With four teams all finishing within three games last season, the race is wide open. You've got two established Western Conference powers at the top, two rising stars working their way up, and a whole lot of uncertainty in between. Your guess is as good as mine here — who wins the Northwest Division?
The Denver Nuggets earned that distinction last year, winning 53 games and beating out the Jazz on the head-to-head tiebreaker. Portland and Oklahoma City are both nipping at their heels, though, and neither one is going anywhere soon.
But all four of these Western Conference contenders is marred by a giant question mark. They all won 50-plus games last year, but they all also had us scratching our heads and wondering:
What if the Nuggets had a coach?
What if the Jazz had gotten a little more out of Carlos Boozer?
What if the Blazers had stayed healthy?
What if the Thunder had a bit more experience?
The Nuggets managed to close the season strong and earn the No. 4 seed in the West playoffs despite losing George Karl, who sat out the final two months of the season to recover from neck and throat cancer. They were already neither the most disciplined nor the most defensive minded team out there, even with Karl's leadership; without him, things got even messier. But the leadership of Chauncey Billups and the dominant performance of Carmelo Anthony down the stretch was just enough.
The Jazz went into last season prepared to operate the same two-man system that's thrived for decades in Utah: Just like John Stockton and Karl Malone before them, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were poised to prove that all you need is one great point guard and one scoring big man to win out West. Williams was fantastic, but Boozer struggled at times amid constant contract talk and trade rumors. He'd score 30 points one night and 10 the next, he'd constantly battle foul trouble, and he'd make you wonder whether his heart was still in Salt Lake City. And yet the Jazz still won 53 to match Denver.
The Blazers managed to win 50 games last season despite significant injuries derailing the seasons of Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum and both their centers, Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla. How Nate McMillan didn't take home Coach of the Year last season is beyond me. If the Blazers could win 50 games last year as a shell of themselves, then just imagine what they could achieve while healthy.
If anyone ever thought you couldn't make the Western Conference playoffs with two 21-year-olds as your two best players, the Thunder disproved that last season. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ran the show for OKC last season, and they did so to the tune of 50 wins and their first playoff berth. Once they reached the playoffs, though, it became clear that they were in over their heads. Staring down the defending champion Lakers, they began to get that distinct, unmistakable feeling of being overmatched. Oh, well. It was a fun ride while it lasted.
OK, so now what? That was last season, so what's next? The Nuggets will get Karl back, the Jazz have replaced Boozer with Al Jefferson, the Blazers are healthy again and the Thunder are a year older. That means that the Northwest Conference race is … well, just as wide open as ever.
If you've got to go with someone, you take the upside pick when in doubt. That's Oklahoma City. Durant refuses to stop getting better, and as the supporting cast around him continues to pick up steam, you have to expect the Thunder to make their move toward the top of the Western Conference.
But the competition will be brutal this season. All four teams should win 50 games again (and the Minnesota Timberwolves still exist, it bears mentioning at some point). That division is going to be a dogfight.
Last year, the Thunder were at the bottom of a four-team fracas fighting for Northwest supremacy. Next spring, it wouldn't be surprising to see them vault to the top.
NESN.com will analyze 25 key NBA questions this September.
Sept. 18: Who wins the Pacific Division?
Sept. 20: Who wins the Southwest Division?
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