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The NBA Story Lines Beneath the Surface: Northwest Division

Is there reason to worry about Donovan Mitchell? Is Hassan Whiteside … good? With the league still in limbo, we’re digging deep into overlooked in-season developments for the Nuggets, Jazz, Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, and Thunder.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Basketball is very good. This long hiatus is … not. If there’s a small silver lining, it’s that the break provides time to dig beneath the surface and explore each team’s core identity, whether the games are played in front of cardboard cutouts of fans at Disney World or not. We’ll be looking at the overlooked story line for each team, division by division, over the next few weeks.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell Hide and Seek

It’s not unusual for a team to hide its best offensive player on the defensive end. It’s why superstar matchups rarely materialize—there’s almost always a defensive specialist better suited to take the assignment of covering a star, mainly because he can devote all his energy to the task.

It’s a necessary evil of a marathon season. Coaches are smart to save superstars from themselves, and let them focus on generating offense instead. Quin Snyder has done just that with Donovan Mitchell, who is shouldering more of the offensive load than expected because of Mike Conley’s struggles.

As a result, Mitchell has spent just 8.7 percent of his defensive possessions guarding the opponent’s top offensive option, according to data compiled by Krishna Narsu. For context: Jazz wing Royce O’Neale guards the top assignment 29.5 percent of the time.

Mitchell entered the league as a defensive-minded prospect before quickly outgrowing that role. It’s come at a price, though. No one on Utah contests fewer shots per 36 minutes than Mitchell. His steal rate has declined each year since his rookie campaign, and Utah is plus-5.7 points better defensively when he’s off the floor this season. You can cherry-pick bad defensive highlights for every player, but rookies probably shouldn’t be closing you out with plays like this:

Mitchell has the physical tools, and he very well may be capable of flipping the defensive switch in the postseason when conserving energy is less of a concern. Still, with Utah taking a step back defensively this season, it would be nice to see him sharpen the knives every now and then.

Denver Nuggets: Slowing Down Gary Harris

It’s a tradition unlike any other. A new coach takes over, and he promises to play a faster pace than his predecessor. Here’s what Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said at his introductory press conference back in 2015:

“Every coach in the NBA wants to get stops and attack and run before the defense gets set,” Malone said. “Who wants to play against a set defense? I know I don’t.”

Fast-forward to the 2019-20 season, and the Nuggets have Nikola Jokic functioning as a de facto point guard. As a result, Denver has crawled to the league’s second-slowest pace in the league.

Here’s the Nuggets’ pace rankings under Malone:

  • 2015-16: 17th
  • 2016-17: 6th
  • 2017-18: 15th
  • 2018-19: 26th
  • 2019-20: 29th

It’s hard to fault Malone for keeping the ball in the hands of his best playmaker. Jokic is dynamic in the middle of the floor, turning dribble handoffs into hard-to-guard pick-and-rolls and delivering pinpoint passes to cutters. Still, there have been unintended consequences of the slower pace he requires, and Gary Harris seems to be the one suffering the most.

Harris looked like one of the league’s best shooting guards two seasons ago, averaging 17.5 points a game on nearly 40 percent 3-point shooting at the age of 23, but his decline has been as sharp as his rise. Harris’s jumper has all but abandoned him. He’s barely averaging double-digit points (10.4) on 33 percent 3-point shooting in what should be the prime of his career.

Harris is getting fewer catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts—28.3 percent of his offense in 2019-20 compared to 33.6 percent in 2017-18. Instead, he’s getting more looks coming off the dribble and later in the shot clock.

Just look at Harris’s 3-point shooting totals six seconds or less into the shot clock:

  • 2017-18: 47-for-92 from 3 (51.1 percent)
  • Last two seasons combined: 24-for-86 from 3 (27.9 percent)

Malone isn’t in an enviable situation. He’s held out belief that Harris will eventually snap out of it, leaving him in the starting lineup and playing him big minutes. The front office did the same, dealing Malik Beasley, his most sensible replacement, at the trade deadline. The Nuggets are pot committed—Harris has two years and nearly $40 million remaining on his contract—and he’s the type of defender and off-ball cutter you need on a team with Jokic.

But this is more than a slump. Harris is hesitating, turning open looks into contested ones. Denver has title aspirations and can’t wait around too much longer for Harris to figure it out. A concerted effort to play faster and get Harris the ball early in transition won’t fix everything, but it might spark something.

Portland Trail Blazers: Kind of a Big Deal

Who ya got? Stats are per 36 minutes:

  • Player A: 19.2 points, 14.9 rebounds, 3.4 blocks, 52.8 FG%, 22.9 PER, .215 WS/48
  • Player B: 18.7 points, 16.4 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, 61.8 FG%, 25.0 PER, .204 WS/48

Player A is … 1976-77 NBA champion and Finals MVP Bill Walton.

