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

Let’s get into the second set of Western Conference teams that were active in Free Agency to try and make a playoff run next season.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Western Conference counterparts were certainly active in NBA Free Agency last month, as several major players reloaded to make another run at the NBA Finals next season.

In Part I of the series, I looked at the Houston Rockets’ pursuit of Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks, the Portland Trail Blazers’ pricey Jerami Grant decision and never-ending Damian Lillard saga, and the Dallas Mavericks betting on continuity with some fringe edits.

Today, we’re going to look at the rest of the West.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Los Angeles Lakers

A team Timberwolves fans have become well-acquainted with at this point is the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers started off the season with Wolves’ fan favorite Patrick Beverley, who among others, was dealt at the trade deadline. Also at the deadline, in a trade with the Wolves and Jazz, three former Wolves — D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley — all reunited in Los Angeles, where they played a big role in the Lakers mid-season turnaround.

Ultimately, the Lakers defeated a short-handed Wolves team in the Play-In Tournament 108-102 in overtime. The Lakers were able to parlay that Play-In victory into a trip to the Western Conference Finals, where they were defeated by the same team that took out the Wolves, the eventual champion Denver Nuggets.

The Lakers were able to re-sign all of the key players from the team that made the Western Conference Finals. Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and Rui Hachimura all signed new multi-year contracts with the Lakers. With Reaves and Hachimura playing pivotal roles in the Lakers’ two playoff series victories, it was crucial that General Manager Rob Pelinka and Co. were able to bring them back.

While Russell’s play was up and down for the Lakers in the postseason, something that is familiar for Wolves fans, he was still a big improvement over former Laker point guard Russell Westbrook. Especially in the regular season. Russell’s $18 million a year contract also makes him a prime trade piece if the Lakers look to upgrade his spot at the trade deadline.

Not only did the Lakers retain their top free agents, but they were able to add depth players to fill out their roster. Gabe Vincent, Jaxson Hayes, Cam Reddish, and former Timberwolf Taurean Prince all signed contracts this offseason with the Lakers. Vincent is an especially nice addition as he was a key piece for the Miami Heat in their run to the NBA Finals last year. He should be more than solid as the backup point guard behind Russell.

Given LeBron James’ age and how often Anthony Davis misses time with injuries, the Lakers are a team that might end up with less regular season wins than their talent and recent playoff success might suggest. Unlike in previous seasons, though, they have done a much better job putting quality players around James and Davis heading into the 2023-24 campaign.

It is far more likely that the quality of the Lakers next season is far more similar to the team that ended last regular season winning 13 of their last 18 games than the one that started off the season 13-20. The Lakers project to be a formidable opponent in both the regular season and playoffs if the Wolves want to make it out of the first round for the first time since 2004.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Golden State Warriors

One of the teams the Lakers eliminated in their playoff run last season was the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The Warriors had a turbulent season last year that started with Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole in the face in a video that was leaked online. This incident, among other events, led to the Warriors winning nine fewer games than in 2021-22.

One of the biggest issues for the Warriors was their inability to win games on the road. The Warriors last season had a 11-30 road record, which was the fourth worst road record in the entire NBA. The Warriors poor defense in these road games was the cause of the losing record. While their defense rating at home ranked third in the NBA, the Warriors’ defensive rating on the road fell all the way to 28th.

While the reasoning for this drop in defense on the road isn’t fully explainable, it may have been caused, in part, to a lack of team continuity stemming from the Green punch. When the Warriors traded Poole away to the Washington Wizards for Chris Paul, the Warriors made it clear that they would be choosing Draymond over Poole moving forward.

That only became clearer when new General Manager Mike Dunleavy Jr. and the Dubs’ front office re-signed Draymond to a four-year, $100 million contract. This will keep the homegrown championship trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Green together for at least another season as they try to win their fifth championship.

As far as major moves, re-signing Draymond was the only addition the Warriors have made in free agency. They have made some signings on the margins, Cory Joseph and Dario Saric, but the far bigger development for Golden State was losing Donte DiVincenzo. While the Warriors were not expected to retain DiVincenzo, losing him will still be a big loss for Golden State.

While the Warriors starting five is still in place from the previous year, the losses of DiVincenzo and Poole mean the Warriors bench looks to be a lot less talented this upcoming season. Paul will most likely be tasked with running the bench lineup, which is a role that should suit him.

The limited talent off the bench means that the margin of error for the Warriors is even smaller, which for a team that didn’t have much to begin with. The Warriors will be relying on one or both of their young players, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, to provide value off the bench. Both players have had limited success in the NBA so far, so this season sets up as a make or break season of sorts for both players.

