Road Trip Thoughts: On the passing trade deadline, what’s best for the future, and Saric’s role

On Thursday afternoon the Wolves stood idle as the NBA Trade Deadline came and went. There may have been opportunities to make a minor move or two, but the reality of the situation is the Wolves didn’t have many major cards they could play.

There’s plenty of room for the Wolves to improve – as evidenced in Thursday night’s loss to the Magic – but the Wolves aren’t heavy on assets, or any ways to make those improvements happen other than internal improvement.

One of the worst places to be in the NBA is right in the middle. The Wolves currently aren’t a bad team. In fact, they’re probably a better team than their record would indicate. Having dealt with the Jimmy Butler fiasco, the firing of Tom Thibodeau, as well as a myriad of injuries has made it difficult to function this season.

It’s easy to judge the season in different sized chunks or sections. For the Wolves they’re as follows: The Butler era, the immediate post-Butler era, Robert Covington being banged up, the week following Thibodeau’s dismissal, and finally the stretch filled with injuries that the team is currently residing in.

Of those chunks, only one of them has been overwhelmingly positive. After Butler was traded, the Wolves looked like one of the better teams in the league. They were healthy, Covington was playing some of the best basketball of his career, and things were clicking for everyone.

Since then, nothing’s gone right for the Wolves. In 26 (!!) consecutive games the Wolves have been without at least one starter due to injury. Covington hasn’t played since the calendar flipped to 2019, Jeff Teague has missed 17 of the last 25 games, Tyus Jones has been out for 10 straight, and Derrick Rose has only played in nine of the last 22 games. The team has been operating with Jerryd Bayless as the primary point guard, but he got hurt in the fourth quarter against Orlando, too.

The Wolves are running out of ballhandlers and they’re running out of time, too. They might already even be out of both. The Wolves are sitting a full four games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, with three teams between themselves and eighth place.

In all likelihood, making the playoffs probably isn’t the best course of action for this franchise, not this year. Last year chasing the No. 8 seed made sense. The Wolves hadn’t qualified for the playoffs since the Kevin Garnett days and were trying to end one of the longest playoff droughts in basketball.

This year, making the playoffs in the final spot in the Western Conference will likely mean a four-day trip to Oakland to take on the Warriors, the team everyone assumes is going to run away with the title come June. It also would mean the Wolves would be locked into a draft pick between No. 15 and No. 18 (likely closer to 18). Missing the playoffs would mean the lottery is a destination.

Teams don’t want to miss the playoffs for as long as the Wolves did. Once teams get a taste of the postseason, they don’t want to go back, and they shouldn’t. It’s easy to understand why the Wolves should want to chase the playoffs, but the reality is missing could be the better option.

As mentioned, the Wolves don’t have assets right now. And even worse than not having assets is having cap space tied up. The Wolves are in a terrible position in terms of the cap right now. They have the deal for Andrew Wiggins (very bad) and the deal for Karl-Anthony Towns (very good! But expensive!) that will both be in place next year. The Wolves will be paying those two between $54 million and $59 million next season. They’ve also the Gorgui Dieng contract of $16 million on the books.

Simply put, the Wolves aren’t going to have cap space to sign a notable free agent this summer, or likely for the foreseeable future. The only way to add a star-caliber player is through a trade or the draft. There aren’t many buttons to press to make a trade work, but getting lucky in the draft lottery is possible. As the day ends on Thursday the Wolves have a 9.4 percent chance of being selected in the draft lottery to pick in the top four.

Maybe the losses racking up, and that percentage chance rising, wouldn’t be the worst thing for the future of the franchise. One step back this year could help them make a leap forward in the years to come.

On the court

Thursday night’s game hasn’t been touched on much here, because it was just another night. The Wolves are beat up right now with injuries, and it’s tough for them to win when the only point guard option is Isaiah Canaan on day nine of his 10-day contract.

There’s just not much else Minnesota can do right now, and that’s the reality right now. If the Wolves were healthy, it might be a different story. It’s unfortunate, but these are the cards that Minnesota has been dealt right now.

It’s difficult to judge interim coach Ryan Saunders at this point because he doesn’t have the levers to pull to make things happen. In no way should a rookie head coach be judged with this type of roster.

It might be the time to start Saric

It was briefly touched upon following Tuesday’s loss to Memphis that it might be time to give Dario Saric a shot in the starting lineup. He had his best game of the season against the Grizzlies and followed it up with another bright performance against the Magic on Thursday.

In the loss he had 17 points off the bench in 21 minutes. Now may be the time to give him a shot in the starting lineup. Much like the Wolves are trying to figure out what they have in Saunders at the helm, they need to find out what they have in Saric as a player. He could be a big part of their future, and the sooner they know just how good he is, and can develop to be, the better off they are in the future. He’s stated in the past that he wants to be a starter and feels he plays better that way, it might be the time to have him prove that.

The issue is that defensively he cannot cover up things defensively the same way that Taj Gibson can. That’s the biggest reason as to why the starting lineup hasn’t shifted. When he was a starter in Philadelphia, he was next to Joel Embiid, one of the NBA’s best defensive centers (offensively he’s great too, but that’s not the point). Embiid could handle just about any big man in the league.

In Minnesota, Towns isn’t the same caliber of player that Embiid is on the defensive end. Gibson is closer to that level despite being a bit undersized. That’s why so often the Wolves crossmatch their front court, having Towns on the opposition’s power forward while Gibson takes the center, or whoever is the tougher of the two to handle.

Even if that’s the case, extended playing time for Saric is certainly warranted.

The Wolves play once again on Friday night against the New Orleans Pelicans to close out this three-game road trip. Talk to you then.