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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

2012-13 NBA Season Preview: Northwest Division

Jacob Freedman |
October 30, 2012 | 5:21 p.m. PDT

Associate Sports Editor

After a Finals appearance last season, expectations are high for Kevin Durant and the Thunder (Keith Allison/Creative Commons).
After a Finals appearance last season, expectations are high for Kevin Durant and the Thunder (Keith Allison/Creative Commons).
Also read Neon Tommy's NBA Previews for the Atlantic, Central, Southeast and Southwest Divisions.

It's been years in the making, but the Northwest could have the biggest collection of young, up-and-coming talent in the entire NBA. The Thunder made the the NBA Finals last season with their four best players being under the age of 24, and are looking to make another run at the title without James Harden this time around. 

The Timberwolves had two of the league's more unique stars in Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, while the Nuggets' high-flying style could make your neck hurt from watching them go up and down the court so often. The Jazz go four deep with high-caliber big men, while the Blazers are the only team in the division that doesn't expect to make the playoffs.

The Thunder are the class of this group, but the division as a whole is on the rise. The records they finish with might not reflect their talent due to a loaded Western Conference, but the Great Northwest will earn its moniker over the next eight months.

1st- Oklahoma City Thunder

The boys are back in town. Well that was quick. After falling just short of an NBA title last season, the young Thunder made a major splash on Saturday by shipping James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Kevin Martin now comes over to play Harden's role of lead scorer off the bench. Martin's ability to whirl his way into the lane and send himself to the free throw line is incredible, but his defensive effort is shaky at best. Plus, he'll need to adjust to not being the top shot-taker on his team. He's not even the most important Kevin on the squad.

The "other" Kevin is Kevin Durant, who has led the NBA in scoring each of the last three years. His 6-foot-10-inch size combined with his lethal shooting touch makes him the heart and soul of this team. The main issue he needs to work on: demanding the ball more from his partner in crime, Russell Westbrook. 

Westbrook is über talented with his elite speed and incredible abilities in transition, but last year's Finals showed how he needs to become a better distributor. 

A re-signed Serge Ibaka has been tirelessly working on his post game this summer in order to become more than just an athletic shot-blocker, while Nick Collison is an unexciting, but serviceable back-up.

Kendrick Perkins is a serviceable center at this point, nothing more and nothing less, while Hasheem Thabeet is a wild care pick-up behind Perk.

The ability of this team to conquer the Heat and Lakers for NBA supremacy lies in the new Big Three's ability to become an unstoppable scoring machine come playoff time. The jury is out until April.

Ty Lawson leads a speedy Nuggets squad (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
Ty Lawson leads a speedy Nuggets squad (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
2nd- Denver Nuggets

Once again, the Nuggets are the team with no "superstar." Instead, George Karl's squad is among the league's deepest teams, and has the best chance to put up a fight to Oklahoma City's run to the division title.

The Nuggets' star of the future is Ty Lawson. Lawson quietly averaged over 16 points and six assists per game last season, and is arguably the league's quickest player. Andre Miller is no spring chicken, but has a knack for finding his teammates in stride and is a luxury to have at the backup point guard spot. 

The Nuggets' biggest coup in the offseason was undoubtedly trading for Andre Iguodala. A defensive stalwart, Iguodala brings his veteran savvy and killer athleticism to an already-athletic roster. Lawson and Iguodala's slicing and dicing will make life easy for Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler on the wing. The Nuggets resigned Chandler near the end of last season, and know that both Chandler and Gallinari can pour in points with enough open looks.

Down low, Kenneth Faried improved rapidly over last season and now provides the Nuggets with a gritty power forward that is still able to hit an open shot once in a while. The same can't be said quite yet for JaVale McGee and the rest of the Nuggets centers, but McCgee and company will block shots and creative havoc for opponents driving in the paint. They might not catch the Thunder, but these Nuggets will not be an easy out for anyone. 

