Someone is going to lose out next year in the Western Conference. The tiers remain relatively the same as last year, where the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets are far above the rest with a morass of teams that moved up and down from the 3rd seed all the way down to the 10th seed. The Wolves were a great example of this, as they seemed to have a strong hold on the 4th seed for most of the season and then precipitously dropped down the rankings until they squeaked into the playoffs with a win-or-go-home game against Denver to close out the season.
However, for the teams that missed the playoffs last year or fell short in their playoff runs, there were essentially no repercussions. Every single team, barring the Los Angeles Clippers, decided to run it back for another go-around.
This was certainly in the best interest of many of the teams. Houston was not about to give up on the Chris Paul and James Harden backcourt after one year. Oklahoma City needed to retain Paul George to avoid a complete tear down. The Pelicans are still doing all they can to try to keep Anthony Davis long-term. Denver feels that with a healthy Paul Millsap, they can get over the hump.
This upcoming year feels different. For many of these teams, the Wolves included, if things do not work out again, a whole scale remodeling might be coming.
This seems almost certain to happen as there are simply too many teams that are vying for eight playoffs spots, with about 10-12 teams having realistic expectations to make the playoffs. Just looking at the recently released odds for next year:
- Golden State Warriors: 62.5
- Houston Rockets: 54.5
- Oklahoma City Thunder: 50.5
- Utah Jazz: 48.5
- Los Angeles Lakers: 48.5
- Denver Nuggets: 47.5
- New Orleans Pelicans: 45.5
- Minnesota Timberwolves: 44.5
- San Antonio Spurs: 43.5
- Portland Trailblazers: 41.5
- Los Angeles Clippers: 35.5
- Memphis Grizzlies: 34.5
That is twelve teams that all want to win next year (not including Phoenix trying to be dumb and thinking they are going to make the playoffs, they are not going to win a lot of games). Having LeBron come West obviously threw a wrench in the standings. The Lakers suddenly vaulted from an annoying team that can steal a few games here and there to a legit playoff contender.
Even if these odds play out exactly as Vegas as predicted, that likely means a few teams are going to blow it up, the Wolves included. A few eight seed appearances are likely not going to cut it for Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler. The Grizzlies would have to resign themselves to their fate. Portland would almost certainly trade one of C.J. McCollum or Damian Lillard if they were approaching the trade deadline and they were treading water at the 10 seed. Who knows were San Antonio goes from here, particularly if they miss the playoffs for the first time since FDR was president. If Denver misses the playoffs again, they are suddenly a near-luxury tax team that has not made the playoffs two years running.
At the very least, the Wolves at least have some company in a high-stakes playoff race this year. It seems hard to really think that anyone will be able to truly compete for a championship against this Warriors team, particularly as LeBron seems content to take a year off with the Lakers and the Rockets seem to have gotten worse from last year.
Instead, we will have a compelling regular season once again, as it should be a year-long struggle to determine who is going to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. Regardless of what happens, we are certain to see some changes a year from now.