Assessing the NBA’s wild, wild west

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Pepsi Center.
Dec 14, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As strong as ever, the NBA’s Western Conference will provide plenty of obstacles for the Nuggets

The following article is from the March issue of Mile High Sports Magazine. Obviously a few playoff positions have adjusted since its initial publication, but Aniello Piro breaks down the NBA’s Western Conference as the season hits the final stretch. Subscribe here!

ON THE OUTSKIRTS

Los Angeles Clippers
Projected Finish: Out or 8th, 41-41

The Skinny: The Los Angeles Clippers still find themselves recovering from their championship window that included six consecutive trips to playoffs, headed by their big three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. With Doc Rivers still serving as head coach, the Clippers are on the cusp of returning to the playoffs in 2019; however, after a trade deadline that saw the departure of Tobias Harris, it seems like the Clippers are gearing up to take a swing at a big-time free agent in the summer and plan to build for the future.

How Denver stacks up: Following the trade of Tobias Harris, the Clippers roster is fairly young outside of a couple veterans, including former Denver Nugget Danilo Gallinari. The Nuggets have matchup advantages both offensively and defensively against the Clippers and, truthfully, a lot more skill. Considering the Clippers relatively young age, the Nuggets should be able to beat them on skill alone should they meet in the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings
Projected Finish: Out or 8th, 41-41

The Skinny: For the first time in what feels like eternity, the Sacramento Kings have shown signs of a promising future. Sacramento has weaved in and out of the playoff picture throughout the year and will likely fall just short of the mark this season. While loaded with potential, the Kings are not quite ready to make the jump to the playoffs this year. That said, Dave Joerger is an experienced head coach who has plenty of tenure and under his leadership, the Kings could very well get back to the playoffs next season.

How Denver stacks up: Both the Nuggets and Kings are relatively young teams; however, the Nuggets are more polished in all facets of the game. Denver has advantages at all starting positions and the bench. Should he Kings sneak into the playoffs and face Denver, the Nuggets could use their strength and experience to outplay the Kings. The versatility of Nikola Jokic alone would be enough to thread Sacramento and give Denver a good chance to win a series.

Los Angeles Lakers
Projected Finish: Out or 8th, 42-40

The Skinny: The Los Angeles Lakers are hopeful that this season will mark the end of their historic five-year postseason drought. Led by LeBron James, the Lake Show appears to be more competent on the court this season compared to years past. The Lakers aren’t good enough to win it all, but any team with the world’s greatest player has a chance to make noise. Los Angeles is banking on James to either help develop the Lakers’ young core (this year) or bring in a fellow superstar (next year) to help the franchise return to form.

How Denver stacks up: The Nuggets are better in just about every aspect compared to the Lakers. The one dynamic of the Lakers that trumps the Nuggets is LeBron James. However, the King’s court is not loaded with talent as it has been in years past. If Denver was to meet the Lakers in the playoffs, neutralizing James is the key – maybe the only key – to winning a series. Besides James, the Nuggets are deeper, stronger and more tenacious than the Lakers.

San Antonio Spurs
Projected Finish: 7th, 44-38

The Skinny: The 2018-19 season has been a year of transition for the once-dominant San Antonio Spurs. After ruling the West with an iron fist for roughly two decades, the Spurs have regressed this season following a slew of offseason moves including the trade of Kawhi Leonard, retirement of Manu Ginobili and departure of Tony Parker. Nevertheless, Gregg Popovich has the team in prime position to make the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season.

How Denver stacks up: Outside of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs lack any real game-changing talent. Despite that, they have a cast of veterans in Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay that are battle-tested when it comes to the rigor of the NBA regular season and playoffs. The Bill Belichick of the NBA, teams coached by Greg Popovich do not go down easily, and the Spurs would make advancing past the first round a difficult task for the Nuggets. Denver is far and away a better team on paper, boasting enough speed and youth to run San Antonio off the court. However, knocking off one of the titans of the NBA – and their wily head coach – is no easy task, even if the Spurs are a bottom seed in the Western Conference.

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IN THE THICK OF IT

Portland Trailblazers
Projected Finish: 6th, 47-35

The Skinny: The Portland Trail Blazers have made the playoffs five seasons and counting and show no signs of changing that this season. Led by all-star guard Damian Lillard, the Blazers are no weak link in the ultra-competitive Western Conference despite their inability to progress deep into the playoffs. C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic also have strong play-making abilities and form a respectable supporting cast to Lillard. Denver and Portland have gone back and forth in recent years, and most games between the two are close and fierce matchups.

How Denver stacks up: The Nuggets have lost just one game to the Blazers in the past five seasons and this year have managed to surpass them in the standings. Should the division foes meet in the playoffs, there is sure to be some bad blood between the teams. Jusuf Nurkic, a former first-round selection by the Nuggets, has expressed a disliking towards the Nuggets since he was traded to the Blazers. Additionally, both Mason Plumlee and Will Barton once donned Portland uniforms in previous seasons. Nuggets-Blazers matchups tend to have a little extra physicality to them, and the Nuggets have come out on top a majority of the time recently. Lillard is the heart and soul of the Blazers, meaning neutralizing him is essential in beating the Blazers in a playoff series.

