Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Best Out West?

By Jonathan Lowe

I know that we're only a third of the way through, but a lot has been packed into the first month of this shortened NBA season. There are so many questions to ponder now that the Super Bowl is done. Are the Celtics turning things around? Will Lob City ready for primetime? Can the Pacers grab home-court advantage in a first-round series? Do the Sixers have enough to hang with the Bulls or Heat? And what's going on with the defending champs?

However, when I consider the whole landscape of the Association, there's one thing above all that I wonder ... could the Northwest Division actually be the best division in the league? Let's examine this from top to bottom.

Despite their relative youth, Oklahoma City has made positive strides beyond what a team this young should be showing. From losing a tough first-round series in 2010 to reaching the Conference Finals in 2011 to their status as Finals favorite now, the rise of the Thunder is about as high as the ball when Kevin Durant releases his shots. Russell Westbrook and James Harden keep piling up the buckets (third in points per game), while Kendrick Perkins (when he's not being posterized by Blake Griffin) helps form a nucleus that is learning to become more formidable on the defensive end.

Next, we get to the first of the "underwhelmers." When Carmelo Anthony left the Rockies for the Garden, we figured that Denver was getting some talent in return. But would they gel with the rest of the Nuggets' core. They affirmed it by finishing fifth in the West. Now they're answering the bell again.

Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith decided to play in China during the lockout (this week, Martin signed a short-term deal with the Clippers). This means that two of the team's most effective players haven't been on the court all season. However, Denver leads the league in offense (104.6 ppg). Gotta say one thing. George Karl's a hell of a coach.

In third, we may have the most underwhelming team in the NBA. Maybe it's because Deron Williams isn't in town anymore. Maybe it's because Jerry Sloan isn't patrolling the bench. Or maybe it's just us not paying attention. Utah was 10-5 before alternating back-to-back losses with back-to-back wins (assuming they beat the Knicks Monday night). When you look through the roster, there's not a lot of flash to hide your eyes from. But if coach Tyrone Corbin is anything like his former boss, that's just fine.

Portland has had its share of departures over the last few years, including the early retirement of all-star shooting guard Brandon Roy. But with all that the Trailblazers lost, they might have gained something more important ... health (well, except for Greg Oden). LaMarcus Aldridge has been one of the most durable players in the Association. It appears (knock on wood) that the team has multiple centers to plug into the paint. And coach Nate McMillan has the added services of Gerald Wallace to add athleticism and toughness. Going forward, though, you have to wonder who might run the show if Raymond Felton goes down.

Then we get to the Timberwolves. After hitting their head against the ceiling this season, they have finally reached .500. I live in the Twin Cities, and there's a buzz for the franchise that I haven't experienced in my five years here. Who knew that a pair of Ricks might be the key to a return to relevancy?

Rick Adelman is bringing his experience from Portland, Sacramento, and Houston (not going to count those two years in Oakland) to this young team. Ricky Rubio has brought flash and dash to the squad, possibly GM David Kahn's thirst for point guards. Together with Kevin Love, these three have created a dynamic trio that help make the Wolves one of the most watchable shows in the league.

Now that the players have been introduced, do they provide the best conglomeration? These five teams have fared well against the rest of the NBA. The only team with a losing record (limited as the sample size is) to the East would be Minnesota. The only team with a losing to the West is Denver. Does this mean the pace will keep up? Probably not. Does it mean that none of these teams will fade? I doubt it.

In the end, though, I'm just saying that I'll keep my eye to the North and West for the time being. There might be something cooking in that varied air.

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