There is definitely a group of six teams in the Western Conference that everyone would write in for playoffs. These teams are the Lakers, Clippers, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Spurs and the Thunder.
After that though, it’s a free-for-all for the last two positions and this season, I believe there will be five, possibly seven teams competing for those positions.
All of these possible contenders have retooled over the summer either through the draft or free agency and will be chomping at the bit to prove their worth. These teams will heavily rely on their star players to be able to make the playoffs and without them, they will fall back into being a mediocre team.
Already three of the teams competing for those playoffs spots in the West have been crippled by injuries to their superstars. Almost so much so that they have already been written off in some critics opinions. The common denominator here is that all the superstars in question are big men. The men in question are Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut.
All these men can undoubtedly turn an atrocious roster into a possible playoff contender, much like Steve Nash did last year for the Phoenix Suns. They instantly add 10 if not more wins to any roster that isn’t devoid of a genuine superstar. Each has their strengths that allow franchises to build around them but the message is clear: take these men out of their team for an extended period of time and they will not make the playoffs this season.
Love’s rise to being one of the best power forwards in the NBA has been one of the feel good stories of the past 3 seasons. The Minnesota Timberwolves have had absolutely nothing going for them since Kevin Garnett left to join the Celtics in 2007.
After bursting onto the scene in 2010, Love has gone from strength to strength, becoming one of the NBA’s most versatile big men. Love’s ability to be able to be a constant low post threat as well as one of the team’s best 3 point shooters make him one of the hardest players to guard.
He was aptly rewarded with a trip to the All Star game last season after leading the Wolves with averages of 26ppg (3rd in league behind Durant and Bryant)and 13.3rpg (2nd in league behind Howard).
As a consistent double-double threat, Love gave the Wolves the franchise player they needed to develop around and when Ricky Rubio finally made it to town last season, fans were finally rewarded with a competitive basketball team.
The Wolves were sitting pretty at 19-19 before Rubio went down with a season ending ACL injury. Rubio’s ability to make the impossible seem easy created numerous scoring chances for a young Wolves roster but without him, the Wolves struggled to create a decent offensive flow with Love continually double teamed as the Wolves best offensive threat. This caused General Manager David Kahn to seek out help on the offensive end this offseason and the Wolves successfully wooed Brandon Roy out of retirement to join Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger as potential scoring help to Love.
Under Coach Rick Adelman, this creates a very potent mix of inside prowess and outside shooting with the potential to push 45 wins this season barring any injuries, but as we have seen, Roy retired in 2011 due to dodgy knees and Rubio remains on the sidelines until at least mid-December.
Now, Love will join Rubio on the sideline after breaking his right hand in practice on October 17th. It is reported that Love would be out for 6-8 weeks from that point, meaning he would miss at least 4-6 weeks of the season. This could be potentially disastrous for Minnesota as every win could make the difference come April next year. That isn’t saying that a team of Roy, Kirilenko, Nikola Pekovic, Derrick Williams and Luke Ridnour is bad; it’s just saying that it will take until the final game of the season to decide the Western Conference playoffs.
Dallas found themselves in a similar position with their star Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki is one of the best power forwards to have ever played the game, having a spot in the hall of fame waiting for him once he retires.
He led this Mavs team majestically to eleven straight 50 win seasons before the 2011 lockout. Nowitzki, like Love, is impossible to guard with his ability to make the most ridiculous shots, whether they be a layup or his famous fadeaway jumper.
The Mavericks blew up their 2010-11 championship roster in hope to score Dwight Howard or Deron Williams in this year’s free agent class but ended up losing Jason Terry and Jason Kidd to Boston and New York respectively.
Owner Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson then pulled out one of the best roster revamps of the summer bringing in Darren Collison, OJ Mayo, Dahntay Jones, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand. The draft additions of Jae Crowder, Jared Cunningham and Bernard James sure up what looks to be another playoff calibre roster for Dallas.
Playoffs are only a possibility though if Nowitzki stays healthy though. He is the vital cog that makes Rick Carlisle’s offense work. He can draw out the defence to create driving lanes for the guards thanks to him being a 38% career 3 point shooter and he can draw a double team and find the open man from the block with his above standard passing skills. Without Dirk, Dallas becomes a team much like the one down in Orlando: role players who without a superstar create a dysfunctional mess of a team.
