With just over 48 hours until the 2023 NBA Draft officially opens at 7 PM CT on Thursday night, there are no shortage of storylines to follow that could impact the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves aren’t likely to make any seismic changes given that their asset chest is rather depleted after acquiring Rudy Gobert last summer — and seem intent on keeping Karl-Anthony Towns — but they do have ammo to improve on the margins on draft night. But before diving into those, let’s have a look around the league.
Flying Too Close to the Sun(s)
The Western Conference might’ve woken up from their Father’s Day afternoon naps to some startling news when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a Woj Bomb™ announcing that the Phoenix Suns struck a deal to acquire former Washington Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal, the second Eastern Conference star to bolt for Phoenix since team governor Mat Ishbia took control of the organization in February. After sending out 12-time All-Star point guard Chris Paul in the Beal move, attention now shifts to whether or not the Suns will follow one major trade with another in moving incumbent center Deandre Ayton, who is entering the second season of a four-year, $132.9 million contract.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Suns have been “getting a lot of calls” on their center since pulling the trigger on the Beal deal. If the Suns do want to move Ayton, they’ll have to work with him and his agent Bill Duffy (who also represents the Timberwolves’ foundational duo of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels) to find a suitor, because Ayton has a one-year no trade clause that expires July 14 as a result of matching the offer sheet Ayton signed with the Indiana Pacers last summer.
Why not just wait until it expires? Well, that is because the free agency legal tampering window opens on June 30th at 5 PM CT.
Ayton clashed with ex-Suns and current Detroit Pistons Head Coach Monty Williams and other team officials quite a bit in the aftermath of their historically embarrassing Game 7 home loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2022 Western Conference Semifinals, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Suns wanted to make a move and avoid potential distractions for new Head Coach Frank Vogel. If they do move Ayton, how the Suns build out their roster while planning for the incoming financial implications of the collective bargaining agreement with three supermax players on the roster will be something to watch.
The team’s serious lack of depth was evident in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets last month, and swapping out Ayton for multiple players on cheaper, shorter-term contracts that sum to less than Ayton’s $32,459,438 cap hit will be important. Even though they’ll be mighty thin, you don’t have to squint to see a world in which Ayton is parlayed into an impactful rotation staple and a seventh or eighth man capable of giving good playoff minutes, and the Suns’ roster not being far off from the strict eight-man unit Michael Malone rolled with in Denver.
No matter what happens, they’re a Western Conference foe that the Wolves will have to go through or account for as they make a playoff push in 2023-24.
Chris Paul’s Next Team
NBA on TNT and Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes reported Sunday that Paul is likely to be rerouted when the Beal trade becomes official, and that “the Los Angeles Clippers are expected to pursue a reunion with the future Hall of Famer.”
Haynes didn’t specify whether the Clippers would be interested in Paul via trade or through the buyout mark. Paul’s entire $30.8 million salary will be guaranteed as part of the deal, so his next team could potentially buy him if they choose to. If that happens, one would have to think the Los Angeles Lakers would be interested in him given his close ties to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Timberwolves fans should hope that Paul steers his way east, potentially to the New York Knicks. There, CP3 would reunite with his former agent at CAA, Knicks President of Basketball Operations Leon Rose, and former CAA consultant William Wesley, who is now an Executive Vice President and Senior Basketball Advisor alongside Rose in the New York front office. The Knicks would be an intriguing fit considering they already have a lead ball-handler in Jalen Brunson — who has plenty of experience playing off a point guard from his time in Dallas — so Paul wouldn’t be relied upon as heavily as he was in Phoenix, and he could be insulated by solid defenders in Josh Hart and R.J. Barrett on the wing, with an elite rim protector inside in Mitchell Robinson.
Will One or Two Western Conference Stars Move East?
Bill Simmons said on Sunday’s episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast — which served as an appetizer for the potential movement in the NBA this week — that it very well could be.
“The Zion thing is a real, real subplot,” Simmons said. “I had somebody tell me yesterday that I trust that [Williamson] will not be on the team on Thursday.”
Charania reported earlier this month that the Pelicans are interested in moving up in the draft to acquire projected No. 2 overall pick Scoot Henderson. The Charlotte Hornets hold the No. 2 selection, while the Portland Trail Blazers are right behind them at No. 3. Charania reported last week that the Charlotte Hornets would rather see Brandon Ingram as the centerpiece of a potential deal involving their No. 2 pick, while Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer wrote Monday that his “sense from league sources is that Portland’s preference is Williamson.”
The Pelicans also own the No. 14 selection, the final pick of the lottery, so if they do deal Williamson in exchange for Henderson, they could also add another young player to a core that includes Ingram and recent draft hits Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III and Dyson Daniels. New Orleans will be a team that can take a big leap rather quickly, too. They have the rights to all of their first-round picks through 2030, and first-round picks from the Los Angeles Lakers (Anthony Davis trade) and the Milwaukee Bucks (Jrue Holiday trade).
Whether or not they restructure in a major way remains to be seen, but if New Orleans does ship out Williamson, and sends him east, that is one less utterly dominant superstar the Wolves may have to go through in the Western Conference Playoffs and a big win for Minnesota.
The Blazers’ superstar point guard is known to be close with Haynes, who reported on Sunday that the Miami Heat are focused on acquiring Lillard, with “the genuine belief this could be the offseason the veteran guard seeks a change of scenery.”
Sure, that could’ve been a tweet fueled by a desire to satisfy his sources with the Heat. But Haynes doesn’t put things out there that he doesn’t also believe to be true, and he certainly wouldn’t tweet that if he thought it would jeopardize his relationship with Lillard.
