• Alec Liebsch

Burning Questions: Northwest Division

It’s crazy to think the 2020-21 season is right around the corner. Rosters are mostly set as the dust settles in free agency, and the league just released its schedule for the first half of the season.

With the new season comes a flurry of new stories to be written. Star power didn’t change hands as drastically this offseason as it did last, but plenty of teams reshaped themselves in preparation for the new year. They all have questions that need to be answered, either early in the season or at some point in their playoff pursuits.

You can find the "Burning Questions" for the Atlantic, Central and Southeast divisions here. Now it's time to preview the Western Conference, and we start in the Northwest.

Denver Nuggets: Is "Bubble" Jamal Murray for real?

Spearheading the Nuggets' conference finals run this fall was Jamal Murray, who averaged 26.5 points and 6.6 assists on a red-hot .505/.453/.897 shooting line in 19 playoff games. Murray took his peak performances from the 2019 postseason and made them the standard in 2020. His range, handles and craftiness make him a dangerous scoring and playmaking threat in any situation.

19 games of that intensity holds a lot more weight than 19 regular games. What Murray did is most certainly not a fluke, especially given that he had performances like that in Denver's previous playoff run. But The Bubble was a unique environment, so not everything that happened there will continue in 2020-21. If anything should, though, Murray's ascent is on that list.

Minnesota Timberwolves: What's the backup plan?

Minnesota's front office did a solid job adding to its core last February, trading for D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez at the deadline. Russell was already on a max contract, and Beasley and Hernangomez were just extended to their own deals this past offseason. Bringing back Ricky Rubio was an under-the-radar move. The Wolves committed so much to this core that they'll be over the cap until 2023-24.

Problem is, the West is loaded. Minny is not even favored to make the play-in tournament (7-10 seeds), and many of the teams ahead of them are on an upward trajectory. Much of Minnesota's success comes down to Karl-Anthony Towns; he needs to make a serious leap on defense to impact winning more.

Let's say the Wolves finish outside the play-in: will ownership be okay with spending this much on an 11 seed? If Towns and Russell aren't a sufficient duo by year six, what makes anyone believe they'll get substantially better in year seven or eight? The front office will have a very expensive lottery team on hand if the 2020-21 team isn't up to snuff.

These concerns could all be mitigated by midseason. After all, Rubio helped propel the Phoenix Suns from a bottomfeeder to a competent squad simply by being a solid point guard. Having one of Rubio or Russell on the floor should be a substantial improvement from the Jeff Teague/Shabazz Napier offense from last year. Now that Towns doesn't carry the entire offensive load, he should be able to exude more energy on defense as the fulcrum. Minnesota could make some noise in the play-in and quell these concerns.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the future?

OKC has made it quite obvious what its intentions are. Every addition has been either an expiring contract or a salary dump, and every departure has been players who won't be useful to a rebuilding team. The Thunder are going to be bad, and everyone knows it.

But what about the one young player who is already good? Gilgeous-Alexander isn't good enough to ruin OKC's tank job by himself, but in two years he'll be paid enough to change the franchise's direction. Will OKC be ready to contend in 2022-23? The only players under contract from that season on are on rookie deals, and the location doesn't exactly scream "free agent destination."

Thanks to all the first round picks it now owns (and the flattened lottery odds), many would make the argument that a long-term tank isn't necessary. In addition, George Hill and Al Horford are positive players right now; this team isn't completely terrible from the start.

Portland Trail Blazers: With a true 3-and-D wing, what's their ceiling?

These past few years have been especially impressive for the Blazers. In an era where wing defense and switchable bodies have been the easiest way to find playoff success, Portland has invested mostly in guards and centers. Moving on from Al-Faroq Aminu and Moe Harkless cost them dearly in The Bubble, as they had no one who could even hope to contain LeBron James in the playoffs.

That changed when they traded for Robert Covington. The 6'8" forward has defended everyone from point guards to centers, and also shoots at an above-average clip from 3 without stepping out of his offensive role. He's one of the best off-ball defenders in the league in one of the most versatile frames, and is a great complement to offensive epicenters like Damian Lillard.

Basically, Portland addressed a need as well as it could have. He's not going to be the reason they win the Finals, but he'll keep them from being blown to smithereens in round one.

Utah Jazz: What does a Rudy Gobert extension look like?

Everyone talks about Giannis Antetokounmpo's free agency next year, but why don't they include Rudy Gobert in those discussions? Okay I'm joking, but Gobert's contract situation is also being heavily monitored by the rest of the league. He can negotiate a Supermax extension with Utah now, or he can wait until next offseason to test the uncharted waters.

Donovan Mitchell all but locked up his next contract after a stellar showdown with Jamal Murray in the playoffs. He'll get the max, and the two sides will quibble over length and player options. But Gobert is a quirkier long-term investment; his defensive fortitude cracks just enough in the playoffs, and even his regular season impact declined last year. Bringing back Derrick Favors and drafting Udoka Azubuike is a nice insurance policy if negotiations go south.