This may be the case for the Mavericks in the early part of the season after Dirk finally was forced to have surgery on his troublesome right knee on October 19th. This is the same knee injury that forced him to miss 4 games last season. After already having the knee drained twice to reduce swelling during the preseason (twice last season too), Nowitzki could miss up to 6 weeks, which would mark his return around the start of December. Again, this is the same situation as the Timberwolves: every game in the West counts. The more games Dirk misses the less chance Dallas has of making the playoffs.
There is potential in the Collison/Mayo backcourt combination but neither are ready to lead this ball club and Carlisle will resort to calling many of the offensive plays until both find their feet in his system. Shawn Marion, Brand and Kaman isn’t a bad front court defensively, it’s whether or not they can combine to cover for Dirk’s scoring output now that Jason Terry is no longer coming off the bench.
The Mavs could turn to Crowder, who has developed a cult following in Dallas after exciting play in the preseason however; he is rather undersized to play at the power forward position. Brandon Wright is another option for Carlisle after the way he finished off season 2011-12 explosively.
All of these players are viable options for the Mavericks, but for a team with an ageing superstar, the ‘win now’ mentality is greater than ever in the Big D and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2000 seem to be a real possibility with an ailing Dirk Nowitzki.
The Golden State Warriors also go into the season with an ailing big man in Andrew Bogut. Since Bogut was traded to the Warriors at the trade deadline for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh, he is yet to play a game for the Dubs after fracturing his left ankle midway through last season. This latest injury continues Bogut’s terrible run of injuries that have seen him miss an average of 28 games over the past 6 seasons. Even though Bogut hasn’t yet played a game in Oakland, there is no doubt what sort of impact he will have on this team.
Since Don Nelson took over this team for his second stint as coach of the Warriors, their defence has been almost non-existent. In that time, the Warriors have played a fast paced run and gun offense which has only got them to the playoffs once in the past 10 years. Since Nelson left in 2010, both Keith Smart and now Mark Jackson have preached defence as the number one priority for Golden State. In their two combined seasons coaching, the Warriors have been marginally better on defence if anything and Owner’s Joe Lacob and Peter Guber knew it was time to change things up.
The first changes to this regime were the drafting of Udoh last season after the Andris Biedrins experiment went badly pear shaped. Even after Udoh began to show improvements on the defensive end, Former GM Larry Riley packaged him up and sent him off to Milwaukee in the Ellis-Bogut trade. Other additions such as Brandon Rush, Jeremy Tyler and Carl Landry give this team a better defensive vibe but it all centres back on Bogut.
The former defensive player of the year turned the Milwaukee Bucks into a defensive unit while on the floor. Off it, the Bucks were just an average defensive team. Players are going to get into the paint against this Warriors team with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson at the guard positions; they needed a defensive anchor and they got one. Golden State’s chances of developing into a playoff team hinge on Bogut’s ability to alter shots, rebound the ball and keep guards out of the paint.
The combination of Curry and Bogut proves to be one of a similar calibre as Love and Rubio yet Curry has been sidelined again with a sprained right ankle. Curry’s ankles have been a massive problem since his rookie year. He has missed 52 games in the last two years from injury and one might begin to wonder if he is heading in the same direction as Grant Hill and Brandon Roy. Unlike Bogut, Curry’s replacement Jarrett Jack is more than capable of running this Golden State offense whereas the effect Andrew Bogut has is irreplaceable.
Luckily for Golden State fans, Bogut has begun participating in practice drills, as well as some 5 on 5 scrimmages, but don’t get your hopes up. Bogut is a man mountain and weighing in at 260 pounds will take its toll on his ankles so the Warriors medical staff will not rush him back to begin the season. There is no timeline on his return. As for Curry, he says he’ll be ready for the season opener in Phoenix on the 31st of October, but don’t hold your breath if he doesn’t play.
Bogut is one of the best defensive centres in the league behind Howard and Tyson Chandler but the longer this injury keeps him down, the less time Golden State will have to gel with their new centre. This is still a whole new system for Bogut and it will take time for him to mold into Mark Jackson’s system.
Without these three big men manning the middle, Minnesota, Dallas and Golden State will become lottery teams. Even as I say that, at least one, if not more of these teams will be a lottery team as only two spots are available if the six teams I mentioned earlier perform to their capabilities. It makes for a very interesting final month of basketball as the playoffs are finalized and if everything pieces together, expect to see the Mavs, Warriors and Wolves in the middle of a fierce positional battle.
Ben Sathananthan is a first year Sport Journalism student at Latrobe University. You can follow his twitter at @bensathsports