Oct 30 2013 2:38PM

Northwest Preview

DENVER NUGGETS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 57-25, third in Western Conference, lost to Golden State in first round
The warm and fuzzy feelings generated from the finest regular season in the NBA history of the Nuggets--including a team-record 15-game winning streak--quickly evaporated in the playoffs, amid a barrage of Stephen Curry three-pointers. The fallout from Denver's first-round upset loss to Golden State continued into the offseason: Head coach George Karl was fired; Masai Ujiri opted to head north of the border to become Toronto's GM. Andre Iguodala went from a Nugget to Golden State. Prior to Curry and the Warriors bringing a painfully quick end to its postseason, Denver played an exciting brand of uptempo basketball en route to securing the West's No. 3 seed. Several players blossomed under Karl, who was jettisoned despite being named NBA Coach of the Year. Ujiri left after winning Executive of the Year.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Long mentioned as a candidate for various NBA head-coaching jobs, Brian Shaw will have big shoes to fill in taking over for Karl and his 1,131 career victories. Promising GM Tim Connelly was hired to replace Ujiri, whose series of deft moves built the Nuggets into a deep, formidable squad in the brutal West. On the court, Denver will have to find a way to replace the two-way production of Andre Iguodala. Given the defections of Karl, Ujiri and Iguodala, most NBA prognosticators have already moved the Nuggets out of the top tier of the West, vaulting trendy teams such as Houston and Golden State (sensing a theme here) ahead of them. It will be up to the Nuggets' talented core of young players, including Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee, to show that a precipitous drop in the standings isn't imminent.

3 POINTS

Known affectionately as "Manimal" in the Rocky Mountains, Kenneth Faried is a tireless, energetic rebounder who gobbles up boards and finishes with ferocity around the rim. Faried's prominent role in the Nuggets' recent success sometimes makes it easy to forget that's he's only played two NBA seasons. On a team often known for its finesse, Faried brings grittiness and never gets outworked in the paint. Although it lacks a catchy nickname like Mike D'Antoni's "Six Seconds or Less" attack, the Nuggets have become a contemporary version of those Steve Nash-led Suns. For three consecutive seasons, Denver has ranked No. 2 in the League in pace. What impact will Brian Shaw have on the team's trademark style of play? Many expect fewer fastbreaks, but a greater emphasis on defense and rebounding. Free throws aren't actually free. As Nuggets fans will attest, that became aggravatingly clear last season, when Denver ranked 28th in the league in foul shooting percentage (70.1), ahead of only the Lakers and Pistons. The addition of Randy Foye (career 85.6 percent) and Nate Robinson (79.8) should help in this category, as should the departure of Andre Iguodala (career-low 57.4 percent last season).

