The Denver Nuggets made it clear on media day: this team has it’s site set on winning an NBA championship. The idea is a foreign one for most Nuggets fans and certainly it’s new territory for the team itself but with the shakeup of the Golden State Warriors, the fallout of Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors, and the rest of the movement across the league, the NBA sets out on a season with parity the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades. Meanwhile, the Nuggets bring back the same roster, plus a few key additions that led them within a game of the conference finals. They absolutely should expect to contend for a championship. With the aforementioned league wide roster reconstructions though, who will the Nuggets be contending with?
The no doubt contenders
The biggest benefactor of one of the crazier offseasons the NBA has seen was the Los Angeles Clippers. Their haul of Leonard and Oklahoma City Thunder superstar wing Paul George was the bombshell of the Summer. Though the Clippers gave up a historic haul in terms of picks, they still managed to keep a number of key pieces in their rotation including Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Ivica Zubac.
Leonard and George will provide size, athleticism and gobs of talent on the wings while their supporting role players in the starting lineup will boast impressive defense. The frontcourt depth is a little suspect, but the one two punch of Williams and Landry Shamet is a dynamite backcourt off the bench. It’s hard to argue a team is better suited for a title run than the Clippers
Like the Nuggets, the Bucks enjoy a good amount of continuity after a very successful 2018-2019 campaign. They have the reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and locked up Khris Middleton over the Summer. Eric Bledsoe, despite his post season woes, is still a dynamic point guard and Brook Lopez is still enjoying a career renaissance as “Splash Mountain.” The Bucks did lose a quality starter in Malcolm Brogdon this offseason but bolstered their two guard spot with veterans Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver as well as bringing in Lopez’s younger brother Robin to hold down their backup five spot.
The Bucks are one of few teams in the NBA who can rival Denver’s depth top to bottom in their rotation and they have arguably the best player on the planet. With the Raptors now Kawhi-less the Bucks path to the finals couldn’t be more clearer. They’d also be a nightmare matchup for the Nuggets who don’t have much they could throw at Giannis in the way of defenders. Milwaukee won both matchups with Denver last season behind their powerful frontcourt combo of Antetokounmpo and Lopez.
The likely contenders
Houston is a bit of an enigma going into the season. They’ve tried a couple different iterations of supporting casts around James Harden and Clint Capela but have yet to find the combo that can push them over the hump. The much ballyhooed trade of Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook may turn off some from the Rockets championship prospects but it’s premature to eliminate them from the conversation. The fact of the matter is for the 2019-2020 Rockets Westbrook over Paul is a definite upgrade. Yes, it’s going to be a challenge for coach Mike D’Antoni to figure out how to navigate the two of the most ball dominant guards in the league but Westbrook and Harden have a chemistry that seemed to always be lacking in the short lived Paul/Harden era.
The Rockets like the Bucks and Nuggets also will boast an impressive amount of depth and continuity with their star trio. Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Gerald Green are back while Houston added veteran pieces like Ryan Anderson, Tyson Chandler and Thabo Sefolosha. Houston still has to prove they can get over the hump in the playoffs, and Westbrook certainly doesn’t bring the most sterling postseason resume, but there was little doubt last year of their chances against Denver in a playoff series. As long as Harden and Capela are on the roster the Rockets will continue to be a difficult matchup because no duo can attack Jokic better than they can.
The 76ers were excruciatingly close to making the conference finals last season just like the Nuggets. They too will bring back a very similar roster, though there have been some big changes to their lineup as well. Jimmy Butler is now in Miami but in his wake comes Al Horford and Jason Richardson. The Sixers will likely run out a starting lineup of Ben Simmons, Jason Richardson, Tobias Harris, Horford and Joel Embiid which is monstrous in both talent and physical size. Defensively this team should be stellar and they’ve got Simmons surrounded with scoring and/or shooting talent on the offensive end to maximize his talents.
The depth is a bit suspect in Philly. They are going to be relying on some young guys like Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle to play some big roles off their bench while also hoping veterans like Mike Scott and Raul Neto can still be productive. Nothing screams great bench about this roster but its not a total mess either. With the starting lineup as powerful as it is and as versatile as it is coupled with the fact that the Bucks really stand as the only for sure competition in the East at a Finals run, the 76ers absolute stand to be a potential Finals opponent for the Nuggets.
The Dark Horses
The Lakers could certainly be considered a likely contender. The betting public certainly sees it that way. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are as good as any duo in the league. It’s because of those two that the Lakers aren’t a total bottom feeder, let alone a contender though and LeBron is going to be 35 while Davis hasn’t exactly had the best luck with health in the NBA. We’ve seen that its going to be a challenge for either to lead this squad to playoff success on their own so an injury to either star could derail their Finals aspirations quicker than any other contender. Still, it’s hard to pick against those two guys in a seven game series no matter who is the opponent.
Once again the Lakers have assembled a curious collection of talent around their stars with the likes of Javale Mcgee and Rajon Rondo returning for what should be prominent, starting even, roles on the squad. They added Danny Green and Avery Bradley to bolster their wings which will round out what should be a very stingy perimeter defense. Unfortunately DeMarcus Cousins went down with an ACL injury in the Summer which will hurt. Cousins was still working his way back from an achilles tear last year but you saw flashes of that skill that made him one of the best bigs in the league. Without him the Lakers are very thin behind their starting frontcourt. With Cousins they are a definite contender but without him its not as easy of a pick.
In a lot of people’s minds the Jazz had the best Summer of any team not in L.A. They added star point guard Mike Conley, a solid wing in Bojan Bogdanovic and bolstered their depth with guys like Jeff Green and Ed Davis. The main question about Utah in regards to whether or not they can contend for a title is a very similar one to the Nuggets: can their young stars get it done on the biggest stage? Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have a decent amount of playoff experience now so the natural progression would be a conference finals or deeper run but like the Nuggets the Jazz have been susceptible to bad matchups in the playoffs they can’t overcome. Most notably: Houston. Mitchell and Gobert will have to show they can overcome whoever they play in the postseason.
There’s also some depth concerns for Utah, particularly at point guard. Conley had a bounce back year last season but he’s still just two years removed an achilles injury of his own. He also turns 32 in a couple of days. While there’s certainly reason to believe he still has plenty left in the tank, Conley is not a spring chicken anymore and the players behind him aren’t great. Dante Exum and Emmanuel Mudiay have had their share of struggles, albeit for different reasons, and both remain very unproven on the NBA level. Without Conley the Jazz would still be a lot to handle, but it’s hard to call them a Finals contender. As long as he is healthy though, he might just be the piece that can get Utah over that aforementioned hump