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The Denver Stiffs WESTERN CONFERENCE Preview (and yes, I'm drinking the Kool-Aid!)...

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Last week's Eastern Conference Preview was met with very little controversy. I suspect the reaction to the Denver Stiffs Western Conference Preview will be much different...

1. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Outlook: For anyone who read my 10 Reasons Why I Hate Lakers "Fans" post during the playoffs, you know how much it pains me to predict this. But with Andrew Bynum returning to an already deep, talented, disciplined, tall and now hungry team, I just don't see anyone beating them out in the West. Can you imagine the Nuggets' front line of (note their actual heights, not listed heights) Carmelo Anthony (6'8"), Kenyon Martin (6'8") and Nene (6'9") going up against the Lakers' Bynum (7'0"), Paul Gasol (7'0") and Lamar Odom (6'10")?
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 7-0 - including four total ass-kickings at the Staples Center. When seeing the two teams go head-to-head, it was hard to believe that the Nuggets finished just seven games off the Lakers record last season.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: In their home opener and Carmelo Anthony's return from a two-game suspension, the Nuggets face the Lakers on Saturday, November 1st. They meet again in LA on 11/21, in Denver on 2/27 and in LA on 4/9.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: The obvious connection is George Karl's son, Coby, who played sparingly for the Lakers last season and is back in camp this year. But with Trevor Ariza healthy, Sasha Vujacic re-signed and Sun Yue in camp, Coby may be the odd man out. Don't be surprised if he's a Nugget by season's end.

2. NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
Outlook: The Hornets won't sneak up on anyone this year, but the addition of former Nugget and two-time NBA Champion James Posey should keep them at the top of the conference.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 2-1. As pointed out on this blog back in April, the Nuggets played particularly bad on the road against Western Conference teams who played as "a team" in 2007-08, as evident in two easy wins for the Hornets in New Orleans.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: In Denver on Thanksgiving night (I've already asked to be excused from Thanksgiving dinner but when your 97 year old grandmother is coming to town to see you, apparently this request is off the table), at New Orleans 1/28 and 3/25.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: Ryan Bowen - a symbol of the hard working, always hustling, 17-win 2002-03 Nuggets - will be entering his ninth NBA season and second straight with the Hornets.

3. HOUSTON ROCKETS
Outlook: With the addition of Ron Artest, Houston will be the sexy pick by a lot of NBA pundits to beat out the Lakers and Hornets and win the West. This might happen in the playoffs, but unless Artest is a miracle doctor who can cure any and all injuries (and I suspect he's not), there's no way the Rockets get 82 games out of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. The key to Houston's success will be having Artist, Yao and McGrady all playing together for the last 20 games of the season leading into the playoffs, and then they could be really scary.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 2-1. Like New Orleans, Houston easily dispatched with the Nuggets in both of their home games.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: In Denver 11/30 and 3/9, at Houston 12/16 and 1/19
Six Degrees of Nuggets: The Rockets are tied with the Raptors for having the most former Nuggets as assistant coaches with All Intangibles Team member T.R. Dunn and Elston Turner.


4. UTAH JAZZ
Outlook: The Jazz stood pat in the offseason and will thus repeat last season's performance: another division title and another second round loss.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 3-1. People seem to forget that had the Nuggets beaten the Jazz in Denver on February 6th, the Nuggets would have been just one game behind their division rival. Instead, Utah never again ceded their division lead even though they won just four more games than Denver.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: The Denver Post's Woody Paige has already called out Utah as the team to beat for the Nuggets this season, and he's probably right. The teams face off on opening night in Utah (sans Melo for the Nuggets), and meet again in Denver 1/25, at Utah 2/6 and again in Denver 4/2, with just a few games left on the schedule.
Six Degrees of Andrew: I had the pleasure of meeting Masha Kirilenko, Andrei's wife, earlier this year. Not only is she attractive and famous in her own right, she's very approachable and down to Earth. Now if she could just get her husband to eat more...

5. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Outlook: The Spurs are all-too-often written off as old and out of touch, only to come back and make us all look like fools for underestimating them. But I don't see them overcoming Manu Ginobili's recent rash of injuries and an offseason in which no improvements were made to the roster.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 2-2. Probably because they've met in the playoffs twice in recent years, the Nuggets played with a high level of confidence against the Spurs, including a gut-wrenching 107-103 loss in San Antonio two nights after losing by 27 in Salt Lake City.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: At San Antonio 11/19, in Denver 12/4 and 2/3.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: Like the Jazz, the Spurs rarely deal with the Nuggets or pick up ex-Nuggets on their roster. The most recent ex-Nugget to be a Spur was DerMarr Johnson, but unlike the Nuggets who hung on to Johnson for a few seasons, the Spurs cut their ties with the inconsistent shooting guard soon after signing him.

