Timberwolves

Wolves-Suns Is the Most High-Stakes First Round Series In the NBA

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA regular season is officially over. After finishing 56-26, the second-best record in franchise history, the Minnesota Timberwolves will go into the first round with home-court advantage for the first time in 20 years. Unfortunately for Wolves fans, several anxiety-inducing factors somewhat overshadow that accomplishment.

First, even after winning 56 games, the Wolves are the third seed, one game behind the Denver Nuggets and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Therefore, they’ll have to play the 6th seed instead of one of the Play-In Tournament teams that will be at a rest disadvantage. Worse yet, they’ll play the Phoenix Suns, who went 3-0 against the Wolves during the regular season, and have a super star-studded lineup featuring Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal

While it may not be an ideal first-round matchup for the Wolves, it is a top-tier matchup in terms of greater NBA narratives and storylines. There are many parallels in how the two teams constructed their rosters and the consequences they will face if they have an early exit from the playoffs, which may make this the most high-stakes series in the first round on either side of the bracket. 

Minnesota and Phoenix recently made blockbuster trades that sent away most (if not all) of their available future draft capital to get back a superstar player they believed would move them into title contention for years to come. The Wolves traded four first-round picks, a first-round pick-swap, and five role players (including draft pick Walker Kessler) for Rudy Gobert. The Suns traded four first-round picks, a first-round pick-swap, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, and Jae Crowder for Kevin Durant and T.J. Warren (who is now with Minnesota). Then, shortly before the beginning of this season, Phoenix traded four first-round pick-swaps, six second-round picks, Chris Paul and Landry Shamet for Beal.

The NBA only allows teams to trade away four of their future first-round picks at a time, and they have to be every other year. It’s a way to protect teams and fanbases from having a general manager trade away all the future assets for a short-term window of championship potential. Doing so could set back a franchise because rebuilding becomes impossible when you have no draft picks. Minnesota and Phoenix recently had new owners come into power and push for these super-sized trades.

Mat Ishbia led Phoenix’s pursuit of Durant. He reportedly “wouldn’t go to bed” on the night of the trade deadline until they landed Durant. Isbhia told GM James Jones to try the deal one more time, and it worked. Similarly, Alex Rodriguez recently went on record saying that the Gobert trade was his and Marc Lore’s idea during the public ownership battle between them and Glen Taylor. 

These owners wanted to take credit for the big changes they’ve made to their respective franchises. Still, it’s uncertain whether those changes will ultimately help them long-term or set them back. If you don’t win a championship in your short window, then going all in on the present will have been borderline pointless. You’ll end up having to rebuild with no resources.

The Suns are as all-in as it possibly gets. They traded away every first and second-round pick they were allowed to trade by the league and gave away swap rights on every first-round pick they couldn’t trade. Suppose the Suns had to blow things up and were one of the worst teams in the league in 2026, or more likely, 2028, when they have a swap. Then they may have to give the first overall pick to either the Brooklyn Nets or Washington Wizards. Given that the Nets or the Wizards are in rebuild mode, it’s not super likely that the Suns will be swapping a top 5 first-round pick for a bottom 5 first. However, it means they’ve greatly limited their ability to build a new team after this current iteration of their roster has expired.

The Wolves are also pretty much all-in because they traded all available first-round picks in the Gobert trade. However, they have retained a little more insurance. Minnesota only gave up one swap for their future picks, and Tim Connelly restored 3 second-round draft picks in the masterful trade for Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The Timberwolves have a core of talented young players, such as Anthony Edwards, Naz Reid, and Jaden McDaniels. They could become the next foundation if the front office has to trade one of their older players on an expensive contract.

The kicker in all of this is that the NBA’s most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, which came together after both teams had completed their trades for Gobert and Durant, put extremely harsh penalties on teams that are significantly over the salary cap with the almighty second apron. The league won’t place any restriction on teams who are over the first apron, but owners will have to pay a bigger bill at the end of the season. However, teams over the second apron will face penalties restricting what types of players they can trade for. If they stay there for two years, the league can take future draft assets from them.

Minnesota and Phoenix will be over the second apron next year. It will be hard for the team’s owners to justify paying such a hefty luxury tax bill if they don’t believe their team can compete for a title, much less if they lose in the first round. As a result, there’s a significant chance that whichever team loses this matchup will see a massive roster shakeup to avoid the penalties of the second apron or perhaps get under the luxury tax altogether.

Timberwolves fans know approximately what that theoretical situation would look like. Most of the national media has had difficulty discussing Minnesota’s success this season without immediately problematizing the team’s payroll for next season. Still, it could mean they would have to trade one of their high-salaried players not named Anthony Edwards. Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert would probably be the most likely candidates, especially if they get beat by Phoenix’s version of “small ball.” The Suns feature 4 wings, one of whom is 7 feet tall, and Jusuf Nurkic. We could also see the Wolves try to get more top-heavy and trade several mid-level contracts to get under the tax. However, that seems less likely, given how good of a value contract several of their role players are on.

If the Wolves beat the Suns, we could see them trade away one of their big 3 to get under the luxury tax and replenish some of the draft assets they lost. Therefore, if things ultimately fall apart, they don’t have to start over fully. Beal seems like the most logical person for Phoenix to trade, given his injury history and massive salary relative to how good he’s been this year. However, both factors deplete his trade value to the point where they wouldn’t get a haul of draft picks or players back like they would for KD or Booker. Additionally, Beal still has a no-trade clause, so he can play out the rest of his contract in Phoenix if he wants to.

However, Mat Ishbia seems like he might be rich and reckless enough to keep the team together and not change anything for one more year. He made the Beal trade after the new CBA was in place, doubling down on his attempt to fast-track the Suns to their first NBA title, no matter the cost. If Phoenix goes that direction, they could fire Frank Vogel, something some Suns fans have recently called for.

One way or another, the team that wins this series will be back to thinking they can compete for a title. Conversely, the team that loses will likely make significant changes to their roster in the offseason because of their first-round exit. Wolves fans shouldn’t assume that the series will go the same way as the regular season because every game the Timberwolves had against the Suns was a little weird. In the first matchup, the Wolves played in Phoenix less than 24 hours after playing the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco the night before.

The Wolves were understandably not at their best between travel time and playing a road back-to-back. In their second matchup, Minnesota held the Suns to just 97 points. However, they were only able to score 87 points. The Timberwolves shot only 38.8% from the field that game, including many open shots that usually go in.

Then, in the season’s final game, with the 2nd seed on the line, the Wolves turned the ball over 11 times in the first quarter. They got down by 22 points after 12 minutes and could not stop the Suns from scoring long enough to chip away at the deficit, ultimately losing by 19. If the Wolves don’t shoot hurt their cause by having a full game’s worth of turnovers in the first quarter, they should be able to hang with the Suns and win the series. It would give them a serious confidence boost going into the second round if they can.

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