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Scary Western Conference gets scarier next season

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After a disappointing 2014-15 campaign, the Denver Nuggets have nowhere to go but up. But there will be a lot of speed bumps on the road to NBA relevancy.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When your favorite NBA team misses the playoffs, it's natural for fans to enter the off-season with a sense of optimism. After all, new draft picks, free agents and (possibly) trades are on the horizon. And, in the case of the Denver Nuggets, potentially a new head coach, too.

And yet, when your team resides in the NBA's brutally competitive Western Conference - as our beloved Nuggets do - it's hard to be overly optimistic about one's team's chances of moving from lottery denizen to playoff competitor in just one year's time. Unless, of course, the NBA radically changes its overall conference alignment and post-season seeding - as our SB Nation friend and colleague Tom Ziller recently proposed and I fully endorse.

But NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently stated that the conference and playoff format won't be changing imminently. Meaning, if our Nuggets are to return to the playoffs anytime soon they'll have to somehow knock out of this year's eight playoff participants and fend off the other non-playoff participants all hoping to playing basketball well into April of 2016. And based on the current landscape of the Western Conference, I'm struggling to see how the Nuggets get back into the playoffs in 2016 ... even if they land a top three selection in May's NBA Draft Lottery, perfectly nail their draft pick and hire the best possible coach.

Not only do I not foresee any of the Western Conference's current playoff participants getting weaker next season (unless Tim Duncan retires from the San Antonio Spurs), but I foresee most of the conference's lottery dwellers getting substantively better. Even the conference's eighth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans - who made this year's playoffs despite losing super-duper star Anthony Davis to 14 games due to injury - are sure to improve next season if only because Davis stays healthy.

Looking at the Western Conference's seven non-playoff teams, every situation scares me as a Nuggets fan. Here's why (in reverse order of 2014-15 record) ...

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (45 wins)

It should be no surprise to anyone who even casually follow the NBA as to why the Oklahoma City Thunder will be much improved next season. Even without the 2013-14 NBA MVP Kevin Durant for much of the 2014-15 season, the Thunder missed the playoffs only by virtue of a tiebreaker with the Pelicans. Entering 2015-16, the Thunder still have MVP candidate Russell Westbrook at his absolute peak, the (in theory) return of Durant and a solid-enough supporting cast that if Westbrook and Durant can both stay healthy could make the Thunder championship contenders in 2016. Championship contenders! When asking why the west is so tough in the NBA, look no further than the non-playoff participating Thunder.

PHOENIX SUNS (39 wins)

Of the conference's seven playoff absentees, the Phoenix Suns probably scare me the least. After an impressive 2013-14 season when they shocked the world by winning 48 games (which, unbelievably, wasn't good enough to make the playoffs that year), the Suns won just 39 games this past season and seem to have a mismatched roster that isn't quite sure what it wants to be when it grows up. That said, the Suns - somewhat like the Nuggets - have decent talent at every position and lots of trade-able assets. So my "fear meter" with the Suns could rise by summer's end, pending what they do with their many assets this summer.

UTAH JAZZ (38 wins)

Looking at the Utah Jazz finish the 2014-15 season with 38 wins after going 14-8 in their final 22 outings scares me and it should scare you, too. Entering the 2014-15 season, I never in a million years thought the Jazz would be better than our Nuggets record-wise, given the Jazz's mix of super young players and rookies. And yet, under first year head coach Quin Snyder the young Jazz played hard, learned how to win games and will be returning next season with a young and talented roster - plus another lottery pick. The 2014-15 Jazz reminded me somewhat of the 1992-93 Nuggets ... another super young team that didn't make the playoffs, but won enough regular season games to develop a solid and energetic culture entering the following season.

SACRAMENTO KINGS (29 wins)

Ravaged by injuries, the Sacramento Kings under new head coach (and former Nuggets coach) George Karl won just 11 games in 30 tries and finished the regular season with only 29 victories. But that was without Karl having a full training camp with his team and his full arsenal of players, which (again, in theory) he'll have next season. One of the best regular season coaches in NBA and Nuggets history, Karl alone could worth 10 more victories for a presumably healthy Kings team and get them to the doorstep of the Western Conference playoffs.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS (21 wins)

While the 2014-15 Los Angeles Lakers season was an unmitigated disaster, the NBA's glamour franchise enters the 2015-16 season with a likely top-five lottery pick, a healthy Kobe Bryant, a healthy Julius Randle and loads of cap space. But even with all of that, the 2015-16 Lakers don't scare me as much as the other Western Conference teams do as long as Bryant does his "Wizards Era Michael Jordan" impersonation again (which he will) instead of taking on the mentor/teacher role that his young Lakers teammates desperately need. The 2016-17 Lakers - when Bryant may be retired, Kevin Love becomes an unrestricted free agent and the NBA salary cap skyrockets upwards - scare me a hell of a lot more than next season's edition.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (16 wins)

About midway through the 2014-15 season, I wrote that I'd rather have the current Minnesota Timberwolves roster than the Nuggets current roster and was simultaneously ridiculed by my colleagues and essentially laughed out of the room here at Denver Stiffs. But despite the Wolves finishing with an NBA-worst 16 victories, I stand by that statement. The Wolves have something the Nuggets don't have: a future superstar in Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, a top-three draft pick, promising youngsters like Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng and "young vets" like Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic plus the guidance and leadership of Kevin Garnett will make the Wolves a tough opponent next season. In fact, don't be surprised if the Wolves overtake the Nuggets in wins by next April.

So there you have it. Just when you thought the NBA's Western Conference couldn't get any tougher than what was experienced throughout the 2014-15 season, next season's conference battle figures to be worse. Knowing that, this summer the Nuggets will have to decide if they're better off planning for 2017 and beyond than 2016.