Unlike their counterparts in the Eastern Conference, the NBA's Western Conference boasts at least five teams that could contend for the NBA Championship making this perennially stronger conference as interesting as ever. And, of course, these are the teams that our Nuggets get to play against the most.
DENVER STIFFS WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
1. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Outlook: In a post-lockout NBA, the Thunder should be the biggest beneficiaries. Not only did they make it to the Western Conference Finals last season, but they are returning their entire roster which was young, deep and dynamic in the first place. Oh, and Kevin Durant may just be the best player in the NBA on top of all that.
So while most NBA teams suffer from a condensed training camp and crammed-in 66-game schedule with multiple back-to-backs, the Thunder are best suited to survive all this and will finish first in the Western Conference as a result.
Oklahoma City Stiff: No one in Denver likes these guys, but the most unlikable Thunder player has to be Kendrick Perkins who all but tried to kill a Nuggets fan after Game 4 of their contentious playoff series against Denver last season.
2. DALLAS MAVERICKS
Outlook: Losing Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea will hurt, but the Mavericks reloaded by bringing in Lamar Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West. IF center Brendan Haywood can stay healthy, the Mavericks have a great shot at repeating as NBA Champions even though the lockout-shortened season could have some ill-affects on this aging team. Don't be surprised if the Mavericks have a soft regular season performance followed up by a great post-season showing.
Dallas Stiff: Brian Cardinal is a true "Stiff" in a way that would make Doug Moe proud. Big, white, doughy and bald, Cardinal provided much hustle and toughness for the Mavericks last season and will probably do it again this year.
3. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Outlook: I don't know if the Grizzlies have the discipline to turn in a great regular season. But as a relatively young team with plenty of talent and a superb playoff outing now on their resume, I see the Grizzlies building off of their 2010-11 performance and giving aging teams fits throughout 2011-12. And lest we forget, the Grizzlies went on their magical ride without Rudy Gay last season. With Gay back, the Grizzlies could become title contenders.
Memphis Stiff: This spot used to be permanently reserved for Zach Randolph, but Z-Bo has turned his game around and become one of the toughest SOBs to deal with on the low post. So the "Stiff" Award here has to go to Hamed Haddadi, a big, bumbling Iranian that can't seem to get one minute of playing time on the court.
4. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Outlook: Everyone is writing off the Lakers thanks to the Odom trade, the Mike Brown hiring, Kobe Bryant's age and the non-acquisition of Chris Paul. And while, granted, the Lakers imploded at Dallas last season in the playoffs' second round and Andrew Bynum will be suspended for the first five games of the 2011-12 season, this team still won 57 games last year and the prolonged lockout - combined with the early playoff exit - probably helped Bryant get healthy, which makes the Lakers dangerous. The Dwight Howard trade talk will prove to be an ongoing distraction, but the under-the-radar signings of Josh McRoberts, Jason Kapono and Troy Murphy will keep the Lakers very competitive (and very white, too!).
Los Angeles Stiff: Jim Buss - son of Lakers owner Jerry - is supposedly running the show and has already made a number of missteps, like not consulting Bryant on the Brown hiring, approving an Odom giveaway for nothing and coming across as an idiot when holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy after the 2010 NBA Finals.
5. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Outlook: In 2010-11, the 61-win Spurs looked all set to win another one of their "odd year" NBA Championships (they won in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007) until the Grizzlies tanked games to face the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs and took San Antonio out in six games, becoming just the fourth eighth-seed in NBA history to beat a one-seed. Now this aging team gets to slog through a tight schedule while the Thunder, Grizzlies and Mavericks appear as formidable as ever. I don't like the Spurs chances at a successful 2011-12 campaign.
San Antonio Stiff: Father time. Five of the Spurs' key contributors are north of 30 years old.
6. DENVER NUGGETS
Outlook: The Nuggets have a lot of good things going for this roster, notably size, youth and depth. All of which will make the Nuggets a tough opponent on any given night and could land them as high as third in the regular season Western Conference standings as smaller, older and less deep teams fall by the wayside due to the grind of the lockout-shortened schedule. In fact, I don't foresee the Nuggets finishing lower than sixth.
That said, the Nuggets don't have a single All-Star on their roster whereas every team above and just below them here has one, if not two. Thanks to their depth and style of play, the Nuggets can probably win a bunch of regular season games without a single All-Star. But as we saw in the playoffs last year, having a few All-Stars might be necessary come playoff time.
Denver Stiff(s): It's going to be fun watching ex-Nuggets J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler try to squirm their way out of their binding Chinese contracts over the next few months. But here's hoping that Chandler comes back to Denver for a playoff run.
7. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Outlook: I'm not sold on the Clippers bandwagon yet, nor should anyone be. Yes, the Chris Paul + Blake Griffin duo should be getting NBA fans everywhere excited ... very excited ... but this team has a logjam at point guard, no depth up front, Vinny Del Negro as head coach and, well, they're still the Clippers. A tough team to predict, the Clippers could finish anywhere from eighth to third in the Western Conference this season, depending on how much Paul changes the culture in Staples Center's other NBA locker room.
