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Durant's back, Aldridge's gone and the Northwest will challenge the Mavericks

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Oklahoma City is the favorite, but don't sleep on the Jazz (or even the Wolves?!) as a darkhorse to make some noise in the division.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

In a continuation of our season previews, we finally come to the Northwest Division. Last year, the Portland Trail Blazers won it and earned home court advantage in the first round despite a lower record. That rule has been abolished, but with the Northwest back on the rise and Oklahoma City likely reasserting itself as a dominant team, that may not matter. Here's our preview.

Games to circle

Nov. 22 at Oklahoma City: This will be Dallas's first game against the Thunder, and it seems fairly likely that Wes Matthews will be in street clothes for this game. If the Mavs don't look completely overwhelmed, this should be a good sign? The Mavs will have played a couple of West contenders at this point (the Clippers and the Rockets --those games should be fun, right?), but playing OKC on the road should be like tossing this roster in the deep end of the pool. Will they manage to tread water?

Dec. 1 at Portland: First game against the Aldridge-less Blazers. Much like the first game against the Thunder, this should be a good signpost for what sort of team the Mavs are going to be. I feel like Dallas should be a (significantly?) better team than Portland this season. We'll see if that is actually the case. Also, will Wes be back for this game? Will he treat it as a revenge game after the Blazers didn't even extend him an offer this summer?

March 20 (at Portland) and March 23 (vs Portland): The next time Dallas gets Portland will be back-to-back games in March. At this point, Wes should be back and at full strength. Will he go bonkers on his old team? By this point in the season, team chemistry should be cementing, and we should have a real idea of who the Mavs are.

How has the Northwest Division changed over the summer?

We should start with the obvious one. Portland's version of Dirk, LaMarcus Aldridge left the beauty of the Pacific Northwest for the muddy creeks of San Antonio. And LaMarcus wasn't the only one who left the Blazers. Portland lost four of five starters, including the Mavs' newest max player, Wesley Matthews. There's a very good chance the Blazers move from the top of the division to the bottom this season, depending on how quickly the young Timberwolves grow up.

Other changes include a new head coach for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who apparently decided that starting over with a new staff is the best way of wooing two star players whose contracts are almost up. Speaking of, Kevin Durant is back, in a contract season.

Utah was a lot of people's choice as a darkhorse to make the playoffs this year, but unfortunately, they lost talented sophomore Dante Exum. Exum's growth figured to be a big part of Utah taking a step forward this year.

Denver not only changed coaches but also jettisoned troubled but talented point guard Ty Lawson (who also migrated to the Southwest Division, to the Mavs' other big rival Houston). This leaves the door wide open for the beginning of the Emmanuel Mudiay era, but the rookie is only 19 years old, so let's not get ahead of ourselves.

And finally, Minnesota added a talented young first overall pick, Karl-Anthony Towns, to pair with last year's talented young first overall pick (and Rookie of the Year), Andrew Wiggins, and a talented young dunk champion, Zach LaVine. The TWolves will also start the season without coach Flip Saunders, who is on a leave of absence while battling cancer.

What is the Mavericks' biggest challenge against the Northwest Division?

Probably the same challenge the Mavericks will have against most divisions in the West: winning games. There is a potential for a lot of matchup issues. First of all, this division is stacked with perimeter weapons -- Durant, Gordon Hayward, to name too. Unfortunately, there is no telling how long Dallas will have to go without its best perimeter stopper, Wes Matthews.

The two best teams in the division (OKC and Utah) both feature bigs who can score--a problem, since Dallas's best big man defender is probably Sam Dalembert. Enes Kanter, Rudy Gobert, and Serge Ibaka are going to give the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Zaza Pachulia, and .... Jeremy Evans (?) a lot of trouble.

The division is also home to a couple of insanely fast, score-first point guards in Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard. Deron Williams is an upgrade from Dallas's point guard situation last season (except those few nights when Rondo was awake on the defensive end), but will he have the speed and attention necessary to keep Westbrook and Lillard from having huge nights when they play the Mavs?

Even the non-playoff teams in the division pose some challenges. Portland has Lillard, Minny has Wiggins and Towns, and Denver has Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari.

What is the Northwest Division's biggest challenge against the Mavericks?

Shooting. None of the teams in the Northwest are known as particularly stout defensive teams, so Dallas (once healthy) should theoretically be able to put up a lot of points against some of these teams, especially from the perimeter.

Two of the league's better shot blockers (Serge Ibaka and Rudy Gobert) reside in the Northwest, but this may end up being the least drive-and-dunk oriented Mavs offense we've seen in a long while. Gobert is a terrifying presence in the middle, but he can do much if Dallas is focused on moving the ball and giving shooters like Wes Matthews, Chandler Parsons, Deron Williams, Dirk Nowitzki, and to a lesser extent Justin Anderson and Devin Harris wide open looks from range.

Another thing teams in this division should be worried about is coaching. Two Northwest teams have new coaches. I personally don't have a ton of esteem for Flip Saunders as a coach, but your mileage may vary. Quin Snyder and Terry Stotts both seem to be figuring the NBA out and look to be quality coaches. But my point is that none of these teams are outcoaching Rick Carlisle. If anyone can figure out how to overcome what may be a deficit of talent and athleticism as compared to OKC or Minnesota (this feels weird to say) with scheme and strategy, it is Carlisle.

Why is everyone sleeping on the Minnesota Timberwolves?

Look, I get it. This team hasn't really been good since KG left. But I feel like this is the most talented team in the NBA that absolutely no one is talking about. I mean seriously, look at the roster; it is jam-packed with (mostly young) talent. Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andre Miller, Kevin Martin, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Tayshaun Prince, Kevin Garnett, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nicola Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng ... why is no one talking about this team?!

If Towns is half of what a lot of people project him to be, that big man rotation is terrifying. The depth around the perimeter is actually really crazy too. If Rubio stays healthy, this team could really make some noise. Maybe people don't trust youth. Maybe it's just that the West is too competitive, and Minny seems like they're another year or two away from breaking through.

But I'm not sleeping on these guys.