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(Sports Network) - A pair of Northwest Division rivals square off tonight in the Rocky Mountains, where the Denver Nuggets play host to the despised Utah Jazz at the Pepsi Center.
Denver owned the tiebreaker with the Jazz to win the division a season ago, but Utah ousted the Nuggets in six games in the first round of the playoffs.
Nuggets head coach George Karl said during the preseason that star Carmelo Anthony is close to elite status with defense and leadership still needing some adjustments. Karl, who is recovering from throat cancer that sidelined the veteran coach at the end of last season, is also aware that Anthony is seeking a trade. Karl will be back on the bench Wednesday night.
Possibly concerned of the future of the organization, Anthony is reportedly interested in landing with an Eastern Conference team such as New York, New Jersey or Chicago. Anthony could have signed a three-year, $65 million extension with the only team he's played for in the NBA, but opted to leave the mega deal on the table. Not even the addition of power forward Al Harrington could inspire 'Melo to sign on the dotted line.
A few other vital pieces to the Denver puzzle are nearing the end of their contracts, as Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin, Arron Afflalo, Nene and J.R. Smith could be hitting the market soon. It's clear the Nuggets will suffer drastically without Anthony, but imagine losing point guard Billups, arguably one of the best floor generals and locker room leaders in the NBA. Billups is the glue that holds the squad in place and is one of a host of players on the team hungry for a title. The Nuggets were favored to make a significant run through the playoffs, but Karl's illness weighed heavily on the minds of the players en route to a first- round exit at the hands of Utah.
The Nuggets have made the postseason the last seven years and have won at least 50 games over the previous three.
Meanwhile, Utah lost forward Carlos Boozer to the Bulls and filled the void by dealing for big man Al Jefferson. It still has arguably the best point guard in the NBA in Deron Williams, who posted 18.7 points and 10.5 assists in 76 contests a year ago.
The Jazz went 53-29 in 2009-10 and reached the Western Conference semifinals, where they were swept by the eventual NBA champion LA Lakers. Without Boozer, it will be tough to see how the team jells with Jefferson. Utah now faces a similar situation this year with Andrei Kirilenko, a former All-Star with the second-largest expiring deal in the NBA. Kirilenko isn't considered as integral to the team's success as Boozer was. Paul Millsap is considered an important part of the team and averaged 11.6 points and 6.8 boards last year.
Meanwhile, among the other new pieces joining Jefferson in Salt Lake are defensive specialist Raja Bell and lottery pick Gordon Hayward, who must replace the sharp-shooting of 3-point marksman and fan favorite Kyle Korver.
"We've lost some good players," Jazz legendary coach Jerry Sloan told NBA.com. "Hopefully we have someone that can come in and take their spots and move on. We lost John Stockton and Karl Malone, and came back and won 42 games. And that's the nature of this business. Our job doesn't change."
Sloan in entering his 23rd year as Utah's coach, the longest tenured mentor in all of major North American professional sports, and shows no signs of slowing down. The Jazz have reached at least the West semis three times in the last four seasons.
Denver won three of four matchups with Utah in the regular season a year ago and defeated the Jazz, 114-105, in the 2009-10 season opener.