Denver Stiffs NBA Preview (1 of 2): Western Conference

Will JaVale McGee and the Nuggets be one step behind the Thunder again this season? - Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

The time has come for our annual Denver Stiffs NBA Preview series. We'll begin by looking at the respective conferences and who we think will be participating in the NBA Finals next June.

There's a lot of optimism aimed at our Denver Nuggets right now. ESPN the Magazine is predicting that the Nuggets will finish FIRST in the Western Conference. And ESPN.com's John Hollinger has the Nuggets finishing second. I'm anxiously awaiting the rest of the NBA punditry's predictions to see how many other so-called "experts" have the Nuggets ascending to the top of the Western Conference. But for now, we'll have to settle for predictions from yours truly and my esteemed Denver Stiffs colleagues Nate Timmons, Jeff Morton and Colin Neilson.

As always, predicting how the Western Conference - and the NBA overall - will shake out is hardly an accurate forecast of things to come. Last year, I had the Oklahoma City Thunder running away with the conference while the aging San Antonio Spurs slipped into the fifth seed. And yet it was the Spurs who were able to overcome the NBA's crazy 66-game lockout schedule and claim the conference's first seed, while the Thunder settled for second and eventually bested the Spurs en route to the NBA Finals.

This year, we're back to a "normal" 82 game NBA schedule. The Spurs are yet another year older, the young Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies (and your Denver Nuggets) another year wiser and the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers are re-loaded. In other words, it's not completely inconceivable that six Western Conference teams could vie for first place, although I foresee four teams competing for third with the Thunder and Lakers being at the top. And what about those pesky young upstarts in Utah, Minnesota and Golden State?

Below, you'll see my, Nate, Jeff and Colin's predictions followed by my annual team-by-team preview. Later this afternoon, we'll post the Eastern Conference preview including our predictions and commentary for who will win the 2013 NBA Championship. Let the predicting begin ...

Nate Jeff Colin Andrew
1. Lakers
1. Lakers 1. Thunder 1. Thunder
2. Thunder
2. Thunder 2. Lakers 2. Lakers
3. Nuggets
3. Spurs 3. Spurs 3. Spurs
4. Clippers
4. Nuggets 4. Nuggets 4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
5. Clippers 5. Clippers 5. Clippers
6. Grizzlies 6. Grizzlies 6. Grizzlies
7. Spurs
7. Mavericks 7. Warriors 7. Jazz
8. Jazz
8. Jazz 8. Timberwolves 8. Mavericks
9. Mavericks
9. Warriors 9. Jazz 9. Warriors
10. Timberwolves
10. Rockets 10. Mavericks 10. Timberwolves
11. Timberwolves 11. Hornets 11. Trail Blazers
12. Rockets
12. Trail Blazers 12. Rockets 12. Hornets
13. Hornets
13. Hornets 13. Trail Blazers 13. Kings
14. Kings
14. Suns 14. Suns 14. Suns
15. Suns
15. Kings 15. Kings 15. Rockets

1. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Outlook: I don't foresee the Thunder's embarrassing 2012 NBA Finals collapse to the Miami Heat leading to future post-season implosions as the Dallas Mavericks experienced after collapsing against the Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals. As good as they are, I have to believe that the Olympic trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are going to come back for more this season and already tired of hearing about how good the re-loaded Lakers are going to be. I said this last year as well, but a young, deep team like the Thunder should thrive over the course of a grueling 82-game season and find themselves sitting first in the conference at season's end.

Thunder Non-Stiff: Entering his sixth NBA season, we're going to see just how good Kevin Durant is. Will he be able to lead the Thunder to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances? Or will he be unable to guide the Thunder past the Lakers?

Thunder Stiff: Somehow, someway Hasheem Thabeet has found his way onto another NBA roster. And the Thunder are going to $5 million for the privilege of having Thabeet back up the $7 million per year Kendrick Perkins. Having already played three NBA seasons, it's not too late to start considering Thabeet as the worst 2nd overall pick in NBA Draft history.

2. LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Outlook: An NBA insider recently told me that if there was ONE guy who could make this dysfunctional Lakers squad work it is Steve Nash. And regrettably for Lakers haters (including me) everywhere, the Lakers were able to land Nash at the beginning of the summer. Lakers' head coach Mike Brown's biggest weakness comes with coaching offense. By having Nash running the show, Brown can go back to focusing on defense now. Oh, and the Lakers picked up a guy named Dwight Howard, too, who just happens to be feeling well enough to play before opening day. It's going to be a long season for Lakers haters.

