There have been a ton of shakeups in the NBA so far this past offseason, as well as perceived values of how good or bad teams are at the moment. That being said, many expected and still may expect two of the top moves this offseason in Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward to cause the teams they left to fall out of the race for the playoffs. Now while common logic based on the current standings would say that those the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz are both respectively playing well without them, it’s still a long season. At some point it may become evident that the losses have caused them to lose a step, and eventually fall out of the playoff race by the end of the season. If that does happen, the question of who replaces them will be an intriguing one. The Western Conference is a highly competitive landscape, and anything is a possibility with so many talented teams. It’s time to take inventory to look at who will step up and potentially replace the Clippers and Jazz in the playoffs this season.
This is the first team that came to peoples minds before the season started. A young star like Karl-Anthony Towns, a dynamic wing player in Andrew Wiggins, and the acquisition of an all-star such as Jimmy Butler would sound like a pretty good team on paper. Add on solid acquisitions like Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague, and you have a recipe for massive improvements. So far things have been rough for the Timberwolves, but they are gaining confidence despite the slow start. More likely than not they should right this ship and make a legitimate shot for the playoffs this year. With a good head coach in Tom Thibodeau and a nice collection of talent, the Timberwolves have improved too much to miss the playoffs this year. This team could easily take one of the two aforementioned teams spot, as well as pushing for deep playoff runs for years to come.
Last year was something of a welcome party for Nikola Jokic. The young front court player showed everyone why he needs to be considered in the group of young skill big men that could change the league. The Nuggets barely missed the playoffs last season, and have made some changes to ensure that fact will change this time around.
The obvious addition that indicates their belief in going for it this year would be the offseason addition of Paul Millsap to the team. This is added to a promising pairing of young back court players like Gary Harris and Jamaal Murray that are only looking to make more and more of an impact as they grow into their potential.
Their record may not match some of the whispered hype that they got this offseason, but the wild Wild Western conference can be volatile to even the most talented crew. With a dynamic team, the Nuggets will need to have their young players step up to the task that they almost accomplished last season.
New Orleans Pelicans
This team is definitely one of the most intriguing ones that could push for the playoffs this year. Anthony Davis is widely considered a top 10 player by most in the NBA. Adding the trade the team made for DeMarcus Cousins got a lot of attention last season as the Pelicans attempted to go in the opposite direction that many teams are going. While most were going for small ball, the Pelicans went big to try to replicate a similar pair of big men that hadn’t been seen since the days of Davis Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio. With two of the league’s best big men, while the team retaining a great guard in Jrue Holiday helped to solidify the starting lineup a bit. They also added Rajon Rondo to help the team make a push this season, reuniting him with Cousins from their time in Sacramento.
Even with these facts, there is a real concern for the bench of the team, which remains a huge question mark as to what it can add to the top heavy starters. New Orleans is going in a very different direction than most, so this could end up as a breakthrough that changes the landscape for the league, or implode with the rumors of a team trading for Cousins popping up daily in different circles. With two top big men though, this matchup nightmare could be real contenders come playoff time.
No one takes their spots and the Clippers and Jazz make the playoffs again
Even if many looked at these teams losing a key player in Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward as taking them out of contention. In reality, all they did was reload and shuffle the decks.
The Clippers look like they haven’t lost a beat, ranking at the top part of the conference. While losing a key player like Chris Paul hurt on paper, the team got a lot deeper. In the trade to Houston added a 1st team all defense player in Patrick Beverly, a great bench scorer with Lou Williams, as well as some other promising players. They added a great Small Forward in Danilo Galinari to help solidify the long problematic three spot in the Clippers lineup, while also seeing an increase in performance from Austin Rivers so far this season. The most important improvement to the team is the pseudo-revival of Blake Griffin, who is currently on pace for one of his better seasons he’s had in his career. While there are still questions like what Milos Teodosic can contribute when he comes back from his injury, as well as if the team can sustain this success, one thing is clear. They are a well balanced team that could have sustained success if they can overcome what may be the hardest opponent the team has faced in recent history: health and avoiding major injuries.
The Jazz always seem to go under looked, but have quietly been one of the emerging young teams in the NBA. Even with losing one of their best players in the offseason, they look like they haven’t lost a step so far in the West. Always known for their defense, the team doubled down in the offseason by adding solid defenders like Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko on reasonable deals, along with bringing Ekpe Udoh back to the NBA who proclaims to still be one of the best defenders in the world. These defensive signings weren’t all though, as they also traded for Ricky Rubio who has flourished so far with the team. They also traded up in the draft to grab Donovan Mitchell, who has shown an explosive scoring ability very early into his rookie campaign. If he can keep that up, then it could provide a much needed offensive spark to the team.
That offense may also come from increased roles for players like Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson, while hoping for Derrick Favors to return to form as well. The biggest question mark will he Rodney Hood, who has shown to be inconsistent so far. Obviously the Jazz will also need their best player in Rudy Gobert to step up more, working harder to establish himself as one of the best bigs in the league. This Jazz team may be deeper than most, but they’ll need to work through some things to keep their playoff hopes alive.
While many teams will take a run to displace these two teams who have lost one of their stars, it will be interesting to see who could try to unseat the Clippers and Jazz from making the playoffs this season.