At 25-27, and with only one game left before the trade deadline, the Wolves will not be over-.500 when Woj begins lighting fuses Thursday afternoon. The future has come at the Wolves fast. As if it would be impossible not to, the Wolves (particularly) should be monitoring the A.D. sweepstakes as they try to cobble together a team that can continue to compete for the final 30 games of the season.
This whole Anthony Davis wanting out of New Orleans things is problematic for the Wolves. No, not just because it is a cautionary tale of Karl-Anthony Towns desiring to flex his own “pre-agency” in time. That is, at worst, years away. Davis wanting out is a problem because it may open spot for KAT to make an All-NBA team. While that would be great for Towns on a personal level, it would be cumbersome to the team’s future roster construction, given the financial impact.
If you’re not familiar, Towns has a clause in the maximum contract extension he signed this past summer that will boost his next salary from 25 percent of the salary cap ($158 million over five years) up to 30 percent of the cap ($190 million) if he makes an All-NBA team.
Even just a week ago, this possibility seemed unlikely. Davis in New Orleans, Joel Embiid in Philadelphia and Nikola Jokic in Denver were all not only performing at an All-NBA level, but they were also three MVP candidates. Towns, along with Rudy Gobert, had fallen into the second-tier centers. Only three centers make the All-NBA team.
But things have changed. There appears to be a real shot that Davis sits out the rest of the season after making his future plans clear. Davis has said he wants to continue to play, even if it’s for New Orleans, but the Pelicans would be wise to protect their trade asset. Also, playing a superstar isn’t going to help their chances of moving up in the draft lottery. If Davis does sit out, his 2018-19 season resumé will only consist of 41 games played. No one is making an All-NBA team with only 41 games of action.
Then there is Gobert, and it’s here where things get interesting for KAT. Last season’s Defensive Player of the Year was not named a Western Conference reserve last week. Towns was. Theoretically, this moves KAT up to third in the league’s big man hierarchy. (It should be noted that the NBA’s coaches vote on the All-Star reserves and that the All-NBA squads are determined by the league’s media.)
Bottom of the line: The possibility of Embiid, Jokic and Towns being the league’s center representatives on the three All-NBA teams is real.
Again, this would be a worthy award for Towns who has been nothing short of dominant since the Jimmy Butler trade in mid-November. But again, that additional five percent of the salary cap is not small potatoes. For example, let’s take a look at what the Wolves will have on the books next season if Towns does make the All-NBA team.
With Towns making $32.7 million, the Wolves total salary ledger jumps over $114 million — $5 million over next season’s salary cap in contracts to just eight players. The real number to look at here, though, is $132 million — the projected luxury tax line. Towns’ salary boost would only leave Minnesota with $18 million in space below the tax.
According to league sources, staying below the luxury tax in 2018-19 was a mandate imparted on the current front office because the team was not yet a “true contender”. The mandate restricted the team’s offseason spendings to the addition of Anthony Tolliver when they could have spent more — using the rest of the mid-level exception — had there not been said restriction.
Even with another year of development from Towns, a healthy Robert Covington and the likely growth of other young pieces, becoming a true contender by next season seems unlikely. The operating assumption should be that $132 million will, again, be a line in the sand. If the Wolves do not make a trade to clear space, the team will be limited in their spendings, likely to another, small, Tolliver-esque move.
However, if KAT misses the All-NBA team next season, there is an additional $5.5 million to work with.
In this scenario, the Wolves will have just over $23 million available below the tax line. With shrewd fiscal management, this could make it possible for the team to use the mid-level exception and re-sign one of their expiring contracts. In a nutshell, if Towns makes All-NBA, it is increasingly unlikely that Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Tolliver, Luol Deng or Tyus Jones are brought back next year. If he doesn’t, possibilities open up.
For many Minnesotans, Jones’ name stands out on that list. It would be a tough to pill to swallow, but Towns’ raise could price the Wolves out of the Jones conversation completely. Say Jones is offered a 4 year, $24 million contract on the open market, the Wolves would have the opportunity to match that deal. In this scenario (Towns not receiving the raise), the Wolves could probably slide under the tax by matching Jones’ offer sheet for $6 million annually and use the ‘full mid-level exception’ (~9.2 million) on an additional free agent. If Towns’ salary does boost to 30 percent of the cap, Jones and all of the expiring deals become longer shots to return.
