NBA Preview: Durant and the Thunder Will Roll Through the Northwest Division

2011–12 record: 47–19

WHAT THEY'VE GOT: Their eyes on the prize after falling short last season. OKC still has the NBA's best pure scorer in forward Kevin Durant, its speediest point guard in Russell Westbrook, and an All-Star sixth man in guard James Harden.

WHAT THEY NEED: To keep improving. The Lakers' signing of Dwight Howard is a game-changer in the West. The Thunder are tough to score on in the paint with big men Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, an elite shot blocker. But each player needs to be a bigger low-post presence on offense.

BOTTOM LINE: The time is now for Oklahoma City. They are still young and have proven they are worthy of a title after reaching last season's Finals. Now they just have to finish the deal.


[Photo Gallery: NBA stars with new teams]

2011–12 record: 38–28

WHAT THEY'VE GOT: A roster stocked with underrated talent. Last year Denver quietly finished third in the NBA in offensive efficiency, thanks to point guard Ty Lawson and forward Danilo Gallinari, a versatile playmaker. Both players will get a boost with the arrival of guard Andre Iguodala, an elite defender who can also handle the ball. Seven-foot center JaVale McGee is also a gifted and extremely athletic big man.

WHAT THEY NEED: A go-to scorer. Gallinari has shown flashes of being that guy — he averaged 17 points in his first 25 games last year before he was injured. Now healthy, he'll have a leading role.

BOTTOM LINE: If you're looking for a surprise team to make the conference finals, Denver is it.

[Video: NBA rookie photo shoot]

2011–12 record: 26–40

WHAT THEY'VE GOT: Presence in the paint. Forward Kevin Love is an all-around star and the NBA's best defensive rebounder. Center Nikola Pekovic is a bruiser and the NBA's best offensive rebounder. Minnesota also upgraded its wing play in the off-season, adding guard Brandon Roy and forward Andrei Kirilenko, both former All-Stars.

WHAT THEY NEED: A healthy Ricky Rubio. The point guard thrilled fans with his passes before tearing his ACL late last season. Rubio and Roy, who is also back from knee problems, have to stay injury-free for the Timberwolves to win.

BOTTOM LINE: If Roy and Rubio play a full season, Minnesota will be in the postseason picture.

2011–12 record: 36–30

WHAT THEY'VE GOT: A lot of size. The Jazz experimented with a supersized frontcourt last year, playing center Al Jefferson (6' 10", 289 pounds) and power forwards Paul Millsap (6' 8", 253 pounds) and Derrick Favors (6' 10", 248 pounds) together at times. It was a unique strategy by coach Tyrone Corbin, and one that often worked.

WHAT THEY NEED: To knock down some threes. Last year, the Jazz ranked 27th in three-point percentage. They upgraded the backcourt in the off-season, adding veteran point guard Mo Williams (38.7% behind the arc) and guard Randy Foye (36.6%).

BOTTOM LINE: With dominant bigs and sharpshooters now in the lineup, Utah is a dangerous team.

2011–12 record: 28–38

WHAT THEY'VE GOT: Fresh talent to support its franchise player, forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland has high hopes for dynamic point guard Damian Lillard, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft. Rookie center Meyers Leonard is a skilled big man and is expected to fill the void in the post. Portland also lured back fifth-year swingman Nicolas Batum, who shot 39.1% from behind the arc last year.

WHAT THEY NEED: Leadership and maturity. Portland could struggle with so many inexperienced players in the rotation. Aldridge's skills as a leader will be tested.

BOTTOM LINE: To make the postseason, Portland's promising group of youngsters needs to play like veterans.

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totally OKC OKC OKC THUNDER!!!!!!

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