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
It may have simply been a classic much-ado-about-nothing, media-generated "controversy," but Nuggets backup point guard Andre Miller made headlines in July when he was asked on NBA TV if his team can win 57 games again in 2013-14. "Naw, you know that's not going to happen again," Miller said in a moment of--depending upon your perspective--either refreshing honesty or depressing candor. The thing is, the Nuggets don't need to match their regular-season accomplishments of a year ago to make 2013-14 a successful season. With Brian Shaw at the helm, a franchise that has been a perennial first round casualty hopes to play a traditional style of hoops that's more conducive to sustained postseason runs. Shaw has described it as "smashmouth basketball" and hopes to see it tested in May. Although he's become more well-known lately for his frequent appearances on "Shaqtin' A Fool," the development of the mercurial JaVale McGee will be critical to Denver's short- and long-term future. Nuggets management wanted the highly-paid McGee on the floor more than the 18.1 minutes he logged under Karl last season, a disagreement that contributed to Karl's firing. In a move that ensures that McGee won't have to vie for the starting job this time around, the Nuggets traded incumbent first-stringer Kosta Koufos to Memphis. Koufos' game has about 1/20th of the entertainment value, but time will tell how wise it was for the Nuggets to deliberately leave themselves without a safety net for the high-wire antics of McGee. The son of former WNBA player Pamela McGee averaged 6.2 fouls per 48 minutes last season (Koufos averaged even more, at 6.5). In addition to McGee, many eyes will be on the return of small forward Danilo Gallinari, who was sidelined with a season-ending ACL injury in April. His timetable to play again is uncertain, but he was hopeful to be back before the calendar changes to 2014. Denver went 16-2 in the final 18 games played by the Italian sharpshooter, whose absence proved costly in the playoffs against Golden State. The early-season absence of Gallinari and permanent loss of Andre Iguodala undeniably hurt the Nuggets' chances of competing in the West, but since the trade of Carmelo Anthony, Denver has vocally prided itself on never being overly reliant on a single star. If the recent past is any indication, multiple players will simply increase their production and fill the void collectively. Wilson Chandler quietly did a lot in the playing time he was allotted last season, averaging 13.0 points and 5.1 rebounds in just 25.1 minutes. The Nuggets will need Chandler to continue to produce in similar fashion, both before and after Gallinari makes him much-anticipated return. In general, that's what the 2013-14 Nuggets season could be all about: Not falling off despite experiencing one of the NBA's roughest offseasons of any franchise. Denver has been one of the league's deepest teams 1 through 10. With less-discussed pickups such as J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye and 2013 Bulls playoff catalyst Nate Robinson, the Nuggets have a chance to again show that their depth is an underrated weapon. One of the league's biggest practitioners of the fast break will need everyone chipping in, in order to keep up with their biggest rivals in the rugged West.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Entering his third year, Jordan Hamilton will get a chance to get more burn in Denver. With the departure of Iguodala and Corey Brewer, Danilo Gallinari's recovery from injury and a fresh new head coach, this might be the opportunity for the 6-7 swingman to show what he can do. As a limited reserve (9.9 minutes per game in two seasons), Hamilton was never able to show his ability. He flashed plenty of potential during summer league and is expected to provide scoring with his versatility on the offensive end. "This is the opportunity I've been waiting for," he told SB Nation over the summer. "As of right now we're kind of thin on the wings with Gallinari down and a few guys leaving. I definitely think I can fit that mold once the season starts. This is the opportunity I've been waiting for to finally feel like I'm an NBA player."

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 31-51, 12th in Western Conference
Prior to Ricky Rubio making his season debut in mid-December, the Timberwolves were one of the NBA's feel-good stories, starting a surprising 11-9. When Rubio and Kevin Love finally were healthy at the same time on Dec. 15, it figured to only get better from there for Minnesota. Instead, amid a torrent of injuries, the bottom dropped out in the Twin Cities. The T-Wolves' playoff drought extended to a ninth consecutive season, with Love missing the final 53 games due to injury and 64 overall. In an otherwise dismal year, head coach Rick Adelman notched his 1,000th career victory in April, but Adelman also missed 11 games while caring for his wife-of-40-years Mary Kay, who has suffered from seizures.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Long-suffering Minnesota fans would love nothing more than to see their team reach the postseason for the first time since 2004, but to do so the T-Wolves will need to beat out some tough competition. Based on many analysts' 2013-14 predictions, Minnesota figures to fight it out with a handful of Western Conference clubs, including Denver, Portland, New Orleans, Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers for one of the final playoff seeds. For a team that has had so many injury problems in the past, it seemed like an ominous sign in early October when bench catalyst Chase Budinger was ruled out indefinitely due to knee surgery. The Wolves will keep their fingers crossed and hope that the injury bug will not hit as severely this time around, and that offseason additions such as guard Kevin Martin and forward Corey Brewer will make their expected impact. Minnesota also acquired forward Shabazz Muhammad and center Gorgui Dieng on draft night, but it's not likely either player will be a season-changer as rookies.

