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2023 NBA Draft: How Will Western Conference Moves Affect the Wolves?

There were some interesting moves made by Western Conference teams on draft night. Let’s take a look at them and how they might affect the Timberwolves.

2023 NBA Draft
The 2023 NBA Draft class
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t have a first-round pick in the 2023 NBA Draft — their No. 16 overall pick was the first of four they owe to the Utah Jazz as part of last July’s Rudy Gobert trade — but that doesn’t mean first-round moves don’t affect Minnesota’s standing in a reloading Western Conference.

Let’s take a look at some key moves and how they might impact the Wolves this upcoming season.

2023 NBA Draft
Adam Silver and Victor Wembanyama
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

San Antonio Spurs

The first big decision of the night wasn’t much of a decision at all. With the No. 1 overall pick, the San Antonio Spurs selected the French big-man Victor Wembanyama, a generational talent with a never before seen combination of height, quickness, ball handling, and shooting ability. Wembanyama is a one of a kind player that doesn’t really have a comparison given his unique size and skill-set.

Standing at 7-foot-4, Wembanyama is just the 10th player in NBA history to be that height or taller. The most recent example of a player of his height is Boban Marjanović, who is also 7-foot-4. The difference between the two players is where Boban lacks quickness or versatility, Wembanyama has it in spades.

Wemby’s ceiling is immeasurable. It’s hard to say any player is destined for the Hall of Fame before they even play a game, but that is certainly a path Victor’s career could go down if he can stay healthy, given his size and skill.

From a Wolves perspective, it’s not hard to picture the scenario where the Spurs build a juggernaut of a team a couple years down the line. The Spurs have shown that as an organization when they have a foundational player in place, whether it’s David Robinson, Tim Duncan, or Kawhi Leonard, they are able to build teams that consistently win at the highest level. You can bet players around the league would be interested in going to San Antonio to play with a once-in-a-generation player, too.

In the short-term, the Spurs are most likely still at least a year or two away from being a playoff team. There isn’t one single player that can take a team from the 22-60 record the Spurs had last season and add the 20 or so wins it will take to make the play-in tournament.

But the good news for San Antonio is that they don’t have any real long-term commitments financially. The Spurs could add talent, either through trades or free agency, to jump start their team, but they are more likely to build slowly around their potential all-world superstar. San Antonio is more of a long-term threat to Minnesota than they are for next season.

2023 NBA Draft
Scoot Henderson
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers

The next domino to fall in the 2023 NBA Draft was the Charlotte Hornets taking Alabama forward Brandon Miller No. 2 overall, leaving the G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson for the Portland Trail Blazers to select one pick later.

Henderson is possibly the best pure point guard prospect in a few years. He is an explosive athlete with the size and quickness to attack the rim and finish up and around defenders. His jump shot is a work in progress, but that is a much more teachable skill than Scoot’s physical gifts. Recent NBA comparisons for him include Ja Morant, Russell Westbrook, and Derrick Rose.

With Scoot added to a roster that already has Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simmons and Shaedon Sharpe, Portland currently has four starting quality guards. Starting three of these four guards could become tricky, especially on defense, and starting all four is not a reasonable option.

It seems they will have to trade either one or two of these guards before the start of the season. The way Portland answers the question of which players to trade, should be of great interest to Wolves fans as it will determine if Portland is a team that will fight the Wolves for a playoff spot next season or not.

The Trail Blazers could try to trade Scoot along with either Simons or Jusuf Nurkić, to pair an All-Star caliber player with Lillard in an attempt to fast track the team into contender status. Wolves fans have theorized that Karl-Anthony Towns may be a fit for this type of trade as it would alleviate much of Minnesota’s upcoming luxury tax issues, but neither team seems all that interested. A few other names Portland might be interested in are Brooklyn’s Mikal Bridges, Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, or one of Zion Williamson or Brandon Ingram of the New Orleans Pelicans, though reporters around the league have thrown cold water on all of those names.

As of draft night, Scoot Henderson remains on the Portland Trail Blazers, so the other option they have is to trade their franchise player, and future Hall-of-Famer, Damian Lillard. Trading Lillard this offseason, before a potential trade request, would net the team quite the package of assets.

While trading Lillard would be a tough pill for the Trail Blazers franchise to swallow considering how beloved Lillard is in Portland, but it may be time for both to move on from each other. Trading Lillard would surely mean a rebuild for Portland, but starting a rebuild with cornerstone pieces like Scoot Henderson and Sharpe makes the possibility of losing much more manageable than it did a year ago when the team didn’t have either player.

It is important to note that Portland can’t trade Lillard until July 9, the one-year anniversary of the contract extension he signed last offseason. Until then, Portland has time to field offers from other teams and decide what direction they want to go.

