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Is 2016-17 the year the Denver Nuggets get back to the playoffs? A Western Conference examination

Dan Fatigato Avatar
July 15, 2016


As Western Conference teams continue to bow before the now even more powerful Golden State Warriors, the massive middle class is left do battle for playoff position. Kevin Durant joining the Warriors not only makes the rich richer, it severely weakens their top 2016 competitor, Oklahoma City, and the wild west looks to be as unpredictable as it’s been in recent years.

At first glance, this seismic shift leaves the mighty Western Conference weaker overall, but young rosters in Denver and Minnesota may be ready to compete, and last year’s injury-plagued teams like the Clippers and Grizzlies will be more formidable. It will likely be a one-team race to the Finals, but getting to the playoffs still matters and we can expect a heavy logjam in the five through ten seeds out West.

Nuggets brass has made it clear the playoffs are the goal this season after three straight years of watching the postseason from the couch. Injuries took a major toll last year, but generally, Nuggets fans have reasons to be optimistic. The young backcourt, led by Emmanuel Mudiay in year two and Gary Harris in year three, should improve Denver’s point production. Mudiay recently said that he’s been speaking with former Nuggets star point guard Chauncey Billups and learning how to be a leader and he’s carrying himself with more confidence already on and off the court, which was evident at Las Vegas Summer League last week. Harris should improve on both ends after a breakout second season, while Jamal Murray can become a dark horse Rookie of the Year candidate thanks to his beautiful shooting stroke.

The Balkan big men each showed flashes of brilliance the past two seasons – Jusuf Nurkic in 2014-15 and Nikola Jokic in 2015-16. Jokic, who finished third in Rookie of the Year voting last season, sports a dynamic offensive game and may be the team’s best passer. Nurkic has the defensive potential now that he’s healthy again to change games, while he and Kenneth Faried are beasts on the boards.

Danilo Gallinari’s return to the lineup is huge for Denver’s perimeter play. After he went down due to injury last season, the small forward position became a weakness without his 19.5 points per game. Gallinari’s health is always the foremost concern, but the hope is with more scoring punch on the roster, the 27-year-old won’t have to shoulder as much of a burden on that end of the floor.

The biggest obstacles standing between the Nuggets and the eighth seed are largely out of their control. For one, the overall youth of the team is a concern and Michael Malone can’t speed up the aging process. Harris, Mudiay, Jokic, Nurkic and Murray have never been in a real playoff race either, and only fringe players Jameer Nelson and Mike Miller have extensive playoff experience. With youth comes great potential, however, the Nuggets would be one of the five youngest Western Conference playoff teams of the 21st century, per RealGM.

They may be another year of development away, for the other road block to the playoffs is the improved nature of many of their competitors. Only Oklahoma City seems to have gotten demonstrably worse this offseason, and they still may be a playoff team if they hang on to Russell Westbrook. The West is a gauntlet again, even if there are only one or two truly elite teams.

Credit: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports
With Kevin Durat in Golden State, is everyone else playing for second in the West? Credit: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a tiered approach to projecting the Western Conference.

Our basketball overlords

Golden State Warriors

Projected Starters – Stephen Curry / Klay Thompson / Kevin Durant / Draymond Green / Zaza Pachulia

Anything less than a title will be a massive disappointment for the Warriors.

Second and third fiddle

San Antonio Spurs

Tony Parker / Danny Green / Kawhi Leonard / LaMarcus Aldridge / Pau Gasol

Los Angeles Clippers

Chris Paul / J.J. Redick / Wesley Johnson / Blake Griffin / DeAndre Jordan

With Tim Duncan retiring and only the slow-footed Pau Gasol brought in to fill the void, San Antonio will likely decline from the amazing 67-wins it posted in the regular season of 2015-16. However, they still have Gregg Popovich on the sideline and Kawhi Leonard on the court.

The Clippers, if healthy, are going to be the same Clippers of the last five years. Expect 52-57 wins and a loss to Golden State in the playoffs.

Ready for their closeup

Utah Jazz

George Hill / Rodney Hood / Gordon Hayward / Derrick Favors / Rudy Gobert

Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard / C.J. McCollum / Evan Turner / Al-Farouq Aminu / Festus Ezeli

If Utah can finally make it through a season mostly healthy with this core, they are a 50-win team. They will play ferocious defense and go two-deep at every position. The additions of Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson give them veteran savvy off the bench.

Portland won’t sneak up on anyone this season like they did last year. They have shored up some weaknesses that plagued them behind their dynamic backcourt. I’m not big on the Turner signing but Ezeli came dirt cheap and is better than their other center options.

