Can the Wolves Navigate the Western Conference's Middle Class?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

Figuratively speaking, the middle class of the NBA has boomed. Thus, stratification becomes incredibly difficult for large swaths of teams within the Western Conference.

While I find it easy to pencil in the teams who are at the top, barring disaster, there are a few teams that exist in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race carrying the weight of uncertainty. If the Minnesota Timberwolves hope to make the play-in tournament this year, some things will have to break right for them. Or rather, something will have to break wrong for a few other teams.

I won’t be talking about the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, or Denver Nuggets because they are the Western Conference elite. Anything less than a top-six seed for these teams would be a major disappointment. Nor will I talk about the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, or Sacramento Kings. If the Wolves get outclassed by one of those teams, it’s time to pack it up and head to Telosa.

The teams in the middle class of the Western Conference and are jockeying for playoff position are the Wolves, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, and New Orleans Pelicans. Until Minnesota proves otherwise, they live at the bottom of this tier. I’ll briefly dive into each team to explain what has to go wrong for the Wolves to surpass them and make it into the postseason.

Portland Trail Blazers

This one is simple: Will Damian Lillard request a trade? This offseason was littered with speculation that Lillard is unhappy with the situation in Portland. The rumors came to a head when Lillard was quoted saying: “We have to look in the mirror and say I have to be better because whatever it is we’re doing is not working, and it’s not giving us the shot to compete on the level that we want to compete on.” Portland kinda sorta listened to Dame adding Cody Zeller, Larry Nance, and Ben McLemore to the roster, which looks like a recipe for a championship if I’ve ever seen one.

They also fired Terry Stotts and hired rookie head coach Chauncey Billups. I don’t know much about Billups as a coach, but I do know that Dame said publicly that he wanted the Trail Blazers to hire Jason Kidd. Lillard might reach his breaking point and request a trade if Billups can’t get the job done in Year 1. Speaking of Jason Kidd

Dallas Mavericks

I know what you’re thinking. Luka Doncic is one of the best players in the league, you big dummy. Well, maybe I am a big dummy, but what I lack in brains I make up for in emotional intelligence. I’m a sensitive being and know how to navigate my emotions and those of others around me. This is something that new Dallas Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd has reportedly struggled with during his time as a coach. In Mirin Fader’s new book “Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP,” she revealed some less than glowing reviews of Kidd. Here is one snippet:

This is important because the word is that Kidd is entering a situation where there are already growing tensions between Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks organization, and Doncic. I have serious questions about whether Kidd will be able to navigate such murky emotional waters given his reputation as a coach who “mindf—s” his players.

Golden State Warriors

My main questions regarding Golden State are about rotation and health. Currently, the Warriors have two rookies, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, along with second-year player James Wiseman on their roster. If they want to win as many games as possible, those three would play limited minutes because, as Wolves fans know, rookies usually don’t contribute to winning basketball.

The Warriors are relying on oft-injured Otto Porter Jr. and Kevon Looney to play minutes for them. Additionally, an optimistic projection of Klay Thompson’s return would have him back on the court in December. Odds are we the Warriors will have to play their young guys significant minutes. Will Stephen Curry be good enough once again to lift a severely flawed roster to the postseason?

Los Angeles Clippers

It looks like PG13 is going to be on his own this year. If the Clippers want to make the playoffs Paul George has got to be the player we saw in 2018-19 when he was third place in MVP voting. Even then, paired with Russell Westbrook, that team only won 49 games. In the last two seasons, George has missed 24 and 18 games, respectively. If George misses time, there is a question about whether this team has what it takes to stay afloat. A roster built around PG and Kawhi Leonard looks a lot worse off when neither of them is available.

Memphis Grizzlies

I love Ja Morant, you love Ja Morant, we all love Ja Morant. I’m really rooting for him to be successful. However, despite all the praise, he may not have been their best player last year. Yes, Morant is the best player on the court, of course, but sometimes a team’s best player isn’t the one who contributes most to winning. Jonas Valanciunas was a huge boon for the Grizzlies last season. He gave them 17 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. Steven Adams will not give the Grizzlies that same amount of production.

The hope is that much of that scoring can come from a healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. — though Jackson has struggled to stay healthy since entering the NBA. Trading Valanciunas and moving up in the draft to pick a project player like Ziaire Williams signals that Memphis might be amenable to taking a slight step back. You know and I know that with their current roster, they don’t appear to have enough star power to contend. They’ve got to see how good Jackson can be, try to develop Williams, and I don’t think they’ll be too beat up about that if they slide into the lottery.

New Orleans Pelicans

I’m not here to fat shame. That’s not cool. All bodies are beautiful. But Zion does not appear ready for NBA action. He had foot surgery in the offseason and won’t be available to start the season. There have also been reports that he — or his family — wants out of New Orleans. With all this uncertainty and reportedly “no timeline for return” things could get rough for the Pelicans in a hurry. Without Zion, I’m not sure this team is much better than the teams at the bottom of the Western Conference.

I’m a pessimist so of course, I wanted to examine what could go wrong with other teams around the league. I’m just hoping for once the Wolves can catch some luck and make a postseason push. If you want to read about what the Wolves need to do to make that push, read my man Jonah right here.

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