I have teamed up with Clipper Steve from Clips Nation to do a little Q&A prior to the Nuggets/Clippers game tomorrow night.  Below you can see his answers to my questions and click here to head on over to Clips Nation to see my responses to his questions.  As a teaser, I give a little insight into my thoughts as to what may lie ahead for the Nuggets this off season.

Click on Full Story to see his answers to my questions.

Pickaxe and Roll:  Do Clippers fans look back at 2005-2006 (the season they absolutely dismantled the Nuggets in the playoffs) when they were on the verge of taking LA away from the Lakers as an aberration or a was that a potentially great team that was torn apart by bad luck and injuries?

Clipper Steve:  I could probably write a book on this subject, but I won't do it now.  I don't think the 2006 playoff team was a mirage.  They destroyed the Nuggets, and frankly they outplayed the Suns in that 7 game series.  And the thinking at the time was that two of their young stars (Kaman and Livingston) were not even close to reaching their full potential.  So the expectations were very high, and I think justifiably so.  Unfortunately I have no good explanation for last season.  The injuries to Cassell and Livingston at the end of the season certainly kept them out of the playoffs, but that doesn't excuse the way they played prior to Livingston's injury.  As for the record this season, well they really had little hope when Brand went down.  The fact that Livingston was also out and then they've had a barrage of other injuries just added to their troubles, but on the bright side they'll get a decent draft pick.

So the question is, can the team recapture that magic or is the opportunity lost?  As it happens, Kaman is fulfilling the promise that was causing so much enthusiasm in 2006.  So in that sense, the Clippers formidable front court figures to be better than ever with a healthy Brand next to this new and improved Kaman.  Livingston is a huge question mark (though he's shaped more like an exclamation point).  Can he play as well as he did before the injury?  Can he take the next step in his development the way Kaman has?  He's been in the league 4 years and he's been through a LOT, but he's still only 22, as hard as that is to believe.

But the really interesting point here is how much better the West has gotten.  In those 2006 playoffs, the Nuggets didn't have AI.  The Suns didn't have Stoudemire that season, let alone Shaq.  The Spurs, Mavs and Suns were clearly the cream of the Western Conference that season, and the next best teams in the regular season were the Grizzlies and Clippers.  My, how things have changed.  So while the Suns and Mavs may have hastened their decline by trading for a couple of 'Superstars of the 90s', they're still pretty damn good.  Meanwhile, Utah, Houston, New Orleans and Denver are just as good, and the Lakers may now be the best of all.  And Portland gets Greg Oden back next season.  So I think the Clippers were good in 2006 – and I honestly believe they have a chance to be better than that team next season.  But a lot of other Western Conference teams got a lot better in the interim.  The window doesn't stay open long.

PaAR:  Should the Clippers have traded Maggette, Cassell and Brand at the deadline and started from scratch with draft picks and cap space or can this group be salvaged?  Would this season have been drastically different with a healthy Elton Brand?

CS:  Maybe, yes and no.  Maggette is a maybe, simply because I think he may yet wind up with the Clippers, and even if he doesn't he may need the Clippers to work a sign-and-trade in order to get the money he wants.  With so few teams under the cap this summer, he just won't have a lot of options where he can get the payday he's looking for.  

Cassell should have been traded, no doubt about it.  He's 38, he's in the final year of his contract, and although he wants to play one more season, I just don't believe for a minute it will be with the Clippers.  Do you realize that, barring a buyout, this will be the first time in his 15 year career that he will miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons?  If he plays another season, it will be for a sure fire playoff team.  After the fact, we know that Dallas and Atlanta had eyes on other veteran points, and Cleveland had a BIG deal in the works.  Boston never had the assets to make a trade work, and it would have cost Phoenix double Cassell's salary to pay the luxury tax if they used their trade exception to get him.  That left Denver pretty much.  So you tell me – would you have sent Najera and a first rounder to LA for Sam-I-Am?  A second rounder?

