Posted Feb 7 2012 11:29AM
Kevin Durant, George Karl, Paul Millsap, Nicolas Batum and David Kahn all might want to do screen grabs today if they check online for the latest NBA standings. It's a special day, long time coming, one that might not pass this way again -- or at least, anytime soon.
The NBA "Northworst" is dead! Long live the NBA "Northbest!"
Actually, the division in which Durant, Karl, Millsap, Batum and Kahn can be found has been new and improved for most of this lockout-shortened season. But ever since Minnesota beat Houston Saturday, 100-91, to claw back to .500 for the first time in five years (this deep into a season), the Northwest division has had a distinctive symmetry and some serious bragging rights.
All five of its teams now are .500 or better; no other division has more than three. Collectively, the five Northwest teams -- Oklahoma City (19-5), Denver (15-10), Utah (13-10), Portland (14-11) and Minnesota (12-12) -- are +25 (73-48, .603), making it the best division by far, top to bottom. The Central is +3 overall. Each of the other four divisions is underwater.
And if you want to go by postseason ambitions, all five Northwest teams are packed into the Western Conference's top 10. If Minnesota could close its gap (1.5 games) and pass the Rockets, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Dallas Mavericks between now and the end of the season, the Northwest might be able to squeeze all of its members into the playoffs. That has happened only once since the current six-division alignment began in 2004-5. All five Central teams qualified in the Eastern Conference in 2005-06.
If the NBA did what a lot of observers suggest and simply seeded its playoff bracket 1 through 16, the Timberwolves would be No. 18, breathing down Boston's necks as well.
So why the screen grab? Well, the Wolves will face Sacramento and Memphis this week without Kevin Love, its leading scorer and rebounder, due to the two-game suspension Love got for leaving size-19 treadmarks on Houston's Luis Scola the other night. That easily could tilt their record to the right again. Understand, too, that Minnesota isn't used to the air up there; the last time it sniffed .500 this late, the head coach got fired (Dwane Casey, 20-20, 2007).
Things are trending down elsewhere, too, with Denver dropping three in a row and five of six, and Utah losing three of its last four. Portland has lost two of three, including the 111-107 overtime defeat Monday that would have been over in regulation if not for the erroneous call on LaMarcus Aldridge's late block of Kevin Durant.
But all of that is short-term pain in what has been some welcome relief from a long-term struggle.
While the Northwest mathematically has not been the NBA's worst division over the seven seasons prior to this one, it has had more than its share of woes. Four of its five teams (Denver is the exception) have finished last at least once. The division has produced 17 playoff qualfiers, better than the Pacific and the Atlantic (15 each) but behind the Southwest (22), Central (21) and Southeast (20).
Overall, Northwest teams were a combined 104 games under .500 prior to this season. The Atlantic (-280) and the Southeast (-144) were worst but at least they had each other for company; in the Western Conference, the Pacific was +2 across seven seasons while the Southwest was a staggering +450.
Each of the teams in the Northwest also has undergone some major changes -- some might say convulsions -- in personnel or circumstances. The Thunder, remember, used to be the Sonics, anchored in Seattle until politics and opportunism collided to relocate them. Portland continued to be the unluckiest team in the NBA in terms of injuries, losing center Greg Oden repeatedly and indefinitely and All-Star guard Brandon Roy permanently.
Utah had a blow-up in which nobody blamed anybody -- well, Karl Malone pointed some fingers -- but head coach Jerry Sloan and franchise point guard Deron Williams both were gone when the smoke cleared. Denver went through its Carmelo Anthony hell last season before emerging, a little crispy but happier, on the other side. And always, there was Minnesota, trading the only likely Hall of Famer (Kevin Garnett) it's ever had and embarking on rebuilding efforts the way Miami predicts championship (not one, not two ...).
Common denominators in the division's turnaround? Patience, for one. The Thunder seeded their plan with Durant, Russell Westbrook and a few other deft personnel moves and have given it time to grow. The Wolves might have had no special inklings about playmaker/gate attraction Ricky Rubio when he fell to them in the 2009 Draft, but Kahn, the team's basketball czar, cultivated a relationship across the Atlantic over two years and didn't give in to any temptation to deal him.
Humility is another thread running through the Northwest. Maybe it's well-earned -- the division has produced no NBA championships (Portland and Seattle each won once a lifetime ago). But the disappointing experiences with Anthony, Williams and the countless free agents who maybe window-shop in the Northwest before heading elsewhere has its five teams pursuing more of an ensemble approach to winning, rather than something superstar-driven.
The results finally are showing. In fact, at its collective .603 winning percentage, the Northwest would finish 84 games over .500 in a normal 82-game regular season. That would rank second -- across 48 outcomes, six divisions times eight seasons (including this one) in this divisional format -- to the Southwest's dominating +96 in 2010-11.
All five teams in the Southwest -- San Antonio, Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis and Houston -- finished above .500 a year ago. The Mavericks won the NBA title, the Spurs posted the West's best regular-season record (61-21) and only the Rockets, despite a 43-39 mark, missed the postseason.
Let's hope they all got a screen grab after that one. Then maybe the Northwest crews can compare theirs when this season is over.
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