If the Timberwolves Get the…
1st Pick: Draft Cade Cunningham
If the Wolves are lucky enough to land the top pick in a strong 2021 draft, they should sprint to the podium to announce that Cade Cunningham is the selection…. for so many reasons. In a vacuum Cunningham is flat-out the best player in the draft. He is a 6'8" point guard who is one of the smartest players in the draft at just 19 years old. His only real red flag coming into the college season was his jump shooting ability, and he immediately quieted those concerns by shooting 40% from the 3pt line on high volume while creating many of the attempts himself. For good measure, he added an 85% mark from the free throw line, further proving that his shooting stroke is legitimate. If you have not seen Cade play, look up the Youtube highlights of his woefully undermanned Oklahoma State team upsetting the decisive national champion Baylor Bears during this past college season. He was everything for a team that went into the NCAA Tournament as a 4 seed.
Besides the obvious talent and intangibles that make Cunningham the surefire #1 selection, he is also nearly a perfect fit in the back court alongside the Wolves’ young phenom guard, Anthony Edwards. Cade is a point guard, but should continue to develop the shooting and scoring ability to be an off-ball weapon when Ant is cooking. Then he also has shown the playmaking ability to setup a scorer like Edwards for easy baskets. Can you envision Coach Finch scheming up ways to get Ant free off the ball while a 6'8" guard slings passes to him? Ant plays with power, force, and strength while Cade relies on precision and technical abilities. That is a potent mix on the offensive end. Defensively Cade was one of his college team’s best help defenders and often guarded players all over the court. At 6'8" with even longer arms Cunningham projects to be able to defend the opposing team’s best perimeter player or shift up the positional spectrum to guard stretch 4’s when needed. That versatility frees up Ant to guard one of the less dangerous offensive options for the opponent, and possibly seek out steals and easy baskets in transition.
While the fit with Ant is likely one of the most important aspects to the argument for drafting Cade, his fit with the Wolves’ other core players could be just as synergistic. He would play very well offensively with Karl-Anthony Towns as Cade would appreciate the best pick & pop partner that he has ever had. D’Angelo Russell would finally play with another great playmaker that can get him the ball in his spots to stretch the defense beyond the 3pt line. And finally he could form a long and smart defensive duo with Jaden McDaniels to terrorize opposing guards and wings. Cade Cunningham is truly a “hand in glove” fit on the court for the Wolves.
If the Wolves land the #1 pick on lottery night, the most intriguing question will not be “Who will they select?” Rather, we will be asking what the heck they will do with the rest of the roster?
Minnesota is already in a bit of a roster spot and salary cap crunch, and adding the 1st overall pick would completely fill up the roster while blasting the team into the luxury tax. They would absolutely need to make a move (or several) to free up room on the team and space on the ledger. The Wolves have 12 players under contract for next season and 15 total available roster spots. If they re-sign Jarred Vanderbilt, which most fans would hope for, that is 13. The 23rd pick in the 2020 draft, Leandro Bolmaro, may come over next season which puts them at 14. Cade Cunningham puts them at 15, a full roster, and probably at least 10–15 million dollars over the luxury tax limit. A team that has made the playoffs exactly once in the last 16 years is not paying that bill. Moves will be made.
The first and most logical subtraction would be Ricky Rubio. If Cunningham is drafted, suddenly the need for more guard depth is removed so Rubio and his $17.8 million could be as well. The tricky part will be not taking back much money in trading Ricky. Would a team with cap space just absorb Ricky’s final year of his contract for very little payment? If so, that would likely solve most of the cap issues and free-up a roster spot. Maybe they need a future 2nd round pick to sweeten the deal. Either way, if Cade Cunningham is inbound it seems Ricky Rubio’s salary will need to be removed from the books somehow.
