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Moore: Three Point Guard Targets for the Minnesota Timberwolves in Free Agency

It’s a Pandora’s box. From Tyus Jones to Jeff Teague to Derrick Rose to even D’Angelo Russell, the Minnesota Timberwolves point guard position is a crossing of wires. Any path pursued at the position doesn’t feel synergistic; if one player receives the favor of Gersson Rosas, the reaction is the others falling by the wayside. Yet still, addressing who it is that will be running Karl-Anthony Towns’ offense feels like a critical decision.

Of the four players listed above, the web-spinning can really begin with any of them. But because it is Teague that is the only player actually under contract (one year, $19 million), his incumbency makes him the favorite to return, and a good place to begin.

With Teague though, there are questions about whether or not the player that was wooed to the north by Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau (mostly Jimmy) has a real interest in continuing in an environment that looks nothing like it did when he signed in the summer of 2017. Sure, he opted into his $19 million player option. But that annual salary was, what, maybe three times what he would have fetched on the open market had he opted out? There are also questions as to whether or not Teague stylistically fits the pace Rosas and Ryan Saunders want to play with. Further, his hefty salary, if kept, deteriorates the likelihood of bringing back either Rose or Jones.

Speaking of Jones, he is the one player in this calculus that seems malleable. Conceivably Jones would accept both a backup’s role and salary — making him somewhat of a fit with either Teague or Russell. But will the aggression Rosas has preached — whether that be in pursuing Russell or another “high-end talent” — leave the Wolves without space below the luxury tax to bring back Jones for even, say, $6 million annually?

Rose is a massive question mark. He has expressed interest in returning to Minnesota but also expressed the desire to play a meaningful role wherever he plays. Will that exist at either guard position on the Wolves this season? It seems extremely unlikely that Minnesota will deem him the 30 minutes a night answer at the point. And at the two, there is Josh Okogie who deserves run along with Jarrett Culver, who will get it due to where he was drafted. Also: What the heck even is Rose’s price tag?

Then there is Russell; a Pandora’s box in and of himself. Even though acquiring Russell would likely be via sign-and-trade and not as a free agent in the traditional sense, he’s the point guard target to actually discuss first. The chain reaction that is the Timberwolves point guard position begins with the possibility of downloading Russell onto the Wolves roster.

Sign-and-Trade: D’Angelo Russell

Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

For the Wolves to outright sign Russell as a free agent they would, of course, need to create the necessary cap space to do so. With the draft night trade of Dario Saric for Culver, the Wolves cut $800k in their total salary cap hit. Still, there is $111.9 million committed to nine players for next season (assuming they sign Culver and their second round pick, Jaylen Nowell), and another $3.4 million in cap hits for roster holds and Cole Aldrich’s waived contract.

With the salary cap projected to land at $109 million, the Wolves currently sit $6.3 million over the cap. To acquire Russell, they would need to clear the space for his first-year salary plus $6.3 million. If Russell demands the full maximum salary he is eligible for next season ($27.3 million), the Wolves would then need to cut $33.6 million. Not only would this require an extremely difficult slashing process, it would necessitate the Wolves renouncing of their Bird Rights on all of their incumbent free agents (Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver, Luol Deng, Jerryd Bayless and Mitch Creek) — then requiring cap space or the use of an exception (mid-level, bi-annual or minimum) to bring any of them back. This would not only be a major undertaking but also a potentially devastating blow to the depth of the roster.

The reason a sign-and-trade is more tenable is that the Wolves would not need to clear cap space in a literal sense to attain Russell. Instead, the rules of a sign-and-trade would only require the Wolves to send out an amount of salary multiplied by 1.25 that equals Russell’s first-year salary. Again, if we assume the maximum of $27.3 million for Russell, the amount of outgoing salary the Wolves would need to send would be $21.8 million.

While many have drawn the Teague ($19M) and Okogie ($2.5M) connection, to get close to that $21.8 million number, there is a path that does not require Okogie being involved in the salary ballast portion of the deal. Keita Bates-Diop is on the books for $1.4 million next season and Cam Reynolds has a non-guaranteed contract that also costs $1.4 million. Teague, Bates-Diop and Reynolds equal exactly $21.8 million in 2019-20.

Now, the Nets aren’t just going to accept those three for Russell. The contrary: they are unwilling to take back any salary; for Brooklyn, the whole reason they’re letting Russell go is that they need the space to be able to sign two maximum salaries. Meaning the $21.8 million — whatever form that may come in — would need to be re-routed to a third team.

