NBA contenders are not built overnight, most are built over time, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakers look like the next teams to begin that journey to becoming contenders. Acquiring the right players whether through the draft or free agency is the first step of many. Having the talent to compete is only part of it, teams must find coaches that can mesh the talent. Both teams have hired new leaders in Tom Thibodeau for the Wolves and Luke Walton for the Lakers. Neither team will contend for a championship this year but are positioning themselves to become true contenders in years to come.
Normally there is a progression young teams follow to become contenders. Not too long ago the Oklahoma City Thunder were just a bunch of young upstarts who were knocking on the playoffs door, once they broke through they were knocked out in the first round and learned that playoff basketball is very different than the regular season. From then on they made multiple trips to the Western Conference Finals and the Finals once. LeBron James’ experienced this growth in his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers; the Golden State Warriors went through it. It’s a rite of passage for young teams to learn become contenders.
Both the Lakers and Wolves missed out on the playoffs last season and it will be challenge for them to make it this coming season. The Wolves have a better chance to surprise the NBA and make qualify in the west for one of the eight-playoff spots. They have a future MVP candidate in Karl-Anthony Towns, a long and lanky wing penetrator in Andrew Wiggins, amazing athleticism in Zach LaVine and just drafted their future point guard in Kris Dunn. The organization has built a strong and young core and gave the keys to Thibodeau to take over. They will have the ability to bring Dunn along slowly with Ricky Rubio penciled in as the starter at point guard. Should Dunn prove he could take the reigns earlier than expected, the Wolves can use Rubio as an asset to bring in more depth and a better shooter to help spread the floor.
The Lakers are not expected to make the playoffs or even compete for a spot this year but the seeds for success have been planted and just needs time to grow. The Lakers have great young talent in D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, and Julius Randle. This offseason they were criticized for committing to Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng for four years at a high price instead of saving their cap space for next summer. These two players are brought in not just for their ability on the court but also to provide to maturity and stability to a locker room that was in shambles by the end of last season. Their contracts should expire just as they are ready to contend. Walton is expected to create an environment that is friendlier to young players and speed up the Lakers tempo to better suit their need personnel.
The Lakers and Wolves are both on their ways to become contenders but still have ways to go and may not make it there at all. The New Orleans Pelicans looked to be on that path but took a massive detour last season. Many things have to go right, the right decisions need to be made by management, players have to put in the work to improve, and a little of luck is always required. Both teams are on a timeline where they can be legitimate contenders right around the time teams like the Warriors, Cavs, and Spurs will begin to decline. Their future is so bright, their fans got to wear shades.