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Wolves Wednesday: How the West was Won

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It’s been another wild offseason in the Western Conference. Outside of Golden State, which former playoff team has positioned itself the best going forward? Let’s discuss.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been 33 days since the Golden State Warriors secured their second straight NBA championship, and while the offseason activity hasn’t exactly mirrored that of the chaotic 2017 summer, there have still been plenty of fireworks that are sure to reshape the NBA landscape going forward.

While technically still ongoing, the heart of the 2018 NBA offseason has officially played itself out — most notably the NBA Draft and the latest installment of “The Decision.” With the big names off the market, transaction activity across the league has quickly cooled. Could late summer #WojBombs still explode on our timelines? Of course. After all, Kyrie Irving wasn’t traded until August 22 last year, and the Kevin Love/Andrew Wiggins blockbuster wasn't announced until August 23.

But with most of the 2018 offseason now behind us, there are only a few remaining options for diehard NBA fans from now until training camp — pray for more #WojBombs, consume unhealthy amounts of Summer League, and/or provide way-too-early analysis of team’s off season moves.

With that in mind, let’s take a specific look at how the eight Western Conference playoff teams from last season have fared so far this summer:

Houston Rockets

With Kawhi Leonard still physically on the Spurs roster, the award for “Worst Offseason” thus far has to go to Houston. The #1 in the West from last season didn't have a first round pick in the most recent NBA Draft, but (somehow) managed to snag the second-biggest steal in the draft (De’Anthony Melton) at pick 46, two picks before the Notorious KBD. It’s only a matter of time before Mike D’Antoni turns him into Eric Gordon 2.0.

The real issue here isn’t who the Rockets drafted or re-signed (Chris Paul, 4/$160-million), but rather who they didn’t. With Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute departing town, the Rockets are now rumored to be front-runners for the Carmelo Anthony “sweepstakes.”

I know Daryl Morey is usually playing chess in a league full of checkers, but replacing Ariza and LMAM with Carmelo Anthony is like replacing your washing machine with a Porta Potty. Despite their reputation as an offensive juggernaut last season, the Rockets were also a top-5 defensive team, led in large part because of Ariza and LMAM on the wings. Swapping those two defensive stoppers for the corpse of Carmelo may prove to be a disastrous checkmate for the Warriors’ biggest nemesis.

Golden State Warriors

Speaking of Golden State, all they’ve done in the last 33 days is shed themselves of dead weight (JaVale McGee, David West, Nick Young), re-sign the 2018 NBA Finals MVP, and increase Steve Kerr’s salary, making him one of the NBA’s highest-paid coaches.

Oh and then there was this:

Regardless of how many healthy legs Boogie has come spring time, the Warriors were already favored to win their third straight Larry O’Brien trophy, so adding Cousins to the mix was the biggest no-brainer of the summer. The rich get richer.

Portland Trail Blazers

Of the eight teams on this list, no franchise has had a sneakily worse offseason than the Blazers. As someone living in Portland, it’s hard to quantify just how beloved Ed Davis was the fans and his teammates, especially Damian Lillard.

Instead of resigning the high-energy big man to a modest deal, Neil Olshey instead chose to fill out his cap-strapped roster with two journeyman shooters in Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, in addition to drafting guards Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent, Jr. The Blazers also re-signed Jusuf Nurkic to a 4-year/$53 million dollar deal after striking out on a potential sign-and-trade for Cousins.

In summary, the Blazers added four bench players who play the same position as their two stars (Lillard and CJ McCollum), and furthered their salary cap nightmare by extending Nurkic for four more seasons. In addition to the Bosnian Beast, the Blazers still owe $80 MILLION DOLLARS over the next two season to the trio of Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, and Meyers Leonard, meaning the roster you see in training camp will be the future of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

Despite finishing third in the West last season, the Blazers were swept in the first round by the Pelicans, and an offseason like this doesn't necessarily support the idea of a team trending in the right direction.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Speaking of cap-strapped teams in the Northwest Division, say hello to Oklahoma City! After shocking the NBA universe and convincing Paul George to re-sign with OKC, the Thunder currently face a historic luxury tax bill for the upcoming season:

Considering the Thunder were sold to an Oklahoma City ownership group back in 2006 for $350 million dollars, the numbers on this potential tax bill are staggering. As Woj reported a few days later, the next obvious step for Sam Presti seems to be addition by subtraction, as the Thunder appear ready to move on from the Carmelo Anthony experiment:

As someone who works in finance, anytime you can save $100 million dollars, it’s probably a sound idea. However, removing Carmelo from the Thunder lineup (regardless of how bad he was last season), really leaves the Thunder with just a trio of George, Russell Westbrook, and Steven Adams, without much other help (or a first round pick from this latest draft). Is that good enough to remain afloat in the wild, wild West? I’m not so sure.

