NBA preview: Northwest

NBA preview: Northwest
by Steve Kerr, Yahoo Sports
October 26, 2004

Steve Kerr
Yahoo Sports
The Timberwolves finally scratched their seven-year itch last season, winning a playoff series for the first time in franchise history and making it to the Western Conference finals before losing to the Lakers. Now the Wolves are poised to take the next step and move onto the Finals. With Shaquille O'Neal in Miami, Minnesota may have its best chance ever.

Still, before they do anything, the Wolves must conquer a surprisingly strong Northwest Division that boasts two blossoming young teams in Denver and Utah, along with a very talented Portland team. Only Seattle looks like a pushover in one of the NBA's most competitive divisions.

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    1. Minnesota Timberwolves
    The Wolves made a great run through the playoffs last season and might have beaten the Lakers had Sam Cassell not been injured in the conference finals. Cassell's health will be crucial this season, as he and fellow veteran Latrell Sprewell provide the requisite perimeter shooting to complement MVP Kevin Garnett.

    Minnesota was one of the best defensive clubs in the league last year, and Trenton Hassell had a lot to do with that. He is a lockdown perimeter defender who sets the tone with his aggressive play. A solid, experienced bench completes the Wolves.

    Now that they've had a taste of playoff success, they want more.

    2. Denver Nuggets
    Two years ago this was one of the weakest teams in the NBA. Now it's one of the strongest.

    The Nuggets are two-deep at every position, and with young bookend forwards Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony, they're explosive. Andre Miller is coming off a good first season in Denver under coach Jeff Bzdelik, who loves to preach defense.

    Thanks in large part to Marcus Camby, the Nuggets were one of the leading shot blocking teams in the NBA last season. If he can stay healthy, Denver has a chance to develop into a Western power.

    3. Utah Jazz
    The Jazz surprised the league a year ago with a strong run at the playoffs before barely coming up short in April.

    Andrei Kirilenko is an unorthodox forward who is long, athletic and multi-talented. He blocks shots, rebounds, runs the floor and scores inside and out. Kirilenko will have help on the front line this season with the additions of Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. Plus, Matt Harpring will return to the backcourt after an injury-plagued year.

    If Carlos Arroyo can man the point – and he sure looked capable of doing so in the Olympics playing for Puerto Rico – the Jazz could surprise people again and challenge the Wolves for the division title.

    4. Portland Trail Blazers
    The Blazers have made some bold moves over the past year, unloading veterans Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells and Dale Davis. That means it's Zach Randolph's team now.

    The fourth-year forward is potent around the hoop. He has great touch and a knack for scoring despite not being overly athletic. Randolph will get help from Damon Stoudamire, Derek Anderson and Nick Van Exel in the backcourt, so he'll have plenty of shooters to loosen up the court.

    Forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim has struggled to find a role since his arrival from Atlanta, but fellow frontcourtman Theo Ratliff has been a dominating presence by blocking shots. The Blazers could be pretty good – especially if Randolph continues to develop.

    5. Seattle SuperSonics
    A long, rainy winter is in store for Sonics fans, who won't find a ray of hope in their basketball season.

    Seattle has a great shooter in Ray Allen and a nice three man in Rashard Lewis. But like in baseball, a team needs to be strong up the middle, and the Sonics are searching for a point guard and a center.

    Second-year man Luke Ridnour will get a shot at leading the offense, but there's just not much in the way of a low-post threat on this team. Jerome James has underachieved at the center position, and teenage rookie Robert Swift is a project who won't be ready to play for a while. The Sonics might not win 20 games this season.

    Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

    Updated on Tuesday, Oct 26, 2004 1:04 pm, EDT

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