I'm going to kick off this column with a seemingly contradictory statement: our 2015-16 Denver Nuggets will be hard pressed to match last season's disappointing 30 wins, and yet I'm much more optimistic about this team's future than I was about last season's edition. Because even though the Nuggets didn't address their need for a shooter or a true shot maker this summer, they may have added one of the more dynamic rookies the franchise has ever had in point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, the 2015 NBA Draft's seventh overall pick.
But future optimism aside - and before reviewing the recently released 2015-16 Nuggets schedule - the Nuggets and we as Nuggets fans must accept the reality that the Western Conference remains brutally competitive and the Nuggets have a long way to go before they're going to compete for a playoff spot again. Among the conference's eight playoff participants in 2015, only the Portland Trail Blazers took a substantial step backward this summer by losing several key players, including All-Star power forward LeMarcus Aldridge to the San Antonio Spurs. Meanwhile, three teams that finished with worse records than Denver's in 2014-15 - the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves - are all primed to improve dramatically in 2015-16. Lest we forget that the Oklahoma City Thunder - an NBA Finals contender - didn't even make the 2015 playoffs due largely to longtime injuries sustained by former NBA MVP Kevin Durant.
Other than the exciting addition of Mudiay the Nuggets didn't do enough this off-season to get into the playoff conversation. The franchise is returning mostly the same 30-win roster that was featured during the latter half of the 2014-15 campaign. With Mudiay, plus new head coach Michael Malone, the 2015-16 Nuggets should be a lot more fun to watch than their 2014-15 predecessors. But don't expect a lot of Ws as you'll see below ...
OCTOBER / NOVEMBER
The Nuggets open the 2015-16 campaign at Houston on October 28th, where they'll face off against the Western Conference's 2015 runner-up and former Nuggets (starting) point guard Ty Lawson's new teammates. But with Lawson encountering his second DUI within six months this past summer - which prompted the Nuggets to trade him in late July - don't be surprised if Lawson is suspended for the season opener.
Of their first 18 games, the Nuggets will play nine at home and nine on the road. But October / November features four back-to-backs, three of which are on the road at Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas.
Over/Under for wins: Six (best chance for wins: home opener against Minnesota 10/30, at Lakers 11/3, home versus Utah 11/5, home versus Portland 11/9, home versus Milwaukee 11/11, home versus Phoenix 11/20)
Game to Watch #1: at Los Angeles Lakers 11/3
Mudiay will face off against fellow rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell of the Lakers on a Tuesday evening in Los Angeles, kicking off what might be come a Western Conference point guard rivalry for the remainder of their respective careers.
Game to Watch #2: versus Houston Rockets 11/13
Lawson's first game at Denver since the big trade in late July.
Of the Nuggets' 15 December games, only six will be played at Pepsi Center - including the Rockets again and the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. December opens with the conclusion of a tough five-game road trip (at Dallas and at Milwaukee in November followed by at Chicago, at Toronto and at Philadelphia to open December) and finishes with a super tough at San Antonio / at Oklahoma City back-to-back towards month's end. December is going to be a tough month for the Nuggets.
Over/Under for wins: Four (best chance for wins: at Philadelphia 12/5, home versus Orlando 12/8, home versus Minnesota 12/11, home versus Lakers 12/22)
Game to Watch #1: versus Los Angeles Lakers 12/22
Again, the Mudiay versus Russell matchup should be a fun one for both Nuggets and NBA fans alike, and the NBA probably erred by not nationally televising at least one of their four matchups this season.
Game to Watch #2: versus Cleveland Cavaliers 12/29
LeBron James the Eastern Conference's most dominant team only comes to Denver once, so this is a must-watch/see game.
Unlike December, January keeps the Nuggets inside the Pepsi Center frequently: nine home games out of 15 total games, including an almost unheard of eight-game home stand from January 10th through the 25th. If Coach Malone can get the Nuggets to bond during their multiple road ventures in December, then January could serve his team well - a la the 2012-13 Nuggets that received 12 home games out of 15 January games in 2013 and took full advantage of that quirky scheduling.
Over/Under for wins: Five (best chance for wins: home versus Portland 1/3, at Minnesota 1/6, home versus Charlotte 1/10, home versus Miami 1/15, home versus Indiana 1/17, home versus Detroit 1/23)
Game to Watch: versus Golden State Warriors 1/13
The NBA Champions make their second Pepsi Center appearance in mid-January in what will be a major home test for the Nuggets.
The NBA's "All-Star Game Month" features just 12 games for the Nuggets - not surprising with a nine-day break from February 10th until the 19th. Of the Nuggets five home games in February, they're all pretty tough. But a three-game road trip at New York, Brooklyn and Detroit in early February might give the Nuggets an opportunity to pick up some road-winning confidence.
Over/Under for wins: Four (best chance for wins: at New York 2/7, at Brooklyn 2/8, home versus Boston 2/21, home versus Sacramento 2/23)
Game to Watch: versus Sacramento Kings 2/23
Assuming he's still coaching in Sacramento come February, George Karl - the Nuggets second-winningest coach in their franchise history - makes his second appearance at Pepsi Center since taking the Kings job and his first appearance of the 2015-16 season. Karl's Kings are my sleeper pick to make the Western Conference's eighth-seed, so this will be a fun game.
March crams in 17 games for the Nuggets, including a six-game home stand (actually seven if you count the final game of February) and a season-long five-game road trip from March 14th through the 21st. Interestingly, March features two home games versus the Dallas Mavericks - both winnable opportunities for Denver - and several other weak opponents for the Nuggets to pick up a few wins from.
Over/Under for wins: Six (best chance for wins: versus Lakers 3/2, versus Brooklyn 3/4, versus Dallas 3/6, versus New York 3/8, versus Philadelphia 3/23, at Lakers 3/27)
Game to Watch: versus New York Knicks 3/8
Even though it will have been five years since former Nuggets star-turned-Knicks star Carmelo Anthony was traded from Denver to New York, it's still a big deal when Anthony comes back to Denver ... especially with a team that the new Nuggets have a chance to beat.
The Nuggets conclude the 2015-16 season with four straight home games and one more road game at Portland. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, two of those four home games are against the Thunder and the Spurs. By the time April rolls around, we as Nuggets fans can only hope that the final four games of the season will serve as a launching pad for a much better 2016-17 campaign.
Over/Under for wins: Three (best chance for wins: versus Sacramento 4/2, versus Utah 4/10, at Portland 4/13)
Game to Watch #1: versus Sacramento Kings 4/2
By this time in the season, there's a good chance that Karl's Kings will be competing for the conference's final playoff spot, giving the Nuggets the opportunity to play spoiler against their former coach (and in the case of Malone, against his former employer).
Game to Watch #2: versus San Antonio Spurs 4/8
If pre-season expectations come to fruition, the reloaded Spurs will rival the Warriors to contend for the Western Conference title, making this April 8th game a must-win for the Spurs as they compete for home court advantage in the playoffs.
So there you have it, based on the 2015-16 schedule the Nuggets over/under for wins is 28 ... just under last season's 30. But regardless of how many (or few) victories the Nuggets end up with, I'm just hoping that they'll play inspired, exciting and competitive basketball as they build for a future where 30-win seasons are a thing of the past.