Kevin Love could be out until December, making life difficult in the early season for Minnesota (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
Kevin Love could be out until December, making life difficult in the early season for Minnesota (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
3rd - Minnesota Timberwolves

Just as the Timberwolves' entered their first season in years with legitimate playoff hopes, superstar Kevin Love broke his hand during workouts. He will join T-Wolves' dynamo Ricky Rubio on the bench, with both most likely being out until December. 

The Timberwolves will miss Love's nightly 20-10 and Rubio's lightning-quick passing, but the roster is more than just these two. Nikola Pekovic emerged as an above-average NBA center last season due to his relentless aggression in the block, while Andrei Kirilenko is back from Russia and looks like a (slightly older) version of what used to be the NBA's most versatile player. 

Continuing with the theme of players not in the NBA last season, Brandon Roy signed a two-year deal to return from a medical retirement. The former Blazers star is not the player he used to be due to chronic knee pain, but will be another scorer for coach Rick Adelman.

Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea are viable backups at the point guard spot, while 2011 second overall pick Derrick Williams could vastly improve Minnesota's outlook if he improves upon an underwhelming rookie season.

It took a couple of years, but G.M. David Kahn finally has an enviable group of young players. It might take another year for the chemistry to sort itself out, but the Timberwolves are cellar-dwellers no more. 

4th- Utah Jazz

Two years after trading Deron Williams, the Jazz have established their identity as a team that will outmuscle opponents and dominate the paint. Utah finished third in the NBA last season in rebounds, and has four legitimate big men to make life difficult for opponents down low. 

Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are established double-digit rebound guys, although Jefferson is really a power forward masquerading at center. Which brings in Enes Kanter. Kanter has a sweet stroke and polished offensive game, so while he might not be a traditional center, he has the size and the moves to hold his down low. Derrick Favors is another former top-five pick and while his development has not been rapid, he shows signs of becoming a ferocious, athletic shot-blocker. 

LaMarcus Aldridge leads the Blazers into a new era under Terry Stotts (Keith Allison/Creative Commons).
LaMarcus Aldridge leads the Blazers into a new era under Terry Stotts (Keith Allison/Creative Commons).
The bigger concern is how the Jazz will score from the perimeter. Atlanta Hawks outcast Marvin Williams comes over in exchange for Devin Harris. Williams flourished in the preseason, but will need to contribute more than just his defensive abilities to his new team. Mo Williams leads an unimpressive point guard unit, while Gordon Hayward can hit shots but needs to be more of a factor on defense. 

The Jazz will play a slow, grind-it-out brand of basketball. In a league dominated by guards however, the Jazz's lack of talent in the backcourt limits both the team's potential for this season and their  upside down the road.

5th- Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers fired their coach and shipped out nearly the entire team via trades or free agency over the past year. With a completely revamped roster, 2012-13 will be a season of transition as new coach Terry Stotts finds out what he has to work with for the future.

Continually underrated, LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the league's best power forwards and is lethal in the pick-and-roll. His new partner in crime will be rookie Damian Lillard, who lit up the NBA Summer League and will be given the opportunity to be the Blazers' point guard of the future. Nicolas Batum is also back at small forward, providing the Blazers with length at the wings as well as an improving outside shot. 

Besides those three, there's not a lot to be excited about. The unreliable and undersized J.J. Hickson is the starting center for opening night, Wesley Matthews saw his shooting accuracy vanish out of thin air in 2011-12, and rookie center Meyers Leonard is not ready to compete night in and night out against NBA-level big men. The rest of the roster is filled with unproven young guns, journeyman veterans, and a pair of international unknowns from across the pond in Joel Freeland and Victor Claver. 

For Blazers fans, this season's goal is to see development from Lillard, Batum, and Leonard. Anything more than 30 wins is just gravy.



Reach Associate Sports Editor Jacob Freedman here or follow him on Twitter



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