A glance at the Minnesota Timberwolves’ roster is a different experience in 2017-18. Names like Butler, Crawford and Teague are, of course, signifiers of an influx of talent comparatively divergent from years past.
But differentiators don’t stop at names on the roster; the roster itself is shorter. Minnesota has left a roster spot open all season.
To some fans, this has been perplexing. Through the franchise’s rough years, the fanbase became accustomed to a variety of players suiting up and receiving minutes — it was almost a fun learning experience that made difficulties bearable. The 2014-15 season had the greatest variety. That team, under the guidance of the late Flip Saunders, saw 25 players receive minutes — 12 more than this season’s 13.
This change is not simply explained by a philosophical change from Flip to Tom Thibodeau, it is a change in the infrastructure of the rules of NBA roster construction. The Timberwolves haven’t been playing the entire season with a seemingly open roster spot just for fun, they have been doing so because of the implementation of a new contract option:
The two-way contract.
Two-Ways > 10-Days
The two-way wrinkle was a strategically created compromise by the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association that allows an NBA team complete control over (up to) two players on their G League team without using an actual roster spot on either player.
This is different than past years where even if a player was affiliated with an NBA franchise he could be poached if he was merely on a standard D-League deal. Now, two-way players can only play in the NBA for the franchise their two-way contract is affiliated with.
For the Timberwolves, this has decreased the need to go out and sign a veteran free agent to fill the final roster spot. They already have insurance through their two-way guys, Anthony Brown and Amile Jefferson.
While Brown and Jefferson may not have seen any minutes at the NBA level this season, they have been playing in the Timberwolves’ system and biding their time with the Iowa Wolves, who schematically mirror much of the Timberwolves offense and defense
“If you know the system, you’re basically a plug-and-play,” Brown told Zone Coverage before a Sunday afternoon G League game against the Erie BayHwaks. “You can just plug me in. I know where to be.”
This learning and comfort Brown describes is new. Before the two-way contract, the path to insulating a roster on the margins was the 10-day contract — a deal that paid a player for no more or no less than 10 days of NBA service. Last season in Minnesota, 10-day deals were used on Lance Stephenson and Omri Casspi.
The two veterans did not find success in the system not because they were washed up, but because their contracts expired before they found any semblance of comfort in the system. Stephenson and Casspi have become rotational pieces for playoff teams — Indiana and Golden State — this season.
“Obviously, vets know where to be but it may take them two weeks to learn all the plays. And there may not be two weeks,” said Brown. “I (also) already know tendencies. I know where Wiggins want to score. I know where Karl wants to score. Even though I haven’t played with them, I’ve watched them enough now.”
45 Days With The Big Club
Brown has “watched them enough” because he has been afforded a substantial amount of time with Wiggins, Towns and the rest of the team.
Both Brown and Jefferson have been with the Timberwolves since training camp. Which means, amongst other practices and team events, a week-long trip to China this preseason. An experience they both describe as something that made them develop real relationships and feel like they were part of the actual team.
But it is the continued continuity that allows this sentiment to have carried all the way to March.
Brown and Jefferson have been sent up and down as much as the Iowa Wolves and Minnesota Timberwolves schedules could reasonably afford. The two-way contract allows for up to 45 countable practice, travel or game days with the big league club over the course of the regular season. As advantageous as it is for the team to have two capable players in the minors per se, Brown and Jefferson are reaping a benefit due to the contract’s flexibility.
“When you go undrafted, you’re kind of living in the unknown,” Jefferson who was offered the two-way contract in the middle of the season, told Zone Coverage. “I think the two-way has definitely helped keep guys here in the states. Kept them fighting for their dream. That’s what the two-way contract is for: To help you develop but still be a part of an NBA team.”
From the preseason trip to China to hearing halftime adjustments from Tom Thibodeau, Jefferson describes the experience as “invaluable.” But there is a valuable financial incentive for the two-way players as well.
For every one of those 45 countable days, Brown and Jefferson are not paid at the daily rate of their G League teammates who make $19,500 for the entire season, they are paid a daily pro-rated total of the NBA’s veteran minimum of $815,615. At a minimum, two-way contract players are guaranteed $75,000 in salary on top of paid-for lodging, food, and insurance.
If Brown and Jefferson reach their full 45 days, their season income will be close to $300,000. While the 45 days are no guarantee, the possibility is keeping players like Brown and Jefferson stateside.
“There’s always a financial element to it,” said Brown. “I would say if you’re going to make less than $150,000 overseas, you might as well take (the two-way).”
Neither Brown or Jefferson knew exactly how many of their countable days had been utilized as of our conversation on March 4 but the consistent shipping back and forth — including being in Utah for the Timberwolves last game against the Jazz — has Brown feeling like he’s getting close to 45.
It is this steady interaction with the team, that has fostered a percolating excitement with the season winding down. Both Brown and Jefferson are keenly aware of the fact that there are now two open roster spots with Shabazz Muhammad being bought out of his contract on March 1.
“I’m really just taking it day-by-day because one, I can’t control that and two, that’s not my job,” said Brown. “I’m confident enough to say that, yeah, I can be up there and do something. It’s more of a situational thing… But I’m definitely excited now, like, okay, I can see a scenario.”
Outside of Minnesota, two-way players have been rewarded for their patience. Perhaps no player more than C.J. Williams — who played on the Timberwolves summer league squad. After tracking the globe for half-a-decade overseas, the two-way contract finally financially incentivized Williams to stay stateside this summer. The 27-year-old Williams signed a two-way deal with the Los Angeles Clippers after summer league and when the Los Angeles roster was decimated by injuries he got his call.
