Summer Notes: Northwest Division

Photo Credit: NBAE, Design: Stephanie Genet

This summer is taking a look at the many changes made around the league and taking stock of how they'll affect each division in 2010-11.

The Northwest may not have any title winners since 1979, but it's the only division to feature four 50-game winners, or even come close to doing so. Of course, its reign as the most cutthroat division relies heavily on a number of pending issues: health in Portland, Al Jefferson in Utah, the continued improvement of the Thunder and, of course, the destination of Carmelo Anthony should he go anywhere at all.

Utah Jazz:
2009-10 Record: 53-29
Finished: 1st in Division, Lost in second round to Los Angeles Lakers

The Jazz were in the unique situation of being the only team to make the playoffs and have a pick in the lottery in 2010. They capitalized on that by selecting NCAA tournament darling Gordon Hayward (Butler) with the ninth pick, one that immediately paid on-paper dividends when perimeter players Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews were signed away by Chicago and Portland, respectively.

Matthews, by the way, was a restricted free agent, but Portland, for the second consecutive year after doing the same with Paul Millsap, offered a front-loaded contract that would have pushed Utah deep into the luxury tax. A little inter-division gamesmanship, but that's beside the point.

More importantly, Utah suffered the largest loss of any team in the Northwest when Carlos Boozer was also signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Bulls. Fortunately, no team in the league is as well equipped to fill the hole with Millsap waiting in the wings, and that's before the team acquired forward Al Jefferson from Minnesota using the same trade exception gained from Boozer's departure. There's a strange sort of synergy to how things worked out.

Jefferson isn't Boozer, though. He's talented but different, and will take time to adjust to what will be at least his third offensive system in as many years after the Timberwolves attempted to run the triangle last season. Boozer is one of the best pick-and-roll men in the league, scoring 1.27 point per such possession in 222 plays. Jefferson was solid, scoring 1.02 PPP as the pick setter, but was involved in just 87 all season.

Denver Nuggets:
2009-10 Record: 53-29
Finished: 2nd in Division, Lost in first round to Utah Jazz

With a 113 offensive rating over the past three seasons – that's points per 100 possessions – Denver has never been a team that's struggled to score. That didn't stop them from adding another talented offensive player in Al Harrington, their only significant change this summer outside of declining to match Toronto's offer to Linas Kleiza.

So how does Harrington, a consistent and reliable scoring option, affect Denver's offense? Imagine you have a great bunch of friends. You have the funny guy, the smart guy, someone who makes decisions, someone who's always falling over for a cheap laugh and a couple more role players. The group dynamic just works. Now add another funny guy. All the sudden you have two guys trying to fill the exact same role in your group, trying to make clever jokes about the exact same things. Things can get awkward.

The Nuggets already had a unique group, with a number of players providing specific things. J.R. Smith, in 27 minutes per game off the bench, takes the most three pointers among shooting guards in the league (6.2). Chauncey Billups, the starting point guard, takes the third-most threes at his position (5.6). Harrington, who will likely play power forward off the bench, took more threes (5.9 per game) at the four spot than anyone not named Rashard Lewis, albeit in a shot-happy New York system. Even with Nene, Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony doing their work in and around the paint – not to mention the matchup advantages Harrington offers – that's an offense that could teeter off balance.

And that's before we consider Anthony's status with the team. After all the free agency hullabaloo died down and the Chris Paul rumors stopped flowing, Anthony has dominated the rest of the summer after leaving a three-year $65 million contract extension on the table and releasing the names of teams he would prefer to be traded to without actually making a trade demand. With Anthony's contract expiring next summer, the ongoing saga will cloud Denver's future until its resolution.

Portland Trail Blazers:
2009-10 Record: 50-32
Finished: 3rd in Division, Lost in first round to Phoenix Suns

How quickly we forget. Just one year ago, the Blazers were the up and coming team in the NBA, projected by many to be a darkhorse contender. Brandon Roy was coming off a magnificent campaign, Greg Oden had impressed many with his summer play with Team USA and the team added Andre Miller in free agency. Then the walls came tumbling down as the knees of Oden, Joel Przybilla and, later, Brandon Roy, crumbled beneath them.

The Blazers still managed to win 50 games and make the playoffs despite a staggering amount of injuries, but now some view them as an afterthought in the West. Why? Injuries, sad as they can be, aren't generally interesting because they make it too difficult to asses what a team actually has and is. And if a team itself still doesn't know what it has, how is it supposed to make wholesale changes in the offseason?

Maybe that's why the team kept to its usual offseason plan: tinkering and adding assets whenever possible. As his last acts as general manager, Kevin Pritchard drafted rookies Elliot Williams and Armon Johnson, and traded veteran shooting guard Martell Webster for another pick that became Luke Babbitt.

From there, working without a general manager for weeks, the Blazers signed second-year guard Wesley Matthews away from Utah and, while making some reported plays for Chris Paul in the trade market, stayed quiet until hiring Rich Cho away from Oklahoma City as GM. And Cho has had to deal with the reported unhappiness of Rudy Fernandez, whose agent has hinted the guard may hold out of training camp if he's not traded.

The rest has been a relatively quiet waiting game, waiting for Oden's knee to heal and for the team to be seemingly be fully assembled and healed for the first time in, ever.

Oklahoma City Thunder:
2009-10 Record: 50-32
Finished: 4th in Division, Lost in first round to Los Angeles Lakers

The Thunder signed Kevin Durant to a five-year extension. They win.

The end.

OK, that's clearly not all Oklahoma City and general manager Sam Presti accomplished during the offseason, but it was by far the most important. In fact, ensuring that Durant will be around for awhile may be one of the biggest signings of the entire summer.

Presti also addressed the team's greatest perceived weakness: size. For the price of two late first round picks, the Thunder moved into the late lottery to take Kansas center Cole Aldrich. How Aldrich's game will translate to the NBA is unknown, but if he pans out Oklahoma City just might live up to the astronomic expectations being placed on it.

Minnesota Timberwolves:
2009-10 Record: 15-67
Finished: 5th in Division, Picked No. 4 in 2010 NBA Draft

Kevin Love made quite the impression in limited minutes for Team USA, but questions linger concerning the rest of Minnesota's offseason. Will the team commit to building a frontcourt around Love after trading for Michael Beasley and signing Darko Milicic? After adding Luke Ridnour and Sebastian Telfair to their batch of point guards – and trading last summer's guard signing Ramon Sessions – will one of Minnesota's point men emerge as a long-term option? When will Ricky Rubio arrive? Will No. 4 pick Wesley Johnson make as great an impact at small forward, after the team trade for veteran wingman Martell Webster, as DeMarcus Cousins could have made at center?

Only time will tell.

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