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Who’s In Trouble? Western Conference Edition: Week 1

Basketball Insiders continues its “Who’s In Trouble?” series as Shane Rhodes looks at the Western Conference teams that might struggle going forward.

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The NBA only just got back, but some people are already on the ropes.

Whether it be a player, head coach or even an entire team, there are plenty that have seen their fair share of bad luck in the new season. And, for some of them, the 2020-21 regular season is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

But who’s had it the worst to start the season? Drew Maresca already took a look at those in the Eastern Conference who’ve seen an inauspicious start to their season and, today, we’ll look at the West.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves haven’t seen much in the way of success since Jimmy Butler blew his way out of town. In the two years since he was shipped to the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota saw back-to-back seasons at the bottom of the Western Conference, winning 36 and 19 games, respectively.

The 2020-21 season, however, looked like a light in the darkness. Their two cornerstones, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, were set to take the court together for just the second time as teammates. In fact, with Anthony Edwards, the top selection in the 2020 NBA Draft, also in tow, the Timberwolves’ immediate future looked surprisingly bright. 

So then, of course, they hit the season’s first bump in the road. And it was a big one.

Towns, who went down with an injury in their win over the Utah Jazz, is set to miss an undetermined amount of time with a dislocated left wrist. Their 2-0 record, which had them atop the Western Conference, has dropped to 2-2, with ugly, 20-plus point losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers. The immediate schedule doesn’t get easier, either, with the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers up next on the docket.

Where does that leave Minnesota? Unsurprisingly, not in the best spot. The Timberwolves have gone a terrible 12-36 without Towns over the last three seasons. Last year, in Russell’s 11 games without Towns (who missed time due to a different wrist injury), the team went 3-8.

Of course, Minnesota’s roster is completely different from the one that took the court over that end-of-season stretch. And the Timberwolves made Edwards the top pick for a reason — their hope, the best case scenario, is that Edwards, with Russell, can do enough to keep the offense afloat while Towns is on the shelf.

But rarely, if ever, does the best case scenario play out. If Towns is out for an extended period, or even longer than expected, Minnesota’s postseason dreams may already be dead in the water.

Memphis Grizzlies

After they disappointed in the NBA Bubble, the Grizzlies faced an uphill battle to start the 2020-21 season.

And the hill just got a lot steeper.

With Jaren Jackson Jr. already on the mend (and expected to miss most of the season), the Grizzlies are now expected to lose sophomore star Ja Morant for up to five weeks with a Grade 2 ankle sprain he suffered in their win over the Nets.

So, where do they go from here? The conference’s basement would seem to be the most logical destination.

Now without their two best players, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Memphis dig themselves a hole that neither Morant’s nor Jackson’s return could dig them out of. Of course, they could surprise — the Grizzlies have some serious depth and could see multiple players step up and into the offense void created by the aforementioned duo’s absence.

But is that realistic? In the East, maybe. Out West? Not a chance.

The Grizzlies went 0-4 without Morant last season — no, even without him and Jackson, they won’t go winless between now and February. But, in a highly competitive Western Conference, Memphis will struggle to stay afloat and, if they can’t keep their heads above water, may have to throw in the towel on the 2020-21 season a bit earlier than they would have liked.

Houston Rockets

Now to address the elephant in the room.

With Daryl Morey and Russell Westbrook already out of town and James Harden pining for a new home, it was never going to be a “good” season for the Rockets. Now, as the Harden situation remains unresolved, an 0-2 start should only get worse. And then, of course, once it is resolved, it’s hard to imagine their situation improving.

COVID-19 hasn’t taken it easy on Houston, either; multiple players, including new Rockets DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall, have yet to take the court due to the NBA’s contact tracing policies. As they continue to miss time, Houston’s record should only tumble further, furthering Harden’s discontent and pushing management to find a trade partner sooner rather than later to avoid a toxic locker room.

There have been some bright spots, namely Christian Wood. Short of Harden, Wood has been the Rockets’ best player, averaging 27 points, eight rebounds, two assists, a steal and 1.5 blocks through two games, and should vastly outperform the three-year, $41 million deal he signed with the team back in November.

Likewise, rookie Jae’Sean Tate has flashed and, at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, is an intriguing prospect that should be able to carve out a role in Houston in the post-Harden era.

Beyond those two, however, the Rockets positives are few and far between. And they’ll seemingly stay that way until the cloud that is Hardens impending trade is lifted and, after that, is there really any hope for Houston this season, anyway?

Yes, its early in the season, very early. But theres plenty we can gather from these first few games — and these teams, specifically, have already had a tough go of it. Of course, even in a shortened season, theres time left to turn it around, but can they with the odds seemingly stacked against them?

If they cant turn it around soon, dont bet on it.

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