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Who Can Stop the Bucks in the Finals? Part One, the Northwest Division

A team-by-team look at the Western Conference, starting with the Northwest.

Denver Nuggets v Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert trying to block Nikola Jokic
Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

After doing a series on the Eastern Conference, I thought it would be best to decide who the biggest threat would be in the ultimate showdown in the NBA season, the NBA Finals. From here on out, assume that the Milwaukee Bucks are able to make the Finals. Now, the West is obviously a bit more tricky to decipher than the East as to who will come out on top, at least in my opinion, and there is a lot more competition within the conference. That’s how it always has been, and to start, we will take a look at the Northwest Division. I think the best team in the West is in this division, and there is another strong challenger as well. Let’s dive in.

OKLAHOMA CITY

The Thunder are the worst team in basketball, let’s just get out and say it. Start with the fact that their highest-paying contract is for Derrick Favors, and he is right around $10 million. They have very few veterans that add quality, and the few they do have are journeymen (Mike Muscala) and castaways (DJ Wilson). I’m not even going to pretend this team has a real chance, unless you believe...maybe Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can...lots of draft picks...yeah, this is impossible in a series. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had less than 10 wins.

My Odds: 1,000,000 to 1

MINNESOTA

The Timberwolves are a team that probably isn’t good enough to stop the Bucks, even and especially if they acquire Ben Simmons, but they do have some talent here. Karl-Anthony Towns is a force to be reckoned with, and he is a much better offensive version of Brook Lopez. Him improving his defense and becoming an All-NBA player is where this team must start. D’Angelo Russell also needs to figure out if he is actually a good player and a legit All-Star, and then play to that level. Anthony Edwards had a very good rookie season, and he will need to build upon that and prove why he was the number one pick just last year.

Malik Beasley needs to figure out how to be drama-free and score buckets off the bench. Patrick Beverley needs to take his winning ways and bring them to Minnesota, and continue to play great defense. The power forward trio of Taurean Prince, Jaden McDaniels, and Jarred Vanderbilt all need to contribute. Naz Reid needs to continue to show that he is the most underpaid player in basketball (anyone putting up those stats for “Thanasis money” needs to be paid).

This team is not very deep, and they are very top-heavy. That usually means you have a super team, but when two out of the three of your big three aren’t superstars (yet), it usually means you will miss the playoffs.

My Odds: 500 to 1

PORTLAND

Portland is another main contender for Ben Simmons, but we are not going to be assuming that trade here. Instead, we are going to go with the flame-throwing back court of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. For starters, they need to both continue to show their lack of size doesn’t matter, because they are the highest scoring back court in basketball. Getting an MVP for Dame will likely only happen if they win over 55 games, but he needs to make his numbers deserve it in a blind test. Similar to Bradley Beal’s performance last year, if you recall.

As for the rest of Portland, this is where it gets tricky. Jusuf Nurkic is coming off of another major injury, and while he is 100% who knows if he will be what he was. He will need to be like he was before the injury for them to have a chance. Robert Covington is a great role player, and him getting consideration for All-Defense is the step he needs to take. Norman Powell needs to play more like he did in Toronto, not like he did in Portland last season. The bench is a hodgepodge of random players, such as Tony Snell, Cody Zeller, Patrick Patterson, Larry Nance Jr, and Ben McLemore. They have plenty of shooting, but not a lot of upside here aside from Nance. They also have some younger players, such as Nassir Little, Anfernee Simons, and CJ Elleby, and if one of those three can step up and player starter-caliber basketball, and possibly be in the running for Most Improved player, then this team can take a step up.

Overall, Portland has a chance, just because of Damian Lillard being here. But if you were to take him away from this team, they would be in the running for Chet Holmgren or Jaden Hardy in the draft. My odds are relatively high only because of Lillard.

My Odds: 25 to 1

DENVER

Denver is going to be interesting without Jamal Murray, and they will need him back at full strength if they have any hope to make the Finals. In the meantime, Nikola Jokic will need to backup his unlikely MVP campaign with an even unlikelier one. Michael Porter Jr. needs to become that “second guy” full time, even when Murray returns from injury. Aaron Gordon needs to earn his money and be part of the core four once the postseason arrives.

Will Barton needs to have another Will Barton season, and Monte Morris needs to continue to step up in the absence of Jamal Murray. Him putting up a stat line of somewhere around 14 points and 8 assists will do. Jeff and JaMychal Green, no relation, need to be very good veterans off the bench. Bol Bol or Zeke Nnaji needs to fill in for Jokic capably. And two of Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo and PJ Dozier need to be quality bench depth at the guard position.

Denver is actually a team that would have a chance against the Bucks at full strength. They have the talent and scoring, and when you consider at least three games will be in the altitude, it presents a challenge. There is a reason the Bucks have had massive struggle in Denver (and Utah) throughout their history, no matter who is on the team. However, I still would favor the Bucks.

My Odds: 5 to 2

UTAH

I think Utah is once again the best in the West, and they have gotten even better. So, this should be pretty easy. I think it’s time Donovan Mitchell becomes an MVP, and he is my non-Giannis preseason pick to win it. Utah will need a second All-Star as well, and Rudy Gobert is the favorite to do so with his defensive presence. Mike Conley needs to continue to play like he did last season. Jordan Clarkson is a good candidate to be the next Jamal Crawford or Lou Williams when it comes to Sixth Men, and he needs to keep playing like last season. Same goes with Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale. That top seven is overall better head-to-head than what the Bucks have, the main difference is Giannis and the championship pedigree we now have.

I still have yet to mention who the Jazz have added and subtracted. Let me start with their “subtractions”, and the three biggest were Derrick Favors, Georges Niang and Ersan Ilyasova (no, Ersan is nowhere near what he was with the Bucks, he’s still in free agency for a reason). Then, they add in Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gay, Eric Paschall and rookie Jared Butler. Perhaps overrated, Whiteside is still a rebounding and shot blocking machine, and would effectively stand in for Rudy Gobert. Rudy Gay was still a productive player for San Antonio last season. Eric Paschall was the leading scorer for Golden State his rookie season for a time when Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and D’Angelo Russell were all out. Yes, that makes a difference, but he still led the team in scoring which says something. He’s a quality player. As for rookie Jared Butler, he has no NBA experience and was a second round pick (who the Bucks could have had if they didn’t do that silly trade with Indiana) but he was the best player on Baylor, the defending NCAA champs.

My Odds: Even

Look, I’m not saying I would pick the Jazz, but I think it’s very close, and if they can get out of the West, especially with the altitude on their side, it will be a tough road for the Bucks. Maybe even tougher than Brooklyn. The Jazz are bound to break through at some point one would figure, and why not this season where the conference seems wide open? And if they get there, having Gobert as a paint presence, Donovan Mitchell as a volume scorer, and a lot of other talent around them will be very challenging.