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The meteoric rise of the Thunder has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook believing their time is now.
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Northwest Division: Thunder positioned in driver's seat

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Posted Nov 30 2011 11:24AM - Updated Dec 2 2011 9:39AM

With an eye toward a promising future, the Oklahoma City Thunder began their quest a year ago thinking big but realistic about the prospects of a team with starters in their early 20s competing for a championship. A magical ride to the Western Conference finals later and Generation Next has morphed into Generation Right Now. No longer content to wait their turn, the Thunder served notice last season that they weren't shy about accelerating the learning curve to the point that they're not only the class of the Northwest Division and a serious threat to the Dallas Mavericks' Western Conference crown, but a legitimate title contender as well.

Who better to handle the pounding of back-to-back-to-back games than the team with the youngest legs in the league? And with the NBA's most mercurial, rising star (sorry Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin) in Kevin Durant, the Thunder have everything needed to take another step this season.

The Thunder's ascent in the Northwest Division comes at the same time the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers all are going through transition phases. That might allow to the Minnesota Timberwolves and their young cast of up and comers to make their mark, too, with new leadership in Rick Adelman calling the shots. Whatever this group lacks in quality depth of teams it will more than make up for in star power with Durant and Russell Westbrook for the Thunder, LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland, Kevin Love and the curious case of Ricky Rubio in Minnesota.

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2010-11 record: 55-27

Finish: First in Northwest Division

Playoffs: Defeated Denver in Western Conference first round (4-1), defeated Memphis in Western Conference semifinals (4-3), lost to Dallas in Western Conference finals (4-1).

Strengths: The disappointing finish against Dallas in the Western Conference finals should not overshadow the season the Thunder put together behind the work of Durant and Westbrook. Unlike many teams that have to retool their rosters in a compressed training camp/free agency period, the Thunder will open camp with the entire roster intact. That sort of continuity should allow for a smoother transition in the two weeks before the regular season begins.

Challenges: For two years the Thunder have had the advantage of chasing the pack, be it in the division and the conference. Those days are over. They are full-fledged members of the league's elite now and with that comes the sort of pressure and scrutiny that they struggled with against Dallas in the Western Conference finals. They'll have to have a little thicker skin this time around. And Thunder coach Scott Brooks must continue to manage the Durant-Westbrook dynamic without stifling either one of his young stars in the process.

Outlook: Durant missed out on MVP honors last season to Rose and saw his championship dreams flame out against Dirk Nowitzki, so the Thunder's best players should have plenty of motivation in this abbreviated season. The fact that he's leading a cast of youngsters still bent on proving themselves makes this one of the most dangerous teams in the league. They've already proved to themselves they can play with the big boys. Now we'll see if they can take the next step.

This could make a difference: Kendrick Perkins had his limitations exposed in the playoffs against both Memphis and Dallas, paving the way for both Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison to play bigger roles in the playoffs. But the real difference for the Thunder is going to be the continued maturation of Westbrook. Has he learned from his playoff mishaps? We'll know soon enough.

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2010-11 record: 48-34

Finish: Third in Northwest Division

Playoffs: Lost to Dallas in Western Conference first round (4-2)

Strengths: Is there a more resilient bunch of coaches and players anywhere in the league? If so, someone needs to point them out. From crippling injuries to key players to front office tumult to chaos in general, Nate McMillan's Trail Blazers always seem to find away to overcome their circumstances and contend for playoff berths. It helps to have a young building block like Aldridge step up with a career year the same season Brandon Roy suffers through yet another injury-plagued campaign. McMillan's steadiness, as maddening as it can be to Trail Blazers fans at times, is the one constant this team can count on.

Challenges: Whoever takes over in the front office for ex-GM Rich Cho better have a good plan for the immediate future of this team from a personnel standpoint. Six of the 13 players they have under contract will be free agents at the end of this season, and that includes starters Marcus Camby and Raymond Felton. Aldridge is a fine anchor but he needs someone to help take the pressure off as he continues to refine his game. That second star might not be on the roster right now, which makes the start of this season even more crucial with free agency compressed into such a short window to work with. There might not be a short-term solution to this problem.

Outlook: So much of what happens with this team depends on whether or not the Trail Blazers decide to use the amnesty provision in the new collective bargaining agreement to shed Roy's contract. The early indications reported that Trail Blazers' brass would indeed waive him, and the four years and $68 million remaining on his contract. Without Roy, or even the threat of a semi-healthy Roy on the roster, Wes Matthews has to assume a much more significant role offensively and Felton has to crank up his production on that end of the floor as well.

This could make a difference: Nicolas Batum has continued to improve and emerged last season as a player capable of operating at a higher level than previously expected. He's versatile enough to play on the perimeter and inside, in certain situations. If he delivers at a high level for a sustained stretch during this shortened season, the Trail Blazers might be able to get by without immediately locating an All-Star caliber replacement for the one-time face of the franchise.

