Story to watch: The fast-charging Trail Blazers got to .500 last season, way ahead of schedule. Adding Greg Oden, the No. 1 pick in 2007 who missed 2007-08 with a knee injury, and two other intriguing rookies, Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez, raises what would have been major expectations anyway. In great testament to the potential of the young roster, but also the weight they now carry, the kiddie corps will practically be considered a disappointment if they don't make the playoffs. Heady stuff for a team whose foundation for the future is a 24-year-old (Brandon Roy), a 23-year-old (LaMarcus Aldridge) and a 20-year-old (Oden).
Player to watch: Carlos Boozer. Partly because he is Talent 1A on the Jazz, a package deal with Deron Williams, but mostly because the Boozer situation comes with the added spice of wondering if this will be his final season in Utah. If he has a big 2008-09 and opts out, and Kobe Bryant stays in his contract, Boozer could become the top free agent in the summer of 2009. That's a lot of "if" going on. But any possibility of the 20-and-10 power forward leaving is enough to create worry in Salt Lake City.
Coach to watch: George Karl. Oh, the fun the Nuggets will have. Management has been cutting the roster out from under him, trading Marcus Camby for essentially nothing and selling off the first-round pick as well, just in time for Allen Iverson to enter what may be his final season before becoming a free agent. Karl gets the responsibility of keeping Denver, a veteran team, close to the playoff pack before the bosses really start laying the dynamite.
Newcomer to watch: Mike Miller. His arrival in Minnesota will be typically understated -- under-the-radar player, under-the-snowbank team -- but Miller is a nice building block and part of a future that suddenly has hope. He shoots with range, handles the ball, rebounds and moved well. And at age 28, he can still be a building block for the Timberwolves.
Rookie to watch: Oden. No great surprise. Kevin Love brings advanced offensive skills and basketball IQ to Minnesota and Russell Westbrook has the chance to become a game-changer in Oklahoma City, but Portland will be a constant draw for the eyes. It's the No. 1 pick in 2007, which would be a big enough deal, except that it's also the No. 1 pick in 2007 returning from a serious injury.
By the numbers: Denver's Allen Iverson led the league in minutes last season (41.8 per) at age 32. ... The Northwest, with Seattle/Oklahoma City (20-62) and Memphis (22-60) was the only division to have two teams with fewer than 32 wins. ... Even without Oden, projected to be a great defensive presence inside, the Trail Blazers were eighth in shooting defense and eighth in scoring defense in 2007-08. They were, however, 19th in rebounding percentage. ... Utah is No. 1 in the league for home-court advantage, according to a survey of general managers by NBA.com.
Predicted order of finish (with 2007-08 record):
- Utah Jazz (54-28)
- Portland Trail Blazers (41-41)
- Denver Nuggets (50-32)
- Minnesota Timberwolves (22-60)
- Oklahoma City Thunder (20-62 as Seattle SuperSonics)