NBA legend Karl Malone made a visit to the NBA TV studios on Tuesday night, and while his analysis came down to stuff like “He’s really good” and “I like the way he plays,” I will give him credit for one thing he pointed out: Utah is deep, talented, and is probably the biggest sleeper in the entire Western Conference. Of course, the Mailman admitted he’s biased. But he’s still right. And while Kevin Love‘s injury might finally put more of a spotlight on the Jazz and their criminally underrated frontline, it also could have a major effect on which teams end up making the playoffs.
Take a look at the Western Conference. There are six definite playoff teams: Denver, Oklahoma City, the Clippers and Lakers, San Antonio and Memphis. Even in worst case scenarios, a second Malice at the Palace would have to go down to keep one of those squads from sitting out the second season.
That leaves us with – probably – four teams (possibly five if Damian Lillard can lockdown the lead guard spot for Portland) battling for the final two spots. Golden State has talent. They have one of the league’s most underrated players in Andrew Bogut, and another in Stephen Curry, whose creaky ankles could be the only thing keeping him out of the All-Star conversation. But they’re a flimsy bunch, prone to injuries and team issues. Quite frankly, we never know what to make of the Warriors, and to consider them a playoff team is reaching.
Dallas could get there, but they’re busy incorporating an entirely new backcourt while Dirk Nowitzki is resting a bothersome right knee. Before Kevin Love broke his hand, which according to Minnesota, occurred while the All-Star big was doing “knuckle push-ups,” more than one media outlet picked the Wolves to finish in excess of 50 wins. Initial reports had Love out for up to eight weeks, which as Grantland points out, could keep the man responsible for nearly 30 percent of the team’s scoring and rebounding out for a fourth of the season. Not good.
Now, it sounds like Love’s recovery will take no more than six weeks, a major plus for Minnesota. In the meantime, Derrick Williams and Andrei Kirilenko will rotate back and forth between the two forward spots, as both feel more comfortable at the four and both have had their most success there (AK-47 in Utah early in his career, D-Will at Arizona). Minnesota can also somewhat replace Ricky Rubio‘s production with two of the best backup little guys in the league, even if his injury means we might not get to see the REAL T-Wolves until they’re completely healthy and have a full training camp together under their belts (aka next year).
But no matter what, if Love misses 13 games or 21 or 17, his broken hand opens the door for Utah to finish with the No. 7 or possibly even the No. 6 seed. No one wants to slip in with an eight seed. That means a quick four or five game series against OKC and then the summer. But anything else – even if it means a matchup with the Lakers – at least gives them some hope (Have you seen L.A.’s bench so far? If you’re contemplating bringing back Derek Fisher because you have no other options, well, that tells you everything you need to know.).