“I was thinking nonstop about scoring my first NBA basket,” Williams told Sports Illustrated in a recent interview.
That bucket came in his home state of North Carolina against the Hornets. “I honestly thought I was going to break down and cry. But when it happened, I felt nothing. At first, I thought: ‘Why doesn’t this feel good?’ Then I realized it was because I always felt like I belonged in the NBA.”
But even Williams’ triumphant two-way journey has come with trials. The Clippers happened to desperately need Williams, who has started 15 games for a Los Angeles team on the fringe of the playoffs.
Due to this need, Williams has been forced to skip practices and to fly commercial flights because practice days and travel days with the team count towards the 45 countable days.
During a six-day stretch of the season, Williams took three different commercial flights to play in five games with both the Agua Caliente Clippers (Los Angeles’ G League affiliate) and the actual Los Angeles Clippers.
Los Angeles feel their hands are tied in continuing to put Williams through this ringer. This is because guaranteeing his deal for the rest of the season would push the team’s salary total over the luxury tax line — incurring long-term salary cap restrictions on the franchise.
“We set up a strategy group to line up our schedule and Agua Caliente’s schedule and form a giant plan that stretched out for months,” said Clippers’ president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank to Sports Illustrated in the article on Williams.
Tweaking The Two-Way
As evidenced by Williams’ experience, the countable days portion of the two-way deal is an unforeseen flaw in what has largely been a beneficial rule change. The teams and players alike will take the summer to look for a way to tweak the rule so as to eliminate the absurdities of travel and practice restrictions.
From the G League perspective, countable days are not the only tweak that should be implemented. Iowa Wolves head coach Scott Roth believes the rest of the players in the G League also need to be considered.
While it is great that two-ways have led to NBA roster flexibility and 60 additional players — two per team — finding financial security, there are still hundreds of other G League players who have seen little to no benefit.
“You still have guys that are making $19,500,” Roth told Zone Coverage. “That’s still no money. There’s a whole group of players that aren’t getting taken care of.”
“For example, the pool of which the 26 teams pick out of is depleted. There’s nobody in it. This is because no one wants to be making $19,500. In order to bump that up, you have to attract more players back from Europe.”
In ways, the salary distinctions are apparent in the flow of G League games — the game can feel like a platform for each team’s two or three best players, often two-way guys or a third player down getting some run (a la Justin Patton for the Timberwolves).
The rest of the players have been devalued due to the money the franchise has invested in them. If the salaries of players were more egalitarian, the G League as a whole would begin to feel more and more like a real league; not an NBA feeding ground. The implementation of the two-way contract has not fixed this.
Through taking care of the tertiary players, more players would come back from Europe, the talent pool would be replenished, and the G League’s health as a whole would benefit. Which then, in turn, benefits the NBA. A trickle-up effect of sorts.
“Let’s say in Germany, [players are] making $75,000,” said Roth. “Maybe if they can make $50,000 in salary in the G League that will keep them.”
The two-way contract has improved the G League to a degree. Higher salaries for some players but life there can still be a grind of frustration.
Then there’s a player like Brown, who is affiliated with a “good” NBA franchise. He sees other G League comparable, perhaps worse, two-way contract players affiliated with “bad” NBA franchises — like Atlanta or Brooklyn — get an opportunity to go play in the league.
Again, this leads to frustration, but Brown knows all too well that this too is a double-edged sword.
In 2015, Brown was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers; a franchise firmly in rebuild-mode. He was given an opportunity to play immediately but the Lakers were awful, tallying a 17-65 record.
The following season, Brown bounced between the New Orleans Pelicans (34-48) and the Orlando Magic (29-53). For Brown, a self-proclaimed shooting role player, it was a nightmare to play for a team that was more so playing five players than five roles.
“When you’re on a bad team, that s— sucks,” Brown said as he smirked and shook his head. “When you’re on a bad team and get five points, three rebounds, and two steals, you’re like ‘ehh.’ When you’re on a good team and you do that and you get recognized. Winning plays get maximized on a good team.”
Brown draws parallels between himself and Ian Clark who was “a big part” — as Brown puts it — of the Golden State Warriors during their championship run.
Yet he fears that players like Clark become marginalized on lesser teams. Because of this he is biding his time and grinding through the G League season so as to (hopefully) get his opportunity with a formidable team.
When watching Brown play in Iowa, his frustrations are apparent. Offensive sets break down and he is flummoxed. This is not because Brown is a grouchy teammate, it is because he has played at a higher level — unlike many of his Iowa teammates. It’s just a grind that is out of his control. That is life and the path of a qualified G Leaguer.
His head coach echoes that sentiment. Roth was talking about the challenges of his own coaching journey that brought him to the G League but his words echo an apparent sentiment to a conversation with Brown and likely many two-way players.
“For me, at the end of the day, this is not exactly what I thought I would be doing. But when you get a guy like Tom Thibodeau that actually hires you, that’s a feather in my cap,” said Roth. “Do I want to be down here and doing this? Obviously, I think I’m an NBA coach, I’ve been an NBA coach. But to come down here and lay the groundwork for Thibs has been great.”
“Everyone’s journey and everyone’s path is a little different. I’ve enjoyed my six months down here in Des Moines. The city has been fantastic so I have no complaints, it’s just my path.”
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