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TIMBERWOLVES PRESEASON FAVORITE, BUT SPURS CAN KICK IT <br> NORTHWEST DIVISION

Last season: 58-24, eliminated, 4-2, in Western Conference finals by Lakers.

Coach: Flip Saunders, 10th season, 386-300.

Added: F Eddie Griffin (free agent, Nets), G Anthony Carter (free agent, Spurs).

Lost: F Gary Trent (free agent, Bulls).

Better or worse?: How about exactly the same? Very little changed for the Wolves in the offseason, except the moods of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell going south because of their lack of contract extensions. Wally Szczerbiak is once again the subject of trade speculation, but Minnesota would miss his outside shooting unless it's replaced in any such deal. The backcourt is aging quickly, and center Michael Olowokandi has provided little. They're the popular preseason pick to make it to the conference finals, mostly because of reigning MVP Kevin Garnett's dominance. But will they improve as much as they did a year ago? Don't count on it.
Last season: 42-40, missed playoffs.

Coach: Jerry Sloan, 20th season, 917-561.

Added: F Carlos Boozer (free agent, Cavaliers), F Mehmet Okur (free agent, Pistons), F Kris Humphries (draft, No. 14, Minnesota), G Kirk Snyder (draft, No. 16, Nevada).

Lost: C Greg Ostertag (free agent, Kings), F Michael Ruffin (free agent, Wizards), F Tom Gugliotta (free agent, Celtics), G Maurice Williams (free agent, Bucks), G Sasha Pavlovic (expansion draft, Bobcats).

Better or worse?: Made two major upgrades along the front line, getting a young inside-outside threat in Okur to replace Ostertag, and an Olympian in Boozer who will become the franchise's next stalwart at power forward. Point guard Raul Lopez remains hampered by knee injuries, but Carlos Arroyo isn't all that shabby. The return of Matt Harpring from an injury will help immensely, too.
Last season: 43-39, eliminated, 4-1, by Timberwolves in first round.

Coach: Jeff Bzdelik, third season, 60-104.

Added: F Kenyon Martin (trade with Nets), G Greg Buckner (free agent, 76ers), G DerMarr Johnson (free agent, Knicks), F Bryon Russell (free agent, Lakers).

Lost: C Michael Doleac (free agent, Heat), F Chris Andersen (free agent, Hornets), G Jon Barry (free agent, Hawks), F Ryan Bowen (free agent, Rockets).

Better or worse?: Adding Martin without having to trade away Nene or Marcus Camby gave the Nuggets one of the deeper front lines in the West, but Martin still has to justify his maximum contract without having the benefit of Jason Kidd feeding him countless alley-oop opportunities as he did in New Jersey. Shooting guard is the weakest link, and Bzdelik is a lame duck entering the final season of his contract.
Last season: 41-41, missed playoffs.

Coach: Maurice Cheeks, fourth season, 140-106.

Added: G Nick Van Exel (trade with Warriors), G Richie Frahm (free agent, Bobcats), G Sebastian Telfair (draft, No. 13, Lincoln H.S.), C Joel Przybilla (free agent, Hawks).

Lost: C Dale Davis, G Dan Dickau (traded to Warriors), G Eddie Gill (traded to Nets).

Better or worse?: Weren't able to find a taker for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who has been unhappy with Portland ever since arriving along with Theo Ratliff in February in a midseason trade. There aren't enough minutes to keep both Van Exel and Damon Stoudamire happy at point guard. Look for a big shake-up by midseason if the Blazers start poorly, with everyone expendable.
Last season: 37-45, missed playoffs.

Coach: Nate McMillan, fifth season, 160-153.

Added: C Robert Swift (draft, No. 12, Bakersfield (Calif.) HS), G Ibrahim Kutluay (free agent, Ulker Istanbul, Turkey), F Danny Fortson (trade with Mavericks).

Lost: G Brent Barry (free agent, Spurs), C Calvin Booth (traded to Mavericks), G Richie Frahm (expansion draft, Bobcats), F Ansu Sesay (free agent, Warriors).

Better or worse?: Made a more lucrative offer than San Antonio did to keep Barry, but he left anyway to join a winner. Will the same thing happen to Ray Allen, entering the final season of his contract? And will Vladimir Radmanovic continue to play out of position at power forward, ceding his natural position of small forward to Rashard Lewis? Franchise has been treading water for six years and counting.

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