3 POINTS

Few teams have made better use of international scouting than the Timberwolves. On the club's preseason roster, for example, natives of nine different countries and four continents were represented. The United Nations feel of Minnesota's lineup can be a bit of a nightmare for play-by-play broadcasters (quick: try pronouncing "Gorgui" and "Shved"), but is a perfect illustration of basketball's international growth. A familiar face is back in Minneapolis, and the Timberwolves couldn't be happier. After the controversial and prickly reign of GM David Kahn ended in May, Minnesota installed Flip Saunders to run the team's front office. Saunders (411-326), the winningest coach in franchise history by a Lake Superior-sized margin, should provide the T-Wolves with a clearer direction. His hiring also could improve the chances of the organization convincing Kevin Love to remain in Minneapolis long-term when Love can become a free agent in 2015. In addition to Saunders, the 2013-14 season also marks a return "home" for forward Corey Brewer. The two-time NCAA champion at Florida was chosen seventh overall in the 2007 draft by the Timberwolves, but was a disappointment prior to Minnesota trading him in 2011. Brewer picked up a championship ring that year as a Dallas reserve, then excelled with Denver's past two playoff teams. His second stint in the Gopher State figures to be much more pleasant and productive than the first.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
The only group of people busier than the snow-plow drivers in Minneapolis over the last few winters? The Timberwolves' team doctors. Minnesota has gradually improved its talent base since drafting franchise player Kevin Love in 2008, but it's been virtually impossible to keep all of those gifted bodies on the court at the same time. The Timberwolves entered 2012-13 with considerable optimism, but two weeks before the regular season opener, Love broke his shooting hand while doing knuckle push-ups (of all things). He returned to the court for 18 games, only to break the same hand on Jan. 3 at Denver. He missed the rest of the season, essentially making it a lost year for the standout power forward. As a result, the entertaining duo of Love and Ricky Rubio played together for just five games last season, an extremely disappointing development for both Timberwolves fans and NBA League Pass subscribers. Recovering from an ACL injury he sustained in 2011-12, Rubio did not return to the court until Dec. 15. If that weren't bad enough, numerous other key players missed large chunks of the season, resulting in a staggering 15 different Timberwolves making at least one appearance in the starting lineup. Given that backdrop, it almost goes without saying that the No. 1 key to a playoff run for Minnesota in 2013-14 is health. Asked about his offseason regimen entering Year 6 of his superb pro career, Love joked "“ or maybe he wasn't joking "“ that he "tried to be a lot more lucky." If the two-time NBA All-Star can remain injury-free, he'll need to return to the Kevin Love of old for the Timberwolves to have a chance to reach the 2014 postseason. Likely due to his hand injury, Love shot just 35.2 percent (21.7 percent from three-point range) in his 18 appearances. Even his normally stellar foul shooting slipped to 70.4, perhaps the most telling indication that he was not physically right last season. Rubio also must take the next step as a player if the Timberwolves are to reach their potential. While the point guard from Spain receives rave reviews for his passing (7.3 apg) and defense (2.4 spg), Rubio's outside shot needs work. His subpar 36.0 field-goal percentage last season continued to allow defenders to go under screens and gave them an extra step when the fleet-footed Rubio tried to penetrate. Speaking of poor shooting, Minnesota ranked dead last in the NBA in three-point percentage (30.5), but made an excellent summer move by signing free agent Kevin Martin. Martin, who also played for Rick Adelman in Sacramento and Houston, must help lift Minnesota to respectability in a category that contributed greatly to last season's last-place finish. Another free-agent signee who will be crucial for the Timberwolves is Corey Brewer, who'll need to help replace the valuable contributions of forward Andrei Kirilenko. The multi-dimensional Kirilenko was a big loss for the Timberwolves due to his across-the-board contributions, but a big year from Brewer would help compensate. If Minnesota is to end the NBA's longest active postseason drought of nine years, it will require a combination of a clean medical record and several key members bouncing back from the agony of 2012-13. And no more knuckle push-ups.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
When Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic debuted in the NBA in 2010, he instantly piqued the curiosity of fans and media members alike, due to his massive 6-foot-11, 290-pound frame and uncanny resemblance to Superman movie villain "Non the Destroyer." Three years into his career, the native of Montenegro has become recognized around the league for much more than just his unique physical appearance "“ the man can flat-out play. Deemed a top-10 center by most analysts, Pekovic averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds last season, registering 26 double-doubles. When he scored 22 points or more, the Timberwolves went 9-1, but were just 22-50 in their other games. Given Kevin Love's versatility and ability to stretch the floor with his perimeter shooting, Pekovic is an ideal tag-team partner, an immoveable force in the low post. This summer, Minnesota acknowledged Pekovic's obvious importance to the team's long-term success by signing the restricted free agent to a reported five-year, $60 million contract. "Non" never made that kind of money.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 60-22, first in Western Conference, lost to Memphis in Semifinals
After negotiations on a long-term contract extension with sixth-man extraordinaire James Harden reached an impasse last October, the Thunder traded Harden to Houston, just days before opening night. Many NBA analysts immediately criticized the trade, projecting that Oklahoma City would fall from the ranks of the Western Conference elite without its bearded supersub. Instead, the Thunder hardly skipped a beat, winning 21 of their first 25 games. At the midway point, they were a gaudy 32-9. OKC ultimately finished with the league's second-best record and grabbed the West's No. 1 seed, a first during the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook era. The Thunder managed to win a playoff series despite Westbrook being injured vs. Houston early in Round 1, but was outmanned by Memphis in the West Semifinals.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
It was bad enough that Russell Westbrook's injury ruined the Thunder's 2013 postseason run. Now it may also affect 2014, because Westbrook is expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the regular season. There's very little margin for error in the Western Conference, where it will likely again require 60-plus victories for a team to secure homecourt advantage in the playoffs. For a second straight offseason, the Thunder lost its potent bench scorer; this time, Kevin Martin signed with Minnesota in free agency. Unlike many NBA teams who were eager to make big-name, big-money roster splashes this summer, Oklahoma City did not go hunting for a veteran to replace Martin, instead showing faith and patience in players already on the roster. Still, it would be foolhardy to dismiss Oklahoma City, which has improved its winning percentage in every season of Kevin Durant's career. Durant is arguably the NBA's second-best player behind four-time MVP LeBron James. The debate about Westbrook's value ceased permanently when fans and media members saw what the Thunder looked like without their dynamic lead guard. As long as that explosive duo is healthy at playoff time, OKC remains dangerous.

