Many pundits across the NBA thought when the season started that the Western Conference could be stronger and deeper than ever before.
But it’s actually turned into a battle of attrition as the calendar turns to December. Key teams are being hit with season-altering injuries seemingly by the day. And the back half of the conference playoff race may be decided by who best can manage injuries.
The Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers will face off Thursday at the Staples Center, the second meeting for the two teams this season. And make no mistake, they will be significantly different teams than the first meeting. There will be no Rudy Gobert or Joe Johnson for the Jazz. And there may not be Rodney Hood. There also will be no Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley, or Danilo Gallinari for Los Angeles.
“This is unfortunate,” Utah forward Derrick Favors said. “Some of the injuries have been bad luck. You never want to wish injury on anyone. I dealt with it last year. So it’s just unfortunate.”
The Clippers have been hit as hard as anyone. They lost point guard Milos Teodosic to a foot injury in the first week of the season, and he hasn’t returned. Gallinari has missed 10 games with a hip injury, although he seems to be closing in on a return.
Griffin was injured Tuesday against the Los Angeles Lakers, leaving the game with a sprained MCL. He’s slated to be out for two months. Beverley, one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA, will miss the remainder of the season after a microfracture surgery in his knee.
The damage done to the Clippers roster has been extensive. If Gallinari doesn’t play Thursday, Los Angeles will be missing four of its five opening night starters, with only DeAndre Jordan surviving. The Clippers were supposed to be a team contending for a playoff berth. They now are decimated. Rookies Juwan Evans and Sindarius Thornwell are playing major minutes. And although Los Angeles (8-11) has won its past three games, it’s hard to picture the Clippers remaining in the playoff hunt without Griffin and Beverley.
“It’s hard to watch because your heart goes out to guys,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said. “At the end of the day, being in the NBA is a brotherhood. We’re all brothers because there’s only 450 of us. So you never want to see anyone hurt, and you never wish injury on anyone.”
The Jazz and the Clippers are arguably the two teams most affected thus far, but they hardly are the only ones.
The Denver Nuggets, whom the Jazz defeated 106-77 on Tuesday night, have lost All-Star forward Paul Millsap to wrist surgery. He is expected to miss up to three months. The Memphis Grizzlies have lost star point guard Mike Conley to an Achilles tendon injury. There is no timetable for his return, and the Grizzlies at least temporarily have fallen apart. They fired coach David Fizdale earlier in the week.
Minnesota has gone without starting point guard Jeff Teague for a few games. The San Antonio Spurs have been good, but star forward Kawhi Leonard has yet to play this season.
What’s left is a Western Conference that’s been relatively underwhelming. The Jazz (10-11) are in the eighth spot. Minnesota, Denver and the New Orleans Pelicans are in the fifth, sixth and seventh spots but hovering near the .500 mark. The Eastern Conference has 10 teams that are .500 or better. The Western Conference has seven.
“Injuries are unfortunate,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “You hate to see that. I think how you handle those injuries, can your team get better and can you get guys back. That tells a lot about how your season could go.”
The Jazz so far have been better than expected without Gobert, posting a 5-4 record without him in the lineup. They are third in the league in offensive rating in those nine games. They have won four of their last five games, and those four wins have all been by double-digits.
Utah’s looking to continue that Thursday night against the Clippers.
Rudy Gobert • Leg contusion • Out 4-6 weeks
Joe Johnson • Wrist injury • Out indefinitely
Dante Exum • Shoulder surgery • Out indefinitely
Los Angeles Clippers
Patrick Beverley • Knee surgery • Out for the remainder of the season
Milos Teodosic • Foot injury • Out indefinitely
Danilo Gallinari • Hip injury • Out indefinitely
Blake Griffin • Knee injury • Out for two months
Paul Millsap • Wrist surgery • Out for three months
UTAH JAZZ AT LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
When • 8:30 p.m. MT Thursday
Where • Staples Center, Los Angeles
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 97.5 FM; 1280 AM
Records • Utah 10-11; Los Angeles 8-11
Last meeting • Los Angeles won 102-84 (Oct. 24)
About the Jazz • Utah guard Rodney Hood missed Tuesday’s win over the Denver Nuggets with soreness in his ankle. … The Jazz have won four of their last five games. … Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell is the second player in franchise history to score 300 points in his first 21 games, following Darrell Griffith. … The Jazz are 5-4 without Rudy Gobert in the lineup this season. … Utah will be playing the front end of a back-to-back.
About the Clippers • Los Angeles is riding a three-game winning streak. … The Clippers will be playing their first game without star forward Blake Griffin. … Los Angeles guard Lou Williams scored 42 points in Monday’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers. … The Clippers allow their opponents to score 106.2 points per game.