Charania, meanwhile, offered a different perspective.
And finally, Wojnarowski gave his insight as to how the Blazers are preparing for the draft.
Trail Blazers update leading into the draft via @wojespn:— Evan Sidery (@esidery) June 20, 2023
- Prepared to draft whoever is left between Scoot Henderson and Brandon Miller.
- Very engaged around the league about turning No. 3 into a star-level player, but it would take a “tremendous” package to trade out.
While Portland isn’t currently a threat to the Wolves in terms of being a team better than Minnesota for this coming season the Blazers run it back, that could change if General Manager Joe Cronin and Co. make a move that sends out the No. 3 pick, Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkić. Even then, they won’t have the talent the Timberwolves do; but as we see every season, injuries happen, and you never know which teams outperform the sum of their parts. Lillard is coming off arguably the best season of his 11-year career, in which he averaged a career-high 32.2 points on a hilariously good 64.5% true shooting, to go along with 7.3 assists.
Lillard has long been one of the league’s pre-eminent playoff performers, so Portland making a move that inherently lowers their chances of winning a title in Dame’s eyes (making a selection at No. 3 instead of dealing it as part of a package for a win-now star) could prompt a potential trade request, which would undoubtedly be a good thing for the Timberwolves.
A Forthcoming Reload in Big D
The Dallas Mavericks made a splash when they dealt for former Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving ahead of the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline. With Irving set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the month, Dallas President of Basketball Operations Nico Harrison and his staff are tasked with finding a way to improve on-court disaster the Mavericks became after the deadline — even with Irving and Luka Dončić playing at a high level.
Despite having a clear path to compete in the postseason, Dallas chose to shamelessly tank with two of the league’s premier guards on the roster in order to stave off for another year sending the final owed pick of the Kristaps Porzingis trade to the New York Knicks. The Mavericks accomplished their goal and own the 10th pick on Thursday, but The Athletic’s lead draft analyst Sam Vecenie threw cold water on the idea that Dallas will actually make a selection there.
Not many sources around the league currently believe this pick will stay put in Dallas. The Mavs seem to be exploring several different options, from trading down in the draft to trading out and acquiring a player who can help now.
Dallas has one terrible contract (an expiring in Dāvis Bertāns for $17 million), a very movable one in Tim Hardaway Jr. ($17.9 million) and a great value in Maxi Kleber (three years, $33 million beginning next season). Outside of that, their 2024 first-round pick is top-10 protected (it goes to New York from 11-30), and they own their first-round picks in 2026, 2027 and 2028, but can only deal the final three of those four (Stepien Rule).
Presuming they bring Irving back on a long-term deal, how they build around Dončić and Irving will be fascinating, because Dallas is a destination, whether Wolves fans believe it or not. Texas has no state income tax, and Dončić and Irving are both very well-liked players around the league.
Will the Wolves Trade Taurean Prince?
Although it is unlikely Minnesota would be involved as a third or fourth team in any Williamson or Lillard deal, Taurean Prince and his expiring $7,455,000 non-guaranteed contract could be useful in facilitating a deal. The team acquiring either Zion or Dame could also look to add a respected veteran useful in any system (or simply add nearly $7.5 million to help with salary matching before clearing salary by waiving Prince before his deal becomes fully guaranteed on June 28), while the Wolves may look to both 1) clear money themselves in order to better afford new deals for free agents Naz Reid and Nickeil Alexander-Walker and 2) acquire another 2023 draft pick.
However, if money is a central aspect of the team’s decision-making, Minnesota could feasibly choose to keep Prince until the trade deadline in February and acquire a 2024 selection then, as they have until the final day of the regular season to get below the luxury tax line.
Our friend Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic wrote, “There has been nothing of substance for Towns, Taurean Prince — whose contract for next season does not become guaranteed until after the draft — or any of the other players on the Wolves roster.”
With the Wolves set to run it back, barring a major departure from public comments that President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and Head Coach Chris Finch made last week, finding ways to save on the margins will be crucial moving forward.
Acquiring young players Minnesota can develop into either low-cost rotation pieces or valuable trade assets that can replace the value lost in dealing four first-round picks for Gobert is going to be a margin maneuvering arena in which the Wolves must emerge victorious. Whether or not they acquire the picks to carry out that strategy remains to be seen, but doing so makes sense.
With that in mind....
Might the Wolves Move Up on Thursday?
Minnesota holds the No. 53 pick in the draft, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they move up. Connelly and Co. acquired three second-round picks from the Utah Jazz in the Mike Conley deal (the worse of 2024 picks between Washington and the Memphis Grizzlies, and Jazz seconds in 2025 and 2026), and they could package any combination of those future picks with Prince and/or the No. 53 pick to climb the draft order on Thursday night.
Krawczynski reported that may be a possibility for the Wolves.
They currently have only the 53rd pick, near the end of the second round, to play with, but have been making calls around the league to gauge the market and see if there is a chance to move back into the first round, league sources told The Athletic.
Not to mention, assets today are worth more than assets tomorrow. The sooner the Timberwolves are able to bring in prospects they can begin to develop, the sooner they will be able to either contribute in a meaningful way or become valuable enough to flip in a win-now move. As part of the new CBA, teams will get a third two-way slot this coming season, which also incentivizes the Timberwolves to bring in additional young talent through the draft or undrafted free agency.
2022 selections Wendell Moore Jr., Josh Minott and Matteo Spagnolo all fit the credo of “develop players either into rotation pieces or trade chips,” so I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnesota uses that line of thinking to guide their decisions on Thursday night. We’ll have more in the coming hours on potential players that could fit as targets.