3 POINTS

As one of the smallest markets in the NBA, Oklahoma City has wisely always seemed to have one eye on the future during its recent rise to prominence. As a result of the James Harden trade, the Thunder picked in the 2013 lottery portion of the first round--taking center Steven Adams--despite a 60-22 record. One of the league's most talented young teams also may wind up with two first-round draft picks next June, again via the Harden deal, giving OKC a steady stream of talent as they continue to grow. How long has 39-year-old backup point guard Derek Fisher been in the NBA? He was once a Los Angeles Lakers teammate of Byron Scott. While Scott spent the past decade-plus as a head coach in New Jersey, New Orleans and Cleveland, Fisher built a playing career that is now in Year 18. The savvy southpaw owns five championship rings and could be the rare 40-something NBA player if his career continues into the 2014-15 season. Thunder shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha owns one of the league's most descriptive tattoos, a script that reads "The Game Chose Me" on his left biceps. The defensive-minded eighth-year veteran boasts a unique background, as the first Switzerland-born man to ever play in the NBA. According to Basketball-Reference.com, third-year pros Enes Kanter of Utah and Nikola Vucevic of Orlando were also born in the historically neutral nation.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Oklahoma City's ability to remain at the top of the Western Conference standings in 2013-14 essentially boils down to whether it can replace a few parts it has relied upon heavily in the past. That starts with compensating for Russell Westbrook's absence early in the season. The Thunder's ultra-durable All-Star point guard will finally miss a regular season game when Oklahoma City opens its season Oct. 30 at Utah, after perfect attendance of 394 consecutive contests over his five-year career. That the Thunder seemed unprepared during the 2013 playoffs to compete without Westbrook shouldn't have been too surprising, given that they'd played 441 straight games (including the postseason) without ever having done so. After Westbrook sustained a knee injury in Game 2 of a first-round matchup against Houston, Oklahoma City went just 3-6 the rest of the playoffs, including a 4-1 series defeat to Memphis in the West semifinals. The Thunder's ouster by the Grizzlies certainly couldn't be blamed on Kevin Durant. Sans Westbrook, Durant averaged 31.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game vs. Houston and Memphis, including piling up 41, 38 and 36 points in the first three non-Westbrook tilts. It may be impossible to ask Durant to do more than that, but the megastar and three-time NBA scoring champion will likely need to produce monstrous offensive numbers until December, when Westbrook is projected to return. In a conference filled with heavyweights, a slow start out of the gate by the Thunder could prove costly in their pursuit of a second straight No. 1 seed. The early-season spotlight will also shine brightly on third-year pro Reggie Jackson, the temporary replacement at starting point guard for Westbrook. Jackson was a revelation during the playoffs, scoring in double figures in all nine games following Westbrook's injury and averaging 15.3 points. Jackson's assist average was just 3.7 over the same stretch, however. The Boston College product will need to better involve his teammates in order to provide Durant with help in generating offense. Whether it was the Finals-qualifying "Big Three" of Durant, Westbrook and James Harden, or last season's trio in which Kevin Martin assumed Harden's role, Oklahoma City has always had a dangerous third scorer. Now that Martin departed in free agency for Minnesota, the Thunder will need someone to assert himself as a bigger offensive threat. It might be Serge Ibaka, who bumped his scoring average from 9.1 to 13.2 last season, but beyond Ibaka, most of the team's contributors are defensive-minded role players (Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison). For a franchise