Lakers Non-Stiff: Maybe he has lost a step, or two ... or three ... but Kobe Bryant remains a fearsome competitor. And with that shit-eating grin he keeps displaying every time he does a photo op with Nash, you just know Bryant is going to relish playing alongside one of the NBA's all time great point guards for the next two years.

Lakers Stiff: Dwight Howard caused such a ruckus on his way out of Orlando (especially considering what happened to the Magic when Shaquille O'Neal bailed on them for La La Land 16 years ago) that it will be hard to ever root for the guy again ... and I don't care how nice his smile is.

3. SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Outlook: As you've seen in our predictions above, Nate is taking the bait that THIS will be THE season when age finally catches up with the Spurs and they plummet in the standings. Nate might prove to be right, but Jeff, Colin and I aren't ready to call the demise of the Spurs yet. I was shocked when the Spurs finished first overall two years ago and doubly shocked when they finished first overall last season, a season when - in theory - the truncated lockout schedule was supposed to favor the young and quick, not the old and injured. That being said, if there's one team our Nuggets could overtake in the overall Western Conference standings its the aging Spurs. But until that actually happens, I'm predicting more of the same from San Antonio.

Spurs Non-Stiff: Completing his 11th NBA season and just turning 30, point guard Tony Parker may have turned in one of his best seasons ever in 2011-12, averaging a career high 7.7 assists-per-game and leading the Spurs to a first overall seed in the Western Conference. Parker seems to get lost a bit when discussing the NBA's best point guards, but he has three rings and countless victories under his belt and there's a reason for that: he's damn good.

Spurs Stiff: Eddy Curry is in Spurs training camp. Let me repeat that: Eddy Curry is in Spurs training camp.

4. DENVER NUGGETS

Outlook: With depth at every position and dynamism on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, there's no question that our Nuggets were built for regular season success ... and hopefully more success beyond that. Perhaps I have too much NBA history coloring my vision, but it remains hard for me to foresee this Nuggets team as presently constructed able to out-duel the current incarnation of the Thunder or Lakers in a seven-game playoff series. If the Nuggets are to match their post-season run of 2009, they're going to need a half court equivalent in potency to their running game ... and that will only come if both Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee vastly improve. Given that the Nuggets have made sizable investments in both players, they better!

Nuggets Non-Stiff: It certainly won't hurt having an All-Star and Olympian like Andre Iguodala added to the Nuggets mix. Iguodala should make the conference's top shooting guards - like Bryant, Harden and Manu Ginobili - have to work even harder when playing the Nuggets.

Nuggets Stiff: I love Kosta Koufos and know he's destined to be in the Denver Stiffs Hall of Fame someday. But when Koufos has "the inside track" on the starting center job after paying McGee $44 million, I find it hard to predict the Nuggets finishing anywhere higher than fourth.

5. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Outlook: The Clippers added Lamar Odom, Grant Hill and Jamal Crawford in the off-season to a team that eked out a tough first round playoff series over Memphis last season and could contend for a conference finals this season. Health pending (the health of solid-yet-aging contributors Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler is always in question), the Clippers are as apt to finish third as they are sixth, which is why I have them slated for a five-seed right now. Were my predictions to hold true and the Nuggets and Clippers meet in a first round playoff series, it would be the ultimate contrast between a half-court team with two superstars (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) going head-to-head with a running team loaded with solid talent.

Clippers Non-Stiff: In just one season at the helm as point guard, Chris Paul guided the Clippers to a would-be 50-win season and a playoff series win. That's why Paul is considered the NBA's best point guard and why the Clippers will remain formidable as long as Paul is healthy.

Clippers Stiff: I've never liked Matt Barnes, his sloppy game and his thuggish antics. So I'm glad he's on the Clippers so I can hate them even more.

6. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Outlook: Other than losing O.J. Mayo (which I believe will hurt the Grizzlies more than they realize), the Grizzlies didn't make much news in the off-season. But with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Mike Conley and some playoff confidence under their belts, the Grizzlies will again be one of the Western Conference's toughest outs this season.

Grizzlies Non-Stiff: It's hard to believe it, but the Western Conference All-Star team featured just one Gasol last season and it was Marc Gasol, not his brother Pau. Four years into his NBA career, the younger Gasol has become one of the NBA's best all around centers and has made the once lopsided Gasol-for-Gasol trade seem like ancient history.

