportunity to play for a team that is going to win games and he could be a big part of their success.