The Denver Nuggets are most likely to finish anywhere from second to fourth in the West. The Lakers aren't going to be caught by anyone for the first seed, but San Antonio will be without Manu Ginobili for two to three weeks, which opens the door for Denver to gain some ground.
San Antonio was rebuffed in its attempts to strengthen the bench (Sacramento reportedly declined SA's offer of Bruce Bowen & Ime Udoka for John Salmons, and Vince Carter's cumbersome contract proved too massive for the chemistry-conscious Spurs to take on). Failure to address this could cost the Spurs in seeding if Manu is unable to return until mid-March.
Looking at the lower tier of the West, I see six teams separated by a scant three games, meaning playoff matchups are likely to come down to the very end of the season. Let's take a look at how these six teams match up with Denver, from best to worst.
Denver leads 3-0, one game remaining. On paper, this appears to be Denver's best chance of getting to the second round for the first time since 1994. Nene has had a breakout year and is a superior athlete to Mavs pivot men Erick Dampier & Dasagana Diop.
Dirk did drop 44 on Denver, but the Nuggets managed to pull out a 99-97 win without SF Carmelo Anthony. I don't think the Mavs have an answer for 'Melo defensively, and geriatric Jason Kidd doesn't scare me the way he used to. Prediction: Nuggets win a surprisingly easy series 4-1.
Houston leads 2-1, one game remaining. TMac's micro-fracture surgery obviously makes Houston a more attractive first round foe. If Yao is still healthy in April, his size could pose some problems, but that's not a sure thing given his injury history. Sans McGrady (who was shooting a career worst 39 percent).
I don't think Houston's supporting cast can topple Denver in seven games. One area the Rockets could pose problems is their skill on ball defense (Battier, Artest). However, they folded their hand this season somewhat by trading Rafer Alston to the Magic. I do love the Kyle Lowry pickup for the future. Prediction: Nuggets win 4-2.
Series tied 1-1, two games remaining. I am shocked they didn't move Lafrentz's expiring contract for an asset. I think this really hurts them, as nobody on the team has much (any?) playoff experience. However, this team scares me for the future. Brandon Roy is a legitimate All-Star and LaMarcus Aldridge could join him there soon.
Swap Durant's lethal scoring ability for Oden's 50-year-old man gait, and I think Portland wins a potential series. As the team is, it still would be a dogfight between division rivals, but I think Billups' experience makes the difference. Prediction: Nuggets win 4-2.
Series tied 1-1, one game remaining. Glad I'm not a Suns fan. Robert Sarver's decision-making seems to be subject to random whims. I really didn't like how they let Porter flap in the wind during All-Star weekend...If you're going to fire him, do it before the whole league gets there, avoiding the uncomfortable sideshow that wound up taking place.
Sarver's thriftiness has cost them a bona fide PG of the future (Rondo, Rudy Fernandez) and a wing to replace aging Grant Hill (Luol Deng). Suns-Nugs games in the D'Antoni era were wildly entertaining and I wouldn't expect anything less from this series, with Alvin Gentry in charge now. Prediction: Nuggets win 4-3.
Series tied 1-1, two games remaining. Although the loss did come with Iverson on the team, I really don't want to see them in the first round. Utah has historically given the Nuggets trouble, and, assuming Carlos Boozer gets back for the playoffs, the Jazz would turn this into a physical foul fest.
They are dominant at home, so I think Denver is in big trouble if they can't defend the home court. Deron Williams is phenomenal, as much as I hate to admit it. Prediction: Jazz win 4-2
New Orleans leads 2-1, one game remaining. CP3 gives everyone fits. Despite management's best efforts to sabotage the playoff run, Tyson Chandler is back with the team, to the delight of all the players. Why not just say no thanks to James Posey this offseason if finances were an issue?
As far as matchups go here, Paul carves up the Nuggets every game I've seen him play against them. Posey will come in handy defending Melo & JR, and Chandler/West can handle Nene/Martin. This is the worst potential first round matchup for Denver. Prediction: Hornets win 4-1.
Interesting to note that one of the above teams will miss the playoffs. Hopefully, Denver can get a good matchup and break the 15-year drought with a first-round win.