Power Grab

Four 50-win teams give Northwest uncommon balance

Oklahoma City's meteoric rise continues with the play of Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Chris Covatta/NBAE/Getty
Editor’s note: Pistons.com continues its series of NBA previews with a look at the Northwest Division. Coming Tuesday: Southwest Division.

The Northwest Division produced four 50-win teams last season when no other division had more than two. The Northwest’s four 50-win teams matched the total for the entire Eastern Conference.

All four of those teams – Denver, Utah, Oklahoma City and Portland – went into the final week of the season with a chance to finish first. Or fourth. Only three games separated them at season’s end.

Denver, Portland and Oklahoma City didn’t make any roster-shaping moves over the summer – though stay tuned. Even with the NBA season tipoff down to hours, there is still doubt that Carmelo Anthony will be long for the Nuggets. Utah had fairly significant turnover, but not many believe anything is fundamentally different for the Jazz. They still look like a formidable team that’s one more big man shy of really challenging the Lakers for Western supremacy.

And then, of course, there’s Minnesota. Nobody did more to turn over his roster than Timberwolves GM David Kahn, but whether they’re ready to close the whopping 35-game game between fifth place and fourth remains in serious doubt.

Here’s Pistons.com’s look at the Northwest Division:

1. UTAH JAZZ – It had the makings of a devastating summer for Utah, which lost not only Carlos Boozer to Chicago in free agency, but Kyle Korver – also to the Bulls – and last year’s all-time surprise, undrafted rookie Wesley Matthews, who wound up a starter but signed as a restricted free agent with Portland a stunning $34 million contract, front-loaded to saddle Utah with luxury tax implications had it matched.

But Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor put himself in the running to be runner-up for Executive of the Year – Pat Riley’s historical coup in Miami makes him the runaway favorite – by recovering masterfully. He swindled Minnesota to land Al Jefferson, an ideal replacement for Boozer; drafted versatile Butler swingman Gordon Hayward to take Korver’s spot; and signed reliable vet Raja Bell to fill Matthews’ role as a defensive stopper.

The big question hovering over Utah is how soon – and how effectively – starting center Mehmet Okur can return from the Achilles tendon tear that ended his 2009-10 season. The heart of the team is Deron Williams, who last season emerged as the NBA’s consensus top point guard. Losing Boozer and his pick-and-roll aplomb will cause Williams to adjust, and more will be asked of Paul Millsap and Andrei Kirilenko to help cover Boozer’s contributions, but the Jazz have every chance to remain what they’ve been the last several years: good enough to make a deep playoff run, but likely just short of title contention.

2. OKLAHOMA CITY – The meteoric rise of the former Seattle Sonics continues – now is when it gets tougher to keep going forward. Since hiring GM Sam Presti away from the San Antonio Spurs less than four years ago, the Sonics/Thunder have had four top-five lottery picks and netted themselves one acknowledged superstar (Kevin Durant), one potential elite point guard (Russell Westbrook), one potential All-Star forward (Jeff Green) and a wing scorer of promise (James Harden).

Durant’s evolution continued last season, when he led the NBA in scoring at 30 points a game, and over the summer, when he was the unquestioned star for a Team USA that rolled to the FIBA World Championships title. He turned 22 as training camp opened and already is regarded as one of the top five players in the world.

It’s the size and depth of OKC’s frontcourt that limits its immediate possibilities. Green is probably best suited to small forward, but that’s Durant’s spot, which makes him an undersized power forward who plays next to a finesse center, Nenad Krstic. Athletic young Serge Ibaka is on the come at power forward – if he reaches his ceiling sooner rather than later, then the West will be put on full alert – but unless rookie lottery pick Cole Aldrich exceeds expectations, the Thunder are vulnerable to the NBA’s upper crust with more muscle to flex in the paint.

3. DENVER NUGGETS – There exists enormous potential for the season to treat Denver badly, the biggest issue being the turmoil surrounding Anthony and whether or not his widely reported desire to play elsewhere will undermine the franchise. A fast start could silence the speculation, but the odds of that are diminished by a frontcourt rendered paper thin by injury. Kenyon Martin and Chris Anderson are both coming back off of knee injuries that put their availability, never mind their effectiveness, in doubt for the early stages of the regular season.

That leaves the heavy lifting almost exclusively in the hands of Nene, who has his own injury history. But pretend for a minute that everybody is happy and healthy. If so, then Denver could be the team that most scares the Lakers. The big off-season addition, Al Harrington, gives the Nuggets an element they haven’t had – a power forward who can step away from the basket and score in bunches, though he, too, suffered a preseason injury.

The starting backcourt will look familiar to Pistons fans: Chauncey Billups, fresh off his summer as veteran mentor to Team USA, and Arron Afflalo, who had a spectacular preseason. He’ll be backed by the mercurial – read: troubled – J.R. Smith and jet-quick Ty Lawson. George Karl will be back on the bench and the Nuggets were reminded how much he means to them when he was unavailable, battling throat cancer, during their first-round playoff exit.

4. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS – Pretty much all the ingredients of a title contender are in place in Portland. Frontcourt size and depth – check. Star scorer comfortable taking shots in the lonely moments – check. Veteran point guard – check. Proven NBA head coach – check. But the uncertainty of the physical status of Portland’s two 7-foot centers, Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, makes projecting the Trail Blazers as anything more than a solid playoff contender risky.

Both suffered season-ending knee injuries last year, which made Portland’s 50-win season all the more remarkable. A trade-deadline deal for Marcus Camby and a subsequent contract extension gives the Blazers some cover up front, where LaMarcus Aldridge – who could be on the cusp of stardom – has bulked up to 260 pounds and blossomed into a consistent scorer thanks to a deadly mid-range jump shot. If Brandon Roy can avoid the leg problems that have dogged him, the Blazers have in him one of the game’s most complete and clutch scorers.

The Camby deal cost Portland Steve Blake, Roy’s preferred running mate at point guard, but it allowed Andre Miller to re-affirm his status as one of the league’s shrewdest leaders. An unhappy Rudy Fernandez could be dealt at any point, though the weekend deal that sent Jerryd Bayless to New Orleans eliminates some backcourt clutter. Portland sees big things for small forward Nicolas Batum – the Blazers rejected Minnesota’s offer of the No. 4 pick in last June’s draft for him – and added a premier perimeter defender by overpaying to pry Wesley Matthews away from Utah.

5. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES – Give Kahn this much – he sure isn’t afraid to put his neck on the line by wheeling and dealing his way across the NBA. Kahn moved bodies around to acquire five picks on draft night, tacked on three more during free agency and four others in trade.

The mishmash that resulted might not net the Timberwolves any more wins than last season, when they went 15-67 and again got punked on lottery night. They slipped from No. 2 to No. 4 and wound up drafting Syracuse wing Wesley Johnson, a tremendous athlete and good shooter who hasn’t shown an ability to put the ball on the floor. While the T-wolves wait on Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn – hobbled yet by off-season hip surgery – and Luke Ridnour man the point. Corey Brewer and Martell Webster are the options at small forward with Johnson perhaps penciled in at shooting guard, probably not his optimum position.

Minnesota dumped Al Jefferson’s contract – mostly to save money, but also because Jefferson and Kevin Love were incompatible. Now Love is slated to start next to ex-Piston Darko Milicic up front. The most intriguing move of the summer was the pickup of Michael Beasley, No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft. Kahn got him for nothing, essentially, as Miami needed to clear cap space. Maturity and behavioral issues dog Beasley and the leadership void in Minnesota makes it an unlikely spot for his reclamation, but his impact potential is perhaps Minnesota’s best shot at escaping the cellar.