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Thunder should focus on Northwest Division title

Kevin Durant the MVP? The Thunder as World Champions? Thunder writer John Rohde says the focus should be on the Western Conference's Northwest Division first.
BY JOHN ROHDE Modified: September 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm •  Published: September 25, 2010

Seemingly, it happened overnight.

The Thunder has become the darling of the NBA, the trendy pick with a pending MVP in Kevin Durant, a freakishly athletic point guard in Russell Westbrook, a budding force in Serge Ibaka, a herd of hard-playing 20-somethings who someday soon will wrap their arms around the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.

Almost everyone projects at least 50 victories for the Thunder this season. Thunder believers are looking at the big picture, trying to figure out where the team ranks overall in the NBA.

Actually, the scope should be much narrower than that. The focus should be on the Northwest Division.

A shift in power seems likely in the Northwest with Carlos Boozer leaving Utah, plus the pending departure of Carmelo Anthony from Denver. Portland remains in perpetual flux with the uncertain health of Greg Oden (164 missed games in 246 potential starts) and the turmoil surrounding the dismissal of general manager Kevin Pritchard. Elsewhere in the Western Conference, Amare Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa and general manager Steve Kerr have left Phoenix (54-28).

Meanwhile with the Thunder, hope floats and the tide rises.

Division champs are guaranteed no worse than a No. 4 seed in the playoffs. Win the Northwest title, and the Thunder is guaranteed home-court advantage at the frenzied former Ford Center in the opening round.

Only two times in NBA history have all eight playoff teams from the same conference had 50-win seasons in 2007-08 and 2009-10.

Four of the five Northwest Division teams were playoff qualifiers last season in No. 4-seeded Utah (53-29), No. 5 Denver (53-29), No. 7 Portland (50-32) and the No. 8 Thunder (50-32).

The Thunder actually could win fewer games this season, yet win the Northwest Division and end up with a higher playoff seed.

If the Nuggets, Jazz, Trail Blazers and Suns indeed win fewer games this season, there's also the flip side — where bad teams are getting better — leaving no guarantee the Thunder will reach last year's victory total.

Opponents pillaged on cellar-dweller Minnesota (15-67 overall; 3-13 in the Northwest) last season. Timberwolves president David Kahn recently vowed in a full-page ad his team will not be contenders this season, but Minnesota no doubt will be better with the additions of Michael Beasley, Martell Webster, Luke Ridnour, Wesley Johnson and Lazar Hayward, while undervalued center Kevin Love (presumably) will start more than 22 games.

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