Let’s not worry too much about AD serving as a cautionary tale, yet. What Davis (and Gobert) do the rest of this season are the first stringings of caution tape.
After scoring a season-high of 21 points on January 22nd against Phoenix, Josh Okogie is in the midst of what is the rookie’s coldest streak of the season. Since that game, Okogie has only converted nine of his 42 field goal attempts (21.4 percent) and his minute load has precipitously dropped. Ryan Saunders has noted that leaning on Luol Deng rather than rolling with Okogie is a product of the team needing “shot-makers” on the floor while the team faces a bevy of injuries.
In a bizarre turn of events from last season, the Wolves do need scorers more than they need defenders. But that shouldn’t take away from our positive assessments of Okogie who has almost unilaterally been a positive on the defensive side of the floor. Statistically speaking, no player has assisted Karl-Anthony Towns in playing better defense this season.
Entering the loss to Denver on Saturday night, Okogie and Towns had shared the floor for 607 minutes and allowed an excellent 100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats.
The Wolves outscore opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions when Towns and Okogie share the floor — Towns’ best two-man pairing. The issue for team effectiveness comes when Okogie is on the floor with players who can not cover up his offensive shortcomings. For example, the Wolves score 101.3 points per 100 possessions when Okogie shares the floor with Tyus Jones or Gorgui Dieng but that number boosts to 108.3 when he shares the floor with Andrew Wiggins or Taj Gibson.
This presents an interesting question for Saunders and the coaching staff: How do you get the most out of Okogie’s minutes?
While it seems critical to play Okogie with the best offensive players, remaining a starter will likely not be an option once Robert Covington returns from injury. A compromise should be having Okogie be the games first substitution — probably for Covington who has had tons of success with the second unit — so he gets ample run with the starters and then, also, to have Okogie’s bench minutes overlap with Derrick Rose’s as much as possible.
“I do have a plan but you do go off of feel,” Saunders said of his rotations Saturday evening. “You do go off of matchups and you do go off how guys are playing together and individually, too.”
It appears the minutes for all of the Wolves rotations pieces, not just Okogie, will be a bit volatile under Saunders. For many players in the locker room, that’s a welcome change from the rigidity of the Tom Thibodeau rotation system. We’ll learn a lot more about Saunders’ preferences if this team can ever get healthy.
“These things happen with injuries, so his minutes have gone up,” Saunders continued in relation to Okogie specifically. “As time goes on, and you get guys back, don’t be surprised if the minutes do go down a little bit. But it’s nothing against Josh by any means.”
One way for the Wolves to save that five percent of the salary cap would be to point out to All-NBA voters that Taj Gibson is functionally this team’s center. Karl-Anthony Towns has been great, but he ain’t making All-NBA over any of the league’s top-six forwards.
Sure, Towns is taller than Gibson, but on offense he is a functionally a stretch-four who also has elite post-up abilities. Gibson is the team’s paint lurker on offense; he’s given up the 3-point shooting gimmick, making one shot from beyond-the-arc in the last 27 games. Additionally, on defense, Gibson checks the opponent’s best post-up threat.
The last two games, Gibson has admirably battled Marc Gasol and Nikola Jokic in the paint while Towns has been relegated to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Paul Millsap. Ryan Saunders has leaned further into Gibson functionally serving as the center more than Tom Thibodeau did, and it’s helping Towns. Since Saunders took over, Towns has a defensive rating of 103.3 when functioning as the power forward next to Gibson. When Towns slides up to center, and shares the floor with Dario Saric, that number swells to 110.1.
While the sample here is, of course, small (12 games), it does raise questions about what the optimal, long-term frontcourt pairing is for Towns. The logic goes: Gibson’s contract expires at the end of the season and next year Saric takes over for him in the starting lineup next year. But there should be consideration of bringing back Gibson next year, or at least keeping him through the trade deadline, because of the positive influence he brings to Towns on his weaker side of the floor.
Trading some of the vets on expiring deals makes some sense come Thursday’s deadline. But keeping their starting center, should not be one of those moves. KAT needs Taj.