The best way to storyboard this out, in my opinion, is to think of this as two separate deals:

  • Part One: A deal with Brooklyn that sends assets to the Nets for facilitating the move. (The only historical precedent under this collective bargaining agreement for this type of move is when the Denver Nuggets signed Danilo Gallinari and traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers. Denver received Los Angeles’ second round pick the next season as a kickback for a player they weren’t going to re-sign.)
  • Part Two: A second deal would have to be worked with a third team that the salary fodder would be sent to.

Part Two is where things become something between tricky and ambiguous. The quality of the fodder would affect the added compensation that would be required. If that money comes in the form of the more onerous contracts of Andrew Wiggins (4 years, $122.2 million) or Gorgui Dieng (2 years, $33.5 million), the added compensation would be greater. But if the deal is for Teague and functionally two minimum contracts in Bates-Diop and Reynolds, that wouldn’t take the same asset thrust.

The historical precedent of this portion of the deal, again using the Gallinari sign-and-trade, is how the Clippers re-routed Jamal Crawford’s salary of $10.9 million in addition to Diamond Stone (a minimum contract that was waived) into the Atlanta Hawks cap space. Atlanta received the Clippers first round pick the next season as compensation for accepting the dump. (Crawford was immediately waived only to, ironically, be signed by the Wolves.)

Using the Gallinari deal as a framework, the compensation the Wolves would be paying would be their 2020 first round pick and their 2020 second round pick. But maybe that is conservative. Maybe the Clippers got off cheap. Maybe the additional $8.1 million in salary from Crawford’s price tag to Teague’s boost the requisite compensation. No one knows for sure.

My best guess would be that Part One of the deal (compensating Brooklyn for facilitating the deal) would cost more than just one second round pick — as Denver received for Gallinari. Maybe that is a future lottery-protected first. Let’s call it the Wolves’ 2022 first round pick lottery-protected. For Part Two of the deal (compensating the third team for absorbing the necessary salary), the Wolves 2020 first round pick seems reasonable for taking on Teague — provided the team has interest in Teague’s services. The New York Knicks come to mind.

Altogether, that deal would be Teague, Bates-Diop, Reynolds, the Wolves 2020 first and the Wolves 2022 first for the opportunity to have D’Angelo Russell on a maximum contract.

Maybe it will be more, but again, the Nuggets-Clippers deal is the only parallel to draw here on precedent, and this would be more than the Nuggets and Hawks received in terms of their compensation two summers ago.

Russell is not a no-brainer positive value on a maximum contract. People are quick to point out that he was an All-Star last season, but that came in the junior varsity conference and as a product of being handed the entirety of the reigns after Caris LeVert went down with an injury.

(Butterfly effect question: What would Russell’s market look like this summer had LeVert never gotten hurt? Many players on rookie contracts that are deemed worthy of something around $15 million annually are given a rookie contract extension after their third season before they hit restricted free agency — like last year, for example, where Myles Turner (4 years, $72 million) and even Larry Nance (4 years, $45 million). A Russell contract extension in Brooklyn never came together.)

That questioning aside, the Wolves are desperate to find a pick-and-roll partner for Towns. The pairing with Rose was wonky due to Rose’s classical conditioning of thinking he is the go-to option in those situations. Teague and Towns found some success in their two-man game if they were ever able to get into the action before the shot clock ended. Jones is too limited as a scorer in pick-and-roll situations to build up any excitement with him and Towns.

Russell gained ample experience in ball-screen action last season. The volume with which Russell was used in the pick-and-roll last season — 62 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions — exceeded the frequency other ball-screen wizards like Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker worked in the action.

There’s also just the human element of all of this. Towns seems to really want Russell, and that feels important.

The Backup Plan: Ish Smith

Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Again, the path of least resistance in addressing the point guard position is accepting that Teague, because he is already under contract, will be the starter next season. In that case, the backup at the point still needs to be addressed. The overwhelming assumption is that Jones would be that guy. But remember when Dario Saric was supposed to be the starting power forward…?

The reason change happened at the four, and the reason that it could be coming at the one is simple: Rosas is now in charge. The Wolves are as likely as any team to make in the league to make moves that appear to be trading two quarters for a half-dollar. That’s happy when a new front office comes in. Rosas has a vision for how he wants this team to play, and just as he felt short-changed by Saric at the four, he may feel that Jones does not fit that vision — even if he is, in a vacuum, a player of a similar caliber to, say, Ish Smith.

