Time for the Wolves to Hit the Gas Pedal
The NBA Draft Lottery has come and gone and like so many lotteries of the past our Minnesota Timberwolves were not lucky enough to hit the jackpot. This year’s drawing was different in that it carried an extra level of drama with the likely outcome of losing the pick versus the small chance of landing a highly regarded prospect. In the end it seems Wolves fans are moderately disappointed in the result of sending the 7th pick to the Warriors, but are not discouraged and continue to carry the good vibes fostered by the team to end the season. With the draft order set, the offseason becomes much more clear for Minnesota. It is time to hit the gas pedal on the “Post-Thibs” rebuild.
Gersson Rosas, President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and his front office have been in a state of limbo since the end of the season. They have known the holes and deficiencies that need improving on the team, but have had no idea whether they would be able to use a top pick in this year’s draft to address those areas. On top of that, they were unsure of the future picks they would be allowed to trade because keeping this year’s pick would have meant forfeiting their 1st rounder next season. Had they kept their pick this season, which would have been in the top 3, the Wolves could have drafted another 19–20 year old with an incredibly high ceiling. As great as that sounds, it likely extends the rebuild a bit longer as it shifts the timeline of the team towards the younger players. While that could have lead to long term sustainable success (which is sorely needed!) it likely would not have helped the immediate success of the roster.
As it turns out, the Wolves did not keep that pick and move forward with all of their future 1st round picks in tow after this year’s draft. The debt to swap Andrew Wiggins for D’Angelo Russell has been paid, and Rosas & co. should have a very clear picture of the assets at their disposal. So the main question now should ask: How do the Wolves get better? Well there is not one single solution, but between developing internally and acquiring external help the Wolves can improve on a heartening end of the 20–21 NBA season.
Can we agree to erase the first half of the 20–21 Wolves season from memory completely? Agreed? Good. In the 2nd half of the season the Wolves went 16–20. All 36 of those games were coached by Chris Finch and included Anthony Edwards. Karl-Anthony Towns played in most of them, D’Angelo Russell played in some of them, and Malik Beasley played in very few of those games. There is significant reason to believe simply running it back with that roster and having those 4 players more available will yield far better results than a 23–49 record. Especially when you consider the youth on the roster that should naturally make a leap, and a further understanding of the systems put in place by a smart head coach.
Anthony Edwards is especially one to consider when it comes to sustaining improved play. His 2nd half of the season numbers of 23.8pts/5.3rebs/3.4assts while shooting 45% from the field and 35% from the 3pt. line are astounding when compared to the season’s 1st half. That is not just some outlier hot streak; that is over the course of 36 games! There are still plenty of areas in which Ant can improve like his defensive commitment and overall shot selection, so it is expected that his 2nd half of the season numbers are now the standard and not the ceiling.
It is also fair to assume that the new head coach, Chris Finch, was just starting to scratch the surface regarding what he hopes to implement for this team on offense and defense. Finch was in charge for just over half the season, and with precious little practice time and a team that fought adversity seemingly every week it was difficult to install his schemes and philosophies. Now with an entire offseason for him to understand how to use his core players, he should be able to hit the ground running in training camp to install his systems. The little bit of strategy tweaks we saw from Finch to finish the season were already an enormous difference from whatever we watched to start the year, so imagine what he can do in a full offseason where he is able to set expectations with the players and build roles for them. Chris Finch will likely bring in some new coaching faces as well, but there will still be some continuity on the coaching staff with Pablo Prigioni likely sticking around and assistant coach Joseph Blair being promoted higher up the bench. Great coaching can be one of the quickest ways to turn a loser into a winner, and it seems that the Wolves have a guy who could make that happen.
But even with marked improvement from Ant, improvement in coaching, and relative health from the rest of the roster, is it enough to guarantee a playoff spot in the Western Conference? I would say it is doubtful. Unfortunately the West is as deep as it has been in years even though it may not sport the high-end teams of a few years ago. It will likely take a bit of roster reconstruction from Gersson Rosas to make the jump into the playoffs.
Internal development will be the Wolves friend this offseason. Players will add skills, coaching schemes will be better implemented, and (knock on wood) the injury bug may be a bit kinder to the team’s best players. But roster moves are almost always necessary to make a significant jump up from the bottom.