That still does not leave the Wolves much of an ability to address other roster holes, such as their power forward conundrum that has haunted them for several years now. They need a solution for another large human to play next to Karl-Anthony Towns, and I think in this situation it would have to be some sort of “2 for 1” or “3 for 1” trade in which the Wolves send out some combination of Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Jarrett Culver, or Jake Layman to bring in a capable big man (anywhere from John Collins to Myles Turner to Daniel Theis). Losing Beasley’s offensive firepower would hurt, but if the Wolves are able to reallocate those resources into players that could better support their current core for now and the future, then it is worthwhile. This type of deal would also free-up another roster spot for the Wolves to sign a veteran minimum player to round out the roster and save some money in the process.
Overall, having the pleasure of drafting Cade Cunningham clearly comes with some short term difficulties. The salary cap would be bloated, and no matter how highly regarded a rookie is, they rarely contribute to immediately significant success. The real payoff would be the long-term sustainability of building a team with a couple of potentially dominant young guards in Anthony Edwards and Cade Cunningham. The Boston Celtics chose Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in back to back drafts, and are set up for a decade of prosperity because of it. Edwards and Cunningham could be an even more synergistic match than Brown and Tatum. That would be a “first” in the short history of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and would be well worth any short term roster and salary cap cramping. If we are lucky enough to snag the #1 pick, do not think twice. Take Cade.
2nd Pick: Draft Evan Mobley
It appears that Evan Mobley is the near-consensus 2nd best prospect in the 2021 draft. Mobley is a 7'0" pterodactyl with legs who will be 20 years old when the draft happens and is the perfect archetype of a modern big man in the NBA. In his lone season at USC, Evan mostly played center and completely shut down the paint on defense with his length, balance, and shot blocking abilities. On the perimeter he switched smoothly on to smaller ball handlers and moved his feet to stay in front of them better than almost any other big man in college basketball. Basically, he was never in a mismatch on defense. Coming into a league like the NBA where offensive players seek out mismatches constantly, that is an incredibly valuable skill to possess.
What makes Mobley the likely 2nd pick instead of the 1st pick is his still-developing offensive game. For a 7'0" player, he has very good ball handling and passing instincts, but as a shooter and finisher he will take some time to get comfortable against NBA defenders. The good news is that the attributes are there to develop these skills. He already has good hands and soft touch around the rim, so he should slide in immediately as an interior threat on offense in the less-congested NBA. Mobley also is confident in his midrange jump shot, which is an encouraging sign towards developing a 3pt stroke relatively early in his career.
The reason he is the pick here for the Timberwolves is primarily because of the defense. All throughout the past season it was apparent that the Wolves lacked a significant rim protector to deter opposing offenses from getting easy baskets in the paint. Karl-Anthony Towns certainly improved his defensive capabilities, but to become an average to good defense he needs help. Evan Mobley would absolutely help. He would offer another rim protector to take the burden off of KAT, and because of his long reach and height the Wolves’ rebounding issues could be alleviated as well. Mobley slots in immediately as a starting big man with the Wolves, and the team’s defense could improve significantly in short order.
On offense, the fit is a little less apparent. Mobley will need to be used for the skills he HAS and not the skills he COULD HAVE. That means he can be a cutter off the ball, a lob threat, and a pick and roll rim runner. Players with his size, athleticism, and natural hands can be valuable in those roles right away. With the Wolves’ plethora of mouths to feed on offense, Mobley would not have much room to experiment with the ball in his hands with the starting unit. In bench units they could start to run the offense through him a bit more, but his rookie season would see him have a fairly low usage rate.
The rest of the offseason’s roster construction with Mobley in tow may not be as active as it would if the pick were a perimeter player. Evan Mobley immediately plugs the Wolves’ biggest hole on their roster — a competent/elite big man to start alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. There would be no need to trade for John Collins, Myles Turner, or another big man of that ilk. The same luxury tax problem does exist however if this pick is used. Just like with Cunningham, the Wolves would be significantly past the luxury tax threshold and would need to dump salaries. With the pick being a big man, would Rubio still be the obvious player to go? With his salary and having only 1 year remaining, probably. But maybe there are teams that would take on Juancho Hernangomez and Jarrett Culver (not likely together, separate teams). That may nudge them just under the threshold, but leaves no room for anything else.
