NBA’s Western Conference What If’s and What Have We Here’s? (Impact of Player Health and Games Lost to the Western Conference Playoff Picture)

With three days left in the NBA’s regular season, the Western Conference playoff picture is as blurry as ever. Five teams are jumbled together at 45 or 46 wins. After Houston and Golden State, the Portland Trail Blazers gradually separated themselves from the crowded field, but have since slipped back to keep the Utah Jazz within reach of the 3rd seed. Injuries have derailed half of the West’s teams this year. Have we mentioned the season should be shortened to 70?

The great site In Street Clothes, compiled an All-Star break assessment of injuries and games lost. From the article:

Entering the All-Star break just over 3,700 games had been lost to injury, up 28 percent from the previous season through the same number of games played. If games lost to injury continue at their current pace, the league total will cross the 5,000 mark for the first time since the inactive list was eliminated prior to the 2005–06 season.

Check it out. Great collection of data, used in this article.

1. Houston Rockets (64–16)

A little Chris Paul absence and a well-placed James Harden breather aside, the Rockets have been healthy and ridiculous. The trio of Paul-Harden-Capela have lost only a handful of games when healthy this year.

2. Golden State Warriors (58–23)

Awful timing with the Curry knee injury, just as he was making his way back from the ankle. Klay’s thumb fracture had to scare many Dubs fans. Don’t mess with that shooting hand. Still, they should be expected to make it back to the West Finals unless Curry simply can’t move or Jimmy Butler is resurrected in Minnesota.

3. Portland Trail Blazers (48–32)

Currently the 3rd seed, Portland has been buoyed by a scintillating 2nd half from Damian Lillard, with support from mid-range maestro C.J. McCollum, and added shooting and dynamic defense from the enigmatic Al-Farouq Aminu. Not surprising given their successful season, Portland has been one of the healthiest teams in the NBA.

The Rockets are the West’s only healthy and dominant team, while the Warriors (everyone’s expected repeat champ) will be forced to survive a round without Curry, after suffering injuries of varying impact to their entire starting lineup over the last two months.

Injuries have submerged the hopes of half of the NBA’s teams this year, but the damage seems especially severe in the West. Here’s a brief summary of the wreckage.

4. Utah Jazz (47–33)

It doesn’t seem likely the the Spurs would cause all the much fear for a Utah Jazz team that has lost only three games since the end of February, beating up on the bottom tier of the NBA and catching the good teams dealing with injuries of their own. Utah’s record with their gargantuan center Rudy Gobert? 35–18. Without him? 11–15. Joe Ingles vs Kyle Anderson would be the best slo-motion isolation match-up in NBA history.

The three-team-tie between the Spurs, Thunder, and Pelicans is a mess. If you’re interested in the tie-breakers, here’s a link via CBS.

5. San Antonio Spurs (46–34)

The mystery of Kawhi’s thigh casts a shadow over the West. Will he re-sign with the Spurs? Will Aldridge’s knee hold-up as the playoffs approach? Will Manu hit the way-back machine for one more run? These Spurs sans-Kawhi wouldn’t be fun to watch against Houston in the second round. But Utah would.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder (46–34)

Andre Roberson is a very good defender, and active cutter. They very much miss him in OKC. So many injuries. Carmelo Anthony is neither a good defender or an active cutter. I was hoping for a Melo resurrection, but that hasn’t come close to happening. Still think he can win a playoff game or two for them. Portland-OKC (if that’s how it shakes out) could go 7.

It’s a shame that Russell Westbrook can’t harness his explosive athleticism enough to play calmer defense. Also a shame that Steven Adams’ offensive growth will get overshadowed by his teammates.

5. New Orleans Pelicans (46–34)

Losing Cousins propelled Anthony Davis to a stretch of MVP-level insanity. Davis hits leaners nobody else can even attempt. Still…if they’d had Cousins for the whole year, they likely would’ve hit their stride earlier and traded for Mirotic anyway. The team needed more shooting from the get-go.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves (45–35)

Jimmy Butler refuses to sit out the last few games in the hopes of making a full return for the playoffs, but the Wolves are now tied with Denver for the 8th seed. The Wolves need Butler to shake the rust out mighty quick, but it’s very possible they could finish 7th and face a Curry-less Warriors team. Karl Anthony-Towns is too good not to get an invitation to the party. If only Thibs knew how to strategize without screaming. This season the defensive-guru label has started to fade from the Thibs legend. The game involves working with real humans who don’t always appreciate a raspy workaholic’s voice shrieking at them, even if he means well. That, and they didn’t have enough depth to begin with.

Also 8. Denver Nuggets (45–35)

Free-agent signing of Paul Millsap would’ve pushed them closer to 50 or 52 wins but he missed half the season and they’ll hope to squeak in with 46.) Center Nikola Jokic is also way too much fun not to get an invitation to the party.

10. Los Angeles Clippers (42–38)

Like Denver, many NBA heads were expecting the Clippers to battle for 50 wins if they stayed healthy…and then half of the team was injured by December. Steve Ballmer realized Blake Griffin’s contract might turn into an albatross and he was sent to Detroit for the under-appreciated Tobias Harris and the injured Avery Bradley. Teodosic and Gallo going down were not unexpected, but Patrick Beverley’s absence was a killer. The absences just piled up. Gallo playing only 21 games (after playing 50+ in each of the last three years) might make Ballmer question the 3 year $64m deal Gallo signed last summer.

Speaking of salary lost to injury, In Street Clothes has accounted for just how much of a team’s salary was lost to player health. The top eight teams (as alluded to above): Clippers, Grizzlies, Celtics, Pelicans, Suns, Spurs, Nuggets, and Jazz.

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Take a look at the NBA’s healthiest and least healthy teams through the first 50 games of the season, via In Street Clothes.

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Data via INSTREETCLOTHES.com

Memphis Grizzlies (24–57)

To be fair, the Grizz had zero margin for error even with Mike Conley — but there’s no doubt Conley would’ve kept them in the playoff hunt had they had him next to Gasol and the rejuvenated Tyreke Evans for 70 games. Next year should be pivotal for the Grizz. They need to land a ready-made scorer in the high-lottery.

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