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2012-13 NBA Preview: Northwest Division

2012-13 NBA Preview: Northwest Division
How They'll Finish
1
Oklahoma City Thunder
2011-12 Record: 47-19; lost to Heat in Finals
Top Addition: Eric Maynor | Biggest Loss: Derek Fisher
Everyone forgets how close the Thunder came in the Finals. If Kevin Durant gets the call with nine seconds left in Game 2 on the left baseline bump from LeBron James, then everything may have been different. Instead, James & Co. seized the moment and the momentum, avoiding the 2-0 hole and winning four straight games. But the Thunder, for anyone not remembering accurately, were a legitimate threat to the throne then and are even more so now. No young team has gained more experience than these Thunder, and there's little doubt they're a threat to reach the Finals again.
2
Denver Nuggets
2011-12 Record: 38-28; lost to Lakers in first round
Top Addition: Andre Iguodala | Biggest Loss: Arron Afflalo
If general manager Masai Ujiri's summer would have ended with the re-signing of young center JaVale McGee (four years, $44 million) and underrated veteran point guard Andre Miller (three years, $14.6 million), it would have been a moderate success. But the third-year general manager landed former Sixers swingman Andre Iguodala as part of the Dwight Howard trade in early August and thus continued to show why he's one of the fast-rising executives in the league. But improved roster and all, it's hardly a sure thing that the Nuggets improved their lot in the Western Conference. Each of the five teams above them in 2011-12 either improved or didn't regress, meaning coach George Karl will need to blend the old with the new as quickly as possible for the Nuggets to maintain their standing. If the enigmatic McGee can take the next step toward stardom -- and that's a big if -- it would help matters tremendously in the Mile High City.
3
Utah Jazz
2011-12 Record: 36-30; lost to Spurs in first round
Top Addition: Marvin Williams | Biggest Loss: Devin Harris
The Jazz did more than enough over the summer to stay in the playoff mix after sneaking in as the eighth seed last year, and their intriguing blend of proven vets and dynamic youngsters could be even better this time around. Much of the damage will be done down low, where free-agents-to-be Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson work surprisingly well together and now have even more to play for than before (i.e., a big payday). It's a key season for third-year big man and resident defensive presence Derrick Favors as well. New point guard Mo Williams is a solid upgrade over Devin Harris, who never curried favor with Jazz officials and was sent to Atlanta in a deal for the mysterious Marvin Williams. The 26-year-old small forward and former No. 2 pick is long overdue for a breakout.
4
Minnesota Timberwolves
2011-12 Record: 26-40
Top Addition: Andrei Kirilenko | Biggest Loss: Michael Beasley

The Timberwolves stayed busy in an attempt to end their eight-year playoff drought while keeping franchise centerpiece Kevin Love content. The Wolves look promising on paper but have a lot of "ifs." If Love doesn't get off to a good start when he returns from a broken right hand, if Brandon Roy's knees don't allow him to be a consistent contributor, if Andrei Kirilenko is only mediocre in his NBA return and if Ricky Rubio isn't the savior when he comes back from knee surgery, then general manager David Kahn could be in a tough position come next summer. Love, who signed a four-year extension worth up to $62 million in January, can become a free agent in 2015 and seems intent on applying pressure on Minnesota until then. He has already said publicly that the Wolves, who faded to 12th in the West last season after a rash of late-season injuries, should be a playoff team this season. But given Minnesota's injuries and the fact that Golden State set the same goal and no squad in the top eight took any steps backward, it is no sure thing.

