Could the Nuggets come out of the West? Will Detroit be able to repeat as Eastern Conference champions? 

Denver-Detroit in the Finals Next Year? 

Philip Maymin
Basketball News Services  

The Lakers are not the force they were with Shaq, and to my way of thinking are closer in talent to the Clippers than to the Timberwolves. I thought Minnesota had a good shot at the title last year, and who knows what would have happened sans injury. Sacramento's oft-discussed window of opportunity is fairly well sealed and boarded up. Dallas is always going to be an exciting team but not likely a contender. The Spurs are a perennial contender, and now the Rockets are going to be a force as well, but with Kenyon Martin going to the Nuggets, perhaps Denver is now the favorite in the West?

In the Eastern Conference, though Miami is going to be in the playoffs, I don't think even Shaq can get them into the Finals. At one point in their journey, they will have to go up against the Detroit Pistons. Part of the reason the Pistons were able to beat the Lakers this year is because of their abundance of big men to throw at the big fella. And given Miami's relative dearth of talent now that they have mortgaged the farm to get Shaq, there is nobody they need to double-team or worry about other than Shaq. Dwyane Wade is great. Eddie Jones is going to hit open shots. But Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton or Tayshaun Prince will defend them and outplay them.

And with the Pistons adding Antonio McDyess... and it they are able to re-sign Rasheed Wallace as expected... they're a formidable force. Perhaps Indiana has a chance to topple them. Perhaps. I would think that Miami has a better shot of beating Indiana than Detroit, but I don't believe the Pistons will get toppled. That puts Detroit squarely back into the Finals as the Eastern Conference representative.

Flipping back to the West now, the Mavs, Lakers, Clippers, Grizzlies, Kings, and Jazz are going to look strong but they are each one player away from greatness (and that player is Shaq). The Spurs are going to go deep, as are the Timberwolves. Minnesota's window is closing possibly even faster than Sacramento's, as age is a terrible curse. But of the top three teams in the West, among the Wolves and Spurs, you have to put the Nuggets.

When Marcus Camby plays, he's one of the best centers in the league. Martin is clearly one of the best power forwards, especially in the up-tempo game that the Nuggets play. Andre Miller and Earl Boykins are simply fantastic and though they have a slight bump at the shooting guard, having to rely on veterans Voshon Lenard and Jon Barry, both of them can still hit the open shot. Besides, they also have Carmelo Anthony at the three.

There's something about winners, and Melo is a winner. Last year he sat out the final game of the season as his team fell to the Wolves 4-1. Even at the time you couldn't help but wonder if this kid always wins every series he plays in. I wouldn't underestimate him for a moment, despite all the negative things we've heard about his locker room presence.

Indeed, the one seeming hole the Nuggets have is at the two-spot, and the one team that seems to have an abundance of young off-guard talent is the Boston Celtics, who in turn are eagerly looking for some frontcourt beef, which the Nuggets have in spades. Could a trade be to the mutual benefit of both teams?

Regardless, the Nuggets came within three victories of toppling the Wolves last year, and they have a good chance at beating them this year with the addition of Martin. Martin can defend KG and Tim Duncan very well, and give them headaches on the other end of the court. While Martin's fast breaking prowess is well-known, his defense is underrated, even though most would rate it quote good. He really anchors the middle and simply adores shutting down an opponent. He moves swiftly to help out on the weak side and he is a wall man-to-man, both on the perimeter against those who like to shoot threes and in the paint against those who like to bang.

The Nuggets in my mind are the favorites for the Finals next year, especially if they can swing a trade with someone like the Celtics for some young talent at the two-spot. Ricky Davis would be a spectacular fit for them. They would then have a potential All-Star at each position and a Sixth Man candidate in Boykins. If it costs them Nene it's probably too much but if it costs them Francisco Elson and one other draft pick, it's probably worth pulling the trigger.