Offseason Roundup for Teams Ahead of the Wolves
With the 2021 NBA Offseason quieting down over the next few weeks in the lead up to training camp we can start to form opinions about how certain teams have fared. Some have made legitimate improvements around the margins to strengthen their teams while others have repositioned themselves to gain assets now and better compete several years down the line. For our purposes we want to know how the teams directly in front of the Timberwolves in the 20–21 Western Conference standings have fared this offseason and which way they are trending heading into the 21–22 NBA season. Let’s take a look at the moves made by the Grizzlies, Warriors, Spurs, Pelicans, and Kings to determine if there is a real path to the Wolves making the playoffs.
***Leaving out the Rockets & Thunder here, who both finished behind the Wolves in the West last season. If the Wolves can’t finish ahead of them then we’ve got REAL problems***
Memphis Grizzlies (8th in West)
Major Additions: Steven Adams, Rajon Rondo, Daniel Oturu, Jarrett Culver, Juancho Hernangomez, Ziaire Williams, Santi Aldama, Sam Merrill
Major Subtractions: Grayson Allen, Jonas Valanciunas, Justise Winslow
Beginning with the 20–21 8th seed which also happens to be the team I have been most confused about during this offseason. Memphis has been a factory of drafting and developing high level players for the past several years. So much so that their rotation has been too jam-packed to find consistent minutes for guys that could be starters on lesser teams (see: Clarke, Brandon). They seemed primed for a consolidation trade to send a couple of young role players for an established starter that could help them vault up the standings. After all, we have recently seen teams succeed with continuity in their young players while acquiring veteran talent. The Jazz and Suns are perfect examples of that. After a surprise playoff season, I expected the Grizzlies to make a jump into the middle of the West playoff standings.
Instead they went the opposite direction sending out some of their established players, including arguably their most valuable player last season in Valanciunas, to acquire draft capital and a couple of lesser veteran players. Then they made a move to send one of the acquired veterans for two younger players in Culver and Hernangomez that may never really crack their primary rotation. The only real justifiable reason I can see for these moves is to A: play the younger players as much as possible to get them developing together, and/or B: Open up future cap flexibility by not having to pay guys like Jonas and Grayson next offseason. Both are reasonable options, but if I was a Grizzlies fan I would be a little disappointed that Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. were not surrounded by more great players and instead have had more youth inserted around them. I do really like the Ziaire Williams selection in the draft, but it is hard to see how he will contribute to winning very quickly.
Overall Memphis may not be much worse next season as they have a young star that could take another leap, but it does not look like they got better like a couple of the teams around them in the standings.
Trending: Down the standings
Golden State Warriors (9th in West)
Major Additions: Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr, Nemanja Bjelica, Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga,
Major Subtractions: Eric Paschall, Kelly Oubre Jr, Kent Bazemore
This next sentence is going to pain me to type… I think the Golden State Warriors have had a stealthily good offseason. This team had to be disappointed with their flame-out in the play-in tournament last season despite employing a top 3 player who won the scoring title. They just had very little depth behind their veterans as they continued to play some young guys to develop for the future. While they did not make any major moves this offseason, the Warriors head into next season looking to make a big leap.
For starters they jettisoned a few players that I personally did not think helped them all that much. Eric Paschall still has a chance to develop into something better, but it was hard to see how he fit with guys like Draymond and Steph. Oubre Jr. and Bazemore were solid veterans, but again were not likely to be able to maximize the stars surrounding them. To replace those guys they brought in their former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, a 3pt shooting wing in OPJ, and a stretch big man in Nemanja Bjelica. All 3 of those guys figure to fit alongside Steph and Draymond more cleanly than the guys they lost. Klay Thompson should also be on his way back midseason and his dead-eye shooting will be incredibly useful.
Finally, they ended up using their 2 lottery picks instead of dumping them for a win-now player. I think that was a generally smart decision (although they could change course should someone become available). Kuminga and Moody could both be big parts of the future while being somewhat helpful now. No one expects large roles from those 2, but if the trio of Wiseman, Kuminga, and Moody can show some juice this season then the Warriors will be in a great place for now and in the future.
Ultimately the health of their best players will determine how high they can rise up the standings. If we get another run at the MVP from Steph Curry, I could see a top 6 seed as they could unseat a team like the Clippers or Blazers. Curry, Green, Thompson, Wiggins, and a developing young core around them is not a bad situation at all.
Trending: Up the standings
San Antonio Spurs (10th in West)
Major Additions: Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Al-Farouq Aminu, Zach Collins, Josh Primo
Major Subtractions: DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills
Our first potential free-faller of the group. I get it, if you made a living betting against Gregg Popovich and the Spurs you would be broke. It has not been a smart bet, but it seems like they may finally head towards the bottom of the Western Conference. It is no secret that veteran teams win in the NBA. As the Spurs have gotten younger they have slowly dropped down the standings, and they have finally ripped the Band-Aid off by moving on from DeRozan, Gay, and Mills. Those are 3 important players. When the Wolves played the Spurs last season, the two biggest threats were DeRozan and Mills in my opinion. After dumping those guys, it seems likely San Antonio could finally take a big drop.
It is not all doom and gloom down South though! Their 1st round pick, Josh Primo, seems like a real high-ceiling swing and could be a big part of the next good Spurs team. The oft-injured Zach Collins was a smart buy-low signing for a guy with a ton of potential. McDermott and Young are great veterans on any team, and can act as trade chips down the road. It looks like San Antonio has set themselves up for a bright future!