that uses its D-League affiliate (located in nearby Tulsa) as much as any NBA squad, help also could come from the development of 2012 first-round draft picks Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones. Both players entered the "˜12 draft as intriguing prospects, but it's virtually impossible to evaluate either man based on their rookie seasons. Lamb and Jones combined to play just 61 regular season games, primarily during garbage time of Oklahoma City's countless blowout victories. With a winning percentage of .600 or better every season since 2009-10 and a virtually injury-free starting five, the rapidly improving Thunder have often seemed destined to win an NBA title. That's still a distinct possibility as long as Durant and Westbrook are leading the way, but good fortune is also an underrated piece of the championship equation. For the first time in a few years, the Thunder face significant adversity in the form of a key player being sidelined by injury. How Oklahoma City responds will determine whether it's still fated for championship glory, or if additional roster moves need to be made in order to keep pace with title-hungry rivals such as San Antonio, Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
At first glance, power forward Nick Collison seems like the kind of hard-nosed player who can't be accurately measured by statistics. Some of Collison's on-court specialties aren't box-score-friendly, including willingly sacrificing his body to draw charges and setting sturdy picks that free up teammates for open shots. Yet there's one number that has consistently shown how valuable the Kansas product has been during the Thunder's ascendance. Since the statistic began to grow in popularity a few years ago, Collison has regularly ranked among the league leaders in plus-minus ratio. In every season since 2010-11, the Kansas University product has finished in the top 25 in the category that measures a team's point differential while a specific player is on the floor. Sure, it benefits the 10-year pro greatly to be on a powerful Oklahoma City team, but that doesn't completely explain why he's been such a plus-minus phenom. With career averages of 6.8 points and 5.9 rebounds, Collison's numbers rarely jump off the page of a conventional newspaper box score, but make sure to check out NBA.com's plus/minus line to truly gauge his nightly impact.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 33-49, 11th in Western Conference
With outside expectations at a modest level for the first time in recent years, Portland was one of the League's best success stories early in the season, hovering around .500 in November and December. The Trail Blazers peaked at 20-15 after a thrilling home win over the Heat, but things quickly went south from there. Despite point guard Damian Lillard's banner Rookie of the Year campaign, Portland's near-complete absence of roster depth led to an 8-21 record after the All-Star break. The Blazers ended the regular season on a difficult-to-fathom 13-game losing streak that made their earlier playoff hopes seem overly optimistic.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Portland appears to be in significantly better position to contend for a playoff berth, largely due to a handful of offseason acquisitions that should improve the team's bench from D-League caliber to respectable. The team's core group is still young, meaning the Trail Blazers could also improve from within due to the continued development of starters Lillard, 23; Nicolas Batum, 24; Wesley Matthews, 27; and LaMarcus Aldridge, 28. Robin Lopez, 25, is penciled in as the starter at center. The Blazers made several slightly-noticed pickups that could pay off, including adding steady point guard Mo Williams, sharpshooting small forward Dorell Wright and intriguing big Thomas Robinson. It's probably not fair to say that the 2013-14 season will be a failure if Portland doesn't qualify for the postseason, but a playoff berth would help turn the page on a multi-year run of bad luck and long-term plans being ruined by factors out of the team's control.