As painful as it may be, Rubio would probably need to be shipped away, and maybe even another player if the team hopes to retain Jarred Vanderbilt and bring in Leandro Bolmaro. Minnesota keeps their future draft pick powder dry (except the 2022 1st going to GSW in this scenario) though and still is able to plug their biggest roster hole with the Mobley selection. They would continue building a modern team with incredible length, versatility, and offensive firepower. These moves may open up a bit of a hole at the backup point guard spot, but there are options to fill that role without spending much money. Jordan McLaughlin could be brought back on a very inexpensive deal, or Leandro Bolmaro who has been a ball handling guard in Europe could step in to the role.
The argument for choosing Mobley with this pick is more about the long term future of the Wolves rather than short term gains. Mobley’s main strengths will be on the defensive side as he has the potential to develop into a monster on that end, but even superstars like Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid took several years to become really impactful defenders. Learning the X’s and O’s of NBA defense as a big man is just very difficult! Evan’s size, length, and mobility will certainly assist his learning curve, but this pick is about what the Wolves could look like in 2–3 years as opposed to next season. If Mobley continues a developmental track that mirrors Anthony Davis or Bam Adebayo, the Wolves will have two of the most elusive player types that every team is looking for: a star ball handling/scoring guard and a defensive dynamo who shuts down the paint and has skills on offense. That is the type of duo that convinces Towns to stick around after his current contract and creates a sustainable formula for winning long into the future. Evan Mobley should be locked in at #2.
3rd Pick Option A: Field Trade Offers
This is where things get interesting. If you listen to most draft experts, the real drama starts at pick 3 after Cunningham and Mobley have been selected. There are a couple of players, Jalen Suggs and Jalen Green, that have the talent and pedigree to be a viable selection here. If the Wolves fall into the 3rd spot, they certainly would have options to draft a high-ceiling player, but they should absolutely listen to trade offers prior to making a decision here.
If the draft order falls a certain way, there could be a few teams that would be desperate to move into this slot to select one of these high upside youngsters to aid in a longer term rebuild. For example, maybe OKC ends up with their pick in the 6 or 7 slot. Do they feel pressured to move up and get one of Green or Suggs (both outstanding fits next to SGA) after their “tank of the century” to end the season? They could approach Minnesota and offer their pick and a selection of assets from their treasure chest of future 1st round picks. The Wolves could still select a promising young player AND set themselves up with a load of future draft capital to be used in trades down the line. New Orleans could be another candidate here with their future picks coming from the Lakers and Bucks.
Other teams such as Toronto or Sacramento could be pressured to make similar moves if the lottery does not turn out in their favor. In those cases it would probably be an offering of a good player and picks to sway the Wolves to swap with them. Would Toronto approach Minnesota with Pascal Siakam on the table to help them reset their roster? The Wolves would need to match salaries so they would send likely Rubio and Beasley/Juancho/Culver or some combination of that group along with the pick. Is that enough to entice Toronto to give up a very good player? Possibly not, but the conversation is realistic. Sacramento could be very aggressive in moving up if they fall in love with one of those top guys during the scouting process, although it is hard to see which realistic players the Wolves would be interested in on their roster.
The real value to having this pick would be the bidding war that could begin between teams because there is not just a single enticing draft option here; there are multiple. Both Jalens could impress teams all over the league in their pre-draft workouts, causing a mad dash for this draft selection. Wolves fans may be disappointed with this option, especially if they trade it for more picks, but it could build a mountain of flexibility down the road. If they move the pick for an established star like Pascal Siakam or someone along those lines, fans can feel very excited for that team’s immediate and future prospects, but it does lock the roster in place for the foreseeable future. If it is a winning roster, great! But maneuvering around the edges will be difficult from there. The possibilities surrounding trading this pick make this option very intriguing.