Player B is … 2019-20 Hassan Whiteside.

Whiteside’s monster campaign prompts an interesting question: Is there anything a rim-running center can do to impress us anymore? This season, Whiteside has hit statistical plateaus in points, rebounds, and blocks that only four other players ever have (all former MVPs and in the Hall of Fame), and yet it barely registers.

Part of it might be the name attached to the numbers, as Whiteside has always paired big stats with waning effort in the areas that aren’t as readily recorded. Whiteside is also in a contract year, and Portland as a whole has fallen off the radar because of a subpar record. But while a depleted bench has caused plenty of issues, the Blazers are plus-10.5 in net rating with Whiteside on the floor.

The perception of non-shooting centers hasn’t fully recovered from Golden State’s run. Versatility is king, and sacrificing that for anything other than near-perfection from a classic rim protector and non-floor-spacer isn’t considered worth the squeeze. Even at his best, Whiteside isn’t skilled enough elsewhere to transcend this role (even if he thought he would), and that will make his upcoming free agency one of the most interesting cases we’ve seen in years. Portland won’t have a real need to keep him with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins on the mend, and other teams may be hesitant to throw long-term money at a 31-year-old center with well-documented effort issues.

In 2016, Bismack Biyombo signed a four-year contract worth $72 million. Whiteside is a superior player in every sense, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll even sniff that kind of financial commitment this offseason. What a strange four years it’s been.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Early Warning Signs for Jarrett Culver?

Here’s the bad news: If the season is in fact over, Jarrett Culver has the dubious distinction of being the worst free-throw-shooting rookie wing in league history with at least 115 free throw attempts. Culver shot just 46.2 percent from the charity stripe this season.

The good news? Rookie campaigns are not always a great predictor of what’s to follow. Karl Malone, one of the deadliest elbow shooters in NBA history, shot 48 percent from the foul line his rookie season. Lonzo Ball couldn’t hit water from a boat as a rookie—he’s now a 38 percent 3-point shooter. Things change. Shot doctors and sports psychologists are pretty good at their jobs.

It’s still hard not to be a little discouraged. Culver brings a lot to the table—floor vision, rebounding, defensive potential—but he can’t go full Nick Anderson on us this soon. Minnesota will need a slashing type next to shoot-first stars D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns, and free throw shooters this bad naturally start to avoid contact. It’s a potential problem.

There were still a lot of positive takeaways from Culver and Minnesota’s rookie class on the whole. Jordan McLaughlin looks like a seasoned backup point guard already, taking care of the ball and spoon-feeding teammates good looks. Naz Reid looks like Marreese Speights 2.0—and I mean that in the most complementary way possible. Culver had an 11-game streak of scoring in double figures when he was receiving bigger minutes. All is not lost.

With Andrew Wiggins shipped out, the opportunities for Culver to take on more time and a larger role in Minnesota’s go-go scheme are going to pile up. Here’s hoping he doesn’t shy away from it.

Oklahoma City Thunder: A Superglue Superstar

It’s usually pretty easy to put young players in one of three buckets: superstar, starter, or role player. But every now and then you get that rare talent who can bounce between all three depending on their present company. These guys don’t come along all that often—think Scottie Pippen or Manu Ginobili—but they are the superglue of the league. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of them.

For as much attention as Chris Paul has gotten and deserves for being an exiled 35-year-old point guard who unexpectedly carried the Thunder to such a successful season, SGA’s accomplishments overshadow him. Here’s the list of guards to average at least what Gilgeous-Alexander has (19 points, six rebounds, three assists) in their second seasons: Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Steve Francis, and Luka Doncic. That seems good!

Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to rebound, guard multiple positions, and blend in offensively has been a perfect fit next to Paul and Dennis Schröder, and the trio has quickly morphed into one of the league’s most formidable groups. No three-man group has a higher net rating (minimum 400 minutes) than OKC’s stable of guards at plus-28.6, and it’s been the driving force behind OKC’s superiority over its opponents in the clutch. In the past 16 years, no team has recorded a better fourth-quarter point margin (plus-2.5) than the Thunder. And in the 42 games when the score was within five points with less than five minutes to play this season, Oklahoma City racked up a league-leading plus-30.2 net rating. That’s not possible without Gilgeous-Alexander’s versatility to play on and off the ball and shift wherever needed.

After a rookie season where he was largely in the shadow of Doncic and Trae Young, Gilgeous-Alexander is once again stage left of the CP3 show in OKC. Don’t fall for it. Blending in is what Gilgeous-Alexander does best, but he’s been too good at it not to pop as one of the premier young talents in the league.

D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.