The Nuggets were supposed to use their appearance in the 2009 Western Conference finals as a springboard to championship contention. Didn't happen. With coach George Karl battling throat cancer, the Nuggets had the talent to win 53 regular-season games but not the mental fortitude to get past the Jazz in the first round.
A year later, Denver is in chaos and could be set up for a freefall. The franchise's biggest star in 20 years, Carmelo Anthony, wants out. Kenyon Martin isn't happy that the team gave "his" money to Al Harrington. It won't help that Martin and Chris "Strangling Neck Tattoo" Andersen will miss significant time because of injuries at the beginning of the season. It all adds up to a grim start to Masai Ujiri's tenure as the team's new general manager.
Sources say the Nuggets' revamped front office -- with Ujiri replacing 2009 Executive of the Year Mark Warkentien, and the owner's son, Josh Kroenke, assuming a bigger role -- struggled with the complicated mechanics of putting together an Anthony trade when talks heated up in September. Four-team talks that would've sent Anthony to New Jersey fizzled, in large part because Denver couldn't achieve enough savings within the framework of the proposal. (In fact, the trade involving Charlotte and Utah would've cost the Nuggets more than $10 million this season when accounting for the luxury tax, an absolute deal breaker.)
Enter former Warriors executive Pete D'Alessandro, a trained negotiator with a legal background and an adept navigator of the collective bargaining agreement. The addition of D'Alessandro as an adviser to Ujiri will streamline the team's efforts to get the best possible deal for Anthony -- if Ujiri decides there is no other course of action but to trade him.
The result of all this is a changing of the guard in the Northwest Division, with MVP candidate Kevin Durant and the Thunder battling the Trail Blazers for supremacy.
Predicted order of finish (2009-10 records):
1. Trail Blazers (50-32)
2. Thunder (50-32)
3. Jazz (53-29)
4. Nuggets (53-29)
5. Timberwolves (15-67)
|Cost-saving Luke Babbitt could be a valuable piece for Portland. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: If Oden suffers another serious injury, the effects on organizational morale would be devastating. Also, the malcontent factor could be the Blazers' undoing if Fernandez isn't dealt quickly and if Miller is more focused on trade rumors than running the team.
X-Factor: Luke Babbitt. Pritchard proved that he's a bigger man than most when he pulled off this draft-night trade, with full knowledge that he would been given his walking papers. Pritchard saved Paul Allen millions in luxury tax by converting Martell Webster into Babbitt, the 16th overall pick. But it was more than a cost-saving move; Babbitt could see a decent amount of floor time as LaMarcus Aldridge's backup by the time the playoffs roll around.
|The Thunder need James Harden to tighten his defense and hit some 3s. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: The Thunder won 50 games and briefly put a scare into the Lakers in the playoffs by taking the opposition by surprise. Those days are over. Durant is now widely regarded as an MVP candidate and the Thunder are no longer a novelty. By now, everyone knows you beat the Thunder by pounding the ball into the post, where their lack of size can be exploited. Once the Thunder emerged as one of the darling teams of the NBA last season, there was no doubt that the next step was to live up to the hype. That's the hard part.
X-Factor: Cole Aldrich. In yet another shrewd move, Presti packaged the 21st and 26th picks and sent them to cost-cutting New Orleans specifically to get Aldrich, who as a Kansas product will be more polished than most rookies. Not much can be expected offensively, but Aldrich could be a factor as a shot-blocker and rebounder, something the Thunder need to fortify their weak front court.
|Utah is counting on Al Jefferson to duplicate Carlos Boozer's production. (Getty Images)|
What has to go right: Getting Al Jefferson was a gamble worth taking, but the Jazz need him to produce on something close to a Carlos Boozer level. As far as physical gifts, that shouldn't be a problem. But even on a bad team in Minnesota, Jefferson's scoring and rebounding averages dropped below 20 points and 10 boards for the first time in three years. Big Al has to get back to that level for the Jazz to remain among the top teams in the West.
What could go wrong: Even if everything goes right, the Jazz are still an easy out in the playoffs. Which makes it fairly insane to pay luxury tax for the second straight year. Which makes it a certainty that Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur or both will be traded before the February deadline.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward. With Korver gone, the Jazz will need Hayward to make an immediate contribution off the bench. He isn't ready, but if he surprises, it will help Utah's suspect depth significantly.
|It's a mystery how much longer Carmelo Anthony will be playing for George Karl. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: The worst thing that could happen to the Nuggets would be getting off to a sluggish start, which would only accelerate Melo's desire for a trade. And that's a pretty good bet, considering Denver's already suspect front court will be shorthanded for at least a month with the injuries to Martin and Andersen.
X-Factor: Karl. Forget for a moment that Karl isn't thrilled with what transpired in Denver this summer. His biggest supporter, Warkentien, was shown the door, and his most trusted assistant, Tim Grgurich, followed him in disgust. Karl isn't sure where he stands in the final year of his contract. But he's a basketball coach and mind manipulator of the highest order, and if he believes his future is tied to Melo staying, he'll do everything in his power to keep him there. I'm not so sure Karl is 100 percent sold that he can win a championship with Melo and his current supporting cast, so there's the problem. Or one of them.
|Costly draft-night pickup Martell Webster could still pay dividends in Minnesota. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: Like a deckhand shuffling chairs on the Titanic, GM David Kahn made a lot of changes. But in the immortal words of Micheal Ray Richardson, this ship still be sinkin'. The T-Wolves are one of those teams that have a lot of individuals I like -- Love, Johnson, Jonny Flynn, Luke Ridnour. How does it all fit together? It doesn't.
X-Factor: The term "X-Factor" assumes that there are certain things a team is counting on, and this so-called "X-Factor" would be something extra -- something surprising. So it's tempting to take the easy way out and say Ricky Rubio fits that description. But Rubio isn't walking through the door this season, if ever. So here's a stab in the dark: Martell Webster. Though the exchange of the 16th pick (Luke Babbitt) for Webster was baffling -- and Pritchard's final fleece job as Portland's GM -- Webster has the skills to be more of a factor than he was with the ridiculously deep Blazers. But only if Rambis finds the right fit for him in the offense. And Rambis has so many other problems, he may not even get to that one until the T-Wolves are well on their way to another lottery.