3 POINTS

Leading up to the 2012 NBA Draft, Damian Lillard's rise from small-school standout at Weber State to lottery lock was one of the event's most compelling stories. It didn't take Lillard long to show why the Trail Blazers made a wise pick with their No. 6 overall selection. Lillard followed in the footsteps of previous Oakland-raised point guards Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Brian Shaw (the latter are first-year head coaches in Brooklyn and Denver) in excelling as a floor general who can also score. On Nov. 12 of last season, one day after Veterans Day, the presence of one fan in attendance at a Hawks-Trail Blazers game was particularly meaningful for rookie center Meyers Leonard. His older brother, Bailey Leonard, who had served a tour of duty in Afghanistan, was on hand to watch Meyers play in person for the first time in the 7-footer's NBA career. On a Blazers team filled with high draft picks, swingman Wesley Matthews is a rare undrafted player who has carved out a key role. Matthews, the son of an NBA player, never missed a game in his first three seasons, but battled injuries in 2012-13. He may wince when he sees New Orleans on the schedule--he was injured in two separate games vs. the then-Hornets last season.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
The Portland Trail Blazers didn't just have the worst bench in the NBA last season--their second unit was the least productive group of backups in recent memory. According to the website Hoopstats.com, Portland's reserves averaged a meager 18.5 points per game in 2012-13, the fewest by any team's bench since Phoenix in 2004-05. Fourteen individual NBA players averaged more points per game last season than the entire Blazer bench, making it a glaring and embarrassing level of production. Portland's starting group is already one of the most talented and respected in the League, but the biggest key to the Trail Blazers' improvement in 2013-14 will be its bench providing much more help this time. Realizing the obvious need to acquire better players for the second unit, Portland GM Neil Olshey acted swiftly in the offseason to increase the team's depth. Veteran point guards Mo Williams and Earl Watson were signed in free agency. Combo guard C.J. McCollum was picked in the draft lottery and has drawn comparisons to reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, what with his small-school pedigree (Lehigh University) and savvy floor game. Sacramento and Houston both gave up on 2012 lottery pick Thomas Robinson as a rookie, but Portland believes it's getting a 22-year-old power forward with upside. Small forward Dorell Wright adds perimeter shooting and could benefit greatly from the open looks Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge create for him. The reinforcements should enable the Blazers to achieve their goal of reducing the workload on the team's key players. As a rookie, Lillard logged 3,167 minutes, leading the entire league. Forwards Nicolas Batum (38.5) and Aldridge (37.7) also finished in the top 10 of the NBA in average minutes per game, partly because the Blazers simply could not depend on their replacements. Olshey publicly stated his desire to bring in a more conventional center this offseason, after 6-foot-9 J.J. Hickson was forced into the role a year ago. While letting Hickson leave in free agency to division rival Denver, Olshey traded for 7-footer Robin Lopez, who's coming off his best season as a pro with New Orleans. On paper the move makes sense in that Lopez is a true center, but Hickson was extremely productive, despite being undersized. Lopez and Portland's other bigs will need to compensate for Hickson's departure. Hickson accounted for more than one-fourth of the Blazers' boards last season, an area of major concern because even with his average of 10.3 boards, Portland still finished only 22nd in rebounding differential (minus 1.6). The Blazers will need much more aggressive play across the board to avoid a repeat of finishing last in the league in points allowed in the paint (47.4 per game in 2012-13). Particularly for a Portland franchise that has been ravaged by injuries, 2012-13 was an unusually good year health-wise. Lillard played in all 82 games and every member of the starting five appeared in at least 69. The Blazers need that rare bit of good fortune to continue into 2013-14, but October brought a potentially ominous sign--McCollum broke his left foot in training camp. It's the same injury that caused McCollum to miss a large chunk of his final season at Lehigh. After chronic physical ailments ruined the dream of a Pacific Northwest "Big Three" of Aldridge, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, there's little that could be as depressing for Blazers fans as seeing a lottery pick's NBA career begin with an injury. Portland hopes, though, that despite the McCollum injury, it has made enough roster upgrades this summer to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Fantasy basketball players may be one of the only groups of hoops aficionados who fully appreciate the versatility of Portland small forward Nicolas Batum's game. The sixth-year pro isn't spectacular in any area, but often makes contributions in a wide range of statistical categories. The native of France averaged a career high in various departments last season, including points (14.3), rebounds (5.6) and assists (4.9). Adding to Batum's underappreciated status is the fact that he's superior on the defensive end, where numbers don't always accurately gauge a player's effectiveness (though he did average 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks, also career bests). Despite his athleticism and skill, he can be prone to blending in on offense, a criticism during his gradual progress in the NBA. But his jack-of-all-trades persona carries over to that end as well--Batum is an above-average three-point shooter (career 37.2 percent) and foul shooter (career 84.0 percent). Given all of those numbers, it would be extremely difficult for one player to replace Batum's production in the lineup, a reason Portland made sure he remained in Oregon long term when he became a restricted free agent in the summer of 2012.