Silent majority

Memphis Grizzlies

Mike Conley / Tony Allen / Chandler Parsons / Zach Randolph / Marc Gasol

Dallas Mavericks

Deron Williams / Wesley Matthews / Harrison Barnes / Dirk Nowitzki / Andrew Bogut

Denver Nuggets

Emmanuel Mudiay / Gary Harris / Danilo Gallinari / Kenneth Faried / Nikola Jokic

Houston Rockets

Patrick Beverley / James Harden / Eric Gordon / Ryan Anderson / Clint Capela

Minnesota Timberwolves

Ricky Rubio / Zach LaVine / Andrew Wiggins / Gorgui Dieng / Karl-Anthony Towns

Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook / Victor Oladipo / Andre Roberson / Enes Kanter / Steven Adams

New Orleans Pelicans

Jrue Holiday / E’Twaun Moore / Tyreke Evans / Anthony Davis / Omer Asik

Four of these teams will likely miss the playoffs next season. Let that sink in.

The Grizzlies upgraded their roster, but could easily see a big portion of their starters get hurt again. If they stay reasonably healthy, it’s hard to envision them not making the playoffs.

Similarly, Dallas swung some late free agency deals to salvage its summer. If Nowitzki has another good year in him and the injury-prone Williams, Matthews, and Bogut stay upright, they should be back in the playoffs. Never bet against Rick Carlisle.

Minnesota is everyone’s new favorite team. They’re expected to make a leap under a better coach with the Wiggins/Towns pairing entering year two, now featuring Kris Dunn. Can the Nuggets hold off the Wolves in the suddenly strong Northwest Division? It may come down to T-Wolves and Nuggets for the eighth seed.

Don’t forget about the Rockets either, who are starting anew under coach Mike D’Antoni with more offensive firepower. Can they score their way into the postseason, or will their defense submarine them? And what to make of an improved (on paper) Pelicans team? Or for that matter, the Thunder who as of this writing, still have Westbrook?

This jumbled mess of good, not great, teams should make the West intriguing all the way down to the wire in 2016-17. Great news for fans of April basketball. Not so great for a Nuggets front office starving to get back into the postseason.

The Rest

Sacramento Kings

Darren Collison / Arron Afflalo / Rudy Gay / DeMarcus Cousins / Willie Cauley-Stein

Phoenix Suns

Eric Bledsoe / Devin Booker / P.J. Tucker / Alex Len / Tyson Chandler

Los Angeles Lakers

D’Angelo Russell / Jordan Clarkson / Luol Deng / Julius Randle / Timofey Mozgov

Of this group, only the Suns seem to have the potential to surprise, with their all-Kentucky backcourt (Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis) and some high-upside lottery picks in Dragan Bender and Marquees Chriss. But they seem to be at least a year away from a winning season, especially if Bledsoe goes down with another knee injury.

The Math

Last season the Nuggets finished 33-49, tied with Sacramento for 10th place in the West. In the 17 non-lockout seasons since 1998, the West’s eight-seed has won an average of roughly 45 games. The average nine-seed won about 42. Last season was an anomaly with two teams (Golden State and San Antonio) winning a combined 140 games and five-seed Portland winning just 44. The numbers were so skewed by the monopolization of wins at the top, that last year’s five-seed wouldn’t have made the playoffs in 2014-15 (when the eighth and ninth seeds both won 45 games).

All of this is to say the Nuggets will likely need to win between 42-45 games in 2016-17 to be in the mix for that final playoff spot, assuming a return to normalcy in the standings, meaning they’ll need to improve by 9-12 wins over last season. That kind of jump in win production is no small task, but with this blossoming Denver roster, the playoffs are certainly in play. Year two leaps from Mudiay and Jokic are a must, as are improved wing defense and 3-point accuracy across the board.

Injuries, of course, will factor heavily into Denver’s ultimate fate. Can they get 70 games out of Gallinari, or 60 out of Chandler? It’s impossible to know.

For prognostication’s sakes, here’s the case for Denver making the playoffs:

Houston gives up 120 points per game and falls out of the playoff race. New Orleans improves but doesn’t have quite enough punch to win more than 41 games. The puppy Wolves prove to be just one more year away from storming the league. The Thunder trade Westbrook to the Lakers and fall out of contention. Memphis gets old and limps to the lottery.

Four of those five scenarios need to happen or come reasonably close. Oh, and the Nuggets can’t suffer any devastating injuries. That’s tough sledding.

Of course, the Nuggets can only worry about themselves, not the fates of the other middling playoff contenders. Fortunately, they have much to be happy about when looking in the mirror. After three tough seasons, they are on a clear upward trajectory. Denver has paid their dues in losses while compiling young talent and team-friendly contracts. It’s time to start winning again.

Vegas currently has the Nuggets tied with the Lakers and Kings at 500/1 odds to win the NBA Finals. The Suns are the only Western Conference team with worse odds.

But since it’s summertime and optimism abounds, I’ll arbitrarily project that there’s around 25 percent chance that we see playoff games at Pepsi Center next spring. Should the Nuggets make it, they’ll likely play the vaunted Warriors in the first round, but I’m not prepared to say they’ll come close to winning a game in that series.

Optimism has its limits.

Is this group ready for a playoff run in 2016-17? Injuries and luck in the Western Conference may determine their fate. Credit: CBS Denver
Is this group ready for a playoff run in 2016-17? Injuries and luck in the Western Conference may determine their fate.
Credit: CBS Denver


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