NBA West will be better, which means Timberwolves' path to playoffs will be tougher
ST. PAUL — On the eve of free agency, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said his players were already committing to their offseason workouts. Andrew Wiggins was in the gym early in the offseason, Derrick Rose was getting in his workouts in Los Angeles and Tyus Jones is a frequent visitor to the Wolves' practice facility. Even incoming rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop quickly showed an eagerness to work and improve.
"That's the type of commitment you need," Thibodeau said. "It's basically year round, everyone has to get better, and we have to be ready for the challenge ahead. As you guys can see, the West is not going to get easier. It's only going to get tougher."
A conference headed by the NBA's top two teams last season in Golden State and Houston and stacked with quality franchises chasing them has gotten better this offseason.
The Warriors added DeMarcus Cousins, an all-star capable of making the two-time defending champs unstoppable if he successfully recovers from a torn Achilles.
The Lakers added LeBron James, which instantly boosts them from out of playoff contention into the conversation for the Western Conference's upper echelon.
Dallas acquired prominent big man DeAndre Jordan in free agency and nabbed European sensation Luka Doncic in the draft.
If Mike Conley can return to form to pair with Marc Gasol, Memphis could again be formidable.
Phoenix still isn't expected to contend for a playoff spot but should be much improved after selecting big man Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 pick and agreeing to terms with two-way wing Trevor Ariza, who was a big part of Houston's rise to the top of the conference.
Don't feel too bad for the Rockets, who agreed to a four-year deal to bring back Chris Paul, meaning they'll again sport one of the NBA's most lethal backcourts.
And even if San Antonio does trade Kawhi Leonard, don't forget they made the playoffs without him last year. If the Spurs mend fences and bring one of the league's best all-around players back, they'll re-enter title conversations. If they have to trade Leonard, they'll acquire assets to supplement what was already a postseason participant in in 2018.
It's hard to peg a 2017-18 Western Conference playoff team that will drop off. Utah was one of the best teams in the conference last season when Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert was on the floor. New Orleans lost Cousins, but he wasn't part of the Pelicans' late-season surge and playoff success anyway. And while losing Rajon Rondo to the Lakers will hurt, the Pelicans did add to their front-court depth with Julius Randle and still have the brilliant one-two punch of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. It's hard to see Oklahoma City missing the playoffs with Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the roster.
Portland will be a playoff hopeful so long as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are in its backcourt, and Denver returns almost everyone from a team that got hot at the end of last season and nearly chased down the Wolves for the West's final playoff spot.
Realistically, it likely will be the Warriors, Rockets, Jazz, Lakers, Thunder, Pelicans, Wolves, Blazers, Spurs and Nuggets competing for eight spots in the 2019 Western Conference playoffs, which means two really good teams could be left out.
Could one be the Wolves? Sure. Minnesota has made a couple of minor tweaks this offseason. It added wing depth through the draft and essentially exchanged Nemanja Bjelica for Anthony Tolliver, who likely is a better fit for what the Wolves need their backup power forward to be. But, in general, this is shaping up to be a very similar team to the one that finished eighth in the conference last season.
There are reasons to believe Minnesota will improve this year. If Jimmy Butler plays 75-plus games, that's probably worth another three or four wins. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins should take steps forward given another offseason to progress.
Another season together should improve the chemistry between a team of players who were largely new to each other last season.
Will that be enough? It has to be. As Thibodeau put it, "everyone has to get better." If not, the ever-improving West will leave the Wolves in its massive wake.