Mar, 23, 2012; Oklahoma City OK, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love (42) and Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) fight for the loose ball during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-USA TODAY Sports

Gauging the NBA: Northwest Division

The Northwest Division is the closest parallel in the NBA to the Central Division. All five teams are similar to the Central Division squads, and as many as four of the five teams could conceivably make the playoffs. Remember, the Central Division features:

-A team who looks both stable and elite (Indiana)

-A team who could compete but has a zillion injury questions (Chicago)

-A team who went for broke in free agency with questionable pieces (Detroit)

-An insanely young team pulling for breakout seasons from its key pieces (Cleveland)

-A quagmire of bad decisions (Milwaukee).

The Northwest Division features:

-A team who looks both stable and elite (Oklahoma City)

-A team who could compete but has a zillion injury questions (Minnesota)

-A team who went for broke in free agency with questionable pieces (Portland)

-An insanely young team pulling for breakout seasons from its key pieces (Utah)

-A quagmire of bad decisions (Denver).

Granted, there’s some variation here. Cleveland probably will be better than Utah; Chicago’s definitely going to be better than Minnesota; and Denver might be more screwed up than Milwaukee. The race from 3-5 in the Central will be tighter than 2-4 in the Northwest as well, but the divisions should be similar.

Oklahoma City is your best team here, and it really can’t be considered even close. They easily have the best two players in the division in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and they are definitely a top seed candidate in the West. They do have some issues – most notably a gaping chasm of frontcourt depth and the continued employment and utilization of one Derek Fisher, the NBA’s drunk uncle at a Fourth of July party who someone let bring out the compound bow. He might be impressive occasionally, but someone’s going to get fatally wounded and that person is you, Scott Brooks. However, Westbrook should be back to 100 percent and angry because of last year’s playoffs, a terrifying combination. Also, Jeremy Lamb may not be that large of a downgrade from Kevin Martin, and I’m really excited to watch Steven Adams bounding around and try to help without really knowing how to play basketball. Also, Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. Don’t overthink this thing, the Thunder are going to be awesome.

Minnesota is going to be so much fun if they stay healthy. Their best player, Kevin Love, is a Top-10 NBA player and MVP candidate if healthy. Ricky Rubio is by far the league’s most entertaining point guard as well. They pulled off potentially one of the league’s best draft classes, and Shabazz Muhammad will join Corey Brewer in facilitating a much improved small forward position for Minnesota, while Gorgui Dieng gives the Timberwolves rim protection that isn’t just a seven-foot tall piece of plywood that fouls people a lot (Miss you, Stiemsma). Add in Kevin Martin and the fact that Alexey Shved and Derrick Williams almost have to improve at shooting because they can’t get worse, and the Timberwolves should be pretty solid on both ends. If this team stays healthy, I’m confident they’re a playoff team in the West. Just gotta keep the injuries to a minimOH COME ON.

Portland looks to not have a high ceiling, and they’re one of the few teams in the league I feel pretty confident that I know where they’re going to finish. The Blazers look a little bit like what Houston pre-Harden trade was; a team with some talent that can do some things but will get swallowed up in the West due to having not enough horses to compete. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard appear to be excellent, but last season might be about the peak of these two players’ talents. That’s fine if these two are surrounded with really quality bench guys and utility players, which is why the Hawks have worked for closing in on a decade. It could also turn you into the late-00s Chris Bosh Raptors if you don’t have enough pieces. That was Portland last season. This year, it seems somewhere in the middle of these two, because the bench has been greatly updated since last year’s trainwreck. C.J. McCollum, Robin Lopez and Dorell Wright mean that Portland might actually go at least 8 deep on a depth chart before Joel Freeland’s name is mentioned, which is way more of a relief than it should be. The team should be able to hit threes more consistently and be less comical when they try to defend screens, which will be excellent. However, this team didn’t improve as much as many other teams did in the conference, so while the team is better, I’m not sure they will move much, if at all, in the standings.

Utah is going to be quite interesting this year. They have a ton of young pieces and should look a lot different than they did last year; when they looked stagnant for much of the second half of the season and Tyrone Corbin’s rotation became simply hilarious. After three years of the Al Jefferson black hole offense, the focus will shift to rookie point guard Trey Burke, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Utah isn’t going to be good this season, but Favors should have a breakout season if last year’s per-36 numbers (15/11, 2.6 blocks) are to be trusted. Favors and Kanter is a menacing two-way monster potentially. In the backcourt, Burke will likely have his struggles this season, but he’ll be helped by Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward and Brandon Rush, a trio of shooters who will make Burke’s life easier. Utah’s biggest problem is the lack of a bench, because outside Rush you’re working with Richard Jefferson, Marvin Williams and Andris Biedrins. However, Utah’s plan makes sense: Develop the youngins, let Favors blossom, punt the season due to the bench and then go crazy next summer, because the Biedrins/Williams/Jefferson quagmire is an expiring contract bonanza worth $27 million. After last season’s struggles, Utah’s in a great situation.

Man, this Nuggets team. Denver fired the reigning Coach of the Year, lost their GM, then traded Kosta Koufos to Memphis, lost Corey Brewer and Andre Iguodala and replaced all that with Nate Robinson, Randy Foye and J.J. Hickson. Danilo Gallinari is out for the first chunk of the season and this Hickson/Javale/Kenneth Faried unit is going to be horrible on defense. There are still some good scoring options here with Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler, but the pieces here don’t really fit together to make any kind of workable defense. Once Gallinari gets back they might be okay on the offensive end…..but still, Robinson/Foye/Chandler/Darrell Arthur/Hickson is a real lineup that Denver will play this season. I don’t know if J.R. Smith’s essence can be bottled and turned into a five-man lineup, but Brian Shaw will be my inadvertent experimenter this season.

The Northwest Division has some interesting teams in it this season. It might actually be one of the league’s weakest divisions, but between Minnesota, Portland and Utah, the middle of the division is going to at least be interesting. Oklahoma City’s going to be Oklahoma City, and I have no idea what Denver is. But that middle? All of those teams are going to be young, interesting and great to watch.

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