2023 NBA Draft
Adam Silver and Amen Thompson
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Houston Rockets

After Portland, the Houston Rockets selected Amen Thompson with the fourth overall pick. Amen, along with his twin brother Ausar, who was selected one pick later by the Pistons, played for the Overtime City Raptors of Overtime Elite. Thompson is a high-level prospect with a great feel for the game and a ton of athleticism.

Houston also selected with the 20th pick Cam Whitmore out of Villanova. Whitmore was expected to be picked in the top-10, so his slide all the way down to 20 was one of the surprises of the night. The reasoning for Whitmore’s drop was a combination of medical concerns and underwhelming interviews and workouts with teams.

Despite the fall in the draft, the D.C. area native is still a high-ceiling prospect with a chance to be a very solid NBA player. Houston did very well to get both Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore with their first-round picks.

The reason this is relevant to the Wolves is James Harden is rumored to be interested in a return to Houston. If that reunion were to come to fruition, the Rockets now have even more trade capital that they could exchange for talent to build around a Harden-led team. That would take them from a team still in rebuild mode, to a team that at the very least would be fighting for the playoffs.

Any time an All-Star caliber player switches from the Eastern Conference to the West, it is likely not good for the Wolves. James Harden switching conferences would be an especially interesting case as it would immediately flip the Houston Rockets from a team that the Timberwolves shouldn’t need to worry about to another team that will look to make the playoffs in a crowded Western Conference.

If they do sign James Harden, they would have the full mid-level exception, along with plenty of young players they could trade to build a competitive roster for next season. Jalen Green would almost certainly be a name they would look to flip if a James Harden reunion were to happen. They could also look to trade the aforementioned Amen Thompson as a team looking to shift they winning timeline into the future would value him as a possible cornerstone pice.

2023 NBA Draft
Olivier-Maxence Prosper went No. 24 overall to Sacramento before being traded to Dallas
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Sacramento Kings

This past season, the Sacramento Kings made the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and now look to build on their most successful season in over 15 years. After such a successful it can be easy for a team to not make any major moves and assume that improvement will just continue to happen year over year.

The odds at DraftKings Sportsbook certainly indicate that Sacramento simply running it back with the same risks the team regressing as their odds give the Kings the 9th best chance to win the Western Conference.

Sacramento made a small move during the draft that may not jump off the page, but may lead to the team adding talent this offseason. The Kings traded Richaun Holmes, who had fallen out of their rotation, to the Dallas Mavericks.

(The Mavs acquired Holmes using a trade exception created earlier in the night when Dallas cleared $12 million off their books by sending No. 10 overall and Davis Bertans to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for No. 12 overall.)

If the Kings allow all of their impending free agents to walk, including Harrison Barnes, and let go of their non-guaranteed contracts, they would have over $30 million to spend under the salary cap.

That amount of money, along with the full mid-level exception, could allow the Kings to add multiple talented players to their roster. One area they may focus on is adding a player that can improve their defense. Last season, the Kings clear weakness was their team defense and lock of true defensive stoppers as they ranked 24th in defensive rating. Draymond Green might be a player they look to add as he has led many championship defenses for the Golden State Warriors.

Sacramento will look to improve their roster as to avoid a potential regression that many overachieving teams see the following year. Their offense was truly spectacular last season, leading he NBA in offensive rating, and 2022-23 Kia NBA Clutch Player of the Year De’Aaron Fox helped them win many close games throughout the season. If the Kings slip in either of those two areas, they may see a regression in their win total as their defense won’t be able to pick up the slack without an addition of talent.

If the Wolves hope to make the playoffs and avoid the play-in tournament, every team, like Sacramento, that is able to add talent and improve their roster is an obstacle in the way of that goal.

Washington Wizards v Phoenix Suns
Bradley Beal and Chris Paul
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Phoenix Suns

In the days leading up to the draft, there was a blockbuster trade that ended up getting finalized on draft day that saw Bradley Beal get traded to the Phoenix Suns for Landry Shamet, Chris Paul, who would eventually get rerouted to Golden State, six second round picks, and four first-round pick swaps.

Before the trade, the Suns were already projected to be the second-best team in the Western Conference, behind the 2023 NBA champion Denver Nuggets, and adding Beal just cements their status as one of the best in the conference. They still have questions about how they will fill out the depth of their roster, but it’s hard to see a scenario where they aren’t a top-tier playoff team if they can stay healthy, which is a legitimate question with three stars who have been no stranger to the status report in recent years.

Where their situation becomes interesting from the Wolves perspective is how the Suns deal with the new luxury tax penalties, specifically the second apron that restricts a team’s ability to trade picks seven years into the future, take in money via a trade, and sign players from the buyout market.

