NBA's Northwest Division buzzes with hope for future, even without Kevin Durant


All five of the NBA’s Northwest Division teams began the summer with opportunities to change their rosters and define their futures. Despite a multitude of different options, each team ended up on one of two different paths.

Three of them prioritized future flexibility. The Jazz, Nuggets and Timberwolves all had significant cap space this summer and avoided long-term commitments, though each took steps to improve their roster in the draft and free agency. Utah did the best job of threading the needle by making their team better in the short term by trading for unique big man Boris Diaw and signing seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson without sacrificing too much of their insane 2017 cap space.

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The Trail Blazers always had a short time frame to use their cap space since so many of their players (including CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Mason Plumlee) were primed for significant raises. They pushed hard in that window, adding Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli while retaining all of their restricted free agents.

The Thunder bounced between those paths for a while, since losing Kevin Durant gave them unexpected flexibility for both 2016 and 2017. However, renegotiating and extending Russell Westbrook’s contract put them back on the limited flexibility road.

What makes the Northwest stand out among the NBA’s divisions is that each team’s decision-making process meshes with their structural constraints. The younger squads kept their powder dry while already-competitive teams pushed to maximize the present, with Utah somehow accomplishing both at the same time.

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Here is how each team looks for 2017, with all cap numbers using the general framework of the current collective bargaining agreement and the estimate of a $102 million salary cap:

Denver Nuggets

Likely 2017 cap space: $17 million.
Realistic maximum 2017 cap space: $39.6 million.
Key potential free agent: Danilo Gallinari ($16.1 million player option).

The Nuggets could be significant factors in the Summer of 2017 in a few different ways. First, Gallinari should decline his $16.1 million player option and become one of the league’s most sought-after free agents. He could return to Denver or leave it with enough space to add serious talent to an already-loaded young team. The Nuggets do not even have any extension-eligible players now, so whatever cap space they use next summer comes with little risk of a luxury tax payment, and their core should be cheap enough for a while for they can spend more aggressively if the right players are interested.

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Moving on from veterans Kenneth Faried and/or Wilson Chandler would open up even more flexibility, and their roles could be consumed by talented youngsters presently on the team or drafted next June. Denver will l

ikely get Memphis’ first round pick in addition to its own, meaning it could have more than half of its 2017-18 roster on insanely cheap rookie scale contracts.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Likely 2017 cap space: $22.3 million.
Realistic maximum 2017 cap space: $32.4 million.
Key potential free agents: Gorgui Dieng (restricted), Shabazz Muhammad (restricted), Kevin Garnett (unrestricted).

When the Timberwolves largely sat out the 2016 offseason, they did so with an eye on 2017. Waiting allows new coach and president Tom Thibodeau a year to evaluate their current talent and change perception of the franchise before more aggressively pursuing new additions. Their most notable signing this summer, Cole Aldrich, can help this season and also protects them against the likelihood that big man Dieng signs a lucrative offer sheet they should not match while also opening the door for an in-season Dieng trade.

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If the next collective bargaining agreement includes another amnesty provision, clearing Nikola Pekovic’s $11.6 million would be a massive boon for the Timberwolves’ offseason possibilities. They also need to make a decision on Muhammad, a key bench scorer, while both Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine will be eligible for extensions. The big decisions will start coming quickly for one of the league’s most exciting young teams.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Likely 2017 cap space: $5.8 million.
Realistic maximum 2017 cap space: $9.6 million.
Key potential free agents: Steven Adams (restricted), Victor Oladipo (restricted), Andre Roberson (restricted), Ersan Ilyasova (unrestricted), Joffrey Lauvergne (restricted).

Losing Durant and extending Westbrook changed the arc of the Thunder as a franchise, but they still have massive choices to make. After acquiring Oladipo in the Serge Ibaka trade, Oklahoma City has three notable restricted free agents: Adams, Oladipo and Roberson. All three should make substantially more than their reasonable cap holds, which allows the Thunder to spend their surprisingly limited remaining cap space on new players. However, using that extra $5-10 million would presumably push the Thunder into luxury tax range for at least the 2017-18 season and that may not be palatable for ownership.

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If Westbrook is less interested in staying long term, draft night makes sense as a potential time to trade him since they could replace their star with rookies and more salary flexibility, as they did with Ibaka this summer. Oklahoma City also acquired French big man Lauvergne from the Nuggets this summer. He will be a restricted free agent as well and could fit into their rotation and plans depending on what happens with the rest of the team.

Portland Trail Blazers

Likely 2017 cap space: none.
Realistic maximum 2017 cap space: none.
Key potential free agents: Mason Plumlee (restricted), Festus Ezeli (partial guarantee).

The Blazers started this offseason with a ticking clock on their cap space because of imminent pay raises for Crabbe, McCollum, Meyers Leonard and Plumlee. They reacted by spending on Turner and Ezeli before retaining their players and then solidified that commitment by extending McCollum now rather than waiting until he hit restricted free agency next summer.

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As such, the Blazers will be deep in the luxury tax for 2017-18 even if they do not re-sign Plumlee or pick up Ezeli’s option. The Blazers will have the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, minimum contracts and their first round pick to improve the team next summer.

Utah Jazz

Likely 2017 cap space: none.
Realistic maximum 2017 cap space: $44.7 million.
Key potential free agents: Gordon Hayward ($16.7 million player option), Rudy Gobert (restricted), George Hill (unrestricted), Boris Diaw (non-guaranteed).

The Jazz may end up with the league’s most interesting offseason because of their already high talent level and myriad possibilities. Because of Gobert’s hilariously low $5.3 million cap hold and other contributors still on rookie scale deals, they have serious money to spend.

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A significant portion of that could end up going to Hayward if he opts out as expected and elects to return to Utah, but if he leaves, the Jazz would have enough space for a max-level free agent. They could also cut into that space between now and next July by agreeing to a renegotiation and extension with talented forward Derrick Favors or recently acquired George Hill using their 2016-17 cap space before March 1. The Jazz will also look to retain forward Joe Ingles and backup center Jeff Withey while deciding on Diaw’s non-guaranteed $7.5 million.