Houston Rockets, NBA

What comes next for the Western Conference’s worst teams?

The Timberwolves, Thunder and Rockets are all well outside the NBA playoff race as the season winds to its end. How do they plan to improve before next season?

With the NBA expanding the playoff field this year by adding the play-in tournament, more teams have a shot at the postseason than ever before. Teams in the 10th and 11th spots that would normally be tanking at this point in the season are now fighting to improve their position in the hopes of earning or improving their place in the bracket. In spite of that, there are still a handful of teams so far outside of that race that their seasons are practically over even though they still have several games left to play. For them, the last few weeks of the season are devoted to figuring out what they have and what moves to make in the offseason so they do not have themselves in the same position a year from now.

In the Western Conference, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, and Houston are all at least 10 games back from the 10th seed which would earn them a spot in the play-in. While the regular season will not end for a few more weeks, it is not too soon to do autopsies on their campaigns and speculate on what may come next.

Maybe the Timberwolves just need to get healthy?

The Timberwolves have been bad this year. Part of this is to be expected with D’Angelo Russell missing two months due to knee surgery, Karl-Anthony Towns missing an extended period earlier in the year after contracting COVID-19, and Malik Beasley out now for several weeks after suffering a hamstring injury. In a certain light, this is good since it increases their odds of holding on to the protected first-round pick they traded to Golden State in the D’Angelo Russell deal, but it makes figuring out if this team can make strides moving forward more difficult. While the team has what should be, at least on paper, a formidable young offensive core, Minnesota has nevertheless had only the 26th most efficient offense in the NBA this season. Rookie Anthony Edwards has played in every game but has been inconsistent and it is still hard to tell just exactly how good he will or can be. Since moving into the starting line-up at the end of January, he has averaged over 20 points per game. But in that same span, he has only shot 41 percent and 32 percent from 3. He is certainly a dynamic player with a knack for finding and creating his own shot, but if he cannot start making them more frequently then, in the future, those shots would be better taken by someone else.

Over a year after trading for Russell, he and Towns have played less than 20 games together. In theory, the two should have a high offensive ceiling with complementary skill sets. If they can stay healthy, and Edwards can become a more efficient scorer, then there’s no reason that the Wolves could not have a massive improvement on that end of the floor next season. Of course, even if they do have an above-average offense, it will not help them too much if their defense does not also improve. The issue with the Wolves is that even as Towns and Russell are wrapping up their sixth NBA seasons, it remains unclear if they can be the best players on a winning team. Maybe all Minnesota needs is another year of growth, one free of injuries and other health issues, for them to become the team they have the potential to be. Otherwise, it seems likely that Towns will be the latest All-NBA big man to blossom in Minnesota before leaving to join a team that is capable of consistently making the postseason.

The Oklahoma City Thunder at least have an NBA star to build around

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, this season has been devoted to playing a bevy of young and cheap players as many minutes as possible to see if they’re worth keeping around. Luguentz Dort has proven himself as one of the better 3-and-D wings in the NBA and Kenrich Williams has looked like the consummate glue guy. There’s also the endlessly intriguing Aleksej Pokusevski, a 19-year-old rookie who stands 7-feet tall and weighs just 190 pounds. Pokusevski has shown flashes that make him look like one of the league’s most uniquely talented players, looking like the first 7-foot point guard in NBA history. However, at this point, he’s been more good in theory than in practice, which is the case with most of the team’s young players. It seems like they’ve been able to accumulate statistics more by virtue of someone on the team having to score and get rebounds than due to their potential to become a valuable rotation player in the league. Sixteen of the 21 players who have suited up for the Thunder this year have a negative Box Plus-Minus. Is that because they’re not actually good or because they’re playing on a bad team? In many cases, it’s hard to know. Most likely, the Thunder will bring in reinforcements this offseason and will, by the end of the next season, have a better idea of who is worth keeping and building around than they do right now.

With the Thunder having so many incoming draft picks, there is less incentive for them to tank themselves. They can attempt to improve internally without sacrificing the potential for high lottery picks. Or if the picks they are receiving are not very high, they can package them together in the hopes of moving up and seeing if Sam Presti can recreate the drafting magic that allowed him to select three future MVPs in three years. In the interim, they do have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who has gotten even better in his third season and already looks like a star. Apart from Shai though, one could safely assume that practically everyone and everything else can be bought for a reasonable price.

The Houston Rockets need a plan

The Rockets are perhaps in the most dire situation of these three teams. While the Wolves and Thunder at least have some idea of what they are trying to do, Houston does not seem to have any concrete plan … yet. No franchise has undergone the same amount of change as them in the last year. They have changed coaches and GMs in addition to trading away James Harden and other core players such as Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker. While younger players like Jae’Sean Tate and Christian Wood have often looked very good, neither of them are ones a team can build around.

After starting the season 11-10, Houston lost 36 of its next 40 games, including 20 in a row at one point. This has been a uniquely dispiriting campaign for them. For years, they have been one of the best teams in the Western Conference, perennially being a Finals contender. Entering the season, they seemed sure to again be a playoff squad but no team could withstand the upheaval they have endured, however self-inflicted much of it has been. It’s hard to have a lot of confidence in the team moving forward.

The team has been in a perpetual state of chaos ever since Tillman Fertitta bought the team and does not appear to have any sort of overarching philosophy or blueprint regarding how to move forward. They also have little incentive to tank themselves since they traded away so many picks to Oklahoma City when they acquired Russell Westbrook two years ago. Thankfully, the team did refill their draft coffers when trading Harden, but they will need more than Brooklyn’s picks (which don’t project to be that enticing for at least a few more years) to ensure that coming seasons are improvements on this one.

All three of these Western Conference squads have uncertain futures. While the Timberwolves have some solid building blocks, the Rockets and Thunder are more completely enmeshed in a total rebuild. Oklahoma City does have a rising star in Gilgeous-Alexander, but everyone besides him on the roster is likely seen as disposable to varying degrees by the front office. Houston, though, is bound to no one. They have no young players who project to be stars and received little that will help them imminently when they traded away James Harden and then Victor Oladipo this season.  For Minnesota, anything other than being in the playoff race next season will be a disappointment in light of the talent they already have. However, for Houston and Oklahoma City, any improvements, however marginal will be worth celebrating.

Without a combination of internal improvement and intelligent team-building strategies, these three teams all face the prospect of remaining in the bottom tier of the league moving forward. What will be interesting for the rest of this season, and then in the offseason, will be watching each of these teams try to figure out what they have worth holding on to before making moves to try to shore up their rosters for the 2021-22 season. This season is already a lost cause; the next one doesn’t have to be.

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