With the trade for Beal, the Suns have committed themselves to paying the luxury tax and the second apron for years to come. Next season they will be paying their top four players (Ayton, Beal, Booker, and Durant) a total of $163 million. Just those four contracts alone almost put them over the luxury tax line of $165 million. Even if they fill out the remaining roster spots with league minimum contracts, they will be approaching the second luxury tax apron.

Phoenix could trade DeAndre Ayton for multiple less expensive players to help fill out the depth of their roster, but there isn’t any escaping that the Suns project to be a luxury tax team for awhile. It’s clear that the Suns are either not concerned with the potential penalties of the second apron, or find those risks worth it to add a player with as much talent as Bradley Beal.

The Timberwolves will find themselves in a similar situation next offseason when Towns’ super-max contract starts along with added money from Naz Reid’s recent 3-year $42 million contract extension, and the potential contract extensions of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. The Wolves will also look to re-sign restricted free agent Nickeil Alexander-Walker, which will add even more money for the 2024-25 season.

Seeing how Phoenix deals with their lack of flexibility will be an insightful look for the Wolves to see whether or not they want to put themselves into the same situation. The question that will be interesting to see is whether Phoenix is able to add enough depth around their stars to win multiple playoff series in the Western Conference, or if their lack of depth holds them back like it did in this most recent postseason.

The Beal trade also gives some insight into a potential return of trading KAT, if that is ever a decision the front office wants to make. While it’s clear Beal’s no-trade clause severely limited the amount Washington was able to get back, it’s impossible to deny that his super-max contract also limited the amount teams would be willing to give for a player that is a similar level to Towns.

If the return of a Towns trade is anything similar to that of Beal, the Wolves are probably better off sticking with KAT on the team, even with the penalties that come with the luxury tax and the second apron.

Golden State Warriors v Phoenix Suns
Jordan Poole and Chris Paul
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Golden State Warriors

Once the Suns traded Chris Paul to the Wizards, it was clear Paul’s stay in Washington wouldn’t be long as the Wizards would be looking for a new home for him. The Warriors were the team that stepped up as they traded Jordan Poole to Washington in exchange for Paul.

How much Paul will be able to contribute is still up in the air. Last season, the Suns saw Paul’s production begin to fall, which was to be expected for a point guard in his 18th NBA season. Injuries have also been an issue for Paul, as he was hurt for much of the Suns playoff run this past season.

Paul should be able to bring some punch off the bench for a team that could desperately need it. A huge issue for the Warriors has been the minutes where Steph Curry is on the bench. Paul should, at the very least, be able to run the bench unit and the Warriors playing better when Curry needs rest.

Trading for Paul was as much about acquiring the 38-year-old point guard for the Warriors, as it was removing Poole’s contract from their books. Last offseason, Poole signed a four-year $140 million extension with the Warriors. After struggling in the playoffs, many considered Poole’s contract to be a negative asset for the team and could potentially hold the Warriors back from properly building their team in the future.

The Warriors were able to remove over $95 million of future money, which as a team already in the luxury tax, could allow them to further build around their core of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. One move that now looks a lot easier to make is re-signing the third piece of their championship trio Draymond Green.

From the Wolves perspective, the Warriors may not have greatly improved their team for the upcoming season, but they are certainly in a better position to build their team going forward. It will be interesting to see if they are able to retain Draymond Green or if he still ends up on another team. Green has been such a huge piece of the Warriors dynasty, it’s hard to imagine this Warriors team without him.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Los Angeles Lakers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Memphis Grizzlies

Another draft day trade that should catch the eye of Wolves fans was the three-way deal between the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, and Memphis Grizzlies that saw Kristaps Porzingis headed to Boston along with two first-round picks from the Grizzlies, Minnesota native and former Timberwolf Tyus Jones going to Washington, and Marcus Smart ending up in Memphis.

The Grizzlies moving on from Jones, in favor of Smart, is an interesting move considering the recent 25-game suspension of Ja Morant. Previously, when Morant had been injured, the Grizzlies have still been able to win a lot of games, in part due to Jones taking over the starting point guard role. Most teams take a step back when their best player isn’t available, but the Grizzlies have almost gotten better record-wise when Tyus has been needed to take the starting role.

Smart is a great player and has been a key role in the recent success of the Boston Celtics. He has been a fantastic defender, winning the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year award. With Dillon Brooks leaving in free agency, Smart will slide right into that role, and do so without all the drama that has followed Brooks recently.

For the Wolves, it will be fascinating to watch how the Grizzlies look with Smart instead of Jones. I think from a pure talent perspective, the Grizzlies improved their team by letting go of their backup point guard and getting back a starting caliber player on a great contract. The real question is whether or not they take a step back as a regular season team without Jones there to lead the team in Morant’s absence.