NORTHWEST

December 05, 2011

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER(55--27)

What they've got

The Thunder's impressive progress should continue. As Kevin Durant guns for a third straight scoring crown, a well-rounded supporting cast consisting of ruthless point guard Russell Westbrook, versatile guard James Harden, shot-blocking big man Serge Ibaka and bruiser Kendrick Perkins will have Oklahoma City in title contention.

What they need

G.M. Sam Presti signed Durant to a long-term extension last summer and now needs to do the same with Westbrook, who will be eligible for a four-year rookie extension when this tentative CBA is ratified. Durant has been playing assistant G.M. recently, recruiting free agent Shane Battier (Grizzlies) on Twitter to be his backup at small forward.

Bottom line

To reach the top, Durant can no longer afford to defer and let Westbrook run wild, as he did in a five-game loss to the Mavericks in the Western finals. If they put their trust in a Durant-centric attack, this young team is capable of beating anyone.

DENVER NUGGETS(50--32)

What they've got

The new mascot should be a blank check or a giant question mark. After dealing Carmelo Anthony last February, they have loads of salary-cap room (about $28 million) and mass uncertainty: Only seven players, including Danilo Gallinari are under contract.

What they need

First-time G.M. Masai Ujiri faces a daunting challenge. Three players who were part of Denver's remodeled core—Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Wilson Chandler—signed deals in China during the lockout that don't have opt-out clauses. What's more, Nen√™, Arron Afflalo and Gary Forbes are free agents. Afflalo is the most likely to re-sign. Denver will try to keep Nen√™ as well, but if he leaves, Ujiri has the hard task of selling Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol or Samuel Dalembert on coming to the Mile High City.

Bottom line

The most important Nuggets action of the next month will take place on the phone.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS(48--34)

What they've got

Forward LaMarcus Aldridge heads a balanced group that won 22 of its last 31 games before falling to the Mavericks in six games in the first round.

What they need

A general manager would be nice. The Blazers have yet to replace Rich Cho after hastily firing him last May. Whoever is hired will have a tough call to make: whether to use the amnesty clause on the face of the franchise, All-Star guard Brandon Roy, who is owed $68 million and has a pair of damaged knees that appear to have doomed his career. Portland will try to keep another injury-plagued player: restricted free-agent center Greg Oden, the No. 1 pick in 2007, who was tendered an $8.8 million qualifying offer.

Bottom line

Despite the devastating injuries and internal upheaval that continue to beset the Blazers, they still find a way to win under the respected guidance of coach Nate McMillan. Still, Portland is once again stuck in no-man's land—more than good enough to be in the playoffs, but nowhere near good enough to win a championship.

UTAH JAZZ(39--43)

What they've got

G.M. Kevin O'Connor has one of the toughest rebuilding jobs in the league. From the 2009 death of owner Larry Miller to the departure of legendary coach Jerry Sloan last season to the surprising February trade of point guard Deron Williams to the Nets, drastic changes resulted in just the second losing season for the Jazz since 1982--83. Now the hope for a more promising future lies in callow frontliners Derrick Favors, 20, and Enes Kanter, the No. 3 pick.

What they need

O'Connor will try to swap some of his overpaid veterans for more young talent. Of the approximately $57 million the Jazz has committed to salaries in 2011--12, roughly $42 million is tied to Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur and Devin Harris. Okur's $10.9 million expiring contract holds the most trade value.

Bottom line

Barring a miracle trade to turn it all around, unproven coach Tyrone Corbin & Co. will likely give Utah back-to-back losing records.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES(17--65)

What they've got

It might not be the most balanced roster, but the Timberwolves are no longer lacking for talent. The rookie tandem of Spanish playmaking sensation Ricky Rubio and Arizona forward Derrick Williams is as enticing as any. Forward Kevin Love, 23, emerged as an All-Star, and fourth-year small forward Michael Beasley had a career year (21.4 ppg).

What they need

G.M. David Kahn has made many well-chronicled mistakes, but he got one move right in hiring coach Rick Adelman in September. Minnesota will have some spending room and needs an upgrade from Wayne Ellington at off-guard. Jamal Crawford, anyone? He will be heavily recruited, but the chance to reap a big payday and score in droves for a team that's on its way up has its appeal.

Bottom line

Expect improvement—and maybe even some long-overdue fun—but no playoff spot for the eighth straight year.

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (WESTBROOK) PHOTOGREG NELSON (GALLINARI) PHOTOGREG NELSON (ALDRIDGE) PHOTOGREG NELSON (LOVE) PHOTONOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (FAVORS)

SCOUT'S TAKE

"Oklahoma City is obviously the clear favorite. The Blazers have a ton of question marks—you talk about players, but they don't even have a G.M."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)