Most of the offseason attention in the NBA is focused at the top of the league, where elite squads are jockeying for championship position. That's why so much ink was spilled when the likes Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan changed teams, or didn't as the case may be. We paid plenty of attention to the Knicks and Nets as well because they're in New York and were also very active in the offseason. However, for the most interesting summer vacations, you have to look in the middle of the country.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Hornets were both lottery-level teams in June, though the Wolves had traded their pick away. Though both teams missed the playoffs last spring, they began the summer at different junctures in their rebuilding plans. Nevertheless, after a furious few weeks of activity, both teams are primed to become powers in the Western Conference.
Both teams are built teams are built to last. When we ranked future big threes earlier this summer, the Hornets (third) and Timberwolves (fifth) both looked like franchises that have exciting cores in place. But what about this season?
Minnesota general manager David Kahn told reporters that he expects a healthy Timberwolves squad to contend for the playoffs this year. His New Orleans counterpart, Dell Demps, has been a little more cautious, saying the Hornets will be competitive this season but are built for the future. Let's look at how they stack up.
Minnesota's core is a little older, with Kevin Love entering his fifth season as the franchise centerpiece. The Timberwolves' offseason plan was complicated by Ricky Rubio's knee injury but the dynamic point guard is expected to play the "majority" of the coming season, according to Kahn. That indefinite statement muddies our projections a little, but we can work around it.
Kahn's strategy was to surround the emergent core with a couple of tiers of veteran players. On one hand, he added young veterans like import Alexey Shved, who has been impressive during the London Olympics for a Russian squad that is a lot of fun to watch. He also brought in athletic wing Chase Budinger, a clear upgrade over anybody Minnesota played at small forward last season.
The other tier will give Minnesota a couple of older veterans who will see plenty of action closing out games during crunch time. Brandon Roy will be an injury question mark for whatever remains of his stalled NBA career, but if the platelet rich plasma regimen he underwent on his chronically-bad knee is successful, Minnesota will have the closer it lacked last season.
Andrei Kirilenko has looked reborn for Russia in the Olympics and will bring a defensive presence for a team looking for an identity at that end. New backup center Greg Stiemsma will help in that regard as well, teaming with last year's breakout center Nikola Pekovic to give Minnesota a solid presence in the pivot at both ends of the floor. Added to all of this will be hopes of a leap from second-year forward Derrick Williams, who still has star-level ability even as he searches for a foothold at the professional level.
Check out the depth chart for Minnesota:
C: Pekovic, Stiemsma
PG: Rubio, Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea
SG: Shved, Roy
SF: Kirilenko, Budinger
PF: Love, Williams, Dante Cunningham
It's an exciting mix of talent, young and veteran, athletic and skilled. Okay, maybe you'd like an ace spot-up shooter somewhere in there. Yes, there are the key injury question marks we discussed. Nevertheless, few teams will be able to blend the upside of core talent with the versatility offered by legit depth. It's going to be a joy watching head coach Rick Adelman sort all of this out.
As competitive as the West is, our early projections not only peg the Timberwolves as a solid playoff team but also as contender to land homecourt advantage in a potential first-round series. I've got them at 51.2 wins, right behind the Thunder, Spurs and Lakers in the West. That's according to NBAPET, my tracking and projection model. We haven't released the SCHOENE projections that go into our preseason annual yet, but I can report that Kevin Pelton's system is perhaps even a little more optimistic than NBAPET about Kahn's work in the upper Midwest.
Remember that the key pieces in Minnesota are on the upswing, so as the Lakers and Spurs fall off in the seasons ahead, the Timberwolves are perfectly positioned to move ahead of them as the primary challengers to Oklahoma City's perch atop the conference.
Joining the Timberwolves before long will be the Hornets. Demps has done an remarkable job restocking a roster that was looking stale even before Chris Paul was traded. Demps has deftly made sure that Paul's departure was not the death knell for his franchise; instead it has proven to be the catalyst for a bright future. That began of course with last year's league-high loss total, the lucky lottery night and the selection of Anthony Davis with the first pick of the last draft.
The Davis selection was the residue of both luck and design but the pick itself was a no-brainer. The moves Demps has made over the rest of the summer have marked him as one of the rising front office stars in the league. He's fallen in the footsteps of fellow Spurs alum Sam Presti, the architect of OKC's rise. It's no wonder that it seems every new GM hire is a Gregg Popovich protege.
While Kahn was adding to a foundation already in place, Demps was starting from scratch in New Orleans, which put the Hornets further behind on the rebuilding path. Let's peek at the potential depth chart that coach Monty Williams will have to work with:
C: Robin Lopez, Jason Smith
PG: Austin Rivers, Greivis Vasquez
SG: Eric Gordon, Roger Mason, Xavier Henry
SF: Ryan Anderson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Darius Miller
PF: Davis, Hakim Warrick, Lance Thomas
Just looking at the names you can see how many more holes the Hornets' roster has than the one in Minnesota. Vasquez may end up as the starting point guard after what we saw from Rivers at the position in summer league. Even if Rivers improves, we don't know how he'll fit with Eric Gordon. We don't know if Anderson can really function as a full-time three. Davis and Lopez will be a formidable defensive duo on the inside, the frontcourt depth if iffy and the squad is woefully short on wing defenders.
On top of all that, the Hornets will be the league's youngest team, so experience will be an issue. Only the placeholder roster in Houston has lower percentage of returning minutes, so continuity will be nil. Nevertheless, the upgrade in talent is immense and the ceiling is high up and down the line.
As for the coming season, NBAPET has the Hornets at a respectable 37 wins and the early SCHOENE numbers are right in that range. The West is deep -- right now, we've got nine teams projected to finish over .500. So a playoff berth would be a surprise. However, you can't out the possibility for a roster with so much upside. The key may be Williams' ability to instill a Spurs-like defensive mentality down in the Big Easy.
Besides, another lottery spot wouldn't be the worst outcome for the growing hive of Hornets. There are clear spots to be upgraded and that's much easier to do when the foundation is in place. That's especially so when your foundation is young and can be counted on to improve in the seasons to come.
Chances are, the immediate dividends from rebuilding will be more evident in Minnesota than New Orleans this season. Make no mistake, however. These teams may be seeing plenty of each other in playoff showdowns in the seasons to come. These are two of the most exciting rosters in the NBA.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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