As basketball season draws near, surely every Minnesota Timberwolves fan has been part of a conversation in which a friend or coworker claims the Wolves could — or should — host a playoff series, avoid the Play-In Tournament, or make it to the second round of the NBA Playoffs. While that person might very well be right, those statements often come without much context.
Are the Nuggets going to fall? The Suns won’t stay healthy? The Grizzlies start the year slow without Ja Morant? The Kings regress? Chris Paul doesn’t gel with Golden State? Paul George and Kawhi have another injury-plagued year?
It’s similar to All-NBA or NBA All-Star conversations. If you think a certain player should’ve been an All-Star, who’s getting kicked out? If you think the Wolves are finishing in the top four, which of last season’s teams are they dethroning? For Minnesota to jump, someone has to fall.
Let’s take a look into who might be primed for an uptick in wins and who could fall in the standings in 2023-24.
Revisiting the Top Four
The reigning NBA Champion Denver Nuggets lost versatile wing Bruce Brown to the Indiana Pacers this summer, taking a chunk out of their depth and removing a critical piece of their championship rotation.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remains a tremendous 3-and-D threat, while Christian Braun flexed his defensive chops last season. Without Brown, those two will be thrust into additional responsibility on the wings.
Spending time discussing Denver’s role players might be worthwhile, but it feels like burying the lede. If Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray are healthy, this team will find itself hosting a playoff series this season.
A busy offseason for the Phoenix Suns included acquiring Bradley Beal while sending out every possible draft asset to bring in the three-time All-Star. President of Basketball Operations and General Manager James Jones also signed veteran Eric Gordon to a veteran’s minimum contract, exceptional value for a player that shot 42% from deep in 22 games with the Los Angeles Clippers last season.
Jones rounded out the roster by adding Yuta Watanabe, Keita Bates-Diop and Drew Eubanks on minimum deals, again finding value with players that crave a chance to win an NBA title.
Jusuf Nurkic slides in at the 5 spot after trading Deandre Ayton to Portland, while Grayson Allen gets added to the rotation. A downgrade at center but upgrade to overall spacing feels like a net-positive, as Phoenix was a prime candidate for a 2-for-1 (4-for-1, in this case) trade in which they add two role players to the rotation in exchange for one.
Sure, injury concern is real with this team. It was with Chris Paul, too. But attempting to account for injury in preseason projections is somewhat foolish, as the “they won’t be good if their best players don’t play” argument is lazy can be made for every team. At full — or nearly full — strength there’s no reason to project this team outside of the top four in the West.
The Memphis Grizzlies sent ripples through the NBA world when they traded for Marcus Smart, a stunning move from the Boston Celtics but one that made perfect sense for the Grizz. Smart, along with Desmond Bane and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr., will form quite the defensive trio. Despite a very strong starting five at full strength, Memphis seems to be the likeliest of last year’s top four to regress, as newness scattered across the roster will take time to settle, and Morant is suspended for the first 25 games of the season.
Former table-setter Tyus Jones was integral to their success without Morant, and with him now in Washington they’ll rely even more on Smart to run the offense in addition to producing as normal on defense. He’ll be filling the role of two departed players, as he’ll be tasked with making up Dillion Brooks’ defensive impact while also running the offense as Jones would. It’s a tall order, but Smart theoretically fills both of those needs.
Their loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round clearly forced the front office to consider a significant move, and they took a swing on Smart, someone who’ll step into the vocal leader role on day one.
A relatively quiet offseason for the Sacramento Kings ran counter to rumors of clearing cap space for a big-name free agent or trade target. Instead they re-signed Harrison Barnes to a three-year, $54 million contract to keep their veteran presence and 82-games-played ironman in their power forward spot. They also locked in Domantas Sabonis, signing him to a four-year, $186 million dollar extension.
A crushing seven-game series loss to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs highlighted this team’s bright future, making sense to resign their players and give it another go in 2023-24.
Trading for Indiana Pacers’ guard Chris Duarte (in exchange for two second-round picks) was a nice low-risk move, as the former Oregon Duck will hope to bounce back after a season in which his scoring and efficiency fell following an eye-opening rookie campaign.
After taking the league by storm in 2022-23, it’s tough to say if the Kings got immediately better or worse. Sasha Vezenkov — last seasons’s EuroLeague MVP — is an intriguing add as a 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward who shot nearly 40% from deep in 12 seasons in Europe.
