The first 50 games of the 2018-19 Minnesota Timberwolves season has felt more like a half-century than a half-season. The Wolves centerpiece, Karl-Anthony Towns, has twisted and turned throughout the process admirably. With the Trade Deadline imminent, it’s time to create a new path for him. It’s time for a new era of Minnesota basketball. A new era that may very well start with more change. But first: How did they get here?
There was a great irony in the Minnesota Timberwolves losing the 49th and 50th game of the season to the Utah Jazz over the weekend. Why? Because Ricky Rubio plays for that team, and because Jeff Teague didn’t play in either game, due to left foot soreness. Those two are forever intertwined in this most-recent era of Timberwolves basketball.
A quick refresher: In the summer of 2017, Rubio was traded to Utah for a 2018 lottery-protected first round pick (that became Josh Okogie). Tom Thibodeau used the cap space afforded in Rubio’s departure to sign Teague to a 3-year deal that would pay the new starting point guard $19 million per season ($5 million more than Rubio).
I remember Teague at his very first public appearance in Minneapolis — Media Day 2017 — bringing up Rubio himself.
“I hear about Ricky Rubio every day. I’m serious, every day,” Teague said in his first of many refreshingly honest deadpans.
The Teague signing was a staple move of The Thibodeau Era. To Thibodeau’s George Washington, Jimmy Butler’s Abraham Lincoln and Taj Gibson’s Theodore Roosevelt, Teague was the Thomas Jefferson in this new era of Wolves basketball’s Mount Rushmore. (All Eyes North, am I right?)
Thibodeau and his fearless General have since departed, squashing The Thibodeau Era or The Butler Era monikers. So how do we define whatever this continued interim is? It can’t correlate to Andrew Wiggins or Karl-Anthony Towns; those two predate the chief Timberbulls. Really, that leaves Teague and Gibson as the remaining tentpoles of the timetable. However, for some — probably because of Rubio — this extended era feels more defined by Teague. But to avoid picking favorites, I’m just gonna call whatever has transpired over the past 132 regular season games — and one playoff series(!) — The Post-Rubio Era.
Again, that’s where the irony kicks in. Because Minnesota lost their home-and-home with Ricky and the Jazz boys this weekend, and because the trade deadline looms (Feb. 7), it feels like this era may be coming to an end. Now 24-26, the Wolves sit in the 11th seed slot in the West, four games behind the 8th seed Los Angeles Clippers. With three games left before the deadline, it has become impossible for the Wolves to be a playoff team before “Woj Bomb” day.
This truth justifies a thorough examination of how Glen Taylor, Scott Layden and whoever else is in power can look at the deadline. “Selling” has to be considered, but simply flipping your coaster over to green, treating the roster like produce at an all-you-can-eat buffet is irresponsible. All angles need to be examined, even Taylor salivating to eat — err, “buy” — himself.
Because this is life for the Wolves, looking at a number of different paths — selling, standing pat and even buying — need to be explored.
Let’s look at three. It’s time for The Post-Rubio Era to end.
Many will dutifully argue that simply selling the assets that are the veterans on expiring contracts (Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver, Derrick Rose and even the resurgent Luol Deng and Jerryd Bayless) is a logical path to take for a cash-strapped franchise like Minnesota. The compilation of draft picks that could be acquired for the 30-or-over group could theoretically be repurposed down the road to add another piece or to get off a sub-optimal contract. We’ll get to that. But first, there is a veiled tactic that could be used here. A move or moves that bring back an asset that could actually play now.
You could call this the Dennis Smith Jr. path.
The idea would be to acquire a distressed asset that is still on a cheap rookie scale contract. Dennis Smith Jr’s name has toiled in the news as a player who could be on the outs with his organization because, well, the plan has changed since they drafted him. Thon Maker’s name works here too. Dallas drafted DSJ to lead their backcourt of the future before plans changed. Luka happened. Maker, like Smith Jr., finds himself buried too deep on his team’s priority list. This makes potential moves, theoretically, mutually beneficial.
In the case of Smith Jr. and Maker, along with many other distressed young assets, Tolliver’s $4.75 million expiring matches salaries up nicely. Tolliver’s money creates a starting point.
