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Set Up Well For The Future: Western Conference

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At this point in the year, every NBA franchise is now firmly separated into one of two camps: pushing for the playoffs or looking toward the lottery. And unless you’re the Brooklyn Nets, who are neither here nor there and do not own their own likely No. 1 overall selection, then your favorite team falls into one of these categories. While most of the Western Conference is captivated by a three-way battle for MVP between Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Russell Westbrook (joined by LeBron James from the East), there are a few teams that have set themselves up for a bright future even without the playoffs on the near horizon.

For those on the outside looking in, which teams in the Western Conference might be ready to take the next step in 2017-18?

Minnesota Timberwolves

Coming into this season, there was no franchise more hyped than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Led by the maturing talents of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, anchored by the once-in-a-generation Karl-Anthony Towns and coached by defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, many were predicting a playoff berth for one of the league’s youngest teams.

Of course, the torn ACL for LaVine quickly complicated things, but the Timberwolves struggled defensively against their elite competition for much of the season. The Wolves’ current defensive rating of 108.3 slots them in at the 7th-worst mark in the league, and they kept their opponents under 100 points just six times before January 1. For all the team’s potential, Minnesota has posted a poor 7-17 record against the current playoff field out West.

Even with their playoff hopes fading by the day (6.5 games back, 9 games remaining), the Timberwolves won’t end the season far from their predicted 8th seed. Which is to say, all in all, there’s plenty of room to grow in Minnesota.

The combined age of their starting lineup is just 23.6 (Gorgui Dieng leads the way at a ripe 27 years old) and Kris Dunn, perhaps this year’s most disappointing rookie, has loads of basketball ahead of him. As of today, the Timberwolves have a 72.5 percent chance of landing the No. 8 overall pick in a stacked class and can add another top prospect to the puzzle. Should they draft a stretch forward like Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen? Or could they target an eventual Ricky Rubio replacement in North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr.?

For the Wolves, their drafting options will be endless.

Still, they’ll need to improve defensively, but there’s no better place to start than with Thibadeau. The former head coach of the Chicago Bulls was a dream fit for this athletic but untrained Timberwolves team. Thibodeau was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2010-11, and his Bulls ranked in the top five in DRtg in four consecutive seasons from 2010-14 (1st, 1st, 5th and 2nd). While those teams were led by stalwart stoppers in Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah, there’s no reason to think Thibodeau can’t mold Wiggins and Towns into similar-like defenders. Defensively, Rubio and Dieng are already above average contributors at their position, so a healthy season and fleshed out bench should help Minnesota reach some of their unfulfilled potential.

So yes, this season was ultimately a disappointment for the Timberwolves, but their window is truly just opening. With a core set for the immediate future and the addition of another top ten pick this June, this Thibodeau-led franchise will start making playoff appearances sooner rather than later.

Phoenix Suns

After the Phoenix Suns landed forwards Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender last summer, the franchise found themselves in an interesting position. Even with a healthy Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, the Suns were always anticipated to fall short of the playoffs this season, but could anyone have predicted this? Now they’re now neck and neck with the Los Angeles Lakers for the No. 2 overall selection, winners of just four games since the All-Star break.

In fleeting moments, these Suns were as electric as advertised, in part thanks to their budding core of youngsters. Chriss has shown real potential as a forward able to run the floor on one end then spot up for a three-pointer during the next possession. And, of course, there’s Booker, the sweet sharpshooter that dropped 70 points on the Boston Celtics last week, and his continued growth, upping his points per game average to 21.6 from his rookie season mark of 13.8.

Those two alone get the Suns in the conversation automatically, but strong periods of play from Alan Williams and Tyler Ulis have helped as well. Ulis has come on strong over the last month and, in March alone, he’s tossed seven or more assists in eight of the Suns’ 15 games. The best month of his professional career was highlighted by his 20-point, 5-assist and game-winning effort against the Celtics and Isaiah Thomas. As for Williams, the Suns’ backup center has quietly loaded up on minutes since the All-Star break. In his second NBA season, Williams has provided some quality minutes for Phoenix off the bench, racking up double-doubles in all but five of the games he’s played in March.

