By Britt Robson
December 17, 2011
2011-12 NBA Preview: Northwest Division
How They'll Finish
Oklahoma City Thunder
2010-11 Record: 55-27; lost to Mavericks in West finals
Top Addition: Reggie Jackson | Biggest Loss: None
Even if it had been a typical offseason, the Thunder would have been regarded as prime title contenders (and heavy favorites to repeat as Northwest Division champs) based on their unique blend of playoff-tested young talent and near-complete roster stability. But with the turmoil generated by the lockout and condensed free agency buffeting their most fearsome conference rivals, and with added weeks for center Kendrick Perkins to further heal his aching wheels, the path to the Finals is a little wider and brighter for stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and their versatile running mates Serge Ibaka and James Harden.
Denver Nuggets
2010-11 Record: 50-32; lost to Thunder in first round
Top Addition: Andre Miller | Biggest Loss: Kenyon Martin
Keeping Nene cements a solid future for George Karl's team, which should now weather some overseas defections and build on the selfless offense and swarming defense that keyed its unexpected spurt after the Carmelo Anthony trade. In addition to re-signing their multitalented big man (and hopefully getting capable two-way swingman Arron Afflalo to follow soon), the Nuggets have gone about trying to recreate last year's depth. New additions Rudy Fernandez, Corey Brewer and rookie Kenneth Faried could help fill the roles previously held by Gary Forbes, J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler and Martin, the latter three free agents playing in China.
Portland Trail Blazers
2010-11 Record: 48-34; lost to Mavericks in first round
Top Addition: Raymond Felton | Biggest Loss: Brandon Roy
Greg Oden's chronic knee woes have put his season in jeopardy again -- familiar fare for a team that has had more talent sapped by injuries than any other club over the past two years. Oden's legs aren't the only risk factor. There is Marcus Camby's age, Gerald Wallace's breakneck style, Felton's pudgy physique and Nate McMillan's grind-it-out system. But there is also plenty of skill here, led by breakout star LaMarcus Aldridge, high-motor swingmen Wes Matthews and Nic Batum and scoring guard Jamal Crawford. The cerebral cool of the prematurely retired Roy and (to a lesser extent) Andre Miller will be missed. But if the Blazers can avoid a third consecutive year of heavy injuries, they'll be in the playoff mix again.
Utah Jazz
2010-11 Record: 39-43
Top Addition: Enes Kanter | Biggest Loss: Andrei Kirilenko (free agent)
After more than 20 years as the NBA's most stable and predictable franchise, the Jazz are suddenly a team without an identity in the wake of last season's departures by Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams. The fallout from trading Williams has left the roster unbalanced. The frontcourt is overloaded, with two promising kids (Derrick Favors, 20, and Kanter, 19) added to three offensively potent, defensively challenged veterans (Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Mehmet Okur). And the backcourt is thin, with point guard Devin Harris more adept at finishing than finding teammates, and swingman C.J. Miles needing to become more than a prolific scorer in spot situations as he enters his contract year. Gordon Hayward and rookie Alec Burks offer hope for the future alongside Favors and Kanter.
Minnesota Timberwolves
2010-11 Record: 15-67
Top Addition: Ricky Rubio | Biggest Loss: Sebastian Telfair
Don't underestimate the rebuilding job ahead: Minnesota has averaged 19.5 wins the last four seasons. New coach Rick Adelman confers instant credibility and rookies Derrick Williams and (finally) Rubio both have the potential to be legitimate cornerstones beside rebounding champ and Most Improved Player Kevin Love. But Adelman, a renowned and influential offensive strategist, knows he has to fix a defense that was ridiculously porous under his predecessor, Kurt Rambis. And it is past time for enigmas Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic and Anthony Randolph to assert themselves.