Choosing Smith specifically would be Rosas putting his money where is mouth is when he talks about playing faster; Smith is quite literally one of the fastest players in the league. The second-unit would zip with a zest the Wolves point guard position hasn’t seen in years. To make a relevant comparison, Smith is offensively the Corey Brewer of the point guard position.

With Smith last season, the Pistons may have had the third-slowest average length of possession in the league — 15.3 seconds, nearly a full second more plotting than the Wolves (16th — 14.4 seconds). But if Smith wasn’t there, they likely would have come in 30th. This is illustrated by Detroit playing faster in 2017-18 (21st) and 2016-17 (19th) when Reggie Jackson missed nearly half of both of those — greatly increasing Smith’s time at the point.

Like most point guard lightning bugs, Smith is a very up and down player. In Detroit, fans knew there was “Good Ish,” a player who burst the pace and used his speed to get all the way to the rim, and they knew there was “Bad Ish” that took the form of a pretty out of control player who forced up far too many contested midrange jumpers.

It’s this polarity that has made Smith a career backup, never truly deserving a role than microwave scorer off the bench. There is also his slight frame that has contributed to poor defensive numbers year-over-year. Smith has only had a positive defensive box plus-minus once in his nine-year career, and last season he ranked 75th out of 112 point guards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus.

Smith is also not an effective 3-point shooter — having shot 30.6 percent from deep for his career, and never greater than 34.7 percent in any one season. But that’s what you get for a player that will receive a contract not much higher than the minimum: one bonafide NBA skill. For Smith, that skill is speed, and for Rosas speed sounds like a priority — making the pairing at least a possibility if the Wolves opt to head down a Tyus-less path.

Stop-Gap Starter: Darren Collison

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The same summer the Wolves traded Ricky Rubio and the two years and $28.9 million left on his contract to Utah they signed Jeff Teague to three-year, $57 million contract. Darren Collison was also an unrestricted free agent that year. Signing Collison back then would have been a cheaper option than Rubio — who the Wolves actually got a good return on (a future first that became Okogie) — and he would have been a far more conservative stop-gap point guard signing than Teague. Instead, Collison replaced Teague in Indiana as the Pacers stop-gap — signing a two-year deal for $10 million annually.

After arguably having the better two years of the three players, Collison is again an unrestricted free agent — and seemingly on the way out of Indiana, likely to be replaced by Rubio. If Rubio actually signs in Indiana, that will officially complete the weirdest Tom Thibodeau love/hate triangle of all time.

The attraction of adding Collison to the Wolves as the next stop-gap point guard, as recognized in his offensive real plus-minus, is his shooting splits. In his two years in Indiana, Collison not only shot 43.9 percent from deep — leading the league in 2017-18 (46.8%) — but he came close to hitting the 50-40-90 club over the span of two years (48.1 – 43.9 – 85.3).

Collison found this shooting efficiency in two key ways: He made the less efficient shots (mid-rangers) at a high clip and took the highest percentage shots from beyond-the-arc. Of Collison’s 194 3-point attempts last season, 32.5 percent of them came from the corners and 79 percent of his 79 makes were assisted.

It’s easy to dwell on 3-point numbers with shooting efficiency, but Collison’s ability to shoot at a high clip off-the-bounce in the mid-range is what pushes him above the level of a point guard like Smith. From 10-to-16 feet last season, Collison made half of his attempts and over 75 percent of those looks were unassisted.

Collison also has an underrated distribution game. He may have racked up assists at a rate less than Teague did last season, but stylistically he is similar — prodding from the mid-range for drop-offs. He’s more decisive than Teague.

The reason for hesitation with Collison, much like Smith, would be his stature that leads him to be a below-average defender. In a great defensive team scheme in Indiana, Collison was fine. But the Wolves obviously have warts on that end that could expose him. Teague struggled defensively for the Wolves, and he is bigger and stronger.

But again, this is what free agency is at the point guard position: you get what you pay for. Mortgage future assets and a player like Russell is possible. Pay a good chunk of the mid-level exception for Collison and you have a good but incomplete player. Skate by cheaply and you can shop for one above-average skill. This is the web Gersson Rosas has to untangle at Minnesota’s point-of-attack.


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