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Northwest Division: Jazz and Nuggest should cruise past other division foes

There is no question that the Northwest Division has been the weakest in the NBA's Western Conference the past couple of years. It probably will be again this season.

But it won't always be that way. An ultra-successful draft lottery — with Portland and Seattle landing the top two picks — means things are looking up in the Northwest. The Blazers selected Greg Oden with the Sonics landing Kevin Durant and both are projected to be franchise players in the NBA.

Unfortunately, Oden is out for the season, having recently had knee surgery, but Portland still has several young, talented players led by last season's Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy.

Meanwhile, the Timberwolves are rebuilding and have a new look now that the longtime face of the franchise, Kevin Garnett, is in Boston. The Jazz and the Nuggets are still the cream of the crop. They will battle it out for the division title and will likely be the the only two teams that will earn playoff spots again this season.

1. UTAH JAZZ

2006-07 RECORD: 51-31

DIVISION FINISH: first, lost to San Antonio 4-1 in the conference finals

COACH: Jerry Sloan, 20th season with Jazz

TOP ROOKIES: G-F Morris Almond, C Kyrylo Fesenko

KEY ADDITIONS: G Jason Hart, G Ronnie Price

KEY LOSSES: G Derek Fisher

STRENGTHS: Deron Williams showed he is now among the elite point guards in the game during his second season, leading the team to an improbable playoff run to the conference finals. PF Carlos Boozer and C Mehmet Okur are coming off All-Star seasons. Utah is experienced now, yet its oldest starter (Okur) is just 28.

CONCERNS: Utah needs to find a shooting guard who can produce on both sides of the ball after letting Fisher out of his contract. Ronnie Brewer looks like he'll get the first chance. Also, the health of super-sub Matt Harpring is a concern. He didn't play at all in the preseason while recovering from surgery. Kirilenko seems content — for now — after his trade demands just prior to camp, but that's a situation that could blow up at any time.

2. DENVER NUGGETS

2006-07 RECORD: 45-37

DIVISION FINISH: second, lost to San Antonio 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs

COACH: George Karl, fourth season with Nuggets

TOP ROOKIE: none

KEY ADDITIONS: F Steven Hunter, G Chucky Atkins

KEY LOSSES: F Reggie Evans, G Steve Blake

STRENGTHS: Denver has two of the top scorers in the league in G Allen Iverson and F Carmelo Anthony. This will be their first full season together. C Marcus Camby is one of the NBA's top defenders, while forwards Kenyon Martin and Nene are all-around talents if they can stay healthy.

CONCERNS: Are there enough shots in a game to keep both Iverson and Anthony happy? Martin is recovering from surgery on both knees and has a history of driving Karl crazy. The Nuggets have the oldest, most experienced roster in the division, but can they keep up with the younger teams?

3. SEATTLE SUPERSONICS

2006-07 RECORD: 31-51

DIVISION FINISH: last, missed playoffs

COACH: P.J. Carlesimo, first season with Sonics

TOP ROOKIES: G-F Kevin Durant, F Jeff Green

KEY ADDITIONS: F Wally Szczerbiak, F Kurt Thomas, G Delonte West

KEY LOSSES: G Ray Allen, F Rashard Lewis

STRENGTHS: The team is young, but has talent and potential. Durant, the consensus college player of the year in his only season at Texas, is a star waiting to develop. Green, a former Georgetown star, is another top five rookie. Young point guards Luke Ridnour and Delonte West are both capable scorers as is 6-10 F Chris Wilcox

CONCERNS: While the future looks bright, Seattle simply has too much youth to contend immediately. They traded their best two players in Allen and Lewis. Will they young guys be able to pick up the scoring and leadership slack?

4. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

2006-07 RECORD: 32-50

DIVISION FINISH: tied for third, missed playoffs

COACH: Nate McMillan, third season with Blazers

TOP ROOKIE: C Greg Oden (will miss season recovering from surgery)

KEY ADDITIONS: F Channing Frye, G Steve Blake, G James Jones

KEY LOSSES: F Zach Randolph, C Jamaal Magloire, F Ime Udoka, F Fred Jones

STRENGTHS: Another young team led by rookie of the year G Brandon Roy (16.8 ppg) and second-year forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Frye made the All-Rookie team two seasons ago for the Knicks now gets a fresh start for a team in need of his help.

CONCERNS: Losing Oden for his entire rookie season is heartbreaking for Blazer fans. It sets the rebuilding process back a season.

5. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

2006-07 RECORD: 32-50

DIVISION FINISH: tied for third, missed playoffs

COACH: Randy Whittman, second season with Wolves

TOP ROOKIE: F Corey Brewer

KEY ADDITIONS: F Al Jefferson, F Ryan Gomes, C Theo Ratliff, G Sebastian Telfair, G Gerald Green, G Greg Buckner, F Juwan Howard, F Antoine Walker, C Mike Doleac

KEY LOSSES: F Kevin Garnett, G Mike James, G Trenton Hassell, G Troy Hudson, G-F Ricky Davis, C Mark Blount

STRENGTHS: Jefferson averaged a double-double for the Celtics last season — 16.0 ppg and 11.0 rpg. The roster is young and so newly put together that nobody expects many victories this season, so the expectation bar is low.

CONCERNS: Where to begin. For starters, now that Garnett is gone, are fans going to want to watch the T-Wolves play?


E-mail: lojo@desnews.com