However, Dallas certainly would not just dump DSJ for Tolliver (or anyone); they would want additional compensation. Minnesota would be wise to hold onto future first round picks if possible, so an option that could make a deal more palatable would be taking on some “bad money”. Perhaps Dallas would consider a cap space gift card of over $13 million the likes of Tolliver and Jerryd Bayless for Smith Jr. and Dwight Powell (who has a $10.3 million player option for next season). Minnesota would likely also add a future second round pick — maybe two — to peak Dallas’ interest. If Dallas balks, move on; there are more distressed assets. The Wolves possess all of their own second round picks going forward.
A similar path could be pursued with Milwaukee and Maker. As far as “bad money” goes with the Bucks, the burden would be more onerous with Tony Snell. The 27-year-old wing has two years and $23.6 million left on his deal after this season. Another capable wing defender sounds nice because the Wolves are imminently starved for defenders, but Snell next to Josh Okogie and Robert Covington would add a third wing to the rotation that lacks the ability to create a shot for himself. Still, that may just be the price of acquiring Maker, an imperfect asset himself. And again, if Milwaukee isn’t interested — or you reading this aren’t — move on.
Different teams will have different appetites for the Wolves’ vets, and they’ll all also have varying cravings for the cap space Bayless ($8.6 million) or even Gibson ($14 million) would provide. Each team will also have differing degrees of bad money to play with but most teams have a player that fits the “distressed, young asset” demarcation. Sometimes picks just don’t work out perfectly. Here’s a list of theoretically attainable players on rookie deals — (maybe) available for differing prices — with their future earnings in parentheses.
One more Trade Machine toggle of this phylum before we move on:
The PR on this one would be hard to spin. Rose has been a revelation, and there would likely be some upset young pups in the locker room if Rose were shown the door for a 23-year-old (Jackson). But the Kings are the only team in the league with over $10 million in cap space; making them one of the only possible land spots for Gorgui Dieng — whose role has precipitously dropped since Ryan Saunders took over.
If Minnesota could do this while only attaching multiple second round picks, it would be a coup. (A first would be a coup, too.) Zach Randolph, who hasn’t played this season, would likely be bought out but Justin Jackson is interesting. The North Carolina standout was the 15th overall pick in the 2017 draft and is only 33 days younger than Andrew Wiggins. (Maybe a buddy!) Theoretically, you add a wing who can create his own shot, and Sacramento may be willing to part with him — because he’s been in and out of their rotation — in the name of “Vintage Derrick Rose”. I dunno, it’s the Kings…
Ok, I’ll move on, now.
Again, simply compiling assets for the veterans makes a ton of sense in a vacuum. At 24-46, the Wolves would need to go 22-10 the rest of the way to make the playoffs, if 46 is the magic number. Last season the Wolves won 47 and were the 8-seed. Winning even 20 of their final 32 is a whale of a task. (Have you seen the schedule in March!?) The Wolves have the 4th-most difficult strength of schedule going forward, per Tankathon.com — two versus Golden State, two versus Denver and one versus Toronto and Milwaukee.
All that said, it would be a gross brushing over the human element of a team game to, on a whim, just move on from the superb veteran presences of Gibson, Rose and Tolliver. But it should still be considered. Here’s why: Minnesota has nearly $90 million tied up in just Towns, Wiggins, Dieng and Covington come 2020-21. They need assets to: 1) Acquire a piece down the road via trade, because cap space is a distant dream; 2) Move Wiggins or Dieng’s contracts to free up financial flexibility.
Trading Tolliver, Rose and Gibson for a pile of second round picks doesn’t sound like much, but it could help. Eventually, two seconds could be turned into a late-first, and that late-first could be a difference-maker. For an immediate example, Houston may crave Rose in a discount-James Harden role and Tolliver as their new Ryan Anderson. If the Wolves can trade two (or three) second round picks in addition to Rose and Tolliver for two future (late-)firsts from Houston, they should accept in a second.
This trade more serves as an example than reality; the idea is a compilation of veteran assets for future assets you could then repurpose down the road. Firsts are gold for the Wolves if they want to someday land a real impact piece next to Towns. It’s a future play.
