The Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves both desperately need to make the playoffs, and their hopes hinge on a winner-takes-all game.
In a year when reports have said the NBA is considering a play-in tournament for the playoffs, they're about to get a test run with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets.
The NBA's white-knuckle Western Conference playoff race will come down to the final night of the season on Wednesday when the Nuggets and Wolves play each other to make the eighth and final playoff spot.
Of course, any deciding game for the postseason is significant, but for both of these teams, there are stakes attached to missing the playoffs.
Both teams entered the season with bright playoff ambitions. The Wolves traded for Jimmy Butler, then paid big money to sign veterans like Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford to surround their young core. The Nuggets are a younger team but signed Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million deal in hopes of putting the team over the top. The results have been mixed for both squads, though both have had to fight through injuries to Butler and Millsap.
ESPN's Zach Lowe and Tim MacMahon said in March on the podcast, "The Lowe Post," that the Nuggets missing the playoffs could have significant repercussions. It's unclear what could happen, but it could mean a shake-up of the coaching staff, or it could also put head coach Mike Malone on the hot seat after missing the postseason two years in a row.
The Nuggets have a difficult path to navigate going forward as star center Nikola Jokic approaches a contract extension. The Nuggets could sign Jokic to a max extension this summer, but it would clog their cap space going forward. This is particularly true with Millsap's contract on the books, along with guard Gary Harris' four-year, $84 million extension kicking in next year, and the two years, $26 million remaining on backup center Mason Plumlee's deal.
While the Nuggets have a promising, growing core in Jokic, Harris, and point guard Jamal Murray, maxing out their cap space on a group that misses the playoffs twice in a row could be problematic.
The Wolves would be in a similar space. While there's no indication that head coach and team president Tom Thibodeau would be on the hot seat, there's no doubt that missing the playoffs two years in a row would be a massive disappointment.
The Wolves would also face difficult contract questions. Jimmy Butler can become a free agent in 2019 and may have reservations about re-signing with a team that seems far away from championship contention (barring some dramatic change next season). Likewise, the Wolves may have questions about signing Butler to a max contract if their current core isn't good enough to guarantee a playoff spot.
Next year, Andrew Wiggins' five-year, $146 million extension kicks in, and the Wolves are not far away from discussing extensions with Karl-Anthony Towns. Like the Nuggets, how much would the Wolves like to commit to a talented core that has yet to deliver on its considerable promise?
On Wednesday, one of these two teams will end their season on a sour note and head into an offseason full of questions and perhaps uncertainty. And the winner will only get to bask in the glory for a few days — until they face the league-leading Houston Rockets.