UTAH JAZZ

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 43-39, 9th in Western Conference
As miserable as the Los Angeles Lakers' train wreck 2012-13 season was, the Utah Jazz nearly made it even worse. The Lakers and Jazz fought tooth and nail until the very last night of the 82-game schedule, before Los Angeles finally edged out Utah for one of the final Western Conference playoff berths. In the silver-lining department, the Jazz avoided a second consecutive first-round postseason matchup vs. San Antonio. The Lakers instead served as the Spurs' sacrificial lamb, getting swept quickly. Utah was a good-but-not-great squad that provided Salt Lake City fans with 30 home wins, but was just 13-28 on the road. It was the third straight season in which the Jazz won between 36 and 43 games.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Utah appeared to survey the landscape of the Western Conference and its own roster, ultimately concluding that the time was right to go young. The Jazz will have one of the least experienced rosters in the league this season, after allowing virtually every older player to leave the Beehive State during free agency. Utah is expected to go through some growing pains as young veterans like Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter take a big step up in role and responsibility. Qualifying for a playoff berth in the ultra-deep West seems like a tall order--most NBA analysts are projecting a 13th-place finish in the conference, ahead of only Sacramento and Phoenix. Utah fans are accustomed to seeing a competitive team at EnergySolutions Arena, but perhaps more crucial than wins in 2013-14 is ensuring that the Jazz's foundation is built properly for future success.

