Where to start? Assessment for NBA trades fall on a gradient; there aren’t simply “good trades,” and it’s hard to say any deal is unilaterally “bad.” Benefits and shortcomings hide behind the future’s veil of ambiguity.
That said, we do know a few things that come with Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and Philly’s 2020 second round pick. Keystone amidst the knowns is this: For the foreseeable future, this is the Minnesota core.
Financially, the Wolves are all but locked into a group of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Gorgui Dieng and this season’s rookies (Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop).
(Jeff Teague’s $19 million for 2019-20 is a player option — meaning he could opt-out and become an unrestricted free agent this summer.)
While this fiscal reality is definitively limiting, the “good” news that comes out of this new future is fairly abundant. Chief amidst the positives is to be rid of the distracting holding pattern of the Butler saga. That discourse had seemingly paused the critical development of the youth on the roster. Every day there wasn’t a trade was a keystroke on the backspace button of the 2018-19 season.
Additionally, the provisions of Covington and Saric, who provide a spacing of the floor, will naturally turn the focus of a Butler-less offense Towns-ward. Further, the former-Sixers dogged defensive mentality — and aptitude — will provide relief for Towns, the frequently wavering tentpole of the Minnesota defense. Everything should be about KAT, and this move helps him in ways both between the lines and outside of them.
But this is only true in the immediate.
The consummated deal is as quintessentially “win-now” as any reported offer. Again, that doesn’t make it a “bad” move, but its ethos is that of a Tom Thibodeau move. And the indication of Glen Taylor signing off is that this may be a feather in the “Thibodeau’s job is still safe” cap. That is arguably not a good thing for Towns who has never been treated as a priority during the Thibodeau regime.
As enticing as Covington and Saric flanking Towns may be, there is an argument to be made that creating a future with as much flexibility as possible — financial and schematic — around the 22-year-old center is the optimal track. Keeping Thibodeau doesn’t do that and neither do the contracts of Covington and Saric. Saric will be up for a big salary hike after his rookie deal expires at the end of the 2019-20 season.
While acquiring that flexibility was always going to be an uphill battle given the roster at hand, and notably the mammoth deals of Wiggins and Dieng, it could have been better manipulated. Covington’s long-term deal — while not a negative asset — presents a mogul. Saric’s impending free agency is another barrier towards ever being to sign a free agent who wants to come to Minnesota — if that exists. (A possibility if Towns ascends.)
It’s OK to be excited that this team has taken a stride towards relevancy and actual basketball this season while still having qualms about what the future looks like. The bet Taylor is making is that the opportunity cost of being rid of the swelling tumor in the locker room exceeds those moguls. And because that comes with the inherent ambiguities of the future, it’s hard to argue with any certainty that Taylor is wrong in that assessment. Had the Wolves continued to let this fester, the infection may have developed an ooze that was uncorrectable. Such as the doomsday scenario of Towns demanding his own way out of town.
Finally A Future. But Yes, There Are Questions
This move is a step in the right direction. Still, numerous additional strides must be taken to find an authentically optimal path. For now, the Timberwolves can look forward to a five-game homestand that carries them into Thanksgiving. A hopeful righting of the ship that comes with an exciting unveiling of new Prince-themed uniforms, and probably a departure from the apathy that had soaked into the empty seats at Target Center.
It’s All Eyes Towns now. The Wolves can, in theory, move north and showcase what their seemingly stalled generational talent has to offer.
Outside of a few extended runs with Nemanja Bjelica, Towns has never shared the floor with another big man that unleashed him. No longer will there be concerns about Dieng — who might not be in the new rotation at all — clogging Towns’ driving lanes. And there will be less of a need to jam square-peg Gibson into the circular duties of stretch-four. They now have two combo wing/forwards who can fill what many assume is the optimal style for a Towns co-pilot. Remember Bjelica’s ascension when Butler hurt his knee after the All-Star Break? That role is available for the taking.
These are good things. But there will be trials and tribulations. The madness isn’t completely over. Questions loom:
- How much, if any, does rookie jitterbug Josh Okogie fit into an already crowded rotation? Two rotational players come in with only one outgoing. Thibodeau has repeatedly mentioned he prefers a “nine-man rotation.”
- Is Derrick Rose’s leash still endless? Does he just step into the Butler role and suck bits of life out of Towns along the way?
- Is Anthony Tolliver a casualty of bringing in two of his younger doppelgangers?
- What do Taj Gibson and Teague — two players who were influenced to sign here because of Butler’s presence — feel about a recalibration?
- Can Thibodeau depart from his old ways and lean into the modern style of NBA basketball that befits Covington and Saric?
We don’t know the answers to those questions. But isn’t that the fun of following a team? Learning along the way, through guess and check, what works and what doesn’t. Isn’t this a breath of fresh air for all parties involved? The focus is finally back on basketball — the casualty of the Butler saga.
Many will measure the sum of the initial outgoing parts of the first Butler trade with the new incoming pieces. But that is disingenuous. So much has happened. Sure, Zach LaVine looks nice, Lauri Markkannen might be a future stud and Kris Dunn has shown he’s a competent NBA guard. Is that all, in a vacuum, worth Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and a second round pick? No. But the basketball world isn’t a vacuum. This isn’t 2K.
The Butler experiment didn’t work. To come out of this whole ordeal with some enticing pieces that embolden your star is a win. Even if they come with questions about the future. Those bumps along the way were going to be there regardless.
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