Their final place in the West will be heavily determined by the developmental leaps of some of their young guards and wings. Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Tre Jones, Devin Vassell, and recent gold medalist Keldon Johnson are all really intriguing young players. Maybe the Popovich magic is still there and those players all progress together to surprise the league. It is certainly possible! But in the “take no prisoners” Western Conference the lack of a true go-to scorer may send them spiraling early in the year.
Trending: Down the standings, don’t be surprised if they free fall
New Orleans Pelicans (11th in West)
Major Additions: Jonas Valanciunas, Devonte Graham, Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, Trey Murphy III,
Major Subtractions: Lonzo Ball, Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe
I really liked what the Pelicans were doing this offseason near the draft! They made a deal to acquire Valanciunas who I think is an awesome center who can pair with Zion to bludgeon opposing defenses. The Pels also moved back in the draft but were still able to pick up a great fit in Trey Murphy III with the 17th pick. It was all shaping up to be a “forward moving” offseason for New Orleans as they look to take a leap lead by Zion Williamson. Then Free Agency opened, and within 48 hours things became less positive.
I had imagined a starting lineup of Ball, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Ingram, Zion, and Valanciunas as one of the more talented and versatile lineups in the West. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Lonzo signed in Chicago and the Pelicans received Satoransky and Temple as compensation in the sign & trade. Then they went and signed Devonte Graham and gave up a protected 1st round pick as compensation in a sign & trade for him. Ultimately now I think they are left with a group of guards that are best suited as 6th men or backup point guards. Will they start Satoransky and NAW? I do not love that but it could work. Do they expect enough of a leap from Kira Lewis Jr. to become a starter alongside NAW? Offensively that could work but I just wonder who they are guarding with all of the guard talent in the NBA. You run into the same issue when starting Graham as well who is probably best as a high-level 6th man.
After finishing 12th in offensive rating in 2021, I would bet on a bit of an improvement in their offensive ranking. Zion is only getting better, Valanciunas is an offensive upgrade over Adams, and Graham should be a solid offensive fit with the behemoths around him. I just worry about the 22nd ranked defense getting worse. Say what you will about Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams, but those guys are veterans that know how to defend in the league. Replacing Bledsoe, Ball, and Adams on the defensive end will take an entire team’s buy-in to keep the defense afloat. If Zion and Ingram improve in that area then the Pelicans have a real shot of making the top 8 in the conference or at least the play-in games. And they certainly could do that! Both players have already accomplished plenty from a statistics standpoint. With a new coach, that defensive improvement and buy-in could come as they try to pivot towards real winning. For now, I will be in a “wait and see” mode regarding their ability to do that, and they may end up treading water in the standings. The wild card is that the Pelicans have a metric ton of future draft capital to play around with along with a few tradeable contracts. A big trade could swing their outcomes tremendously.
Trending: Cautiously optimistic about moving up the standings
Sacramento Kings (12th in West)
Major Additions: Davion Mitchell, Tristan Thompson, Alex Len
Major Subtractions: Delon Wright, Hassan Whiteside
The Sacramento Kings have had a relatively quiet offseason so far without making any major moves. They made a small trade to send away Delon Wright and acquire Tristan Thompson, then let Hassan Whiteside walk and signed Alex Len. Nothing earth shattering there. The move that has me optimistic about their improvement though was the drafting of Davion Mitchell, owner of the best nickname in the league “Off Night.” That guy is a terror on defense, and a non-stop ball of energy on offense. Mitchell is small for the NBA, but at a certain point a combination of talent, energy, and basketball IQ makes up for the stature.
The Kings have brought back all of their other key players heading into this season. They resigned Richaun Holmes after a couple of breakout seasons, the everlasting Harrison Barnes is still around, and their young guard duo of De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton should only continue getting better. Mix Mitchell and Buddy Hield in there with those guys and you have the makings of a solid core that finally has some continuity to go along with the raw talent. Even if they end up trading Hield (as has been rumored all offseason) to upgrade elsewhere I like what they are building here.
The one big elephant in the room for this team: the coach. I do not pretend to know everything about evaluating coaches, but I feel that I have seen enough respected NBA writers call for a replacement of Luke Walton to know that it is a problem. As we have seen with the Wolves, sometimes a quality coach coming in can make all the difference for an underachieving team. Maybe it is not an issue and the talent they have should be enough to take them to the play-in games. I do not see them rising higher than that this year. I think a run to the play-in games could set the foundation for quality and consistency in the future for the Kings. Time will tell, but for now this team’s quiet offseason could actually benefit their ability to make a run.
Trending: Up the standings
So where does that leave our Minnesota Timberwolves? They finished 16 games behind the Warriors who were the West’s 8th best team in the regular season and 10 games behind the Spurs who were the 10th seed and final play-in team. With better health, coaching, and the development of an extremely young roster they can certainly make that 10 game jump. But the Wolves are not the only team hoping to improve on their previous season. I predict the Spurs to fall out of that 10th spot, but the Pelicans and Kings have eyes on moving into it. I know the Grizzlies may fall a bit, but even dropping a few more games this season keeps them right in the mix of the 9th and 10th seeds. Of this group, I do think the Wolves can pull ahead of the Spurs and Kings. It remains to be seen whether or not they will be able to match the improvement that could be coming for the Pelicans or catch the Grizzlies if they falter. Those two teams should be their main competition.
It is also possible that someone from the top 7 tumbles down the list. Teams like Dallas, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland, or Denver are heavily reliant on a single superstar at the moment. If any of those guys should miss significant time during the season there may be another spot open at the table.
This is an important season for the Timberwolves. If they are able to get good health luck from their best players I could see a play-in berth fairly easily. That should be the expectation anyway. If they are healthy yet unable to make the play-in, changes may be on the horizon. Time will tell, but this offseason has shaped up in a way to allow the Wolves to boost themselves into playoff territory.