The Minnesota Timberwolves improved their roster drastically by adding three-time All-Star center Rudy Gobert, but they weren’t the only team in the West that got better. With key playoff teams getting healthy, as well as high draft picks and significant free agent signings, the Wolves certainly won’t have an easier road to a top-eight finish in the Western Conference.
Third-year leaps from Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels will be crucial to Minnesota’s play in 2022-23, as well as Head Coach Chris Finch’s ability to put the puzzle pieces together to form a group that has the ability to compete with the league’s best. Even if everything goes right for the Timberwolves, there surely won’t be a lack of tests from their conference foes throughout the year.
The Best in the West
Starting off at the top of the West, the Phoenix Suns matched a max offer sheet for center Deandre Ayton. Fans and experts alike weren’t totally sure whether the Suns would match a max offer for the former No. 1 overall pick, but as time went on it was assumed they’d keep their championship-ready roster in tact, no matter the cost. If they let Ayton walk, they would’ve jeopardized their chance at making it back the NBA Finals after their 2021 battle with the Milwaukee Bucks. Phoenix also added shooting guards Damion Lee and former-Timberwolf Josh Okogie, while resigning center Bismack Biyombo and losing JaVale McGee to the Dallas Mavericks.
Overall, the Suns made moves on the margins after locking down their starting center. Okogie and Lee will give them added depth at the shooting guard/small forward spot. Their moves weren’t flashy, but they’ll keep them in the hunt for an NBA Finals appearance.
The 2021-22 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors had a more complex offseason than the previous two, with the front office having to consider upcoming extensions/new deals for Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins (and to a lesser degree Draymond Green and Klay Thompson). This limited their spending this summer, but they still made some rock-solid moves.
The Warriors signed Donte DiVincenzo to a two-year, $9.2 million deal, JaMychal Green to a one-year, $2.6 million deal, as well as resigned Kevon Looney to a new three-year, $22.5 million deal. All three will be immediate contributors, which, combined with their stars, will propel them to the top of the West yet again. Losing Otto Porter Jr. and the spacing he provides hurts, but JaMychal Green can help stop any hemorrhaging that may come from his loss (although he shot just 26% from 3 last year, down 10% from his career average).
Will they be back?
Barring unexpected events, it seems as if these three teams will be return to the top of the West’s standings. With the stars and crucial role players returning to Golden State and Phoenix, they’ve solidified their spot in the elite tier of the Western Conference.
Middle of the Pack
The Memphis Grizzlies’ offseason is highlighted by the signing of Ja Morant to five-year $193 million (could reach $231 million). No matter how you feel about the contract, it was inevitable. Like the Suns, Memphis made a few deals on the margins to solidify their spot among those firmly in the hunt for home court advantage.
The Grizzlies traded De’Anthony Melton to the Philadelphia 76ers for the No. 23 pick that turned out to be Minneapolis-native David Roddy, and signed (another Minnesota native) Tyus Jones to a two-year $29 million deal. The front office clearly decided the guard spot was a position to address, as they also drafted Kennedy Chandler from Tennessee. Morant’s injury history was likely the main motivation behind that.
The Dallas Mavericks lost Jalen Brunson this summer, in what should be an impactful one that may signal the return of Luka Dončić’s ultra hero-ball (although, did it ever really leave?). However, they added swingman Christian Wood in a trade before the draft, as well as signing previously-mentioned JaVale McGee. Size was obviously an area of concern, as they now pivot from the small ball Dwight Powell/Maxi Kleber/Dãvis Bertãns front-court rotation. Jason Kidd can surely still go small as they did last year, but adding a versatile big like Wood — and a rim defender like McGee — helps them diversify their front-court.
All eyes are on Spencer Dinwiddie this year, as he’ll need to take over Brunson’s role for this team going forward. Another year removed from his ACL tear, he showed flashes of getting back to where he was before his injury.
Following the Mavericks in last season’s standings is the Utah Jazz, who — as of right now — are pulling a “Portland Trail Blazers,” in which they claim to be retooling around their star, when in reality it’s impossible to tell if they’re actually retooling or if they’ll trade their star tomorrow. Either way, it’s unlikely they’re back in the top five — or in the playoffs at all — next season.
The Wolves benefited from Utah deciding they’d reached their peak with the whole “Mitchell and Gobert” thing, but with new additions Patrick Beverley, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt and Walker Kessler, the Jazz got a few pieces that can contribute immediately. However, trading Royce O’Neale to the Brooklyn Nets for a first-round pick tells us what this team is planning on doing (oh, and the pick haul from Minnesota does that too).
With a healthy Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the Denver Nuggets are a prime candidate to outperform last season’s record.
Other than getting two of their best players back, they also had quite the offseason. Denver signed do-it-all guard Bruce Brown to a two-year contract that’ll pay him roughly $6.5 million per season. The University of Miami product is an instant impact defender, can play any position 2-5, and also shot 40% from 3-point range last season (on 1.3 attempts per game). In an effort to address their perimeter defense, the Nuggets also acquired guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith from the Washington Wizards. The returns of Murray and Porter Jr. — plus the addition of Caldwell-Pope and Brown — has Denver ready to compete with the best out west.
Will they make a jump? Will the regress?
