#3 Phoenix Suns
With more time to think about this, I might have them ranked a little less favorably in the Western Conference. One year after finishing ninth in the loaded conference with 48 wins, the Suns regressed and finished with only 39 wins, trading away Goran Dragic and losing one of their best assets. (the semi-protected Lakers’ first-round pick) They’ll return a strong young core of Eric Bledsoe (owed $57 million over the next four years), the Morris brothers (owed a combined $52 million over the next four years), P.J. Tucker ($11 million over two years) and Alex Len ($8 million over the next two season) along with a good coach in Jeff Hornacek, but they’re still missing a significant player if they hope to seriously contend for one of the top spots in the conference.
The Suns do own Cleveland’s first-round pick next season (top 10 protected) and Miami’s first-round pick in 2017 or 2018 (top seven protected depending on when they convey their pick to Philadelphia), leaving them several opportunities to improve their team, but unless LeBron James stuns Cleveland for a second time, that pick should be near the end of the first round and Miami’s pick will probably be closer to a playoff pick than Suns’ fans would like.
The Suns may only have to endure one more season in the middle of the conference, as they’re only obligated to pay a little over $32 million when the cap explodes a year from now. (Although, they’ll almost assuredly keep their young players currently under contract along with any rookies they draft.)
#2 Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves have one of the brightest futures among teams that didn’t make the playoffs with a young point guard (Ricky Rubio will be 25 for all of next season), a top draft pick in what was thought of as a very deep draft (Andrew Wiggins) and, at worst, a top four draft pick in the upcoming draft.
I wasn’t as high on Wiggins as others last season, but putting up 19 points and four rebounds on almost 46 percent shooting during a 56-game stretch showed me that he at least has some potential to provide on the offensive end. He showed glimpses of his potential on defense, but he still has a lot to learn about playing off-ball defense in the NBA. However, the combination of Wiggins and Rubio should be terrifying for teams trying to score on them.
The Wolves’ biggest need is finding a player who can protect the rim and provide a competent counter to Rubio in the pick-and-roll game. Despite being a phenomenal passer with exceptional vision, Rubio finished in the 34th percentile as the pick-and-roll ball handler despite using the pick-and-roll 37 percent of the time, per Synergy. Some of this can be attributed to Rubio’s deficiencies scoring, but he could certainly use a more dangerous pick-and-roll partner. Fortunately for the Wolves, two of the top six prospects in this year’s draft are rim protectors who could fit into the Wolves’ system nicely with tutelage from one of the best defenders in the modern era, Kevin Garnett.
The Timberwolves don’t have extra first-round draft picks in the future, and they could lose their pick next year if they make an unexpected rise to the playoffs (their pick goes to Boston if it falls outside the top 12), but they have a better future than all teams in their conference except…
#1 Utah Jazz
I might be overreacting a bit to their recent performance, but since the turn of the new year, the Jazz boasted the best defense in the league, allowing 98.7 points per 100 possessions. Rudy Gobert spearheaded the defense by allowing opponents to shoot just over 40 percent at the rim on over eight attempts per game. Gobert challenged more shots than Marc Gasol despite playing in seven fewer minutes per game, although Gobert doesn’t carry the burden Gasol does on the rest of the defensive side of the court.
The Jazz have Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Trey Burke and Gobert signed through the 2016-2017 at minimum. The Jazz could also be a team for a top free agent with a good core, a highly respected (albeit slightly crazy) coach and enough money to entice a player who could help the Jazz compete. The downside of Utah is being based in Utah for sixth months of the year, something that NBA players seem to frown upon.
While the Jazz only have one extra first-round draft pick in the next three drafts (Golden State in 2017), they’re owed second-round picks from seemingly every team in the league.
With a core of Gobert, Favors, Hayward, Burks and an improving combination of Exum and Burke, teams in the Western Conference may need to call and reserve their spots in the playoffs early before the Jazz swoop in.