Jace Frederick: Who’s the second-best team in the West? No one knows. It could even be the Timberwolves.
The Wolves have reason to believe they could easily be Denver’s biggest competitor in the West next season.
ST. PAUL -- The relative ease of Denver’s run through the Western Conference playoffs made it abundantly clear the Nuggets are currently far-and-away the best in the West.
What’s far less obvious: Who’s No. 2?
The Los Angeles Lakers were the other Western Conference finalist. The Memphis Grizzlies finished the regular season with the second-best record in the West. But there is a robust list of teams who can logically conclude they’re next in line heading into next season should Denver suffer injuries or falter.
The Sacramento Kings are clearly an ascending club that may have been derailed in the playoffs by De’Aaron Fox’s finger injury. Memphis fell in the first round, but did so while down two of its rotational big men. The Los Angeles Clippers concluded their first-round series without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. Phoenix lost Chris Paul in Game 2 of its second-round series with Denver, and had little time to gel after making its seismic trade for Kevin Durant. Golden State is still the reigning NBA champion for another couple weeks. Even New Orleans, who missed the playoffs altogether, sure looked like one of the conference’s elite when Zion Williamson was healthy.
And then there are the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota went through what many considered to be a disappointing 2022-23 campaign that ended in a five-game first-round exit at the hands of the Nuggets. But four of those contests were highly competitive, leading Action Network’s Matt Moore to note on Twitter that “the Wolves might have been the toughest West matchup for Denver.”
That doesn’t mean Minnesota was the second-best team in the conference by any stretch. But like many of its counterparts, Minnesota, too, has things it can point to as reasons for deficiencies this season.
The Wolves were incorporating a big piece in Rudy Gobert, who entirely changed the way the team operated. Karl-Anthony Towns missed two-thirds of the season with a calf injury. Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid were lost to injuries by season’s end.
The Wolves have reason to believe they could easily be Denver’s biggest competitor in the West next season, as do Phoenix, the Clippers, the Lakers, the Grizzlies, Golden State, Sacramento and New Orleans.
Oklahoma City is a team on the up and up with its young core. Portland has Damian Lillard and assets – including the No. 3 overall pick in this summer’s NBA Draft – that could be used to acquire another star with which to pair him. The Blazers certainly seem committed to being aggressive this offseason to give themselves the best chance to win next season.
Why wouldn’t you think that way given the current landscape of the West? Denver does appear to be in a position to rule for the time being, but so many things can derail any given team in an NBA season that having one clear favorite is not enough to deter others from “going for it.”
Which is what should make the upcoming offseason so fascinating. Double-digit Western Conference teams have good reasons to be aggressive to better themselves heading into the fall. So many of them are one or two proper tweaks away from sticking their nose out in front of the pack.
And now is an ideal window to contend in the West, in between Golden State’s dynasty and the emergence of the conference’s next wave.
Oklahoma City seems to be in a good position to compete at a championship-level in the years to come. San Antonio is set to draft Victor Wembanyama, who’s billed as a transcendent prospect that could soon take over the league.
But there is an opportunity for others to take a bite at the apple in the next couple seasons before those two organizations make their likely ascension to the top. So look for a number of teams to push chips into the middle of the table this offseason.
But what about the Wolves? They already made an “all in” move last summer by trading for Gobert. Do they want to expend any more future resources to better next years’ roster? There is risk in that, given Minnesota is built to succeed in coming years as the likes of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels continue to progress and evolve.
It’s not far-fetched to think the Wolves could belong in a similar class as the Thunder and Spurs three or four years from now. It’s also not crazy to believe they could make significant noise next season.
What Minnesota does this offseason may reveal which path the organization views as more likely. Or, perhaps, the Wolves will attempt to do both.
Because as intriguing as the future always is, in the West, there really is no time to strike like the present
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