April 1, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) battles for position with Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love (42) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. The Blazers won the game 119-106. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE

Can The Portland Trail Blazers Escape the Northwest?

With the Oklahoma City Thunder leading the way, and the Denver Nuggets not too far behind, the Northwest Division has emerged as one of, if not the most competitive division in the NBA. And with the Minnesota T’Wolves adding more pieces around their core of Ricky Rubio (who’s out with a torn ACL) and Kevin Love, the Portland Trail Blazers have found themselves in the fight of their lives — playoff lives, that is — if they hope to have post-season appearances in the future.

The Thunder are the clear-cut front-runners in the Northwest. Boasting four Olympic superstars (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Spain’s Serge Ibaka), OKC is most likely to face off against the new-look Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals this season. And if they can get Perry Jones III motivated to play ball, it could be a long season for the rest of the NBA.

Next comes the sixth-seeded and ever-improving Denver Nuggets. As deadly as they were last season, Denver found a way to bolster their front-court even more by inching their way into the Dwight Howard saga. With the addition of Andre Iguodala, the Nuggets seem to be poised to get out of the first round of the playoffs this season. Pencil them in for anywhere between the fourth and sixth seed, and have your upset alert ready.

Now here’s where it gets tricky.

Utah made the playoffs last season and, though they got swept by the Spurs, demonstrated toughness and heart that only a Ty Corbin-led team could show. They’ve made some changes to the roster as well, moving Devin Harris to Atlanta for Marvin Williams, as well as picking up Mo Williams, but the key for the Jazz will be running the offense through Al Jefferson and Paul Milsap. Especially with a bonafide three-point threat running the offense, Jefferson’s ability to command a double team in the low post will prove to be even more critical to Utah’s success. I don’t agree with the Marvin Williams trade, but maybe management has a better idea in mind than I.

The Minnesota T’Wolves looked playoff-bound last season until Ricky Rubio tore his ACL trying to guard, who else, Kobe Bryant. We won’t know how good they’ll be until he’s made a full recovery, but in adding Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko and Russian superstar Alexey Shved, Minny’s making strides in the right direction. Those key off-season acquisitions are putting them in position to make a post-season run once their Spanish PG returns.

That leaves the Portland Trail Blazers seemingly at the bottom of the totem pole in the Northwest. A team that’s starting two rookies, and likely featuring a third with Elliot Williams’ oh-so unfortunate injury, the Blazers look light years away from playoff, let alone championship contention  in the foreseeable future. Damian Lillard looks promising, Meyers Leonard is clearly a project and Will Barton could very well be a steal in the draft, but the team’s inability to pick up free agents this off-season has put them in quite the predicament going forward. Yes, Roy Hibbert would’ve been nice, and yes they grossly overpaid to match the T’Wolves’ offer sheet on Nic Batum, but there were still avenues they could’ve explored to plug holes in the roster until a permanent solution appeared.

Unless one of the rookies are the second coming of Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant or Dwight Howard, it’s looking as if the Portland Trail Blazers will be in the lottery come draft night. While Lillard may be a lights-out shooter/scorer, it’s about time us Blazers fans accept the harsh reality that Portland just might have back-to-back post-season misses this year. Hopefully next summer, the Blazers can add one or two quality pieces to put them back over the hump.

For LaMarcus’ Aldridge’s sake, I hope they do.

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Tags: NBA General Northwest Division Portland Trail Blazers

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