3 POINTS

It's doubtful many of the Jazz's current players remember much from the franchise's glory years, which featured Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone, as well as classic NBA Finals battles against the Michael Jordan-led Bulls. On the team's 2013-14 preseason roster, a total of eight Jazz players were born in the 1990s, meaning they were grade-schoolers when Jordan sank his famous game-winner over Bryon Russell in '98. Jazz guard Ian Clark won the MVP award at Las Vegas summer league in July, leading the Warriors to the first-ever summer "championship." Clark's big two weeks in the desert with Golden State's summer squad resulted in Utah signing him to a free-agent contract. The Belmont University product went undrafted in June after earning Ohio Valley Conference co-player of the year honors. Utah 7-foot-1 rookie center Rudy Gobert has the kind of wingspan Jay Bilas and his fellow NBA draft analysts drool over each June. The native of France was measured at 7 feet, 8 1/2 inches, a new wingspan record at the draft combine. Gobert figures to immediately be able to make an impact on the defense due to his ability to alter shots. He averaged 2.4 blocks at the Orlando summer league.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
In recent seasons, the Utah Jazz seemed to simultaneously have one sneaker in the present and one in the future. Take the team's frontcourt, where proven veterans Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap ate up most of the minutes at center and power forward, respectively. As a result, Utah was a perennial playoff contender, but the bigs relegated recent lottery picks Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors to backup roles. After the free-agent departures of Jefferson and Millsap, however, the time for bringing the club's young players along slowly has come to an abrupt halt. No longer can the Jazz rely on the security blanket of dumping the ball inside to Jefferson or Millsap when they need a timely score. That task now falls on a group of early-20-somethings who are being thrown into the deep end, ready or not. Utah's youth movement has many NBA analysts predicting a rapid drop in the standings, but if the Jazz are to approach last season's 43-win output, Favors and Kanter will need to make big leaps. Favors has been tagged with "next NBA frontcourt star" status since he was drafted by the Nets in 2010, but he's never played enough to achieve it (career-high 23.2 mpg in 2012-13). Favors averaged 11.8 points and 9.5 rebounds in Utah's 2012 playoff series vs. San Antonio, making many believe he'd break out in 2012-13, but he instead posted a carbon copy of his previous statistics. Meanwhile, Kanter showed progress in his second NBA season, bumping his per-36-minute scoring rate from 12.5 to 16.9. From a short-term standpoint, Gordon Hayward's progress could be just as crucial as that of the young frontcourt duo. Hayward has been a solid player during his three NBA seasons, but Utah will need more than that from the former Butler star in 2013-14. Among Utah's five leading scorers last season, Hayward is the only roster returnee (guards Mo Williams and Randy Foye left for Portland and Denver, respectively). Is the accurate shooter (career 40.1 percent on treys) ready to evolve into a go-to guy on offense? No one else on the roster averaged more than 9.4 points in the NBA last season. Utah rookie point guard Trey Burke averaged 18.6 points per game in 2012-13, but that was in a University of Michigan uniform. If you put any stock in summer league results, Burke's career is off to a rocky start--he struggled mightily to make shots against NBA competition. The 6-foot, 190-pounder will need to make a rapid adjustment to the league, because he's penciled in (actually it's more like indelible ink) as the starter. Before Burke makes his official NBA debut, however, Utah must improvise. Burke broke a finger during a preseason game, reportedly sidelining him for 8 to 12 weeks. The only other Jazz point guard with any semblance of experience is John Lucas III, who's often been a third-stringer during his itinerant NBA career. Lucas faces a tough task of holding down the fort while Burke is out of action. Barring a Jazz roster move, that's plan A, B, C and D. Once Burke returns to action, the Jazz's likely starting backcourt of Burke and Alec Burks will be a radio play-by-play broadcaster's nightmare. Entering his third pro season, Burks needs to make life similarly difficult on opposing shooting guards. The University of Colorado product has shown flashes of potential, but has averaged 15.9 and 17.8 minutes in his two campaigns with the Jazz. If everything falls into place, Utah may have a chance to remain in the playoff hunt, something the franchise has done nearly every season since the Stockton and Malone days. More likely though, 2013-14 will be a developmental season, with the focus on Favors, Hayward, Kanter, Burke and Burks becoming a core group the franchise can build around for years to come.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Wrong place, wrong time--that's one way to sum up Brandon Rush's five-year NBA experience to date. Rush began his pro career as a member of the rebuilding Indiana Pacers, starting a total of 104 games in the Hoosier State over three seasons. However, prior to the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season, Rush was traded to Golden State, missing the Pacers' ascendance to elite status in the Eastern Conference. His second season with the Warriors ended after just two games, as Rush suffered an ACL tear. With Rush out of commission, Golden State went on a memorable run to the Western Conference semifinals. This summer, Rush was traded to Utah, picked by virtually no one to reach the playoffs. Amid all of the untimely address changes, the University of Kansas product has been an often-overlooked quality reserve who provides accurate three-point shooting and defense. With only one NBA playoff series under his belt, few fans probably realize that Rush ranks eighth among all active players in career three-point percentage at 41.3. The only players ahead of him on that lofty list are Stephen Curry, Steve Novak, Steve Nash, Danny Green, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver and Matt Bonner.