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Northwest Passage: The Northwest Division has been passed to a new set of coaches

It’s conspicuous, perhaps even a bit jarring, to look at a professional sports league with six divisions and notice that one division has as many new head coaches as the rest of the league combined.

When opening night arrives in a few weeks, the NBA’s Northwest Division will have three head coaches who did not serve as the head coach for their team last season. That’s as many as the number of coaches in the league’s other five divisions.

George Karl of the Sacramento Kings was brought aboard in the middle of the 2014-2015 season. Therefore, in terms of head coaches who were not in charge of a team last season, the list consists of six men. The Atlantic and Pacific Divisions have no new head coaches this season. In the Central, Fred Hoiberg is coaching the Chicago Bulls. In the Southeast, Scott Skiles is coaching the Orlando Magic. In the Southwest, Alvin Gentry is coaching the New Orleans Pelicans. That’s three.

Then comes the Northwest.

Sam Mitchell — who has previous experience as a head coach with the Toronto Raptors — will coach the Minnesota Timberwolves so that Flip Saunders can attempt to defeat Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In Denver, Michael Malone — unfairly cast aside by Sacramento last season before Karl took over — will try to rebuild the Nuggets. The disastrous Brian Shaw era is blessedly a thing of the past in the Mile High City.

In Oklahoma City (that noted urban area in the Northwest), Billy Donovan has been given the keys to the turbo-charged Thunder offense. He’ll try to get OKC across the altar and onto the victory podium next June.

The NBA Northwest Division is a place in which the longest-tenured head coach with his current team is Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s entering his fourth season. Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz is entering his second season as the head coach in Salt Lake City.

As you can see, this corner of the NBA is no bastion of longevity. It’s exactly the opposite. No division has been more beset by change or is more rife with uncertainty than this one.


We all have our thoughts and inclinations about this division, but certainties are quite different from initial leanings. Billy Donovan should represent an upgrade from Scott Brooks… but will that become apparent this year, or will Billy D. need one season in which to get acclimated to everything which makes the NBA different from college basketball?

Mitchell has experience being an NBA head coach, and playing alongside Kevin Garnett in KG’s first (early) go-round with the Timberwolves should help him this season. Nevertheless, can Mitchell — in an interim capacity — give Minnesota the level of leadership it needs, with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns on the same roster?

Can Malone take yet another dysfunctional situation — Sacramento was one — and make chicken salad out of chicken spit in the Rockies? In a delicious twist of fate, Denver let George Karl go before bringing in Brian Shaw. Malone was unfairly axed so that Karl could (eventually) replace him in California’s capital city. If Malone succeeds with the Nuggets, he will simultaneously:

1) validate Denver’s decision to part with Karl;

2) confirm how poor Denver’s hire of Shaw was, even though it seemed like a more than reasonable move to make at the time;

3) serve as a loud refutation of the Sacramento organization for terminating Malone’s employment when the Kings were clearly improving under his leadership;

4) establish himself as a fixer-upper coach, cementing his identity for the best reasons.

Oklahoma City might be the only team in the Northwest division with legitimate NBA title aspirations this season, but all three new head-coaching situations — in OKC, Denver and Minneapolis — are highly intriguing and spiced with unpredictability. It’s hard to see what Stotts can realistically to do make Portland into a playoff contender in the West, but Snyder — in only his second season in Utah — has a team with a great chance to make the playoffs. The Jazz are one of the most fascinating unknown quantities in the league right now.

The Northwest division — somewhat ironically, with the exception of the one team which actually does reside in the Pacific Northwest (the Oregon-based Blazers) — is a land filled with all sorts of possibilities. It’s more fluid than most of the divisions in the league.

How the coaches of each team in the division — especially the three newcomers, but also Quin Snyder — will have a lot to say about the way the Northwest is (and isn’t) won.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |