The 2015-16 NBA season gets underway later this evening with three games on the slate. This is part two of our conference predictions (if you missed the Eastern Conference click here) for both the Eastern and Western Conferences in the NBA. It’s time to view how we see the West unfolding. While the bottom of the West may not be as strong as it was even last season, it’s still anyone’s guess as to how the playoff seeds will be determined.
Our writers: Nate Timmons (@NateTimmonsBSN), Harrison Wind (@NBAWind), Kalen Deremo (@PrincePickaxe), An Nguyen (@The_NGUYENNER), Kevin Keller (@CoachKCK), Luke Binder (@303Luke), Jeremiah Penaflor (@JPenaflor86), Johnny Domenico (@JohnnyD_BSN).
Nate Timmons: Six seeds are locked up in the West (no big injuries, please) and it’s anyone’s guess how that bloodbath will play out. There’s no reason to think the Warriors won’t be the class of the conference again and the Thunder are locked in under Billy Donovan. I really like the Rockets and think the Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies will all be in the hunt up top. The seventh and eighth seeds interest me, even though those two slots will be sacrificial lambs come playoff time. I can see scenarios where the Pelicans (injuries), Jazz, Nuggets, and Kings remain close as the season winds down, but I’m giving the nod to Anthony Davis and Quin Snyder.
Harrison Wind: The Warriors are my pick to win the championship because it would be foolish not to pick them. They had a historically great team last year, their point differential proves that and they bring back everyone. They are the best team in the league, but think they might get out of the gates slow this season with Steve Kerr‘s health problems and a bit of a championship hangover. Because of that I’m picking Houston to win the West. Clutch City is the deepest team in the league, with James Harden and Ty Lawson in F.U. mode this team is downright scary to play and has a clear formula in place to win regular season games. The Thunder could very well win the title this season if Kevin Durant‘s foot holds up, if they find a starting shooting guard who is a threat from the perimeter and they don’t overplay Dion Waiters. I think the Clippers will be a threat in the West again, but I hate their bench. Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith and Jamal Crawford scare me as a trio and I’m not sure how long Chris Paul is going to be able to play at this high a level. I think the Spurs will start slow and Gregg Popovich won’t be put a premium on winning a lot of regular season games and will rest Tim Duncan, Many Ginobili and Tony Parker often, the latter of which looked done at EuroBasket this summer. The Grizzlies will still be there, but will fall off a little and New Orleans just has too many players with too many injury risks to jump over them. Utah, one of my favorite teams in the league to watch, should snatch the eight seed and could even creep up into the seven spot behind Rudy Gobert, and a versatile lineup that can play a multitude of combinations. Sacramento’s ceiling is the eight seed, but I think they only get there if Rajon Rondo comes off the bench, which isn’t happening. No one on Dallas is going to be healthy and Phoenix might be a ticking time bomb. Portland seems like the west coast version of the Boston Celtics and Denver is interesting, but the West is just too stacked.
An Nguyen: As much as I hate to admit it, the Lawson trade was an absolute coup for the Rockets. Although he left Denver ungracefully, he was still extremely productive on the court and should be a strong piece on an already threatening Houston team. OKC looks hungry and are actually running an offense now. Injuries have made people forget how scary this team is when their two top-five players are healthy. GSW is third because I believe in the “championship hangover” and the fact that they’ll have a target on their backs every single night. The Clippers will be a bigger threat in the playoffs than regular season, while I can see the Spurs resting their players just to make sure they’re fresh for the playoffs. I’m higher on Minnesota than most since I believe they’ve put together a great blend of veterans and youth, and lower on Sacramento since I believe that’s a trainwreck waiting to happen. Dallas will be near the bottom because they have injury red flags all over the roster and aren’t particularly threatening in the first place.
Kevin Keller: To me, the Spurs are the favorites once again. By now, they’ve proven to be ageless, and Popovich has too many weapons with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge. The Warriors will be right there, but defenses will catch up a bit and their shooting will cool this season. Three through six is a toss-up between Oklahoma City, LA Clippers, Houston, and Memphis, but I’m betting on the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook duo being the best of that group. Houston’s defense is too suspect for them to finish in the top four. Anthony Davis will be good enough to lead New Orleans back into the playoffs. I really see the eighth spot as up for grabs between Phoenix, Denver, Utah and Dallas, and the teams are close enough in talent that it could be a really fun race that comes down to the last game of the season. Intangibles like injuries will be a huge factor for that group, but I see Utah playing well enough at home to get the final playoff spot. Minnesota and Sacramento will have better seasons with compared to last year, but neither be able to compete for eighth, and they’ll look one year away from doing so due to huge roster changes and youth. Finally, the Lakers and Blazers don’t have much on their roster to make any noise in a competitive Western Conference.
Luke Binder: The West is loaded this year and I could see a number of teams rising to the top, but I’ll go with the Spurs. I’ve learned when in doubt to go with the Spurs. Getting to watch Duncan and Aldridge play together is going to be fun. Houston and Oklahoma City are loaded with talent, but I wonder about coaching, especially with the Thunder. Golden State will miss Steve Kerr and one has to wonder how Luke Walton will fare until Kerr returns to the bench as he recovers from back surgery. A slow start from the Warriors could be difficult to recover from in a deep conference. Put me down for a Spurs vs. Rockets conference finals with San Antonio winning in six.
Jeremiah Penaflor: There was only a one game difference between the number two seed (Houston) and the sixth seed (Spurs) in the tightly contested Western Conference. Prior to the 2014-2015 NBA playoffs the home team went 10-3 in Game 7 in the previous four seasons (13 series). With such an importance placed on home court, look for the top six teams to tightly grouped. Seeding could come down to the final two days of the season where on April 12th and 13th, the Spurs visit the Thunder, the Grizzlies head to the Clippers and the Grizzles head to the Warriors on the final day or the regular season. With the top six seeds jockeying for position that leaves five teams fighting for two spots. The Pelicans look like a strong bet to grab the seventh seed. Leaving the Suns, Mavericks, Jazz, and Kings fighting for the eighth spot. With Utah holding the second highest rebound margin (4.7) they’re my favorite to grab the last spot and win a first round elimination ticket.
Johnny Domenico: The Warriors will still end up on top for the regular season as they’ve had the least amount of turnover/turmoil in the offseason, although I’m much more comfortable with the Spurs and Clippers come playoff time. Houston has defensive questions and Oklahoma City has health questions despite their talent. The Pelicans and Grizzlies are the up-and-comer and old-faithful, respectively, that I could see contending for the top seed or fighting for the final playoff spot. The George Karl effect could lead to the surprise playoff appearance I’m predicting or a quick dismantling of the team for the Kings (I think the dismantling happens next season). The young Nuggets and Jazz will look to overtake the aging Mavs in the West’s next tier and the Blazers, Lakers, Suns and Timberwolves will be smart to start scouting the 2016 draft.
Nuggets specific predictions:
Nate Timmons: We’re at the eve of Nuggets season and I still don’t know what to make of this team. After seeing what 30 wins looks like and being around the team under Brian Shaw, I can firmly state that this is a completely different bunch. Yet, I still want to see how the Nuggets respond to adversity – especially in Kenneth Faried’s case. There were nights where Denver won, but Faried didn’t play a lot or play well and he didn’t always face the music with the media. If the Nuggets are taking a step forward, that means the leaders on this team need to emerge – in good times and especially in bad. I can see these Nuggets finishing with 37-42 wins, and a brutal Oct./Nov. does them no favors. I want to see if Michael Malone chases wins over developing the young guys, and I want to see what the front office does with the “vets” on this team as the season progresses. I’d be fine with the Nuggets winning 30-35 games if that meant a bunch of minutes for Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Joffrey Lauvergne, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic (when he returns), but those young guys, with Malone’s coaching, could prove to be Denver’s best bets to win games in combination with Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Faried.
Harrison Wind: The preseason hype train is rolling! Denver’s defense will be much improved under Malone this season, and the 95.3 points per 100 possessions they gave up this preseason, good for tenth in the league might be for real. However, I’m worried that the expectations in Denver after the seven exhibition games might be too high. Mudiay will be really good, and he will have an enormous impact this year, but he’s not going to be able to stretch the floor on offense and his shooting percentages could fall significantly in the second half of the season. The best chance this team will have to score the ball and have an efficient offense will be in transition. If Malone is willing to let Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried and Will Barton run, the offense could creep up towards the middle of the pack. If he doesn’t, this team could struggle to put points on the board. Interior defense also scares me. The likely starting front court combination of Kenneth Faried and Joffrey Lauvergne has looked capable at times this preseason, but isn’t a duo I’m counting on to stop the dynamic penetrators and bigs out West. Nikola Jokic has the second most potential on this Nuggets team, and I hope he gets an ample amount of playing time, but he’s not going to turn this team into the eight seed his rookie year. The Nuggets schedule is also brutal. They play Milwaukee on Nov. 11 and don’t play another Eastern Conference team until Nov. 30 when they play the Bucks again. This team is going in the right direction, but they are still a year or two away from the playoffs. I’ve said often this summer that the Nuggets could win 30 games again (their win total last year) and still improve. I still think that is the case and there’s a lot of individual pieces that will excite the fanbase and get a lot of people on board with the front office’s vision, but I hope this encouraging preseason isn’t going to raise Denver’s expectations to unattainable heights.
