The Nuggets fell victim to the Western Conference’s razor-thin margin of error last season. Nikola Jokic and his young copilots were eliminated in a winner-take-all—and by all, I mean the eighth seed—game on the last night of the 2017-18 regular season against the Timberwolves. Denver, currently holding the 1-spot above Golden State with a 24-11 record, isn’t sweating its positioning so much this season. Minnesota, however, is a different story. Or, technically, the same story as last season: Its young star and a half will need a late-season surge in order to make the playoff cut. Another team in the West can relate. This April, it’ll more likely be New Orleans in that final regular-season game, if either squad makes it that far.
This all sounds a bit pessimistic for teams led by franchise-saving unicorns like Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis. And despite the Wolves ranking 13th in the West with a 17-21 record and the Pelicans 14th at 17-22, the West is so tight that they’re only four and four and a half games back from a playoff spot, respectively. There’s still hope at this point in the season, so long as you’re above the Suns. But after both lost on Tuesday—the Wolves to the Celtics, 115-102; and the Pelicans to the Nets, 126-121—the reality of their situations is becoming harder to ignore: Two franchises with high expectations coming into the season are facing uphill battles that don’t seem like they’ll get any easier anytime soon.
It didn’t help that both teams were missing key players, as has been the story all season. The number of players who have spent time on the injury list for New Orleans this season is big enough to form a fantasy league to pass the time on the sidelines—Elfrid Payton (31 games missed), Nikola Mirotic (14), Darius Miller (five), E’Twaun Moore (three), Julius Randle (one), Jahlil Okafor (two), Ian Clark (two), Cheick Diallo (three), and, of course, the reliably unreliable Anthony Davis (five). The injury report hasn’t been quite as long for Minnesota, though it’s possibly been twice as traumatic. Jimmy Butler teased and tormented the starting lineup until he was dealt to the Sixers; Robert Covington, the great defensive savior whom Tom Thibodeau received in return, is currently out with an ankle issue (as are Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose, the latter of whom has been one of the only consistent role players Thibs has employed this season).
Currently, the Pelicans can’t cite health as an excuse. Elfrid Payton, their starting point guard, just returned after breaking his finger in his first game back from an ankle sprain. Even though the Nets loss was only his second game in over two months, it’s already apparent he won’t solve everything. Though Payton’s been a boon for the offense through two games—assisting New Orleans in dropping 123 on Minnesota (without Davis) and 121 on Brooklyn—the team’s issues range too widely for him to be the singular answer. (If 34 points and 26 rebounds from your star player isn’t enough to beat an East also-ran, you’ve got some issues.) At the forefront is their defense, which is among the worst in the league even with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate anchoring it.
There are three countdowns at work for both teams: one for health, one for wins, and one for a stabilizing trade should the first two never arrive on their own. In Minnesota, that was RoCo, who sobered up the Wolves defense for an 8-3 run upon his arrival from Philly in mid-November. He’s having the same effect that Mirotic had on the Pelicans last season, giving a necessary jump on the wings from an unlikely source. But one 3-and-D wing isn’t enough, not when a player on a veteran-minimum (Rose) is averaging more points than one making the max (take your best guess). While the addition of Covington has been positive overall, it also makes Andrew Wiggins’s shortcomings painfully more visible. Covington is meant to be the third or fourth guy sparking the offense; the Wolves can’t expect to win with him as their second-best player by default. Meanwhile, the Pelicans are still waiting for their Bunk to Davis’s McNulty, the one who will turn Davis from a sympathetic figure to a heroic one. With eight more road games to come before the end of the month, their only hope may be to swing a trade before the February 7 deadline to have the same impact as the Mirotic one from last season.
FiveThirtyEight predicts that the West’s 8-seed will finish with 42 wins, which would mean the Wolves and Pelicans will need to play around .600 ball the rest of the way—which is no small task for two teams currently in the top eight in the draft lottery. The Pelicans and the Wolves both need a change in direction, but first they’ll need to figure out the plan that’ll lead them there.