The 2023-24 NBA regular season might be winding down, but teams are just starting to ramp up for the home stretch of the playoff race. The only problem? A handful of contenders are dealing with long-term injuries to star players.

In this week’s roundtable, we asked FOX Sports’ NBA reporters Ric Bucher and Yaron Weitzman to predict how these injuries might affect the playoff picture, and whether there will be any lingering effects going into the 2024 offseason.

The Athletic reported Thursday that Karl-Anthony Towns has a torn left meniscus and is out indefinitely. With the Minnesota Timberwolves tied for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, how does this have the potential to reshape the title race?

Weitzman: KAT has been fantastic this season (22.1 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 3.0 APG, 50.6 FG%, 42.3 3P%), and deserves a ton of credit for adjusting to life with Rudy Gobert. Coming into the year, I was one of those people who thought the Wolves were doomed because that pairing was no good and KAT has proven me wrong. His loss is obviously a big blow to the Wolves but I don’t think it dooms them. There are two reasons. One is that in Naz Reid, the Wolves have a really good big backup who can now slide into KAT’s spot. Reid is averaging 12.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in just 23 minutes per game while also shooting 41% from deep. And lineups with him and Gobert on the floor, sans Towns, have outscored opponents by 13.3 points per 100 non-garbage time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass; that number with Towns in place of Reid is 9.1. Where this injury will hurt Minnesota is in the depth department, and I think when you get deep into the postseason, talent trumps all. Losing a talent like Towns is obviously not ideal, but the Wolves’ season is not over.

Bucher: This is in no way an indictment of Towns or how he has played this season, but his absence actually could make them more dangerous. Note that I didn’t say “better,” just more dangerous. Other than the home loss against Charlotte when coach Chris Finch called him out for deciding after a big first half of scoring (44) he’d go for a career high — which he got, 62 — but did so at the expense of winning the game, Towns has tried to take a balanced approach this season. But there’s always been a bit of natural tug-of-war between Towns and Anthony Edwards, since their primary values are as scorers. With Towns out, the roles and rotation should be much more defined. Having him out also should be a motivating factor, in that every Timberwolf should feel he has to play a little harder to compensate for Towns’ absence.

2. Ben Simmons was ruled out for the season Thursday after appearing in just 15 games for the Brooklyn Nets this season. Is there still hope that Simmons can contribute to a winning team and if not, does that change the Nets’ long-term outlook?

Weitzman: I think it’s over. We’re already unsure where he is when it comes to his desire to play basketball. Now it’s also fair to ask whether his body could handle if Simmons was 100% all-in. Simmons this season attempted 15 free-throws in 15 games. Right now, he’s in no way part of the Nets’ long-term plans — he’s just an expiring contract (or will be will the league’s calendar flips to the 2024-25 season).

Bucher: If he wants to play, I’m sure someone will give him a shot. His size and athleticism and potential is still tantalizing, and he’s only 27. He’d have to prove it in some private workouts in the fall or whenever he’s healthy enough to play again, but there’s an avenue to making a return. Now, that doesn’t mean I expect anyone to sign him to a multi-year deal or anything beyond seven figures, because it’s fair to question just how committed he is to the game or maximizing that potential. This will be the ultimate test of Simmons’ love for the game — he’s going to have to bust his ass, be on his best behavior and do all of that with no guarantees of playing time or significant compensation.

3. The Cleveland Cavaliers can’t shake the injury bug, either, losing Donovan Mitchell and Evan Mobley to long-term injuries in the span of a week. Can they still contend for the No. 2 seed or is the Milwaukee Bucks‘ to lose with 20 games left?