3rd Pick Option B: Draft Jalen Suggs
If the trade offers are not overwhelming enough to strike a deal, then the Wolves should select Jalen Suggs. With all due respect to the other Jalen, Jalen Green, I like the short and long term fit better with Suggs on this Wolves roster. Also, have you heard that Jalen Suggs is from Minnesota? In all seriousness, Suggs has been a winner in his athletic career. He has the type of leadership intangibles that most players take years to develop, and that was on display as he took hold of a veteran Gonzaga team and led them to a nearly perfect season during his lone year of college basketball. Heading into the NBA, his competitiveness, drive, and work ethic will be immediately apparent and help move the culture in a positive direction for the Wolves.
By the way, Suggs is just a great basketball player as well! He is a 6'4" 205lb guard with great athleticism and a mature game. Offensively he could be your point guard who organizes the offense and collapses the defense with drives to the rim, or he could play off the ball as a shooter and dangerous cutter. On defense he will demand to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter player. He is quick, long, and strong with the right attitude to make life difficult on any matchup he draws. Jalen Suggs is pretty close to being the perfect archetype of a modern NBA point guard.
All of those intangible attributes and physical skills sound good in a vacuum, but they sound even better when he is placed on the Wolves roster. Almost no player would be a more seamless fit as a point guard next to Anthony Edwards. Suggs is a player that can set up Edwards to score as well as play off the ball when Ant handles. Defensively Suggs will take the opposing team’s best guard allowing Ant to take a bit of a break on that end as his offensive load increases. They are both former football stars, so it seems they could develop a reputation for being a very unpleasant back court to play against with their strength and aggression.
Much like Cade Cunningham, Suggs’ fit with the rest of the Wolves core appears to be seamless as well. Any young guard benefits from having one of the league’s best shooters in Karl-Anthony Towns as a pick and pop partner, and D’Angelo Russell’s abilities as a masterful passer and shooter can take the pressure off of any young player. Once again on defense Suggs can shore up the point of attack to lighten the rim protection burden on Karl-Anthony Towns.
To become a true star on the Wolves and partner to their current back court stud, Suggs will need to improve in his ball handling and scoring capabilities. Right now, scoring off the dribble will be a challenge for him against NBA defenses as he will need to rely less on athleticism and more on craft and finesse. The tireless worker that Suggs is, that should not be an issue. If he develops these areas the Wolves’ future guard rotation will look very formidable, which is a must-have in the Western Conference.
Much like the situation if they draft Cunningham, the Wolves will need to make roster moves to accommodate a guard like Suggs on the roster. That will necessitate the trading of one of their high salaried guards like Rubio or Beasley. Finding a way to keep Beasley next to Suggs would be ideal, so an attempt could be made to move Rubio and Culver elsewhere to open up the space to address the power forward position. Once again, the same scenario as the Cade Cunningham selection applies here. If the draft falls like it is predicted with Cunningham and Mobley being selected in the top 2 picks, the Wolves should field trade offers for the 3rd pick. If nothing is satisfactory, we should feel great about adding a future star and fan favorite in Jalen Suggs.
Lose the Pick
Unfortunately the least appealing scenario is also the most likely to happen. There is a 72.4% chance the Wolves will lose their 2021 1st round pick, and that will mean they miss out on the chance to select a potentially franchise-changing player. BUT that does not mean that all is lost. There is a reason that Minnesota ended the season on a high note instead of tanking the days away. They are building something with the group they currently have, and even though losing the pick would be difficult to watch they still have avenues to improve the team. Losing the 2021 pick also means the Wolves will have a full stable of 1st round draft picks along with a few extra 2nd rounders in the future.
