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Northwest Division preview

2010-11 NBA Preview: Northwest Division
How They'll Finish
1
Portland Trail Blazers
2009-10 Record: 50-32; lost to Suns in first round
Top Addition: Wesley Matthews | Biggest Loss: Martell Webster
Those who fixate on Greg Oden's latest aches and pains should remember that the Blazers went 17-6 after acquiring Marcus Camby last season. Also keep in mind that they won 50 games despite losing Oden five weeks into the season (his backup, Joel Przybilla, also went down in December), getting less than half a season from rising star Nicolas Batum, acclimating themselves to Andre Miller at the point and playing 15 games without their cornerstone, Brandon Roy. Add free-agent signee Matthews (and perhaps whatever immediate help they could receive should they finally trade Rudy Fernandez), and you have a team that should make the Lakers sweat for a fourth straight conference crown.
2
Oklahoma City Thunder
2009-10 Record: 50-32; lost to Lakers in first round
Top Addition: Cole Aldrich | Biggest Loss: Etan Thomas
Will the Thunder get "the bends" from such a rapid ascent? Just a year ago they were a bottom-feeding team with 43 victories total in the previous two seasons, led by one-dimensional scorer Kevin Durant. Now they are mentioned as a contender for a conference crown and NBA GMs predict that Durant will win the MVP. Durant and Russell Westbrook were arguably the two best players on the U.S.' gold-medal-winning FIBA World Championship team, but for the Thunder to reach even the conference semis, someone else -- James Harden? Serge Ibaka? -- needs to leapfrog Jeff Green as a bona fide third piece in the puzzle.
3
Utah Jazz
2009-10 Record: 53-29; lost to Lakers in second round
Top Addition: Al Jefferson | Biggest Loss: Carlos Boozer
Lots of roster turnover since the middle of last season, but Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan are a sturdy rudder amid the turbulence. New swingman Raja Bell -- a clone of Sloan defensively -- will be inspired to give Utah all he has; but at age 34, how much is left? Acquiring Earl Watson to back up Williams is one of those little moves with potentially big dividends -- it shows the Jazz want to be more than bridesmaids. But flirting with trading Andrei Kirilenko for Boris Diaw to save money shows the opposite.
4
Denver Nuggets
2009-10 Record: 53-29; lost to Jazz in first round
Top Addition: Al Harrington | Biggest Loss: Johan Petro
Remember just a year ago, when the story du jour was how much Carmelo Anthony had matured with his leadership and commitment to defense? As if the 'Melo drama wasn't enough in Denver, Kenyon Martin -- the past-his-prime, injury-prone Kenyon Martin -- is upset at not being offered a new contract, and one senses that Nene, Chris Andersen and J.R. Smith have all hit their performance ceilings. Harrington (who has missed time in the preseason with plantar fasciitis) is a decent pickup, but no savior. Assuming Anthony would have signed off on that complicated four-team trade proposal last month, the Nuggets may regret not dealing him to the Nets for Derrick Favors, Kirilenko and two first-round picks.
5
Minnesota Timberwolves
2009-10 Record: 15-67
Top Addition: Wesley Johnson | Biggest Loss: Al Jefferson
The easiest prognostication for the season is placing the Wolves last in the Northwest Division. But reports of GM David Kahn's cluelessness are exaggerated: This year's roster is longer, quicker and much more to coach Kurt Rambis' liking than the 15-win squad of a year ago. Stealing Michael Beasley from Miami, drafting silky scorer Wes Johnson and belatedly giving Kevin Love the minutes and respect he deserves are on-the-court positives. Now if only Darko Milicic, Love and Serbian rookie big man Nikola Pekovic can offer up a semblance of resistance when defending the paint.
Players To Watch
C
Al Jefferson
2009-10 Stats: 17.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 1.3 BPG
Career Stats: 15.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.2 BPG
Is Jefferson an unlucky cuss surrounded by inferior and mismatched talent while steadfastly putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds, or a sham star whose disinclination to pass or defend contributed to his team's chronic losing these past five seasons? We should get a pretty accurate answer -- and no more excuses -- as Kirilenko slides over to help him at one end of the court while Williams feeds him at the other end.
G
James Harden
2010 Season Stats: 9.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.8 APG
Career Stats: 9.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.8 APG
The Thunder's personnel decisions over the past three years have quickly transformed them into a model franchise for shrewd rebuilding, but the jury is still out on their selection of Harden over Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry and Ricky Rubio with the third pick in the 2009 draft. He showed promise as a rookie -- 37.5 percent from three-point range, 80.8 percent from the free-throw line, 2.8 fewer points per 100 possessions allowed by OKC when he was on the court -- and at 21 he's a smart kid at the bottom of his learning curve. But the sooner he justifies his draft placement, the further the Thunder move on in the playoffs.
F
Michael Beasley
2009-10 Stats: 14.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.3 APG
Career Stats: 14.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.2 APG
Being discarded for next to nothing by the Heat two years after being the No. 2 pick in the draft is pretty sobering. But very early indications are that he is bouncing back with confidence in Minnesota and proving himself capable of playing small forward beside Love and Milicic after floundering outside the power forward slot in Miami. If the former Kansas State star regains his college mojo, Pat Riley will have done Beasley and the Wolves a monumental favor.
Burning Questions
Can Miller and Roy make it work Portland's backcourt? This is a repeat of last year's burning question in Portland, which wasn't solved so much as tabled amid the barrage of injuries that riddled the Blazers' season and shook up their rotations. But it behooves Roy, Miller and coach Nate McMillan to determine how two playmakers who like to have the ball in their hands can mesh.
Will Chauncey Billups follow Anthony out of town this season in Denver? Unless the Nuggets assuage Anthony with a godsend deal along the lines of the Lakers' getting Pau Gasol to assist Kobe Bryant, Carmelo's exit seems a foregone conclusion. Does Billups -- a hometown hero whose positive impact in Denver has fortified his legacy -- then agree to be shipped to a contender? Either way, how do the suddenly rebuilding Nuggets, with Ty Lawson waiting in the wings and the looming insult of declining their $14 million option on Billups' contract for 2011-12, not deal him?
Can Utah's Williams retain his unofficial title as the NBA's best point guard? For the past few years, partisans for Chris Paul and Williams have waged a spirited debate over who is the better point guard. It's a worthy argument that tilted toward Williams when he produced another strong season, especially in the playoffs, while Paul missed 37 games with multiple injuries. The real trump card is that Williams has a better supporting cast than Paul -- which is why Rajon Rondo and possibly Derrick Rose could join the debate via high-profile excellence in the postseason.
By The Numbers
25, 2, 0 The number of years, respectively, that Utah's Jerry Sloan has been an NBA coach, won a conference championship and won the league title. Sloan is rightfully in the Hall of Fame already and possesses a singular presence and style of play that are a permanent part of NBA lore. But without a ring, he is destined to become the Charles Barkley of coaches.
24 The average age of the Thunder's projected starting lineup: Westbrook, 21; Durant, 22; Green, 24; Thabo Sefolosha, 26; and Nenad Krstic 27. The average drops to 21.8 when Harden (21) replaces Sefolosha and Ibaka (21) subs for Krstic -- arguably the Thunder's best lineup.
311 Number of games lost to injury by 13 Blazers players last season. Yet the Blazers still equaled the win total of the Thunder, who experienced good health throughout the season, a compelling reason to like Portland over OKC in the 2010-11 division race.
Bold Prediction
If Oden is able to play in the playoffs and Andrew Bynum is not, the Blazers will unseat the Lakers as Western Conference champions.
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