Players To Watch
Kendrick Perkins
2010-11 Stats: 6.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 0.9 BPG
Career Stats: 6.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.4 BPG
Perkins' ability to provide a rugged, ornery presence in the paint bolstered the Thunder defense down the stretch last season. But he was exposed in the playoffs for his offensive deficiencies and lack of mobility because of nagging injuries. Opponents will force him to convert chances near the hoop and especially at the free-throw line (where he is a career 53.4 percent shooter); if the slimmed-down Perkins can't deliver at least at the level he did with the Celtics, he'll find himself frequently spending his cherished crunch time riding the pine.
Ricky Rubio
2010-11 Euroleague Stats: 6.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.6 APG, 31.0% FG
Career Euroleague Stats: 5.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 34.1% FG
His legend was made in the gold-medal game at the 2008 Olympics, when the then-17-year-old Spaniard held his own matched up with Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. But since then, his Euroleague stats with Regal Barcelona have been underwhelming and there are questions about his shooting and physicality. An unbelievably gifted passer, he's in a good situation in low-pressure Minnesota, with Adelman, assistant coach Terry Porter and incumbent starting point guard Luke Ridnour to help guide him.
Chris Andersen
2010-11 Stats: 5.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.3 BPG
Career Stats: 5.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.6 BPG
A healthy Birdman, 34, would be a boon to the Nuggets in multiple ways: providing the toughness and swagger that left with Martin; generating the energy boost off the bench that he and Smith supplied in Denver's run to the Western Conference finals in 2009; and becoming a capable backup for Nene. But Andersen has struggled with injuries throughout his career, never getting more than 1,692 minutes in any of his nine years in the league (he reached that total in '09-10, averaging 22.3 minutes).
Burning Questions
Can Russell Westbrook learn to share? Westbrook's abiding confidence and desire to seize the moment have enabled him to wildly overachieve on what was expected of him coming out of college and become a legitimate top-five point guard. But he is also the reigning NBA leader in turnovers, and he finished third (behind Derrick Rose and LeBron James) in unassisted baskets last season. Westbrook's ability to dial back his own playmaking to maximize the scoring of Durant and the court vision of the savvy Harden might prove to be the final component required in the Thunder's bid for a title.
Is Utah coach Tyrone Corbin overmatched? The 48-year-old Corbin had never even been a lead assistant coach during his seven years in Utah -- that was Phil Johnson, who followed Sloan out the door last February -- and received a rude trial by fire, losing 16 of his first 21 games after taking over the Jazz before finishing the season 8-20. (Utah was 31-23 when Sloan resigned.) True, the shell shock of Sloan's departure after 23 seasons followed by the trade of Williams to New Jersey would be hard for any replacement coach to overcome. But Utah looked fundamentally unsound -- disorganized on offense and lazy on defense -- in the final two months of the season and Corbin appeared powerless to prevent it.
Can Raymond Felton flourish under Nate McMillan? After leaving slow-paced Charlotte, Felton had a career year under the up-tempo style of Mike D'Antoni in New York and Karl in Denver. Felton earned serious consideration for an All-Star berth while setting career highs in points (15.5) and assists (8.3). Now he is being asked to guide McMillan's notoriously deliberate offense in Portland, without Roy for support and with McMillan's stormy relationship with unflappable veteran Miller still fresh in everyone's mind.
By The Numbers
39.6 Average minutes per game for Aldridge last season, behind only Monta Ellis (40.3) and Rudy Gay (39.9). Clippers rookie power forward Blake Griffin was the only other non-perimeter player in the top 10, ranking eighth at 38.0.
29 Most games Minnesota has won in a season without Kevin Garnett in its 22-year history.
1,865 Personal fouls committed by the Jazz last season, the seventh time they've led the NBA in that category over the last 11 years. They haven't finished lower than eighth during that span.
Bold Prediction
If the Nuggets are able to re-sign Afflalo and avoid serious injuries, they will earn home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
Northwest Video Preview
Thunder 2011-12 season preview
Source: SI's Chris Mannix says the criticism of Russell Westbrook is unfair and that the 23-year-old point guard and Kevin Durant are set for another deep playoff run.

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