(Quick aside: I’m staying away from Gibson trades, though he could also be put in this hypothetical mix. It is my opinion that Gibson is the greatest veteran presence the Wolves have. With his $14 million likely harder to move, and rendering perhaps the smallest return, allowing that contract to just expire seems reasonable.)
Another stockpiling assets move, one that wouldn’t necessarily include any of the three key veterans, would be a Dario Saric trade. Saric was a big piece — I’ve argued the biggest piece — of the Butler haul from Philadelphia. In theory, he’s a great long-term fit next to Towns. Still, he’s an asset. And if you’re not totally married to the Saric-Towns pairing for the long haul, considering moving him for a lesser asset and a first round pick makes some sense. The $3.5 million he is owed next season is beautiful but then he becomes a restricted free agent. In the 2020 summer, the Wolves could be outbid for Saric’s services, given their financial pinch then, and The Homie could be gone for nothing.
Memphis is a very interesting team to mess around with for a Saric move. There are, of course, the sexy names of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to discuss, but those two are just more likely to be jettisoned elsewhere. Say Memphis nets multiple first round picks for their franchise cornerstones, one of those picks could be sent to Minnesota for Saric’s services.
Memphis cannot trade one of their own first round picks until 2023, due to their commitment to Boston, so this deal would be contingent on them acquiring an earlier first to tack on. If they do acquire that pick, Kyle Anderson, who is locked up until 2021-22, would give the Wolves a wing who can create off-the-dribble for himself at a price tag under $10 million per year. A lineup of Tyus Jones-Okogie-Anderson-Covington (small-ball four)-Towns could also be a hellish defensive group. But the real juice, again, is a first round pick that could buy the Wolves future financial flexibility.
Things could also get even more interesting with Memphis, but that belongs in the “buyer” section of this column. On to that.
The hypothetical Minnesota-Memphis trade that has been getting all sorts of run on the interweb, first peddled by Matt Moore of The Action Network and then co-signed by Britt Robson of The Athletic in his Wolves trade deadline primer, brings Conley to Minnesota and sends Wiggins to Memphis. It’s certainly an interesting move that makes a playoff push seem almost logical because a Conley-Towns pairing is mouth-watering. There would also be some theoretical addition by subtraction happening here:
However, I’m going to go with a Gasol-centric “buy” with Memphis. A move that would also provide financial relief. Again, like the other deal, this move would also be founded on the notion that Memphis would have interest in Wiggins as a future building block.
In this trade, the Wolves would be “buying” Gasol and also absorbing perhaps the emptiest contract in all of basketball, Chandler Parsons’ $25 million for next season. The attraction is that Parsons’ albatross ends a year before Dieng’s. More, the Wolves would be getting off their other two most irksome deals. Teague would fill in for Conley — who has theoretically been moved elsewhere — at the point; Wiggins and Saric would be under-25 building blocks; Dieng and the $33.5 million left on his deal fit best on a rebuilding team — he could start there.
Minnesota would need to attach multiple picks — including a first — to make this happen. However, if you’re of the mind that cleaning the books for Towns’ prime (two years from now) is the dream, then this is mission accomplished. To boot, the Wolves also get to toy with a Gasol-Towns frontcourt. There are at least a few reasons moving Towns to power forward makes sense. Even if Parsons does need to be bought out Luol Deng with the Lakers-style, a Jones/Rose-Okogie-Covington-Towns-Gasol starting lineup has the Wolves in the playoffs mix next season. But again, the real gift is the future flexibility. They would be “buying” much more than Gasol. The Wolves would be buying a future.
Playing around with the trade deadline is a fool’s errand. Hopefully, these specific trade ideas serve as just that: ideas — ways of thinking about how the Wolves can approach this critical juncture of their roster construction process. A new era is coming to Timberwolves basketball, trade or not. Thibodeau and Butler are gone, and the moves that came in their wake are close to expiring.
Normally, in a season that has been as chaotic as this one, standing pat would make a lot of sense. This team could really benefit from just catching their breath. Still, Gibson, Tolliver, Bayless, Rose and Deng are all expiring, so moves are at least worth considering. There’s so much more that goes into this than a minion like myself can process. But I’ll be watching with a keen eye as to how this trade deadline affects the future. February 7th could very well be a pivot point for a franchise that was shaken during The Post-Rubio Era.