Los Angeles Stiff: The Clippers' point guard situation. Paul, Mo Williams, Chauncey Billups, Randy Foye and Eric Bledsoe is two - and perhaps three - point guards too many.
8. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Outlook: This jinxed franchise remains just that in the wake of Brandon Roy's sad early retirement and the continued uncertainty surrounding Greg Oden and now LaMarcus Aldridge's health. But with Aldridge back, a roster that includes Gerald Wallace, Jamal Crawford, Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews is good enough to steer this team back into the playoffs, especially with Nate McMillan as head coach.
Portland Stiff: Health. I've never seen a team succumb to more disastrous injuries time after time.
9. PHOENIX SUNS
Outlook: As we saw last season, the Suns will flirt with the playoffs but fall out of the top-eight when all is said and done. Of all the seasons to have your two best players - Steve Nash and Grant Hill - be 37 and 39 years old, respectively, this isn't it. Surrounding Nash and Hill is an assortment of swing players plus the center trio of Marcin Gortat, Robin Lopez and Channing Frye is intriguing, but they'll need a collapse from one of the teams above to make the playoffs.
Phoenix Stiff: I'm not sure how team president Lon Babby sleeps at night. He inherited a team that made it to the Western Conference Finals two years ago and is now wasting Nash's last good seasons with a roster stuck in no-man's land.
10. UTAH JAZZ
Outlook: I'm not sure what to make of the Jazz's 2011-12 roster other than to say they won't be an easy out thanks to the size they're amassing in Salt Lake City. Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Mehmet Okur (if healthy) have serious game and youngsters Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors will be interesting to watch develop. The back court is a little patchy with Devin Harris at point guard playing beside rookie Alec Burks and second year man Gordon Hayward at shooting guard. But the Jazz have just enough overall talent and youthful depth to beat anyone on any given night, especially at home.
Salt Lake City Stiff: It's too early to call Favors a bust or not, but the Nets sure were anxious to trade this third overall pick to Denver for Carmelo Anthony last year and the Jazz must not have been enamored with Favors enough to not draft Kanter this year.
11. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Outlook: One of the most fun teams to watch in the NBA, the Warriors aren't going anywhere until they resolve the Stephen Curry / Monta Ellis back court situation. Curry and Ellis are both too undersized and both need the ball too much to play together, but they are talented enough to give opponents fits if they maintain their up-tempo style play. I'm also expecting a better season out of David Lee now that he's acclimated to the Bay Area.
Oakland Stiff: The Warriors didn't really pay Kwame Brown $7 million for one season, did they? Did they?!
12. NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
Outlook: The Hornets surprised a lot of people by making the playoffs last season but such a surprise won't be replicated this season. Despite losing Chris Paul to the Clippers this year, they took back enough in the trade (Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu) to not be the worst team in the Western Conference ... but they'll be close. The loss of David West hurts, too.
New Orleans Stiff: Team "owner" David Stern. While the Hornets ultimately did better with the Paul-to-the-Clippers trade than they would have done with the Paul-to-the-Lakers trade - and while owners do have the right to veto trades - the Lakers trade was fine by any objective measure and Stern crossed a line as owner/commissioner that should never have been crossed.
13. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Outlook: After many cold NBA winters in Minneapolis in the wake of Kevin Garnett's departure, things are getting exciting for Timberwolves fans. Kevin Love. Ricky Rubio. Michael Beasley. Derrick Williams. Rick Adelman as coach. The Wolves could finally climb out of the Western Conference cellar this season and should be one of the more fun, young teams to watch in the NBA.
Minneapolis Stiff: After presumably being bounced out of the NBA for good, the attitude-heavy Bonzi Wells is attempting an NBA comeback at age 35. Had he just been a nice guy in the first place, he wouldn't be having to do this right now.
14. HOUSTON ROCKETS
Outlook: Rocket-ed (pardon the pun) by the non-Pau Gasol trade that should have happened two weeks ago, the Rockets have one of the less appealing rosters in the NBA and will struggle to stay relevant in the Western Conference. I still like Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin but new head coach Kevin McHale is going to be wishing he stayed at TNT come mid-season. Simply put, the Rockets have never recovered from the injuries that took down the Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady Era.
Houston Stiff: Rockets' GM Daryl Morey has been lauded for years as the Billy Bean of the NBA. Exactly how do those advanced analytics used to build an NBA team look right about now?
15. SACRAMENTO KINGS
Outlook: Don't look now, but the Kings suddenly have some exciting young players on this team - Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, J.J. Hickson, Jimmer Fredette, Marcus Thornton, Jason Thompson and solid veterans like John Salmons and Travis Outlaw. As an Eastern Conference team, they'd be ninth or 10th. But even the bad teams in the Western Conference are good enough to keep the Kings in the basement.
Sacramento Stiff(s): Owners Joe and Gavin Maloof attempted to hijack the Kings to Anaheim and (purposely?) failed thinking there would be no 2011-12 NBA season, thus giving them enough time to pretend to want to stay in Sacramento while ultimately sending the team to Anaheim in 2012. Um, a funny thing happened on the way to no NBA season in 2011-12...