I expect a bit of regression from Memphis (Jaren Jackson Jr. being out until likely after Christmas, Kyle Anderson and Melton leaving, etc.), but it shouldn’t be a drastic fall off given their experience playing without stars. With the Nuggets primed for a jump and the Jazz likely to fall in the standings, the Mavericks are much more difficult to project headed into next season. In short: Brunson out, Wood and McGee in. Does that make them better? I’m not sure it does. But, as mentioned, it really hinges on Dinwiddie. If he produces like 2019-20 Dinwiddie, and emerges as a stud second option, they’ll be a better team than last year’s squad. Getting a healthy Tim Hardaway Jr. will also give them another scoring option.
Fighting for a playoff spot
To reiterate, I’m going (mostly) in order of last season’s final standings. This order isn’t a final standings projection for next season.
The Timberwolves — like the Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers — are a candidate for ascending the standings in the West next season. The addition of Gobert is at the heart of that ascension, with Anderson absorbing a role in the rotation right off the bat.
Edwards and the leap he takes next season is key to any improvements the Wolves make, and the same could be said for his fellow third-year teammate, McDaniels. They each have areas of their game to develop — partially taking over as point-of-attack defender for Beverley and the high-motor Vanderbilt being two areas — and will be relied on to adequately make that leap.
A team that’s rightfully getting a ton of buzz heading into next season is the New Orleans Pelicans. Without their foundational star, Zion Williamson, NOLA made the play-in tournament and secured the eighth and final playoff spot. They ended up losing to the Suns in six games, but showed significant promise in the series.
Adding Williamson to a core of CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herb Jones and Jonas Valanciunas has plenty of upside, and Willie Green proved to be a great hire after year one.
Outside of drafting Dyson Daniels and EJ Liddell (who tore his ACL in Summer League), the Pelicans had a relatively quiet offseason. With a need for more ball handling, Daniels should slide in and provide that in a pinch, given that he’s just 19 years old.
Certainly one of the best teams on paper, the Clippers will look to leapfrog possibly everyone ahead of them in the West’s standings next season. With Kawhi Leonard coming back from injury, Paul George, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, John Wall, Marcus Morris and more, they’re (seemingly) a lock for home-court in the first round of the playoffs, health permitting.
Retaining Ivica Zubac, Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum was the goal this summer, and they accomplished it, at the expense of a massive luxury bill. That’s no problem, though, as the Clippers have the richest owner in American professional sports, Steve Ballmer (net worth of $91.4 billion, per Forbes). With their returning cast, they’re set to put league on notice.
A team that’s moving in the opposite direction — but could be equally beneficial long-term — is the San Antonio Spurs. Sending Dejounte Murray to Atlanta signaled the beginning of what feels like the first-ever rebuild for the Spurs, as they received three first-round picks and a pick swap for their All-Star guard.
They had a very nice draft, selecting high-upside rookies Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley. Now, they’ll let their superstar player development staff take the reins. We’ll revisit in 2-3 years.
Will they make it out of the play-in in 2022-23?
It seems a safe bet that the Timberwolves and Clippers find themselves sitting comfortably come playoff time, meaning they’ll likely finish in the top six in the West after 82 games. As for the Pelicans, it’s certainly a possibility they avoid the play-in, but I’m not as confident in them as I am with the Wolves and Clippers. The Spurs, on the other hand, might just do their best to win the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes, although it is the Spurs. I wouldn’t think Gregg Popovich would come back to tank, but we’ll see.
The Los Angeles Lakers are running it back with their core from last year, which is both surprising and not surprising considering how hard it is to move Russell Westbrook.
The additions of Lonnie Walker IV and Thomas Bryant give some much-needed youth to the rotation, despite their individual limitations.
Personally, I think the additions Los Angeles made seem minuscule when considering the issues that arose with their big three last season. A healthy Anthony Davis will make a huge difference, but newly-hired Darvin Ham will have his work cut out for him with this trio.
The Sacramento Kings drafted do-it-all forward Keegan Murray (that’s all the praise he’ll get from this Gopher), signed Malik Monk, and acquired Kevin Huerter.
Giving Domantas Sabonis a full summer to get acclimated is possibly the biggest win, as gelling with De’Aaron Fox before the season starts could be the most beneficial of all offseason moves. As a long-time Wolves fan that empathizes with long-term mediocrity (which is generous), I’m rooting for the Kings this season.
If you thought we’d get even one crumb of insight into what the Trail Blazers were thinking long-term, the Shaedon Sharpe pick didn’t help much. The 19-year-old has show-stopping potential, but can’t be expected to be an immediate star after not playing in his lone season at Kentucky. The acquisition of Jerami Grant and signing of Gary Payton II before drafting Sharpe seems counterintuitive, but I suppose I understand the decision.
Both the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets did what they needed to do this offseason, which is essentially just nail the draft. Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr. seem like good selections, as do picks Tari Eason, TyTy Washington Jr., Jaylin Williams and Jalen Williams (love that).
Will they make a run at the play-in?
While the Thunder and Rockets may improve, they’ll continue their rebuild this year. Meanwhile, the Lakers and Kings will surely be in the mix for a spot in the play-in tournament. Things can’t go much worse for Los Angeles this season, so predicting improvement is easy. The Blazers are the wild card, as they certainly got better this summer, and on top of that will be getting Damian Lillard back this season.
With the Jazz and Spurs as exceptions, basically the entire Western Conference got better or retained their status as elite this summer. The Timberwolves were a big part of that — which is exciting — but it surely doesn’t mean they’ll have an easy road to avoid the play-in tournament. Teams like the Nuggets, Clippers and Pelicans will all be battling for a spot, and Minnesota will have to prove that they can hang tough to finish ahead of them.