This has been a bad year for injuries in the NBA. The tone was set in the very opening minutes of this season when Gordon Hayward went down in a gruesome injury during his debut performance for the Boston Celtics. Since then, there have been quite a few injuries to key performers across the league that have been drastically altering the shape of the playoff race.
This has been most acutely felt in the Western Conference. Going into the season, there looked to be a clear pecking order of where teams would end up. The Golden State Warriors were obviously first, followed by the Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs. The Oklahoma City Thunder, with their new star acquisitions, was next, and then there was a big pool of teams competing for the remaining playoff spots.
The Minnesota Timberwolves were projected to be at the top of that group, but it really was going to be anyone’s guess who among the Wolves, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Memphis Grizzlies would be grabbing the final four playoff spots.
Thus far, this projection has held mostly true. The outliers have been the Thunder and the Spurs. The Thunder, suffering no major injuries, have sputtered to an 8-11 record and while they still have a positive point differential, their late-game failures and chemistry issues have caused them to have a bad start.
The Spurs have simply just been doing what the Spurs do and hold the 3rd best record in the Western Conference even though Kawhi Leonard has not suited up this season and Tony Parker is looking to play his first game this week. The Rockets have similarly succeeded without Chris Paul.
For that morass of teams that were difficult to predict, injuries have been the downfall of the teams that have slipped out of the race or fallen down in the rankings.
The Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, and the Grizzlies have all had key players go down with serious injuries.
The Nuggets just lost star forward Paul Millsap for the next three months and their defensive woes will only be exacerbated as a result. The team is currently 11-8 (good for 6th best record in the conference), so they will likely be able to weather the storm.
The Jazz have had a litany of injuries to their players, with Dante Exum sitting out the entire season, nagging injuries to Joe Johnson, a few missed games by Ricky Rubio, and most disastrously, Rudy Gobert missing 4-6 weeks due to a knee injury. The Jazz were already in trouble due to losing Hayward to free agency and with Gobert out their season looks to be in ruin. The Jazz simply do not have the skills on offense and defense to be able to hold onto a playoff spot without their best player. However, the team is 9-11 at the moment and holds the 8th seed, but it is tough to see them fending off the Thunder for that spot in the long run.
As for the other two teams, the bottom has dropped out due to the various injuries that have been piling up.
The Clippers were always going to be a risky team due to the tenuous nature of Blake Griffin and Danillo Gallinari, but the unexpected injuries to Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverly have left the team direly thin in the backcourt. Gallo himself has been hurt as well. At 7-11, the Clippers can certainly mount a comeback, but losing Beverly for the year is just a killer blow. Now, with talks of trading DeAndre Jordan to the Cavs, it is hard to think the Clippers are going to be able to right this ship.
The other sinking bastion is the Memphis Grizzlies, losers of eight straight games. The devastating loss has been Mike Conley missing time due to a sore Achilles. Chandler Parsons may have just gotten re-injured last night and it is plausible that the grit-and-grind era may be ending. At 7-12, it is not as if the Grizzlies are finished, but as is the case with the Clippers, they not only have to climb over the Jazz (and the Lakers), but also beat out the Thunder team that is sure to surge at some point.
The Timberwolves, knocking on all the wood, have escaped this season so far without any major injuries. Losing Jimmy Butler, and now Jeff Teague and Nemanja Bjelica, for a couple games has caused some short-term pain, but the Wolves have not had to deal with the major roster issues that a major portion of the Western Conference is dealing with.
It looks like, at this point, that the race for the Western Conference may very well be decided by injuries. The Wolves have certainly been inconsistent, but the state of the rest of the conference gives them some breathing room to coalesce.