An Nguyen: Call me a homer if you want but yes, I firmly believe that this Nuggets team has what it takes to be a playoff squad. Just this time last year hopes and expectations were sky high for this group, with some fans even daring to think championship in the back of their minds. A dumpster fire of a year later and now all of a sudden the Nuggets would be lucky to even make playoffs? People have spent so long listening to the national media paint the team as bottom feeders that they’re beginning to think the same way. That team last year was not indicative at all of what the Nuggets are able to accomplish… if you consider the NBA an experiment of trying to figure out “what works,” last year’s sample would have to be thrown out due to Shaw contamination. Armed with a hungry roster, an “us against the world” mentality as well as an all-star coaching staff, the Nuggets will be opening eyes across the nation this season. Hop on the bandwagon while you can.
Kevin Keller: Compared to the national media, I look ambitious picking Denver to finish ninth. The Nuggets were so ugly at times last year the expectations on them are light. With some of those blowouts under Shaw in memory it’s hard to imagine the Nuggets finishing this high in a tough Western Conference. However, people forget that the Nuggets were 57-25 just three seasons ago, and Gallinari and Chandler were big pieces on that team. When looking at his play after Shaw got fired last season, his summer play, and his preseason, Gallo has been playing the best basketball we’ve seen since he arrived in Denver. Under Malone, team chemistry has already vastly improved, and the team actually wants to play for him. That should translate to little more fight in close games against some of the NBA’s weaker teams, and more wins. The Nuggets should also recapture their Mile High advantage at home this season due to a simpler offense and a greater emphasis on running the fast break. They have to improve on their home record of 19-22 this season. Overall, I see the Nuggets making at least a push for the eighth seed, and it’ll give a season that’s already shaping out to be fun to watch a little extra fun. To actually crack the top eight, they’ll need another year to learn Malone’s full system, mesh together and grow.
Luke Binder: I’m optimistic about the Nuggets this season. The roster is filled with a nice mix of veteran and young talent who could surprise some people. Most responsible for the glass of optimism I am drinking is Coach Malone. Admittedly, I was not overly excited about the hire right away but I’ve had my opinion shifted in the past few months after observing his interactions with players and media. I think Faried and Gallinari will have career years in this system. And Mudiay, the new kid on the block, could make some noise and earn Rookie of the Year honors. Look for this Nuggets team to compete on a nightly basis and begin to build for the future. I’ll go with a prediction of 36-46 for Denver.
Jeremiah Penaflor: I have the Nuggets in the 10th spot. With off-season extensions to Gallo, Ill-Wil and a young play maker in Mudiay the Nuggets seem to finally have a direction they want to take. With Malone on the bench, the Nuggets should improve on the seventh worst point differential in the NBA (-3.5). The Nuggets are in an ideal spot, they have a chance to grow and improve on a 19-22 home record and being a greatly improved defensive team while missing the playoffs with a chance of having multiple first round picks. For years the Nuggets were stuck in NBA purgatory, being good enough to make the playoffs yet not bad enough to obtain any significant draft spots. The 2015 and 2016 drafts are a real chance for the Nuggets to take advantage of a stock pile of picks, look out 2017 the Nuggets are coming!
Johnny Domenico: This prediction represents a middle ground of the potential of this season’s Nuggets team. If Mudiay is able to limit his turnovers and shoot at a decent clip while Gallinari assumes the alpha-dog role for the team, continuing his momentum from late last season through his Italian national team performance, the Nuggets could sneak into the final playoff spot in the West. If Mudiay struggles early and the injury bug rears it’s ugly head again, the Nuggets could fall into the mid-20 win range that many NBA folks are predicting. I think the loss of Lawson is far offset by the replacement of Shaw with Malone and the Nuggets will spend most of the season vying for the final playoff spot in the West before finally losing out to the Mavs, Jazz or Kings…