For George Karl and the Nuggets, it's been a long road back to the NBA's spotlight.
Karl was run out of Milwaukee two years ago after his players stopped responding to his candid, outspoken nature. The Nuggets suffered through an eight-year dry spell before sneaking into the playoffs the past two seasons, only to be quickly ousted both times. But the marriage of Karl and the Denver franchise appears to be a match made in heaven.
The Nuggets needed a disciplined, experienced NBA coach to take them to the next level. Karl needed a talented team that would respond to his coaching style. In leading the club to a 49-33 finish a year ago, Karl proved to Denver's fans that its team was destined for a bright future.
With Seattle losing key players and its coach, Utah and Minnesota trying to bounce back from disastrous seasons and Portland in a major rebuilding phase, Denver is clearly the favorite to win the Northwest Division. But Karl and the Nuggets are looking for more this year. They want the glory that comes with postseason success.
But first things first. Here's a look at the Northwest.Denver Nuggets
Best-case scenario: George Karl has his Nuggets playing at a high level right out of the blocks, and Denver wins the Northwest with ease. Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin form a lethal forward combination and the small backcourt threesome of Andre Miller, Earl Boykins and Earl Watson puts pressure on opponents with its speed and ball pressure.
Worst-case scenario: Carmelo reverts to his pre-Karl ways: taking quick shots, holding the ball and playing lazy defense. Martin is still lost in the offense, and the backcourt is so crowded that chemistry suffers. The Nuggets falter and lose a division they should easily win.
Outlook: Karl had this club clicking at the end of last season, and there's no reason he won't accomplish the same thing now that he's there from the beginning. Denver is deeper, stronger and more potent than any team in the Northwest. They'll win it going away.Utah Jazz
Best-case scenario: The Jazz stay healthy all season – particularly Matt Harpring, Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer – and Deron Williams takes over the point from the start and runs Jerry Sloan's offense with precision. Utah is solid at both ends of the floor and returns to the postseason.
Worst-case scenario: The injury bug hits again, Williams isn't up to the task at the point and Utah can't score enough to be a consistent team. The Jazz slip out of the playoffs for the third straight season.
Outlook: As long as Utah isn't hammered by injuries, it should be very difficult to beat, particularly in the Delta Center. A lot depends on the play of Williams, but the Jazz will be in the mix for one of the West's final playoff spots.Seattle SuperSonics
Best-case scenario: The magical run of last season continues, despite the departure of Nate McMillan, Antonio Daniels and Jerome James. The Sonics spread the floor, shoot threes and crash the offensive boards to drive teams crazy. Ray Allen has another spectacular season and Seattle repeats as division champ.
Worst-case scenario: McMillan's leadership is missed, as is Daniels' play as the third guard, and Allen has a poor shooting season. The Sonics slide out of the playoff picture.
Outlook: I didn't believe in this team a year ago, and I was dead wrong. The Sonics are tough on the inside defensively with Nick Collison and Reggie Evans, they shoot it well, and they're difficult to defend. Seattle will have a tough time competing with Denver for the division title, but it'll be in the hunt for a playoff spot.Minnesota Timberwolves
Best-case scenario: Kevin Garnett has another MVP-type season, and the newcomers in the backcourt – Marko Jaric and Rashad McCants provide scoring and energy. The Wolves respond to Dwayne Casey and ride K.G. back to the playoffs.
Worst-case scenario: See last year. Garnett wears down from all the mileage on his knees, and the rest of Minnesota's roster just isn't athletic enough to match its opponents. Teams ran by the Wolves late last season, exposing their lack of speed. That could easily happen again.
Outlook: Minnesota's offseason moves just don't figure to make a big impact, unless McCants becomes a stud two guard. It just doesn't look like K.G. has enough help. It will be tough for this club to make a run at the division title and a postseason berth.Portland Trail Blazers
Best-case scenario: The Nate McMillan effect is on display right away, and the Blazers' young players mature quickly. Portland gets Zach Randolph back at full strength and the Rose Garden fills up again, making it a difficult place to play for opponents. Portland blazes a trail back toward respectability and looks to the future.
Worst-case scenario: Youth does them in. Point guard Sebastian Telfair isn't ready to start, Darius Miles can't find a position and top draft pick Martell Webster is overwhelmed. Randolph isn't at full speed and the Blazers continue their freefall.
Outlook: McMillan is an excellent coach, but this club is beginning a rebuilding project. There is young talent and McMillan is running a rigid training camp to lay the foundation. Portland will have a tough time getting out of the Northwest's cellar, but at least there's a long-term plan now.
- George Karl
- the Nuggets