20Q: Who are the championship contenders in the Western Conference?

Nov 30, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) against Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) at Footprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks 27 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.

Question 18: Which Western Conference teams could go to the NBA Finals?

Can the Denver Nuggets win a championship? It would be the first time in their 47-year history as a member of the NBA. Sure, they made it as part of the ABA back in 1976, but the team was demolished by Julius Erving and the New York Nets.

Perhaps the Nuggets should simply worry about getting there first, another step that they have yet to take as a franchise. Four times the Nuggets have made it to the Conference Finals. Their first attempt was in 1978 against the Seattle Supersonics, losing the series 4-2. The next three attempts were all foiled by the Los Angeles Lakers, teams anchored by Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. Tough break.

Now, as the Nuggets attempt to do what’s never been done before in franchise history, it’s important to understand what stands in their way. There are other teams in the West that are theoretically just as hungry for success as the Nuggets are. Many of them have top end talent to match their competitiveness. Only one team can prevail, and several teams believe that this is their season. Just like the Nuggets.

Which teams can seriously challenge for Western Conference supremacy though? Four teams have a serious shot, and another four are dark horse candidates. Let’s break them down:


Dark Horses

Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans

Each of the four teams listed have talented young players that have already seen some form of success in the NBA thus far.

The Dallas Mavericks reached the Conference Finals last year, taking advantage of a unique situation that saw the Phoenix Suns crumble. Luka Dončić is clearly that dude, and there should be no questions about his ability to carry a team to great heights. The questions begin with the second best player on the roster, which is…Spencer Dinwiddie? Dorian Finney-Smith? Tim Hardaway Jr.? Christian Wood? There are fair questions about Dallas’ overall talent level, but Luka may be good enough to paper over that.

The Minnesota Timberwolves added defensive anchor Rudy Gobert to a group that already features offensive stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. Perhaps no team in the NBA has a more impactful trio. Still, the trio is theoretical, and there are some fit and personality questions for a roster still finding itself. In addition, the depth of the roster leaves much to be desired. A lot rides on the development of Anthony Edwards and his ability to become a true star. What happens if he’s just…good?

The Memphis Grizzlies won the second most games in the entire NBA last season and were the most excited show in the league. High flyer Ja Morant runs the show, and he’s proven himself to be a true star that can anchor an offense by himself. Morant has longevity concerns due to his playing style, and injury will always play a part. Still, if he can stay healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. returns to the floor, and Desmond Bane takes another step forward, the Grizzlies have the formula to be a serious problem for anybody.

Finally, the New Orleans Pelicans sneak onto this list due to talent alone. After trading for CJ McCollum in February, the Pelicans showed some long term positives with a strong finish to the season and by challenging the Suns in the first round. Now, Zion Williamson returns to the fold, joined by McCollum and Brandon Ingram as one of the most talented offensive trios in the league. Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado, and Trey Murphy may have been rookies last season, but they’ve already shown some ability to anchor New Orleans defensively too. If the talent mixes together, don’t be surprised to see the Pelicans becoming a force to be reckoned with next April.

True Contenders

Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, and Denver Nuggets

Each of the teams listed here has a veteran core that’s already seen playoff success and some staying power against the top teams in the NBA. All three have a significant chance to represent the West.

The Phoenix Suns won 64 games last season. On the strength of that alone, they should be considered a contender. Sure, things went poorly at the end and some fingers were pointed in the midst of an ugly collapse; however, that doesn’t change the talent level and the path they took to get there. Devin Booker and Chris Paul are a legit All-Star tandem in the backcourt. Mikal Bridges is one of the best wing defenders in the league. DeAndre Ayton is one of the most efficient paint scorers with quality shooting touch from outside of the restricted area.

There’s no basketball reason why the Suns can’t get to the Finals. They already went in 2021. Let’s see if any of the non-basketball reasons end up getting in the way.

Next, the Los Angeles Clippers have been deemed by many to be the favorites in the West this year due to their immense rotation depth and their returning star power. They still need to prove it to me though. They’re a strong team on paper, and Kawhi Leonard is one of the strongest playoff performers in NBA history. Paul George is not though, and the rest of the roster has had moments of disappearance in the last several years. Everybody assumes that the roster will gel perfectly together, and maybe it will. They still have as much to prove as anybody and shouldn’t be the preseason favorites though.

Finally, the Denver Nuggets. Your Denver Nuggets.

As stated before, expectations are sky high in Denver. They have perhaps the best player in the world in Nikola Jokić as well as two talented scorers in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. returning to the floor. In addition, they’ve addressed some of their perimeter defense concerns with a supporting cast of Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Bruce Brown. Time will tell if those additions will make up for defensive concerns. If they do, then Denver’s offensive talent carries them against just about any team. This is the strongest opportunity the Nuggets have ever had to win a championship. They can’t let strong competition get in the way of a legitimate path to greatness.

There’s a bit of a feeling of destiny with this team. Whether that manifests or not remains to be seen. Jokić will tie the room together, and if everyone comes to the party, the Nuggets may prove to be the best team of them all.

The Favorite

Golden State Warriors

The reigning champions get the top spot in these rankings after an incredible 2021-22 Finals run. Stephen Curry has solidified himself as one of the greatest to ever play, while Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have provided ample support when needed. Newcomers Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole helped lift the Warriors in different situations throughout the playoffs. Kevon Looney proved to be a capable defensive big man. Klay will have put some distance from his rehab from an achilles tear in 2020.

While the losses of Gary Payton II, Otto Porter, and Nemanja Bjelica are likely to cause some instability at times, the Warriors have plenty of young talent to make up the difference. Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, and James Wiseman are all poised to take on larger roles. Veterans Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green will also provide some support.

The Warriors deserve to be considered the favorite, though they aren’t infallible. All three of the Suns, Clippers, and Nuggets could pose problems, as could any of the dark horse candidates. That’s how loaded the West is. The NBA champs have earned respect, but they don’t simply get a pass anymore.

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