The Sacramento front office prioritized development with their current group while attempting to improve on the margins, exhibiting a relatively uncommon amount of patience among teams in the NBA. With another year of camaraderie and coaching from Mike Brown, the Kings are primed for another run to finish in the top four.
The Middle of the Pack
If James Harden (or Jrue Holiday) ends up a member of the Los Angeles Clippers without trading one of Paul George or Kawhi Leonard, their projected will total will surely go up.
Russell Westbrook was a fantastic addition after being bought out by the Utah Jazz, and brining him back for roughly $9 million this season is good value. He was the answer to their point guard woes of the last few years, and a full offseason and regular season should have a strong impact. Their depth takes a hit losing Eric Gordon, but it saved Steve Balmer over $100 million in luxury tax payments.
The NBA cracking down on load management will undoubtedly affect this team greatly, but perhaps will give viewers a better idea of what this team will look like with Westbrook, George and Leonard sharing the court together.
Having Leonard and George healthy is as significant an improvement as it gets, and with them on the court for at least — or more than — 50 games, they’ll remain in the top six of the conference.
Doubling down on the current moment comes with its risks, but the Golden State Warriors pushed concerns to the side when they brought in 38-year-old Chris Paul in exchange for 24-year-old Jordan Poole.
The move addresses the Warriors’ years-long issue of finding offense without Stephen Curry on the floor, but it presents an issue in the starting lineup (in addition to chemistry issues after battling with Paul for years).
Outside of their move for Paul, the Warriors signed Cory Joseph and Dario Saric to veteran’s minimum contracts while losing Donte DiVincenzo to the New York Knicks. As of the last week of September, Golden State has just 13 players signed to their roster.
The Dubs’ five-man combination of Curry-Thompson-Wiggins-Green-Looney had an offensive rating of 128 in 331 minutes player last season, which provides Steve Kerr an argument for having Paul come off the bench for the first time ever.
Paul fits this core better than Poole, and provides the team the creation outside of Curry they’ve craved forever. Outside of their starting lineup conundrum, there’s a lot to like for the Warriors in 2023-24.
The Los Angeles Lakers had a tremendous summer. Retaining the players that brought them to the Western Conference finals last season was at the top of the to-do list, as they agreed to terms with D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura and Jarred Vanderbilt.
Their new additions to the team were minimal, yet important. Former Wolf Taurean Prince packed his bags for L.A., a good get for a Lakers squad that ranked 27th in deep-range shooting last season. Gabe Vincent also provides versatility in a backcourt that will miss Dennis Schroder and his tenacious defense.
Re-signing Russell to a two-year, $36 million contract (with a player option on the second year) is great for both sides. With an always-rising salary cap, that’s fair value. Reaves’ new deal was maybe the value of the summer, as a four-year, $54 million deal for the 25-year-old was almost exclusively pinned a huge win for the Lakers. Reaves provides them not only a win-now player, but someone to potentially bridge the gap between the current era and the post-Lebron James era.
Hachimura shined in the postseason, flexing his ability to defend multiple positions and score efficiently. If his production mirrors that of his play in May, that contract will be another fair value.
Like the Kings, the Lakers brought back their key pieces while adding a few nice pieces on the margins. Carrying over their post-deadline team into next season, the expectation is certainly that LA finishes with more wins that last season.
We’ve arrived at the Minnesota Timberwolves. They’re a popular choice for improvement in 2023-24, primarily because of a full offseason to get continue getting acclimated with Rudy Gobert as well as having Karl-Anthony Towns healthy. The Kentucky product missed 52 games last year with a calf strain, and his presence alone, if subtracting nothing else, should tack on a couple more wins.
Bruce Brown’s comments about the Wolves being their toughest out came without having played against Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels, meaning this team has much more ammunition in 2023-24.
Reid inked a three-year, $42 million deal to remain in Minneapolis, a sigh of relief for Timberwolves fans expecting him to take more money elsewhere. Also signing a new deal was Anthony Edwards — the most important move the team made all summer — to a five-year, $206 million extension. An extension for McDaniels hasn’t happened yet, but surely remains a critical aspect of future planning.