Admittedly, Bender has been a slow burn at times, but he’s a match for the new prototypical NBA big man as a stretch forward that’s agile enough to keep up with most opponents defensively. Although he’s been out since February after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, Bender is just 19 years old and should pair nicely with Chriss for many years to come.

If the Suns decide to part ways with Bledsoe, 27, or Knight, who is in the second season of a 5 year, $70 million deal, then they’ll hope to use their pick on UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Washington’s Markelle Fultz or Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, three guards that sit at the top of this class. Pairing Booker with one of those NBA-ready talents could be the key to an all-out onslaught on the Western Conference for years to come.

However, if the Suns don’t wind up with their choice guard, they could easily hold onto Bledsoe’s remarkably reasonable contract at $29.5 million over the final two years of his deal. With just T.J. Warren and Derrick Jones Jr. taking up time at the small forward position, Kansas’ Josh Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum would certainly be fantastic options there as well.

Long story short, the Suns already have Chriss, Bender and Booker locked in and the rest of the roster is (nearly) lean and flexible. We’ll just have to wait for the ping-pong balls to fall before the Suns decide how to proceed next.

Los Angeles Lakers

Finally, there’s the Los Angeles Lakers.

Following the retirement of Kobe Bryant last season, the Lakers quickly got to work and identified Luke Walton as the head coach of the future, snagging him away from the 73-win Golden State Warriors. After a solid 10-10 start through November, the wins started slipping away, so Walton trimmed the rotation and handed the reins to his younger players, a move that former head coach Byron Scott notoriously refused to make.

Elsewhere, after one of the strangest sagas in NBA history, franchise legend Magic Johnson took over as president of basketball operations in February. While there’s little evidence to believe that Johnson will be immediately successful in his first front office opportunity, the fit is a relatively perfect one and he’s got a wide margin of error for now.

In the backcourt, D’Angelo Russell pairs with Jordan Clarkson to form a dynamic, offensively-inclined duo. Although Russell’s numbers have nominally risen to 15.7 points and 4.8 assists per game during his sophomore season, Clarkson has replicated his strong output from 2015-16. While both need to improve defensively, it’s a good start to keep pace with the NBA’s guard-focused, offensively powered league.

Even in this weak rookie class, the lengthy Brandon Ingram struggled to leave his mark for much of the season. He’ll benefit greatly from a full offseason in Los Angeles, but he’s shown promise as a two-way player in the second half of this season. From October to January, Ingram scored in double figures just eight times, but following the New Year, the small forward has racked up 10 or more points in 22 of the Lakers’ 36 games. The No. 2 overall selection has a long way to go before reaching his lofty Duke expectations, but he’ll only be 20 years old in September, so there’s plenty of room to build from here.

And then there’s Larry Nance Jr., a former late first rounder that has shown flashes of strong play throughout the season. An injury forced Nance Jr. out for a month in December, but he’s been a consistent member of the rotation since then, supplying just a little bit of everything on the statistical end. The walking one-man highlight reel is averaging 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks per game on a solid 53.7 percent mark from the floor.

Other than the odd signings of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, moves that’ll cost the Lakers about $34 million per year until 2020, it’s safe to say that the new era of basketball in Los Angeles is off to a solid start with Walton at the helm. Now losers in 15 of their last 16 games, the Lakers have made a legitimate push for the NBA’s second-worst record along with the previously mentioned Suns.

Adding another top prospect in June — whether that’s Ball, Fultz or Jackson, it hardly matters — is the next step for Los Angeles this offseason. They’ll be sweating the draft lottery to ensure they retain a pick with which to do so.

While an NBA Championship is still far out of reach for these three franchises, there’s plenty to be excited about in Minnesota, Phoenix and Los Angeles. From high draft picks to blooming stars, these teams have the structure, coaches and potential to make some serious strides toward reaching the postseason once again.

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About Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.