6. PHOENIX SUNS
Outlook: After watching Denver beat Phoenix twice this preseason, a lot of people are writing off the Suns. I don't like the Suns chances of winning a playoff series, but they have too much talent to miss the postseason altogether.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 2-2. In both games at Phoenix, the Suns put up at least 130 points (neither game went to overtime). And that was with Marcus Camby!
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: At Phoenix 12/20 and 3/23, in Denver 1/15.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: The Nuggets' mascot, Rocky, joined the Suns' mascot, the Gorilla, as a Mascot Hall of Fame inductee this past summer. For what its worth, any NBA expert will tell you that the top two mascots in the league are Rocky and the Gorilla, but Denver Stiffs - not surprisingly - gives Rocky the edge.


7. PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS
Outlook: Most Nuggets fans remember coach Karl's tearful post-sweep press conference during which he whined about the Western Conference getting even tougher and sighting the Trailblazers as just one example. I won't cry about it like Karl did, but I will state the obvious: Portland is going to really good this season and will likely surpass the Nuggets.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 2-2. In one of the Nuggets' guttiest performances, they beat the Traiblazers in overtime in Portland as the playoff race was heating up.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: The Nuggets and Trailblazers play a home-and-home in Denver 12/22 and at Portland 12/23. They meet again in Denver 3/5 and finish off the entire season at Portland 4/15. Knowing this incarnation of the Nuggets, that last game will be a must-win for Denver to make the playoffs.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: One of our favorite recent ex-Nuggets, Steve Blake, may very well be the starting PG on the Trailblazers again this season. And another ex-Nugget, Raef LaFrentz, will get paid $12.7 million by the Trailblazers this season, the last of his absurdly large contract.

8. DENVER NUGGETS
Outlook: Yes, I'm drinking the Nuggets' Kool-Aid and am predicting them to make the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. I'll get into this more in the upcoming Nuggets season preview, but here's a quick synopsis of the bold assumptions I'm making to justify the Nuggets sneaking into the postseason: 1) The loss of Marcus Camby can be somewhat offset by a healthy season from Nene and K-Mart. 2) The loss of Eduardo Najera is overcome by the additions of Renaldo Balkman and Chris Andersen. 3) The Mavericks made a disastrous gamble by trading for the overpaid, overrated and aging Jason Kidd, and will be worse off for it this season. 4) The Camby giveaway combined with a refusal to re-sign Najera and Allen Iverson were indictments on George Karl as coach, and this will inspire Karl to give us a better effort than we've seen recently. 5) The Nuggets seem to perform better when the NBA punditry counts them out, rather than pick them to be successful. 6) Neither the Clippers nor the Warriors upgraded themselves enough in the offseason to vault into the playoffs.


9. DALLAS MAVERICKS
Outlook: Within just a few seasons, the Mavericks have morphed from a young, deep, flexible team into an expensive, old and not-so-deep squad. Look for a season-long, three-team playoff race for the seventh and eighth seeds between Portland, Denver and Dallas, with the Clippers being in the mix, as well.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 1-2. The Nuggets had the Mavericks' number last season, taking one of two in Dallas and beating the Mavericks handily in Denver.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: The Mavericks come to town for the Nuggets second home game on 11/7, they meet at Dallas 12/15, back in Denver 1/13 and at Dallas again 3/27.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: It feels like decades ago, but just six years ago a single trade forever transformed the Nuggets and the Mavericks when Kiki Vandeweghe shipped LaFrentz, Nick Van Exel, Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Avery Johnson to Dallas for Juwan Howard, Donnell Harvey and gay/television basher Tim Hardaway. Howard played in Dallas yet again last season, and is hoping to crack the Nuggets roster this season.

10. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Outlook: Even though they are a direct competitor of the Nuggets, I actually feel bad for the Clippers. By signing Baron Davis and presumably re-signing Elton Brand, the Clippers were going to be my pick to vault into the fourth or fifth seed in the West. Instead, thanks for Brand's...errr...David Falk's backstabbing ways, the Clippers will have to make do with Marcus Camby instead of Brand. The additions of Davis and Camby, plus Ricky Davis and rookie Eric Gordon, will make the Clippers fun to watch and a possible threat to make the postseason.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 3-1. If the Nuggets did one thing really well last season, it was beat teams they were supposed to beat at home, including two victories over the Clippers.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: The much anticipated Camby vs. the Nuggets matchup comes at us right away in Game Two of the season on Halloween in Los Angeles. They play again in LA a month later on 11/26. Camby makes his Pepsi Center debut as a Clipper on 3/14 and again on 4/4.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: Nuggets fans everywhere - including me - were incensed by the Nuggets offseason giveaway of Marcus Camby. Trading Camby to clear cap space on a team going nowhere is one thing. But to trade an all-star caliber center for nothing - literally, nothing - is something else altogether. It's called laziness and bad poker playing (or, in terms that Kroenke Crony Mark Warkentien would better understand, bad chess). A more astute GM could certainly have received a first round draft choice for Camby, if not more.

11. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Outlook: Losing Monta Ellis to injury and suspension for the first 30 games of the season puts a nail in the Warriors' playoff hopes. Moreover, the Warriors are trying to sell their fans on Stephen Jackson being the true "heart" of the team that miraculously upset the Mavericks two years ago, but we all know it was Baron Davis. No Davis and an injured/suspended Ellis means no playoffs in Oakland in 2009.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 1-3. By winning 48 games, the Warriors had their best regular season in 14 years. Unfortunately, they fell three games short of making the playoffs, as the Nuggets held the tie-breaker over them even if the Warriors had reached the 50-win plateau.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: At Golden State on 11/5, in Denver 12/13 and 3/28.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: There aren't any direct connections between this year's Nuggets and Warriors teams. But if the Nuggets want to look at a blueprint for potential success in 2008-09, they should look closely at the 2006-07 Warriors: an undersized, one-dimensional and yet supremely talented and athletic team with a shoot-first point guard that managed to pull off the greatest upset in NBA Playoff history (yes, over the Nuggets amazing 1994 upset over Seattle).

12. SACRAMENTO KINGS
Outlook: In spite of themselves, the Kings managed to win 38 games last season. Sincere credit for this goes to head coach and intern hater Reggie Theus, who seemed to get the most out of this team (especially at home). But other than drafting Jason Thompson and re-signing Beno Udrih, what exactly did the Kings do all summer?
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 1-2. The Kings' lone victory against the Nuggets last season almost put a fork in the Nuggets playoff hopes, when the Kings won in Denver 118-115 in early April.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: At Sacramento 12/6 and 3/8, in Denver 1/20 and 4/13.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: Rarely mentioned, but Theus technically finished his NBA career in a Nuggets uniform when he attempted to make an NBA comeback after spending two years playing professionally overseas in Italy and Greece from 1991-92.

13. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Outlook: Luckily for the Nuggets, Kevin McHale has proven to be one of the more inept GMs in the NBA over the years. But I actually like the moves he made this summer, including trading O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love and Mike Miller. The Wolves remain far from playoff contention, however.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 0-4. The Wolves always made it interesting, but the Nuggets were able to hold them off in all four contests.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: In Denver 11/16 and 12/10, at Minneapolis 11/29 and 4/5.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: CU Buff Alum David Harrison campaigned to get himself in Nuggets training camp this summer, but instead had to settle with the Wolves.

14. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Outlook: After screwing over the city of Seattle, the Thunder ownership don't deserve any good fortune or karma whatsoever. That being said, its not the players, coaches or fans fault for this, and I suspect that overwhelming fan support will buoy this team to some surprise home wins. The Nuggets got caught napping on the Supersonic version of this team in Seattle last season and better not do the same this season.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 1-3. The Nuggets clobbered - and I mean clobbered - the Supersonics in three out of their four matchups last season, including a 168-116 victory on March 16th, setting a franchise record for points scored. The Sonics got their revenge, however, and almost knocked the Nuggets out of the playoffs with a stunning 151-147 double overtime upset three weeks later.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: As noted above, every time the Nuggets play at Oklahoma City it will be a potential trap game. They make their OKC debut on 1/2, return on 2/4 and match up in Denver on 3/11 and 4/8.
Six Degrees of Nuggets: Former Nuggets Earl Watson and Joe Smith will be playing in OKC this season. This will be the ninth NBA team for Smith in 13 NBA seasons.

15. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Outlook: Whatever's worse than "god awful" is what the Grizzlies will be this season. We're all excited to see O.J. Mayo play, but he'll be the Kevin Durant of 2007-08: a lot of points, awful field goal percentage and a boat load of losses. The NBA should just move this team to Kansas City already.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2007-08: 0-4.
Vs. the Nuggets in 2008-09: In Denver 11/9, at Memphis 1/27 and 3/18. It's too bad the Nuggets don't get four games against the Grizz this season - we could use them!
Six Degrees of Nuggets: The original home of the Grizzlies - the Pyramid Arena - was the final big project overseen by Nuggets owner Sidney Schlenker, after Schlenker "sold" the Nuggets to Comsat, Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee. Although Schlenker didn't commission the Pyramid's construction (he was brought in to help develop it), he's been - fairly or not - portrayed as the con man in charge of one of the all time boondoggles in arena construction history. Today, the Grizzlies play in the FedEx Forum as the Pyramid sinks into the ground and racks up considerable debt.

Coming next, the Denver Stiffs Postseason, Awards and Nuggets 2008-09 Season Preview...