The Warriors still see themselves as championship contenders, but the reality is they may not have the depth on their roster to stack of tons of wins in the regular season. Removing the Poole and Green dynamic might provide a boost to team chemistry, but it’s hard to see where the Warriors will be getting the extra wins to outperform their record last year given the talent out the door.

For the Wolves, the Warriors will be a team they will look to pass in the standings if they hope to avoid being in the Play-in Tournament for the third straight year. If the Wolves aren’t able to pass Golden State in the standings, they will start to run out of spots in the top six of the Western Conference playoff picture.

Los Angeles Clippers v Phoenix Suns - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Phoenix Suns

After acquiring Bradley Beal before the draft, the big questions for the Phoenix Suns were would they be able to surround Beal, Kevin Durant, and Devin Booker with enough talent depth given the the financial restrictions of the new CBA, and would they have to trade Deandre Ayton to do it.

The answer to the first question, as of now, is a resounding yes. The Suns were able to sign Eric Gordon, Damion Lee, Yuta Watanabe, Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks, and Chimezie Metu, while also retaining former Timberwolf Josh Okogie. Many of these players seem to take lesser money that they could have got elsewhere for the opportunity to play for a championship contender.

While the Suns did keep Ayton, he could end up being a trade piece down the line if they are looking for a roster shakeup around their top three players. Ayton didn’t play as well last year as he did in the Suns run to the NBA Finals in 2021, so the Suns will look for a rebound season from their young center.

The Suns have built a championship contending powerhouse that projects to win 50+ games and be one of the best teams in the Western Conference. If the Wolves were to finish ahead of the Suns in the standings, it would likely mean they had a fantastic season and won plenty of games to earn a home playoff series in the first round.

As a playoff opponent, the Suns look to be an absolute juggernaut. Last year, their lack of depth really hurt them in the playoffs and now with their additions, they seemed to have largely solved that issue with their free agency additions. If the Wolves hope to make a long run in the playoffs next season, they will have to beat a team as good or better than the Phoenix Suns.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Golden State Warriors v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Sacramento Kings

Last season, the Sacramento Kings finally broke their 16-year long playoff drought, a feeling Timberwolves fans know all too well as the Wolves had a similar playoff drought up until 2018. The Kings won 48 games, earning the three seed in Western Conference, eventually losing to the Warriors in seven games.

Despite the disappointing playoffs, last season was an unmitigated success for the Kings and their long-suffering fans. Their two All-Star players, Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox, were both spectacular with each being named Third Team All-NBA and Fox winning Kia Clutch Player of the Year.

During free agency, the Kings largely elected to just roll back their team from last year. They re-signed Harrison Barnes, Alex Len, and Trey Lyles, while also renegotiating and extending Sabonis’ contract through the 2027-28 season. They went out and traded for Chris Duarte, sending a couple second round picks to the Indiana Pacers and signed EuroLeague MVP Sasha Vezenkov.

Bringing back their team from last year isn’t a move without logic for the Kings. They had their best team in over a decade and a half, so it makes sense to keep that team together and run it back again. The problem with that is, progression isn’t always linear, and the areas that went right for a team one year, aren’t guaranteed to repeat the following year.

The Kings defense is a large team deficiency the Sacramento front office failed to address. Last season, the Kings were 24th in defensive rating, which is unusual for NBA teams with playoff success. Teams ranked in the bottom ten in defensive rating, often find it hard to win playoff series, as the Kings did this last year.

The reason the Kings were so good last year, was they ranked first in offensive efficiency. Their stellar offense was far from a fluke as they have many phenomenal offensive players, but it is very difficult to have the top rated offense back to back seasons. The last team to do so was the Warriors, who added Kevin Durant in the middle of their two seasons run as the top offensive team.

If the Kings offense slips, it is hard to see how their defense will be able to compensate on the other end. If their offense falls to being ranked fifth, for example, a ranking that almost every team would be happy with, it is hard to see how their defense breaks into the top 20 of defensive rating given they didn’t add any defensive minded players.

The only defense-focused addition the Kings made was signing Nerlens Noel in July. Noel struggled to find consistent playing time with both the Detroit Pistons and Brooklyn Nets last season.

All of that to say, Sacramento’s season was neither a flash in the pan, nor luck based in any way. They had a phenomenal season because they put together a great team and the team performed great. In a crowded Western Conference though, every team has little margin for error if they want to make the playoffs as a top six seed.

In a season where the Kings were the least injured team in the entire NBA and they still only won four more games than a Timberwolves team that struggled with injury issues all year, most notably Karl-Anthony Towns. If those roles reverse, and the Wolves are the team that stays healthy all year, the Kings would be a team the Timberwolves will look to pass in the standings.