We’re still six weeks until media day, so let’s take a look at the landscape in the Western Conference. Who’s the Nuggets’ biggest threat in the West and who’s the next up-and-coming West team? Also, what’s the biggest question facing Denver entering training camp? DNVR Nuggets discusses.
Who’s the Nuggets’ biggest threat in the Western Conference?
Adam Mares: Tampering
I honestly think a fully healthy Denver Nuggets team is meaningfully better than every team out West. The Suns will provide a challenge but I still feel confident about that matchup. The only team that worries me is a Lakers team that manages to tamper their way into a D’Angelo Russell trade for another star. These kinds of trades don’t happen for most teams but they somehow manage to get done for the Lakers. As constructed, I think the Nuggets beat them in 4 or 5 games, again. But if they manage to move the worst defender from last year’s playoffs for a competent 3rd star, then all bets are off.
Harrison Wind: Phoenix
It’s the Suns, and I don’t think it’s close. The Lakers have been lauded for their offseason moves (re-signing their free agents and adding Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish, and Jaxson Hayes). But I’m not that moved. I still don’t think they have the horses to run with Denver. Phoenix does, although for now, the Nuggets are still in a tier of their own. The Suns took two games off the Nuggets in last year’s Western Conference semis, and even though it took Devin Booker going nuclear to get those two victories, it’s more games than anyone else was able to get. Losing Bruce Brown is big in a potential Nuggets-Suns playoff rematch too. Peyton Watson would need to be able to play big minutes in that matchup.
Brendan Vogt: Phoenix
Devin Booker touched God in the second round. While that was never truly sustainable, it still inspired fear during the two games the Suns took from the Nuggets. That stands out to me as the only moment, however brief, the title truly felt in jeopardy. Since then, the Suns have reloaded and will have a full training camp and season to figure out their identity. Denver is a better team, but the Suns have the best case for top challengers.
Who’s the next up-and-coming team in the West?
Mares: I think I might be higher on the Minnesota Timberwolves than anyone outside of Minneapolis. Anthony Edwards isn’t a complete player but he is as confident as anyone top dog scorer in the NBA. Jaden McDaniels is an elite defender. Same goes for the suddenly underrated Rudy Gobert. They’ve got solid veteran role players and curveball players (Naz Reid) in enough spots that they can make even the most balanced teams uncomfortable. They’re a Karl-Anthony Towns trade away from becoming as big of a threat to the Nuggets as anyone out west.
Wind: The Thunder
I’m expecting the Thunder to be the darling of the West this year. They’re going to get the royal treatment if they get out to a hot start. “The next super team?” “The next dynasty?” “The next West powerhouse?” People will fall in love with OKC. And they might be good too. They’ll be a good defense. They have star power with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A good coach. A talented roster. I don’t think it’s out of the question that they’re a top-6 seed and maybe top-4. This is the first year where I think they’ll be a legit team.
Vogt: Can it still be the Wolves?
Some go as far as to say the Wolves, not the Suns, posed the most significant threat last season. That take sounds better than it is true, but the Wolves are onto something. They’re likely a big move away from turning the proverbial corner. Still, there’s an obvious pivot in trading Karl Anthony-Towns. As they transition into Anthony Edward’s team, they’re worth watching.
What’s the biggest question facing the Nuggets entering training camp?
Mares: How motivated are they?
We can go back and forth about the bench lineups or the depth or how much Michael Porter Jr. made a leap. Those are all valid and interesting questions. But all of those questions are made significantly less important if the best starting lineups in the NBA comes back to camp fully motivated to defend their title and grow into the best version of themselves. We saw lsat year how much a struggling bench really affects a team in the postseason. We saw what kind of impact MPJ makes on a team without a reliable handle, PnR game, or isolation game. If this team is motivated, their ceiling is higher than everyone else’s.
Wind: Is Peyton Watson ready to be a guy?
It’s the biggest question facing the Nuggets this season. Can Watson be a trusted, reliable, steady bench player and Jeff Green’s replacement? And is he ready to be that guy right away? If Watson is, it will clear up the questions surrounding the personnel on the Nuggets’ second unit. If he’s not, then he’ll have to play himself into that role and beat out the competition. One name that I’m hearing could emerge as a factor for minutes on Denver’s second unit is Braxton Key, a 6-foot-8 defensive-minded wing who’s coming off a G League championship with the Delaware Blue Coats and is signed to a two-way contract. Key is the type of player that will earn Michael Malone’s trust quickly. The Nuggets believe he can be a player and that he could emerge as a reliable option. He’s garnered positive reviews already this summer.
Vogt: How much help does the bench need?
Early prediction — we won’t be shelving the term “stagger” this season. That bench is going to need some help in the playoffs. How much will they require in the regular season? And how much is Malone willing to extend? One can configure some encouraging bench lineups with the inclusion of two starters. Anything less gets tricky.