Grizzlies Stiff: It's hard to call out any of the Grizzlies as Stiffs, but I'll give this to bench warmer Hamed Haddadi since he looks more like Borat than an NBA player.

7. UTAH JAZZ

Outlook: Even though the Nuggets finished as a sixth-seed last season with Utah landing eighth, the two teams were just two games apart at season's end. And now the Jazz have upgraded at point guard and backup point by bringing back Mo Williams and adding Randy Foye. Moreover, one has to believe that youngsters Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter will improve with a full training camp leading into the 2012-13 campaign. I've seen some folks (like, ahem, Colin) predicting that the Jazz will miss the playoffs altogether and I just don't see this happening. With Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Dirk Nowitzki and Stephen Curry already hurt, the Jazz should get a head start in the regular season standings.

Jazz Non-Stiff: He gets paid handsomely for it, but Al Jefferson produces solid numbers night in and night out against the Western Conference's many talented big men. Entering the final year of his contract, look for the real Big Al to have another solid season, bordering on All-Star potential.

Jazz Stiff: Maybe it was due to a lack of minutes, but the 2011 third overall pick Enes Kanter didn't come close to delivering on his promise. Considering the Jazz traded Deron Williams for the pick that became Kanter, Kanter needs to step up his game big time in his sophomore season.

8. DALLAS MAVERICKS

Outlook: Losing both Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, combined with losing out on Deron Williams and temporarily losing Dirk Nowitzki due to a knee injury, will leave the one-time NBA Champion Mavericks slipping further and further down the Western Conference standings. But I'm not ready to completely write off the Mavericks ... yet. I like the pickups of Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand. And if Nowitzki can come back from injury in reasonably decent shape, the Mavericks will be a team no top seed wants to fend with in the playoffs.

Mavericks Non-Stiff: Entering his 15th NBA season and now 34 years old, Dirk Nowitzki picked a bad time to need knee surgery. But despite his advanced age and the many minutes racked up (43,595 career minutes played to date), when healthy Nowitzki remains as a top three or four NBA power forward. It's a shame that the Mavericks couldn't do more to surround Nowitzki with talent for another NBA Finals run.

Mavericks Stiff: I watched a Mavericks pre-season game the other day and couldn't help but notice how out of shape and disinterested Vince Carter seemed to be. It's hard to believe that Carter, not so long ago, was the second best shooting guard in the NBA and could singlehandedly dominate NBA games. But I guess the joke is on us as Carter has racked up $155-plus million in career earnings plus endorsement dollars over the years.

9. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Outlook: With new ownership in place and a new San Francisco-based arena on the horizon, there's a lot of optimism surrounding the Warriors entering the new season. But this franchise has made the playoffs just once in the last 18 years, so any optimism must be tempered. Yes, the Warriors have enticing talent with the likes of Curry, David Lee, Andrew Bogut, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. But were it not for the injuries sustained by Love and Rubio, I'd have the Timberwolves ranked ahead of Golden State and I don't foresee the Warriors leapfrogging over Dallas or Utah, either. The Warriors just seem to have an odd mix of players and you know it's just a matter of when - not if - the injury bug will hit Lee, Bogut and Curry.

Warriors Non-Stiff: Entering his second season, Warriors fans have to like what they're seeing out of Klay Thompson. He scored in double digits in each of his last 14 games last season, had a great Las Vegas Summer League and has been playing well in the pre-season thus far.

Warriors Stiff: I'm still not sure why the Warriors traded for Richard Jefferson, considering they'll be paying him $10 million this season and $11 million next season. Jefferson's contract has to be one of the NBA's worst.

10. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Outlook: Had Kevin Love not broken his hand doing knuckle push ups last week and had Ricky Rubio not torn his ACL last season, the Wolves had a shot at cracking the Western Conference playoffs this season. But with Love out for almost two months and Rubio not due back until at least then, it's hard to see how the Wolves make the playoffs for the first time in nine long years. That said, an improved Derrick Williams combined with veteran additions like Andrei Kirilenko, Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy might keep the Wolves enough afloat for Love and Rubio to come on board for a late season playoff run.

Wolves Non-Stiff: Kevin Love averaged 26 points and 13.3 rebounds per game last season. Oh, and he won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, too. He's awesome and will be sorely missed.

Wolves Stiff: This spot was saved annually for Darko Milicic. But with Milicic in Boston now, this goes to center Greg Stiemsma, the true definition of a Stiff as defined by former Nuggets head coach Doug Moe (tall, white and not particularly athletic).

11. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Outlook: The Blazers will struggle to be relevant throughout the 2012-13 season, but they still have enough talent to present problems for any opponent visiting Portland. LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are still around, and the Blazers youth movement will be lead by rookie Damian Lillard who has already impressed during the pre-season. The Blazers made an uninspiring coaching hire with Terry Stotts, but not much is expected of Stotts in his first year.

Blazers Non-Stiff: Arguably one of the best power forwards in the NBA, much will be asked of LaMarcus Aldridge in the wake of another rebuilding project in Portland.

Blazers Stiff: Adam Morrison is in Blazers training camp, trying yet again to prove that he's not the worst ever third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

12. NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Outlook: After finishing with an NBA second-worst 21 wins last season, things can only get better for the lowly Hornets. On board for the 2012-13 season is first overall pick Anthony Davis, another lottery pick in Austin Rivers, new acquisitions Robin Lopez and Ryan Anderson, and (in theory) a healthy Eric Gordon. Unfortunately, through five pre-season games Rivers can't shoot straight and Gordon hasn't been cleared to play. And thus, the Hornets will play the 2012-13 campaign for experience ... and another lottery pick.

Hornets Non-Stiff: You have to believe that Anthony Davis' experience playing on the 2012 Olympic team will pay off tremendously for the Hornets this season and beyond.

Hornets Stiff: Entering his third NBA season, former lottery pick Al-Farouq Aminu still looks lost on an NBA court. Can Hornets head coach Monty Williams salvage this kid's career?

13. SACRAMENTO KINGS

Outlook: Drafting Kansas' Thomas Robinson fifth overall this year may prove to be an astute pick. But the Kings will rue the day that they drafted down in the 2011 NBA Draft to select Jimmer Fredette, one spot ahead of Klay Thompson. Ownership and coaching instability combined with personnel blunders have left this franchise foundering for years. The Kings have missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons and 2013 will make it seven straight years without a post-season appearance.

Kings Non-Stiff: Since averaging over 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists as a rookie, Tyreke Evans has seen his production slip each season. But even at reduced production, Evans is the Kings best player and if better coached, could probably be a bona fide NBA producer for years to come.

Kings Stiff: I feel bad picking on Fredette, so I'll target DeMarcus Cousins here. With soft hands, a good touch and a huge wingspan, Cousins has so much game. But until he gets his mental game in order, Cousins is going nowhere.

14. PHOENIX SUNS

Outlook: From an outsider's perspective, the Suns appear to be in complete disarray. I knew the Suns were in trouble when they allowed Amar'e Stoudemire to leave for New York without taking back David Lee in 2010. By not replacing Stoudemire, the Suns all but ensured that Steve Nash and Grant Hill would leave Phoenix when given the opportunity. And I don't begrudge either of those veterans for wanting to finishing up their NBA careers with a chance of winning something. Because the Suns are winning nothing for years to come.

Suns Non-Stiff: The Suns made one smart move this summer, and that was stealing Luis Scola after the Rockets stupidly amnestied the solid power forward. But Scola isn't enough to keep the Suns out of the Western Conference cellar.

Suns Stiff: I'm not sure why Jermaine O'Neal signed with the Suns or why the Suns signed Jermaine O'Neal. When wanting to rebuild with youth, why bring in an aging, oft-injured veteran who's known to take nights off and has essentially stolen $165 million in career earnings?

15. HOUSTON ROCKETS

Outlook: I'm still trying to figure out why Rockets GM Daryl Morey is lauded as a genius. What exactly has he done? The NBA's supposed "Moneyball" GM put all his chips on the table to land Dwight Howard, came up empty and had to settle for grossly overpaying Jeremy Lin. I love Linsanity as much as the next NBA fan, but I'm concerned Lin is going to get killed by not having Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony around to protect him from NBA defenders. If opponents focus solely on Lin in Houston, who is Lin supposed to pass to? All Morey has going for him now is ample cap space in 2013 ... well, sort of. Lin and Omer Asik are due to make $30 million combined in 2014-15!

Rockets Non-Stiff: I have no idea who to put here.

Rockets Stiff: Morey signed Bulls backup center Omer Asik to a three-year, $25 million deal, guaranteeing that Asik will be named my Stiff of the Game every time the Nuggets play the Rockets for the next three years.

Later this afternoon, we'll unveil our Eastern Conference and NBA Finals predictions!

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