5
Portland Trail Blazers
2011-12 Record: 28-38
Top Addition: Damian Lillard | Biggest Loss: Raymond Felton
The rebuilding has begun for the Blazers, who are now under the leadership of former Clippers general manager Neil Olshey but won't be enjoying the fast track that he orchestrated at his previous job. Olshey tried, to be sure, making a max offer to restricted free agent center Roy Hibbert, but Indiana matched. So Olshey focused on the draft, taking point guard Damian Lillard at No. 6 and center Meyers Leonard at No. 11. They both have serious potential, but will take some time to develop while playing major roles right away. Locking up his own restricted free agent, small forward Nic Batum, was an important move (yes, even at four years and $45 million) to keep some of the LaMarcus Aldridge-led core in place. New coach Terry Stotts, who had a 115-168 record as head coach in Atlanta and Milwaukee but carries a solid reputation after serving as Rick Carlisle's assistant in Dallas, will be doing the developing on a day-to-day basis.
Players To Watch
G
Andre Iguodala
2011-12 Stats: 12.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 5.5 APG
Career Stats: 15.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.9 APG
The beauty of the Nuggets' culture is that Iguodala won't have to make the All-Star team in order to qualify as a success. He just has to set the tone on defense while being at his best offensively and generally taking the entire operation to a previously unattainable level. Iguodala, who is four years removed from scoring a career-high 19.9 points per game for the Sixers, can be a free agent next July if it goes so poorly with the Nuggets and he doesn't exercise his $15.9 million option for 2013-14.
F
Kevin Love
2011-12 Stats: 26.0 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 1.9 3PM
Career Stats: 17.3 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 0.9 3PM
It wasn't too long ago that Love was being cast as a specialist, a gritty young forward who attacked the glass like no other but didn't have the overall goods to be a No. 1 option on a good team. Those days are way back in the rearview mirror now, but it will be interesting to see if Love can maintain the MVP-caliber level of play when he returns and help lift Minnesota to that long-awaited postseason berth.
G
James Harden
2011-12 Stats: 16.8 PPG, 3.7 APG, 1.8 3PM
Career Stats: 12.7 PPG, 2.5 APG, 1.5 3PM
Extension or no extension, the Harden developmental curve has reached a fork in the road. Is he content playing super sixth man on a championship-caliber team, or was last season so spectacular that the 23-year-old may want more of a lead role? And after struggling mightily in the Finals against Miami, can Harden pick up where he left off during the regular season? His efficiency from the field has skyrocketed over his brief career -- from 40.3 percent as a rookie to 43.6 percent in Year 2 to 49.1 percent last season -- so a backslide of some sort wouldn't be shocking.
Burning Questions
Is Damian Lillard for real? Portland was ecstatic to take the little-known point guard out of Weber State back in June. Despite hailing from a small school in the Big Sky Conference, Lillard showed off his shooting and slashing skills throughout the draft process and moved up the boards faster than anyone. But now that he'll be looking after the likes of Aldridge and Batum, Lillard will have to show he can handle a heavy load early.
Will the Thunder's ascent be complete? It was only three years ago that the Thunder debuted in Oklahoma City with a 23-win season. Back then, Durant was being pegged as the kind of scorer around whom a championship-caliber team could not be built. Then came the 50-win season and first-round loss to the Lakers in the playoffs in 2010, followed by 55 wins and a Western Conference finals bowout to Dallas in 2011 and the latest leap forward in the form of a Finals loss to Miami. Durant is not only a star but also a perennial MVP candidate, Russell Westbrook is as good a co-captain as there is and the threat of Harden's contract situation means the time should be now for the Thunder to seize their moment.
Will Denver keep dealing? Since taking over amid the 'Melo drama in August 2010, few -- if any -- executives have been as active with their roster as Ujiri. And because part of his strategy involves dealing players rather than losing them for nothing in free agency, more roster movement is possible -- if not probable -- if his team doesn't make real progress.
Did You Know?
Last season, against the Warriors, the Nuggets' Kenneth Faried became the first player in the shot-clock era (starting in 1954) to post 27-plus points and 17-plus rebounds in 25 minutes or fewer.
Denver's Karl is seventh all time in wins (1,074) and 14th in winning percentage (.595), while Minnesota's Rick Adelman is eighth in wins (971) and 12th in winning percentage (.597).
The Blazers haven't won a playoff series since 2000, a year when they fell to the Lakers in seven games in the Western Conference finals.
Bold Prediction
With Minnesota battered by injuries and Utah maintaining the momentum of last year's playoff run, the Jazz hold off the Timberwolves and other challengers in a deep conference to return to the postseason.
Northwest Video Preview
Chris Mannix's Fast Breaks: Oklahoma City Thunder
Source: SI
SI.com's Chris Mannix previews the 2012-13 NBA season for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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