Minnesota brought in Shake Milton and Troy Brown Jr. to bolster the team’s wing depth after losing Jaylen Nowell and Taurean Prince, with Milton providing playmaking and scoring juice and Brown Jr. adding much-needed shooting.
It’s not unreasonable to project this team to finish ahead of the teams like the Clippers and Lakers, while also expecting them to end up very close to teams like Memphis. However, it seems the No. 5 or 6 spot in the West is the highest one can project the Timberwolves with all the talent in the conference. They have to prove it, at some point.
Play-In Locks With Upside
The Oklahoma City Thunder are perhaps the most popular pick to make a leap in 2023-24, with No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren set to make his NBA debut nearly one year after suffering a foot injury that kept him out for his entire first season. For a team that could’ve used additional shooting and size/rim protection, Holmgren could be a puzzle piece that unlocks the Thunder.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is coming off First Team All-NBA honors and is primed to lead this team to the next level alongside budding star Jalen Williams and the rest of Oklahoma City’s young talent.
General Manager Sam Presti punted on making big moves this summer, absorbing Davis Bertans’ contract in exchange for moving up to select Kentucky’s Cason Wallace at No. 10 in this summer’s draft. Patience seems like the right move, but with a roster full of young talent that will need to be paid, consolidation feels imminent.
One of the harder teams to pin down and project for 2023-24 is the New Orleans Pelicans. With Zion Williamson on the court, they’re fantastic. Without, they’re only good.
Their most significant move of the summer was re-signing stifling defender Herb Jones to a four-year, $54 million deal, locking in their lockdown perimeter defender.
This season is relatively straightforward for the Pelicans: get a larger sample size of Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum and go from there.
On the Play-In Fringe
The Dallas Mavericks did a lot of things right this summer. They retained Kyrie Irving as opposed to losing him for nothing on a three-year, $126 million deal, no doubt their most important move this summer.
In building around their duo, they drafted defensive-minded (but raw) center Dereck Lively II, traded for Richaun Holmes for additional interior braun, re-signed Dwight Powell for $26 million over three years, and brought in Seth Curry, Derrick Jones Jr. and Markieff Morris.
They addressed many of their needs, shoring up their interior size, outside shooting and perimeter defense. There’s plenty of moving parts with this squad, most important of which is the development of chemistry between Irving and Luka Doncic. If they gel, in addition to the contributions from their newcomers, this could very well be a team that’s a tough out in the playoffs.
The Utah Jazz made a whopping three selections in the first round of the draft, adding Taylor Hendricks, Keyonte George and Brice Sensabaugh. George was taken with the Timberwolves’ first pick owed to the Jazz.
Outside of the draft, Utah’s summer was highlighted by acquiring John Collins for only Rudy Gay and a second-round pick while also extending microwave scorer Jordan Clarkson for two years and $28 million.
Collin Sexton and Lauri Markkanen provide solidified options to win games now, and will create an interesting trio with Collins. But a team primarily focused on the development of their young talent will be on the outside looking in, despite winning 37 games last year. In more so of an ode to the teams around them in the standings, the Jazz will likely find themselves fighting for a play-in spot in 2023-24.
The Houston Rockets’ spending spree this summer placed them in a position to get in the play-in ballpark, but it’s yet to be seen how Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks will elevate the team that tied for the second-worst record in the NBA in last season.
They’re both culture-changing additions — as is new head coach Ime Udoka — but it’s a roster that needs plenty of work and exceptional growth from its young pieces. Cam Whitmore and Amen Thompson enter as prized draft picks to go alongside Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason. There’s a ton to like about their future, but they’re not yet on the same level as Utah, Dallas and others. A 10-win jump in 2023-24 seems like the best-case scenario, although Houston’s best season post-James Harden is imminent.
This season will purely be a chance for Wembanyama to get acclimated to NBA play and allow him and the team’s other young talent to grow in the Spurs’ system for another year.
Having traded Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, the Portland Trail Blazers now find themselves in a similar position as the Spurs. They’ll allow their prized 2023 draft pick Scoot Henderson to grow in his rookie season while the franchise builds for the future.
Jrue Holiday is another route to reloading General Manager Joe Cronin’s asset chest, as there will be no shortage of takers for the 2021 NBA Champion. Assuming a haul that includes at least one young player and one first-round pick, the Blazers will have set themselves up nicely to build around a core of Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe and Henderson. In the meantime, they’ll find themselves near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.