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2010-11 record: 17-65

Finish: Fifth in Northwest division

Playoffs: N/A

Strengths: The Rick Adelman-Kevin Love-Michael Beasley-Ricky Rubio-Derrick Williams dynamic alone gives the Timberwolves a fresh and promising start this season. Sure, this team has its flaws -- no seasoned big man help, little in the way of veteran leadership outside of Brad Miller and Luke Ridnour and the scars of the dysfunctional Kurt Rambis era just to name a few -- but Adelman's arrival has to calm a few nerves in the Twin Cities. He's done some of the best work of his career with what looks to everyone else like a disjointed group.

Challenges: Rubio presents a tricky problem for Adelman, who has to choose between allowing the flashy rookie to learn on the job or easing the Spanish phenom into things as a reserve. Normally, this wouldn't even be a dilemma on a young team that has struggled the way the Timberwolves have the past few years. But Rubio has to be handled carefully. If his transition isn't a smooth one, it could hinder the progress of both Love and Beasley.

Outlook: One of those amazing first-year turnarounds seems like a long shot for a team that managed just 17 wins a season ago and will rely on two rookies, Rubio and Williams, for significant contributions. Having the right kind of role players to fit his system will certainly aid him in turning this crew around sooner rather than later.

This could make a difference: The sooner Rubio and Williams find their roles and figure out a way to fit into Adelman's system, the better the young Timberwolves will be. They have an All-Star anchor in Love at the one position that Adelman must have properly staffed in order to build a team to his liking. Adelman will also need a buy-in from Beasley, who has All-Star talent but has yet to put the entire package together..

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2010-11 record: 50-32

Finish: Second in Northwest division

Playoffs: Lost to Oklahoma City in Western Conference first round (4-1)

Strengths: Coach George Karl doesn't have much to cling to in this department, what with Nene at the top of the free agent wish list for nearly every team in the league, Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith all playing in China until March (if they can't find their way out of those Chinese Basketball Association contracts they signed) and no sign of a superstar replacement for Carmelo Anthony or even Chauncey Billups. Then again, Karl usually does his best with a motley crew. And the assortment of players that will fill the Nuggets' roster this season have to qualify as motley, at best.

Challenges: Not that they needed any other distractions, but the Nuggets will have to figure out how to keep Nene and potentially Aaron Afflalo, a restricted free agent, in the fold while also trying to fill out the roster. No offense to rookies Kenneth Faried or Jordan Hamilton, but the Nuggets need some established help this season. And the only way to get it is to scramble to keep their own, which won't be easy based on the way Nene says he was treated last season -- he claims he was ready to sign an extension during the season but didn't receive an offer until long after the Nuggets' season had ended.

Outlook: Karl will have his team ready to scrap one way or another. And if you let some folks in Denver tell it, this team needed to purge some of the personalities that populated the locker room the past five years. But rebuilding takes time, in addition to a grand plan and the financial flexibility to get it all done. The one thing the Nuggets won't have much of is time. Even with the facilities opening a week earlier than training camp begins, it's still going to be a struggle to put together a team ready to fight with the Thunder and Trail Blazers for the top spot in the division.

This could make a difference: That chip on the shoulders of everyone still wearing a Nuggets uniform is what carried them after the trade last season that everyone assumed would decimate this team. By most any measure, they played better once Anthony and Billups left for New York. If Karl can tap into that same energy to start this season, albeit without Chandler, Martin, Smith and potentially others, his legacy as one of the true masterminds will be cemented.

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2010-11 record: 39-43

Finish: Fourth in Northwest division

Playoffs: N/A

Strengths: Even with the heart of this team gone to New Jersey, more remains of the skeleton of this former Western Conference contender than you might imagine. Of course, most of those players that make up that remaining skeleton are the same players whose names are swirling in trade rumors and amnesty provision conversations. Until Paul Millsap and Mehmet Okur -- along with Al Jefferson, Devin Harris, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors -- leave town there is at least a smidgen of hope that this season won't be a total failure for the Jazz.

Challenges: We're going to find out if the Jazz's strategy of continuity over chaos at the start of this abbreviated season is a sound practice. While other teams spend their time scrambling to make moves to fill out their rosters, the Jazz could very well stand their ground with the 11 players they'll have under contract when rookies Enes Kanter and Alec Burks join the fold. They'll also have to resist the urge to move one of their big names for the promise of something else, too.

Outlook: Coach Tyrone Corbin has plenty of work to do in trying to stabilize the franchise after both Jerry Sloan (retirement) and Deron Williams (trade) departed the premises. Expectations for this team are basically non-existent, so they will have an element of surprise working in their favor should they get off to a rousing start. And with a nine-player rotation already set to go, a quick start should surprise no one.

This could make a difference: In the absence of all the drama that wore this team down last season, the core group that returns might actually find out they work reasonably well together. The frontcourt mix of Millsap, Jefferson, Favors, Okur, Jeremy Evans and Kanter is as good a place as any to start. Being well under the luxury tax also increases the opportunities the Jazz will have to make the appropriate moves needed to add significant pieces to their core. In a new (CBA) world where "sound management" will be the hallmark of any franchise with designs on contending, the Jazz have veteran front office ace Kevin O'Connor leading that charge. But the road back to where they were is a long one without a superstar, like Williams, driving.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of NBA.com's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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