Utah Jazz
Projected Finish: 5th, 49-33

The Skinny: The Jazz have proven to be one of the most consistent teams in the NBA this season. Fresh off back-to-back years in which they made the playoffs, the Jazz are primed to make another run this season. Donovan Mitchell has lived up to expectations in his sophomore season, and Rudy Gobert continues to anchor the team’s defense. Utah prides itself on its defensive play and ranks among the top-five in defensive rating in the NBA. The Jazz are a deep team all-around with Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder, Joe Ingles and Dante Exum all running the court alongside the two pillars.

How Denver stacks up: The Nuggets and Jazz are opposites of each other. Denver is among the highest rated offensive teams in the NBA while the Jazz are a superb team defensively. The two squads have split the regular season series each of the last two years. A key in a series for the Nuggets is 3-point shooting. With Gobert playing in the paint, the Jazz interior defense is rock solid. If Jamal Murray or even the revitalized Isiah Thomas can get hot from beyond the arc, the Nuggets will be in good shape. Since the Jazz are such a defensive-oriented team, their offensive game can lag at times. Denver would need to play an up-tempo, fast-paced game against the Jazz in order to win that postseason series. Home court advantage could be the difference in this matchup.

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LOCKED IN

Houston Rockets
Projected Finish: 4th, 50-42

The Skinny: The Houston Rockets have regressed from the team that pushed the Golden State Warriors to seven games in last year’s conference finals. Regardless, the Rockets are still one of the best teams in the West this season and have MVP candidate James Harden leading the charge. Harden has been sensational this season. The rest of his team has not. Chris Paul is clearly not the player he was in Los Angeles and has struggled to stay healthy all season. When Harden and Paul are both playing at a high level the Rockets are about as dangerous as any other team, but this season has been more challenging for Houston than last. Because of their struggles this season, there are doubts if the Rockets could duplicate their success in the playoffs this year.

How Denver stacks up: The Nuggets and Rockets have similar play styles with their high-flying offenses. A matchup between the two would likely run up the scoreboard. The one significant advantage the Nuggets have against Houston is their interior and post play. The Rockets do not have an answer for Nikola Jokic, and if the Joker gets going, the Nuggets offense will take off. Jokic is one of the best facilitators in the NBA and unlocks all of the offensive weapons for Denver. There is a good chance that if Jokic gets hot against a weak Rockets defense, so do Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and the rest of the squad. Denver has a better defense than Houston, and the Rockets have little support for James Harden. It should be noted, however, that Denver is 1-9 in the last 10 games against Houston.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Projected Finish: 3rd, 54-28

The Skinny: The Thunder have been one of the best three teams in the Western Conference throughout the season and are vying to get back to the NBA Finals in 2019. Paul George has officially settled in as a member of the Thunder and has been one of the best overall players in the NBA this year and has been better than former MVP Russell Westbrook this season. Westbrook and George are one of the best tandems in the NBA and have a strong set of role players that includes Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder. Besides being a balanced team, the Thunder have one of the best head coaches in the league in Billy Donovan.

How Denver stacks up: The Thunder provide a tough task for the Nuggets should they cross paths in the springtime. The glaring advantage Oklahoma City has over Denver is its postseason experience. The Thunder have made the playoffs in eight of the last nine seasons. The majority of Nuggets players have yet to sniff life past the regular season. Russell Westbrook also has a history of owning the Nuggets, and Paul George will create problems defensively for Denver. The Nuggets can trade baskets with any team, including the Thunder, so the real challenge is if they can rise to the occasion on defense. Denver has shown its defensively ability in spurts throughout the season, but to beat a team like the Thunder, it will need to play sound defense for all 48 minutes.

Denver Nuggets
Projected Finish: 2nd, 54-28

Golden State Warriors
Projected Finish: 1st, 61-21

The Skinny: The Golden State Warriors need no introduction as they are one of, if not the, greatest team to ever touch the hardwood. With a starting lineup consisting of five all-stars, all of whom are arguably top-10 players in the NBA, the Warriors are hands down the best team in the sport. Although they are not setting a franchise win record this season, Golden State has not regressed by any means. For the Warriors, the regular season is an opportunity to fine tune themselves for the chance to capture their third consecutive championship. Golden State has set the standard in the Western Conference, having reached the conference finals in four straight seasons. Any team with aspirations of winning a championship will need to go through Golden State to do it, a task only LeBron James has accomplished.

How Denver stacks up: While the idea of facing Golden State in the playoffs is not pleasant, Denver surprisingly has matched up well against the Warriors in recent years, albeit in the regular season. The Nuggets tend to rise to the occasion when playing against some of the better teams in the league and the Warriors are the best. The Nuggets have the capability to flip a switch at times to kick things into gear on both sides of the floor. To beat Golden State in the playoffs the Nuggets would need to play near perfect basketball, especially late in games. Additionally, somebody on Denver’s roster will need to emerge as a closer at the end of games. Denver does have a deep bench and the ability to trade baskets with the Warriors, but there’s a ton of playoff experience in Golden State the Nuggets simply don’t have.

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