Yesterday I posted about the Clippers' position in the Western Conference. The Clippers' most likely route to the postseason (however unlikely it may be) is to finish ahead of the other five conference opponents who were below .500 last season (Sacramento, Memphis, Minnesota, Golden State and Oklahoma City), and to hope they can also surpass Houston (dealing with the loss of Ron Artest, and the injuries to Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady) and Phoenix (a year older, and with a desperately thin front court).
I introduced the section on the competition yesterday as follows:
Most experts seem to think that seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams from last season will return to post season play this season. I'm going to get a little more granular. There are three teams (the Lakers, Spurs and Blazers) who (a) made the playoffs and (b) got better, or at least not much worse - and those three are lead pipe cinches to make the playoffs this year barring catastrophic injuries. The rest of the teams have a looming issue or two which warrants examination.
Some of you took exception with the fact that I didn't include the Nuggets and Mavs with the Lakers, Spurs and Blazers as 'locks'. In truth, I never said they weren't locks - I just said they have some issues. Sure, they're both likely locks. But I guess I'm making an arbitrary line here, frankly based on the simple fact that I don't have much to say about the Lakers, Spurs and Blazers (they're already playoff teams, they're still really good if not better, what else is there?). But I always have something to say about the Nuggets (and to a lesser extent the Mavs, a post that will come later).
Denver is coming off the best season in the NBA history of their franchise, and after a run to the Conference Finals, the playoffs seem pretty much assured. But there are nonetheless some question marks with the Nuggets. When they traded Marcus Camby to the Clippers for nothing, they left their front line with very little depth - a fact that everyone assumed would doom them to mediocrity last season. Nene responded with career highs in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and minutes played. Kenyon Martin likewise stayed relatively healthy, playing in 66 games. Meanwhile, Chris Andersen had a season that can best be described as an 'outlier' in comparison to the rest of his career. But it's hard to imagine that Nene and Andersen will repeat career years, and an injury to any of those three leaves the likes of Johan Petro or Malik Allen getting significant minutes. And while depth was a potential problem that never really bit the Nuggets last season, two of their top nine rotation players (Linas Kleiza and Dahntay Jones) are now gone. Arron Afflalo should be able to replace more or less the same defense and athleticism that Jones provided, but as of now they don't really have a replacement for Kleiza (they are talking to Desmond Mason, which would be a good pickup for them).
At any rate, it's very difficult to remain at the top of the Conference while remaining stagnant, or even moving backwards a little. I think it's worth remembering that nobody had the Nuggets in the playoffs at all, let alone in the Western Conference Finals, before last season started. Obviously, Chauncey Billups made a huge difference on the team providing the veteran leadership that their mix of personalities required. But Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and Andersen are all volatile dudes, and who knows how long it will be before something blows up.
In the final analysis, the Nuggets played so well last season that it's highly unlikely that they would drop too far. Billups cemented himself, even at the age of 32, as one of the top three point guards in the game. Carmelo is a surpassingly good offensive player, who finally dedicated himself to being a better rebounder and defender last season. J.R. Smith at times looked like the best scorer in the NBA, putting on offensive displays that rivaled the Mamba. Nene has a combination of size and athleticism that ranks him among the best bigs in the West, and frankly he's got a great shot at an All Star team spot this season. And Kenyon Martin is a solid defender and capable scorer, even if he's not as athletic post micro-fracture surgery as he once was. If newcomers Afflalo and rookie Ty Lawson can provide any help at all, then it will likely be another solid season for the Nuggets.
Yet somehow, if it all explodes, I'll be surprised, but not shocked.