Weitzman: The Cavs, this season, have actually been better with Mobley off the floor. They’ve outscored opponents by 1.5 possessions with him on the court and 6.5 when he’s off. That’s not because Mobley is bad. It’s just that the fit with him and Jarrett Allen has not been a good one. Both are big men and in today’s NBA it’s hard to play two bigs, especially if neither shoot 3s. And at this point, Allen is a better player. In fact, the Cavs’ hot stretch over the past few months has come as a result of them surrounding Allen and their guard with wings who can shoot. So, no, the Mobley injury doesn’t mean the Cavs are in trouble. What will make life hard for them, though, is that the Bucks (their blowout loss to the Warriors this week notwithstanding) seem to have figured things out, especially on the defensive end, under Doc Rivers. 

Bucher: I was expecting the Cavs to slide even before the recent injuries, because of how they climbed the charts — a schedule loaded with sub-.500 teams, which they dispatched with supreme efficiency, winning 25 of 29. Conversely, they have a losing record against winning teams (15-18) and their stretch run is loaded with them; of their final 20 games, 13 are against teams with winning records and nine of them are against teams that are a sixth seed or higher. The Bucks, on the other hand, are one of only three teams in the East with a winning record against teams above .500.

4. The Denver Nuggets handled the Los Angeles Lakers again on Saturday but then fell to the Phoenix Suns at home on Tuesday. Is this Nuggets team more vulnerable than last season or is the competition in the West just tougher?

Weitzman: This Nuggets team is awesome, mostly because Nikola Jokic remains awesome. The Nuggets are still very clearly the team to beat in the West. The difference this year is that the West is much better and deeper. The Clippers are awesome. The Thunder are young but absolutely loaded. The Warriors look like they’ve figured things out, and the emergence of Jonathan Kuminga has changed everything for them. And the Suns are as dangerous as anyone if healthy. There were no teams like this in the West last season, especially after Ja Morant went down. The Nuggets should make the Finals. But it won’t be a cakewalk. 

Bucher: The West is better, but so are the Nuggets. They’re winning at a higher clip than they did last year, when they won the West. Minnesota and OKC with something to prove in the regular season, the Nuggets are just biding their time until they get to April, and yet the two up-and-comers are only one game up in the standings. The question suggests that Phoenix exposed some sort of Denver vulnerability, which I’m not co-signing. I thought — and said — that the Suns could pose the biggest challenge to the Denver Nuggets repeating as West champions and the loss the other night demonstrated why: Jusuf Nurkic’s combination of size and familiarity with Nikola Jokic as a former teammate gives him at least a shot at making Jokic work for his triple-doubles.

But let’s be real: Denver had an incredibly disjointed first half, trailing by 15 at halftime, and outscored Phoenix 11-3 over the final 3 ½ minutes to force OT. The Nuggets are not a turnover-prone team and the Suns are, but that was flipped in this particular game. Jokic had more turnovers than assists, which happens about once a month. I don’t bank on out-of-character performances. There were questions about the Nuggets’ depth and bench with the departure of Jeff Green and Bruce Brown, but their main subs — Peyton Watson, Christian Braun and Reggie Jackson — have been solid and efficient. 

5. Just four games currently separate the No. 5 seed New Orleans Pelicans and the No. 10 seed Lakers. Which two teams among the Pelicans, Suns, Kings, Mavericks, Warriors and Lakers do you predict will narrowly miss out on the playoffs and why?

Weitzman: It’s so hard to answer this because it will likely be matchup dependent. For example, we’ve seen that the Lakers can’t slow the Kings, so what happens if they meet them in the play-in? But if I have to choose two, I’ll go with the Pelicans and Lakers as the two who seem to be the most vulnerable in a play-in format. The Pelicans have trouble scoring, especially down the stretch, and I don’t trust the Lakers’ ability to stop opposing guards.

Bucher: I see three teams as being vulnerable right now — the Lakers, Mavs, Pelicans. I would’ve included the Warriors about two weeks ago, but Jonathan Kuminga has broken out, and they are getting some outstanding play from their other young guns as well. While the Pels are highest in the standings, I have the least faith in them avoiding the play-in tournament or surviving it. That leaves a choice between the Mavs and the Lakers missing out and I’m going to make it simple: I believe in Luka Dončić as a closer more than I do LeBron James right now. 

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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