Look at teams like the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks. Both teams are in their respective conference finals after being relegated the lottery for years prior to this season. These are young teams that saw an enormous leap from their best young players including Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and Deandre Ayton for Phoenix and Trae Young, Deandre Hunter, and John Collins for Atlanta. All of those young guns saw their stars (and future bank accounts) rise this season, but some of the most significant reasons that each team has achieved so much this season is because of roster moves made to acquire more help for their young stars. Atlanta had a nice young core, but they supplemented it with Bogdan Bogdanović and Danilo Gallinari in free agency, and acquired Clint Capela via trade at the 19–20 trade deadline. Phoenix obviously made the huge trade for Chris Paul in the offseason, but also signed Jae Crowder and resigned Dario Sarić to round out the roster. Each team addressed significant flaws in their young core by bringing in proven veterans. That is the path for the Wolves.
The most obvious roster hole that needs addressing is a big(ish) man who can do some or all of the following things: protect the rim, guard on the perimeter, rebound, shoot 3’s, and drive & kick. It is hard to imagine the Wolves considering themselves as serious playoff contenders if they do not come up with an answer (likely external) for this area of their roster to play next to Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid in the front court. For starters, they ranked 28th in the league in defensive rating and 24th in the league in defensive rebound percentage. Stopping teams once is hard enough for this team, but then their inability to get a defensive rebound absolutely killed them in so many games. A big body at the 4/5 will immediately pay dividends for the defense and rebounding while also sliding the team’s best defensive starter, Jaden McDaniels, to his best position at the 3. So who will the Wolves target to solve this issue?
The most popular name among the Wolves Twitter-sphere is currently Ben Simmons. Believe it or not, Wolves fans are torn regarding his fit with the team (shocker)! While not technically a power forward, he is enormous and would immediately help the defensive and rebounding deficiencies. I also believe he is an interesting fit on offense, even with the shooting deficiency, because he could be unlocked with increased spacing and an innovative coach. Unfortunately I have no idea what it would take to get him in a trade, so I will leave that to the Trade Machine Experts on Twitter. What I do know is that contrary to what some may believe, Philly is not looking to “salary dump” him. Ben Simmons was the runner up in DPOY and for significant stretches of his career has been a freight train on offense who creates open 3 point shots for his teammates better than almost anyone in the league. That is a valuable player no matter what the salary says. I know he disappeared in the 2nd round of the playoffs… but when he plays in the playoffs (missed the bubble playoffs due to injury) his team has not lost in the 1st round. That seems like a good problem to have from where I am sitting!
Moving on from Simmons, there are plenty of other pursue-able big men that could be available. I would start by sniffing around Cleveland. They have the 3rd pick in the upcoming draft. There is at least a chance that Evan Mobley falls to the Cavs at 3, and suddenly they will have a glut of big men that need minutes in Jarrett Allen, Larry Nance Jr, Kevin Love, and Mobley. If they select Mobley, do they really want to pay Jarrett Allen $15–20 million per year in restricted free agency this offseason? Or if they see Mobley as a power forward then it is likely time to move Nance Jr. for something else of value while they still can. Even without drafting Mobley, their big man rotation is about to get VERY expensive if they resign Jarrett Allen. Rosas should keep an eye on what happens there.
Myles Turner has been a popular name thrown around lately. It seems like his partnership in the front court in Indiana with Sabonis has grown a bit stale and they could move him to grab players that better fit their top talent. The wrench that was recently thrown in the mix was that Indiana hired Rick Carlisle as their head coach. That is certainly a signal that they are not interested in taking a step back, and Carlisle is an old school coach that may value Turner’s rim protection on defense quite highly. At the very least their front office may compelled to give it one more year under a new coach. It has already been reported that Rosas and the Wolves are interested in Turner, so I am sure we will still hear rumblings about him throughout the Summer.
A couple other names include John Collins & Clint Capela, although they are very unlikely to move with the Hawks playoff run. Daniel Theis from Chicago would certainly fit and would come at a much lower cost. Maxi Kleber from Dallas, Brandon Clarke from Memphis, or Zach Collins from Portland are interesting names as well. Fans can take solace knowing that any trades or signings we can think of have likely been worked out by the Wolves front office already. Rosas and his innovative group will do their due diligence to fill this hole in the roster.