Brand is a no.  Although Elton has an opt out this summer, it's highly unlikely he'll exercise it, so he's in LA for at least one more season.  Right now, no one's ready to start over yet.  Not without seeing Brand on the court with this new Kaman.  This core group gets one more season to make things happen.  If they remain a lottery team with Brand back, then it may be time to get out the dynamite.  Of course Brand may take care of that himself since he'll likely be a free agent in summer 2009.

PaAR:  I believe, and I have seen at least one other person write this, but I cannot remember who it was, that teams are not intimidated whatsoever when the Nuggets roll into town.  Do you feel more confident that the Clippers can beat the Nuggets than the Spurs, Suns, Mavs, Hornets, Jazz and Lakers?  Explain why you think the Nuggets are or are not as worrisome as the other top teams in the west.

CS:  You may be asking the wrong blogger.  ClipsNation has no fear of the Nuggets, but much of that has to do with the history.  As you pointed out, the Clippers easily handled the Nuggets in the 2006 playoffs, and have had lots of regular season success in recent years as well.  One of the Clippers most unlikely wins this season came against the Nuggets with Maggette hurt and Cassell sick.  Now, I think some of this overconfidence is misguided at this point.  Circa 2006, Quinton Ross and Cat Mobley absolutely had Carmelo Anthony's number, and the Nuggets had nowhere else to go.  But Anthony is much improved since then, and I hear you've got some other guy there now, something about artificial intelligence.  At any rate, the Clippers have such fond memories of beating up on the Nuggets that I do think they have a lot of confidence when they face them.  It may not even be justified, but confidence is rarely a bad thing.

Still, the question is interesting.  Do teams fear other Western Conference teams more, even though the Nuggets have 2 All Star starters and a pretty damn good record?  And if so, why?  For the Clippers, it comes from the experience of having success.  In recent years the Clippers have had a lot of confidence against the Lakers for the same reason.  But in a general sense, I can imagine that it would indeed be true that the Nuggets are less feared than other top teams.  And I think the corollary is the (pre-Shaq) Suns.  Even while the Suns were compiling some of the best records in the NBA, teams certainly didn't fear them in the playoffs.  There's an ongoing prejudice against uptempo teams – let's face it, the Suns just proved that they were prejudiced against themselves.  Now, the Suns executed and shot so well that I think teams probably figured they were going to lose in the regular season.  But they also figured they had a shot in a seven game series, where they could get used to the pace and focus on the unique parts of the attack.  Pre-Shaq Phoenix was considered a gimmmick, and one that wouldn't work in a longer series.

Denver is probably looked upon as a little gimmicky too.  The thinking around the league may be, 'Sure, they're [playing .600 ball, but a lot of those wins are just teams not being ready for the pace of the game.  If we prepare right, and key properly on Melo and AI, we can beat these guys.'  I'm guessing here, but I could see that being the case.  The fact that Carmelo has never won a playoff series doesn't help either.  Even a team like New Orleans with no history of playoff success… at least they don't have a history of playoff failure either.

But I repeat… for Clipper fans, it's just logical.  We OWN you guys!

PaAR:  When all is said and done, who is left out of the playoff battle in the west?

CS:  Golden State and Denver fighting for the final spot as I write this, the safe and logical and boring choice would be one of those two.  And indeed, the smart money would be there simply because neither is really playing their best ball right now.  BUT…  there are two teams who I think could slide, and you may be surprised at who they are.  Either Phoenix or Dallas could find out that their on the fly chemistry experiment failed, and drop out of the playoff picture.  I'm not saying I think it will happen, but let's face facts.  If either of those teams even has a prolonged adjustment period where they lose a bunch of games, that could be enough to drop them out of the race with less than 2 months left in the season.  

Of the top 9 teams right now, I say it is Golden State who misses the postseason.  But I would not be shocked if Phoenix dropped from first to ninth in the next couple months.  And I'll say this:  if Denver is the team that gets left out, Stan Kroenke is going to be PISSED about all that money he spent.

Thanks to Clipper Steve for answering these very interesting a deeply probing questions.

He obviously is feeling confident about the Clippers chances in tonight’s game.  The Clippers have won more than their fair share of games against Denver the past few seasons.  If the Nuggets cannot beat them tonight, they will be in big trouble heading into March.