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2023 NBA Free Agency: How Will Western Conference Moves Affect the Wolves? Part I

A couple weeks into Free Agency, Western Conference teams have made a lot of moves to improve their team. From the perspective of the Timberwolves, let’s take a look at which teams have changed the most.

Portland Trail Blazers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t have much space under the luxury tax, but still were able to make moves at the start of NBA Free Agency. The Wolves re-signed Naz Reid and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, while also adding Shake Milton and Troy Brown Jr. to the roster.

While the Wolves didn’t go out and sign a flashy new batch of free agents, that doesn’t mean other teams didn’t as well. Let’s take a look at the free agency moves made around the Western Conference might affect the Wolves both next season and into the future.

Chicago Bulls v Toronto Raptors Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/Getty Images

Houston Rockets

One of the biggest spenders of free agency was the Houston Rockets. They made many big acquisitions including signing Fred VanVleet to a three-year, $128 million contract and Dillon Brooks to a four-year, $86 million contract. VanVleet is a solid starting level guard and Brooks has shown to be a valuable defensive player for the playoffs when not feuding with court-side fans.

The Rockets also signed Jock Landale to a four-year, $32 million contract, and Jeff Green to a two-year, $16 million contract. Both players showed in the playoffs that they can be helpful to a winning team and should fill out Houston’s rotation nicely.

One of the main reasons for their spending spree this offseason was they needed to reach the minimum team salary of $122.418 million. If they did not reach that number, the difference would be sent to the 29 other teams. This left the Rockets with little other choice but to spend that money on quality players, instead of just handing it over to the other teams.

The other big reason for spending so much money is to provide some veteran leadership for their young players. This past season, the Rockets went largely without any veteran presence at all, which led to some wondering if that was doing a disservice to their young players, Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., and Alperen Şengün.

From the Timberwolves’ perspective, the Rockets will still likely end up toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings. While adding solid veteran players around their young guys will make them an improved team next season, they still have a long way to go before becoming a playoff team.

Maybe they can be a playoff team in a year or two, if their young players make significant improvements. The other route to winning for them would be to acquire star-level talent, which would likely mean parting with at least one of their young talented players.

For this year, it is hard to see a scenario where the Rockets are pushing into the Play-in Tournament in the crowded Western Conference. It seems, for now, the Rockets are content with continuing to build around their young players, while also bringing in a few talented veterans to help teach the young players how to win a few more games.

Los Angeles Clippers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers

The biggest question for the Portland Trail Blazers after the draft was, are they going to trade Damian Lillard, or continue trying to build a winning team around him. Well, Lillard made that decision easy for them as Portland’s long-time franchise player has requested a trade.

It is hard to tell if this would have been Portland’s path all along, but after drafting Scoot Henderson with the third pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, it became clear that the Trail Blazers had their point guard of the future, and it was time to move on from the franchise icon, Lillard.

All of this is probably best for both parties, as Portland gets to build around their young back court of Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe, and Lillard will get a chance to potentially compete for championships in a new city. There has been some initial ugliness between the two parties, as the Trail Blazers try to get the most they can back in the trade and as Lillard trying to force his way to Miami, but ultimately, Lillard will get traded, and Portland will get some useful pieces back in return.

There are a few aspects of this development that are interesting from the Wolves point of view. The first is that instead of building a team this offseason that could compete for the playoffs, the Trail Blazers will be tearing it down, and will likely be at the bottom of the standings next year.

The next aspect that comes to mind would be is there a potential for a Lillard for Karl-Anthony Towns swap that could make sense for both teams. If Portland isn’t interested in a full rebuild, could Towns be an option as a return for Lillard. They could also look to flip Towns to a third team, which could net them a higher return than what other teams are offering.

While the Wolves have shown interest in Lillard, the Blazers haven’t shown much interest in acquiring Towns. Lillard has also said through his agent, Aaron Goodwin, that he may sit out if he is sent to a team other than his desired landing spot, the Miami Heat. All of this makes Damian Lillard ending up in Minnesota unlikely, to say the least.

The final area, and possibly most important, that will be of interest to the Timberwolves is what Portland gets back in exchange for Lillard and how that relates to what the Wolves could get back for Towns. Lillard, like Towns, is on a supermax contract that pays him over $60 million in the final year. While Lillard is an incredible player that every team would love to have, if the return for him is less than expected given the large amount of money owed to him the next four years, it could be a bad sign for the Timberwolves if they ever look to trade KAT.

Similar to the Bradley Beal trade though, a Lillard trade may not be an apples to apples comparison to what a Towns trade might look like. Lillard trying to force his way to Miami might suppress his value similar to Beal’s no-trade clause. It will still be another data point in what teams can get back for a supermax player.

Sacramento Kings v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Dallas Mavericks

After making the Western Conference Finals in 2022, the Dallas Mavericks made a big trade mid-way through last season, acquiring Kyrie Irving from the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, a 2029 unprotected first-round pick and two second-round picks.

The Mavericks most likely thought that Irving would give their team an added boost of talent that would lead them to the playoffs. Instead the opposite happened and the Mavericks went 9-18 after Kyrie joined the team, with Dallas ultimately tanking the final two games of the regular season, prioritizing keeping their first-round draft pick over making the Play-in Tournament.

The main reason for the Mavericks’ drop in play was the lack of quality depth pieces around Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. This left a lot of big questions for Dallas this offseason as not only would they need to replace the depth they lost, but they would need to re-sign Irving who was now a free agent.

The Mavericks were able to retain Irving, signing him to a three-year, $126 million contract. The fit on the court between him and Dončić remains a bit of a mystery, but Dallas couldn’t afford to lose Irving to another team for nothing in return. They may have overpaid for Irving, but they ultimately backed themselves into that corner by trading for him last trade deadline.

Dallas was also able to add depth pieces as well in free agency by adding Grant Williams and Seth Curry, while also retaining Dwight Powell. Williams is the stand out addition, as he was an integral playoff player for the Boston Celtics the past few seasons. His shooting ability is still a concern, but given the outstanding shooting talents of Dončić and Irving, Williams should be able to slide seamlessly into the starting lineup.

With any team that had a disappointing season and had to re-work their roster, it is still yet to be seen how well all of the Dallas Mavericks new additions fit in with the team. Not to mention, the extent to which Doncic and Irving are able to maximize each other’s talents on the court is still yet to be seen.

At the very least though, the Mavericks look to be much improved from the team that went 38-44 last season. With the Mavericks retaining Irving, and adding other pieces, they look to be another team that will be fighting with the Timberwolves for a top six seed in a stacked Western Conference come playoff time.

If Wolves fans are looking for a team that finished below them in the standings last season that will be much improved next season, the Mavericks are the team that stands out most. It is highly unlikely that Dallas will hand the Wolves the gift of tanking out of the playoffs again this upcoming season.