While adding another starting caliber big man is the most pressing issue, they will also need to address a few other areas. For starters, can Ricky Rubio be this team’s backup point guard? If that answer is yes, I think you keep him for this last season of his $18 million contract. His trade value would be awfully low at the moment, and moving him likely will not return a helpful player. If there is question about his fit in the 2nd unit, then his salary almost has to be moved to acquire flexibility to grab a different backup point guard. As much as we all love Jordan McLaughlin, I do not think he should head into the season as the primary backup PG. One other area of the roster to address would be finding a way to acquire a veteran 3 & D wing player. I do not mean trading for someone like Paul George; rather a player on the level of Tony Snell or Wesley Matthews (doesn’t have to be those guys specifically). They need a guy who can come in and play smart wing defense without tanking the offense in a low usage spot-up shooting role. Currently the only good wing defenders in the rotation are Jaden McDaniels and Josh Okogie. McDaniels is awesome, and Okogie shows flashes but his lack of a 3pt. shot can hinder the team’s offense. It would be valuable for this team to mix in a trusted veteran on the wing at times to shore up defensive leaks and just generally play smart basketball.
The Wild Card
The addition of 2020 1st round pick Leandro Bolmaro could be in the Wolves’ future. He is part “roster move” and part “internal development” for this team, and if he signs with the Wolves for this upcoming year he could provide an enormous boost. If you are unfamiliar with the 20 year old Argentinian, read this manifesto authored by Jake Paynting at canishoopus.com. Or watch this breakdown on YouTube created by a Wolves Twitter favorite @wolvesclips.
I cannot shed more analysis on his overall game than those two pieces of content already do, but I will say with confidence that I do not expect it to take long for him to entrench himself in Chris Finch’s rotation once he does come across the Atlantic. For starters, he already has multiple years of professional basketball experience. Fans may look at his modest numbers and small amount of minutes for FC Barcelona’s Euroleague and Liga ACB teams and wonder how he is supposed to make it on the court in the NBA (15.5 mpg in Liga ACB/9.8 mpg in Euroleague). Don’t worry about that. Young players in those leagues rarely play. Kristaps Porzingis is a good example. He played in Liga ACB in his final season in Europe, never played in the Euroleague, and played for a worse team than Barcelona. He averaged only 21.7 minutes per game in that final season. Coaches over there have no interest in giving playing time to developmental projects, especially when they are destined for the NBA. They want to win now, so it is incredibly telling that Bolmaro received his most minutes in the playoff run for Barcelona in the Euroleague and in Liga ACB. He was a go-to player for them in their most important games at 20 years old. That is significant! If Bolmaro can bring the Wolves the same energy and effectiveness that he provided to Barcelona in their biggest games, he will find himself as an integral part of the team and complete the trifecta of awesomeness that is the 2020 draft for the Timberwolves.
Time for the sobering part: the Wolves finished 13th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference, 8 games back from the 12th spot. IF the NBA keeps the “play-in” format for next season, that means the Wolves will need to jump 3 teams to make it into the “play-in” as the 10th seed where they get to play two games on the road and need to win them both to become the 8th seed. There are a couple of teams that I think they could realistically bypass. San Antonio (especially if they lose DeRozan) and Sacramento. That puts them in 11th, but no obvious candidate looks primed for a drop above them. The West is filled with veteran teams ready to win now and young teams on the rise.
The good news is that Gersson Rosas and his front office knows where they rank, and they will be aggressive this offseason in filling the holes. As we have pointed out, they understand it is time to hit the gas pedal. The roster’s average age will get older than the year before instead of younger. They have a coach that is ready to commit to rotations that offer the best chance at winning instead of development. Future plans be damned.
How would we feel about heading into the 21–22 season with this group of 10 players in the rotation:
Russell, Edwards, Jaden, Towns, Theis
Rubio, Beasley, Bolmaro, Vanderbilt, Naz
Certainly better than last season right? The bonus here is to acquire Theis it did not take much to send away in a sign and trade with Chicago. You “keep your powder dry” to be able to throw assets at the next disgruntled star. The issue is, does this team get over the hump to get into the playoffs? Maybe not. So how does this team strike you?
Russell, Edwards, Jaden, Maxi Kleber, Towns
Rubio, Bolmaro, Josh Richardson, Vanderbilt, Naz
This requires exchanging Beasley and Culver for Maxi Kleber and Josh Richardson with the Mavericks. Maybe the Wolves need to add a 2nd round pick or two, but this deal fills two holes for the Wolves immediately. I personally think this trade helps the Wolves a tremendous amount right away.
Ultimately there are endless machinations of trades and signings that could take place this offseason. Rosas knows they cannot struggle through another bottom 10 season. The push has to begin now. Phoenix and Atlanta are showing the blueprint to burst out of the lottery and into contender status. It takes a strong mix of internal development, coaching, and roster moves. The Wolves feel like those 1st two factors are already in place. Now it is on the front office to make the final move.