2011-12 NBA Preview: Northwest Division

2. Portland Trail Blazers

Last Season: 48-34, 3rd Northwest

The Portland Trail Blazers had a sub-par season last year because of the injuries sustained by Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. They still finished with the sixth seed in the Western Conference before losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. Despite the early knockout, Blazer fans thought that the late return of Roy from his injuries was a good sign for things to come; unfortunately, it was just the opposite.

Suffering from chronic knee problems that have required multiple surgeries, Brandon Roy was forced to retire from the NBA this year. Roy does not have enough cartilage in both of his knees to be able to continue a basketball career. To make matters worse for Portland, it’s been reported that Oden is once again expected to miss the entire NBA season.

On the bright side, Portland has been very busy this off-season working to fill the absence of Brandon Roy. They picked up point guard Raymond Felton from Denver in a three-team deal, trading Andre Miller in the process. Felton is entering the last year of his contract, which means if he wants a better contract, he will give Portland his very best.

Additionally, Portland signed free agent Jamal Crawford from Atlanta, a bench player who can come in and score 20 points on any given night. Crawford deepens the bench, allowing Portland the comfort of not relying solely on their starters.

Look for Portland to battle the Thunder for the best record in the Northwest division this season. As one of the toughest teams in the NBA, the Portland Trail Blazers have what it takes to go deep into the playoffs. Their off-season pick-ups made them much more difficult to defend, and when they play at home, they are almost impossible to beat.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Last Season: 55-27, 1st Northwest

The 2010-11 season was Oklahoma City’s best in franchise history as they won the Northwest Division for the first time. They made the playoffs for the second straight year with the fourth seed in the Western Conference. The Thunder were projected to go deep into the playoffs but their plans were foiled by a determined Dallas Mavericks team that went on to win the NBA championship.

This Oklahoma City team is stacked with young players. Lead by All-Star and last year’s scoring champion, Kevin Durant, the Thunder are a pre-season front-runner to represent the Western Conference in this year’s Finals. Surrounding Durant are strong shooters like Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden, and Daequan Cook, who all played significant roles in last year’s playoffs. Leading the frontcourt are Serge Ibaka and former Boston Celtic, Kendrick Perkins, who brings championship experience to a young team. Both players are interchangeable at the center and power forward spot, which benefits the Thunder because it allows them to make the right match up against any team.

Point guard Russell Westbrook is the key player in the Thunder’s success. Young, athletic and very talented, this third year veteran out of UCLA still has a lot to learn about playing team ball. While his aggressive nature can be an amazing attribute to have, one must learn when and when not to use it. He gets his team into trouble trying to be the hero when his team already has one.

Kevin Durant is a proven big shot player, and as it is his teammates’ job to get him the ball during important possessions. Westbrook tries to do too much that is not in his ability.

For the Thunder to be successful, they will need to continue to play with the defensive mentality they had last year. That means always be in help side position, putting pressure on the ball, and making sure to limit second chance points.

Offensively, they need to rely on Durant more at the end of games. He has the ability to always get the right and best shot in any situation. He can create scoring opportunities for himself, or draw the double team and kick it out the open player.

Look for The Thunder to earn a top three seed in the Western Conference playoffs this year.