Utah Jazz

Utah was the surprise team from last season, and after re-signing their top two free agents (Dante Exum and Derrick Favors), the Jazz seem poised to run it back with nearly the exact same roster that brought them so much success in 2017-2018.

You can’t really blame them either. The Jazz are locked into the trio of Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, and ROY runner-up Donovan Mitchell through 2021, and will have plenty of cap space next summer when Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, and Alec Burks come off their books. The only noticeable addition to their upcoming roster is Grayson Allen, who the Jazz selected one spot after Minnesota selected Josh Okogie 20th overall.

Are the Jazz the real deal? Or was last year’s second-half surge fool’s gold? Your opinion on that debate will largely affect whether or not you think the Jazz did enough this summer to enhance their positioning in the Western Conference.

New Orleans Pelicans

This one is tough. Yes, the Pelicans did agree to a deal with the multi-talented, slightly underrated Julius Randle, who figures to pair beautifully alongside Anthony Davis. And no, DeMarcus Cousins won’t be ready for meaningful NBA minutes until at least Christmas, meaning the Pelicans did come out slightly ahead in that player swap.

However, the Pelicans gave up serious assets to acquire Cousins, and are now left with little to show for him. Add in the significant loss of Rajon Rondo, who looked totally revitalized last season throwing lobs to AD and allowed Jrue Holiday to succeed playing off the ball, and all the sudden that roster that swept the Blazers starts to look a little less promising going into next season.

San Antonio Spurs

This one isn’t tough. Despite wielding one of the best front office/head coach combinations in the league, the Spurs are in major, major trouble. Unless the Spurs bite the bullet on a Kawhi Leonard trade, they face the real possibility of losing their disgruntled All-Star and former Finals MVP for less than the Kings got for Boogie.

Factor in the loss of Spurs legend Tony Parker and the promising Kyle Anderson, and all the sudden the Spurs have a giant mess on their hands. Over just the next two seasons, the Spurs owe a combined $105 MILLION DOLLARS to the trio of LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, and Patty Mills, all of whom will be 30 or older by the start of the next season.

Despite possessing some solid young players (Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker, and David Bertans), it appears like an extremely long rebuild is on the horizon in San Antonio.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Outside of Golden State, you could make an argument that no former playoff team has lost less and gained more this summer than Minnesota. From purely a free agency standpoint, the Wolves will say goodbye to Jamal Crawford and Nemanja Bjelica, two inconsistent players who provided very little resistance on the defensive side of the ball.

In exchange for Jamal and Belly, the Wolves welcome in Anthony Tolliver for his second tour of duty in Minnesota. While his advanced metrics on defense suggest he may not be as much of a defensive upgrade as some thought, and he ended up commanding slightly more on the open market than Belly, his consistency on offense alone should prove enough to be worthy of the player swap. Tolliver, who turned 33 in June, is coming off a career season in terms of 3PA (4.6) and 3P% (43.6%).

And then there’s the two rookies. I’ve been extremely boisterous in my opinion that the Wolves landed two first-round talents in the latest draft, despite only have one first-round pick. My good friend John Meyer echoed this sentiment with his recap of their performances in Las Vegas from over the weekend.

Yes, I understand it’s “just Summer League.” But it’s far more promising to see young players play well right away than to consistently look lost and out of place (hi Trae Young). Whether or not Thibs gives these two rookies a long-enough leash to translate their summer production into the regular season is the $40 million dollar question, no doubt. But regardless, adding two talented rookies (ages 19 and 22), to a core of Karl-Anthony Towns (22), Andrew Wiggins (23), Tyus Jones (22), and Justin Patton (21) is a really big deal and makes them significant offseason winners in my opinion.

What do you think? Have the Wolves done enough this summer to secure their place among the second tier of the Western Conference?