Gersson Rosas and his staff have been planning to lose this pick since they made the trade with Golden State to acquire D’Angelo Russell. There is no way he assumed the 20–21 Wolves would be bad enough to get a top 3 pick, so Rosas has been planning for this all along. Why else would he have made moves to select 3 players in the 1st round in 2020, including one player that would likely not come to the team until 2021 in Leandro Bolmaro. On draft night, Rosas made sure to exchange James Johnson’s expiring salary for Ricky Rubio who has essentially the same contract just one year longer. They knew they would want that expiring money headed into the 2021 offseason instead of 2020. He also made sure to fill out the roster with young and intriguing “lottery ticket” type players over the past couple of seasons with the likes of Jarred Vanderbilt, Naz Reid, Jaden McDaniels, and Jaylen Nowell. These players were brought in with the hope that they could develop to the point of contributing to the team in 2021, and there was little pressure to perform immediately. All of these moves have been made to lessen the impact of losing the 2021 draft pick, and to make sure the team still has an infusion of young and improving talent moving forward. Instead of relying on the luck of the lottery to save the team, Rosas is proceeding with his plan and will adjust accordingly if they do get lucky.
Without the privilege of a top draft pick and very little space under the luxury tax threshold, how can the Wolves possibly improve the roster? As has been the case all along with this team, so much improvement will need to come from internal development. As the 20–21 season progressed, we saw so much of that already from Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Naz Reid, Jarred Vanderbilt, and others. Heading into the 21–22 season all of these players could have taken another leap and after a full (and normal) offseason within a developmental system that has been proven to work. Even the top players on the roster can improve as well. D’Angelo Russell showed a renewed engagement on defense and purposefully distributed the ball on offense in Chris Finch’s system. Carrying that over to year 2 under Finch would immediately pay dividends. The team’s best player, Karl-Anthony Towns, was likely never mentally or physically at his peak during this past season so if he comes into the 21–22 season with an enthusiasm to lead the team it will be a massive positive.
Internal development will not just mean players getting better; it would also entail better injury luck and more player availability. While Karl-Anthony Towns ended up playing 50 games this season, he missed most of his time early in the year sending the 20–21 season down the drain quickly. Towards the end of the season, we only caught a small glimpse of D’Angelo Russell alongside Towns and an improved Anthony Edwards. We barely saw Malik Beasley after the All-Star break, and he ended the season with only 37 games played total because of suspension and injury. When Malik Beasley WAS playing, Ant was not yet the game-breaking scorer we now know and love. Jaden McDaniels was barely in the rotation and was certainly not yet a key contributor either. We just have not seen this team’s best players together, and there almost has to be some positive regression headed our way (furiously knocks on wood).
One real positive to losing the pick is the lack of a need to dump players for salary purposes. As previously referenced, the Wolves already have 12 players under contract for next season. Without the need to sign a draft pick, they could likely bring back Jarred Vanderbilt AND sign Leandro Bolmaro while staying just under the luxury tax threshold. This offers the flexibility to focus on finding trades that upgrade the roster’s talent instead of focusing on dumping salary. Maybe they decide that John Collins from Atlanta is the right player to add as a power forward for the future. It would have to be a sign & trade, but they would have more flexibility to take on a bit of salary if needed. If a true center like Myles Turner is on the trading block, the Wolves would have their future picks to offer along with salary filler to make it happen. These are scenarios that are easier to imagine without the top 3 pick coming in. The cap sheet is cleaner and the future pick arsenal is full. It gives the Wolves the ability to hit the “Go” button on the team competing for the playoffs now.
Once again, Gersson Rosas has been planning for this specific situation. If this scenario comes to pass, we can be disappointed for a day, but then move forward with the understanding that the “Rosas Plan” is still intact. With or without the pick, the Wolves have assembled an impressive group of young players. It will be up to the front office to successfully round out the roster, and for the coaches to develop the players into a winning team. June 22nd will be a wild night!