MOORE: Had The Timberwolves Missed The Playoffs, They Could Have Pursued Kawhi Leonard

Mar 21, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots in the third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves guard Andrew Wiggins (22) at Target Center. The San Antonio Spurs beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 100-93. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Early Wednesday morning, the San Antonio Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green for an expensive, high volume mid-range shooter locked up long-term, an impressive 22-year-old in the middle of his rookie contract and a late first-round pick in the 2019 draft. If you’re a Wolves follower, it’s hard to look at the outgoing column of that trade without saying: Hey, we have those things.

If that crossed your mind, you’re not wrong. The Minnesota Timberwolves could have put together a similar package to Toronto’s.

Toronto Receives San Antonio Receives
Kawhi Leonard (1 year, $23.1M) DeMar DeRozan (3 years, $83.2M)
Danny Green (1 year, $10.0M) Jakob Poeltl (2 years, $6.75M)
2019 1st (Protected if the pick falls 1-20)

On July 5, ESPN.com ran a story by Zach Lowe that suggested as much. After the steam of Leonard joining forces with LeBron James had faded, Lowe began to offer — informed — potential destinations for Leonard. The first team Lowe mentioned as a logical “all-in play” was the Toronto Raptors, with DeMar DeRozan as the deal’s outgoing centerpiece. The second team he expanded on was the Timberwolves, a deal centering on Andrew Wiggins.

Lowe: “This is interesting. Wiggins is a divisive player. He probably carries negative trade value on his max-level deal. But he’s 23 and undeniably skilled, and the Spurs still have a jones for midrange jumpers. Toss in a couple of picks, and the Wolves could make a compelling offer.”

Of course, the decision is over. Those words were written two weeks ago and speculation is fairly futile at this point. But a retrospect of what the Raptors actually converted the deal with compared to what the Wolves could have offered is interesting.

Let’s make a better deal — or at least try.

DeMar DeRozan — Andrew Wiggins

Andrew Wiggins is not DeRozan and he very well may never be DeRozan — a 29-year-old, four-time NBA All-Star who has made two All-NBA teams. But the optimistic prognostication for Wiggins, given his skillset, has always been a DeRozan. So pairing those two is a tilted but not illogical starting point.

(Anecdotal evidence: Marc Stein of the New York Times recently reported that last summer the Wolves and Raptors had trade discussions that focused on a DeRozan-for-Wiggins swap.)

Wiggins is almost five years DeRozan’s junior and could very well shake similar inefficiencies that plagued DeRozan early in his career. It wasn’t until DeRozan’s fifth season that he broke out. His fourth season in the NBA looked very similar to Wiggins’ past season (also his fourth in the league).

Points* Rebounds* Assists* Steals* True Shooting
DeRozan Year 4 26.2 5.6 3.6 1.3 52.3%
Wiggins Year 4 24.4 4.6 2.7 1.5 50.5%

*per 100 possessions

Their advanced statistical profiles mirror each other further.

DeRozan Year 4 24.2 -1.4 -0.5 14.7 .075
Wiggins Year 4 23.4 -1.4 -1.1 13.0 .034

While there are fair parallels to draw between the two, it should be noted that San Antonio may be the single-most averse team in the league to anything that resembles a youth movement — or god forbid a rebuild. San Antonio’s prevailing desire is to remain competitive now. With Patty Mills (30), Marco Belinelli (32), Rudy Gay (32), LaMarcus Aldridge (33), Pau Gasol (38), Manu Ginobili (41) and Greg Popovic (69), the Spurs are old — potentially making a trade for someone younger than Leonard a non-starter.

Still, there is value is Wiggins’ youth. If that DeRozan-style leap is in him, is there anywhere more likely to unearth it than San Antonio? Probably not.

That said, Wiggins rather than DeRozan would be a gamble — particularly with his massive contract.

But DeRozan also is not on a deal that screams value. When in the right situation, DeRozan’s inept 3-point shooting and porous defense are ignored and his $27.5 million per season is justified.

That could be the case for Wiggins as well. It is because of this notion that the sentiment around the league is that Wiggins’ $147.7 million deal, as a whole, is not a negative asset but a tricky one. While Wiggins’ productivity may not earn the $25.47 million he is set to make this season or the $27.05 million on the books for 2019-20, the historical track records of Wiggins-type athletes suggests the value of the deal is OK. Again, in the right situation.

Still, Wiggins is an unknown and a risk. That gamble would need to be made up for elsewhere by the Wolves to usurp Toronto’s offer for Leonard.

2019 Toronto First (Pick 21-30) — Minnesota’s Draft Assets

This where the Wolves could make up ground.

San Antonio accepting what will very likely be a pick in the 2019 draft that falls between 21 and 30 (or two future seconds if the Raptors somehow land in the top-20) as the entirety of their draft compensation in this deal is the most underwhelming portion of the trade.

Given the bursting of salaries league-wide after the 2016 cap spike, the value of first-round picks — in a vacuum — feel as if they have almost doubled. Teams crave these cheap assets they can control for (up to) nine years. So, in ways, it makes sense that Toronto — a team facing a burdensome financial wall — would only be willing to part with one. The other side of that coin: It is peculiar that San Antonio was willing to accept so little.

Part of this rationale, on San Antonio’s part, is the old roster’s desire to remain competitive now. Trading for multiple draft picks would be kicking the can down a very murky road.

But a draft pick is an asset. Everyone desires that cheap cost control, which means it could be repurposed. If the Spurs wanted to go all-in now, they could move that pick for a productive player who is ready to contribute this season. And maybe, had they received multiple draft assets, an All-Star could be acquired.

Because Wiggins is an inferior asset to DeRozan, logic would suggest the Wolves would have been willing to give up multiple picks. Unfortunately, the Wolves draft assets are below average because they’re already a pretty good team — meaning even an unprotected 2019 first is only moderately attractive. That said, an unprotected pick and Josh Okogie (20th overall in the most recent draft) coupled with Wiggins could begin to start a theoretical conversation for Leonard. Add other proven young assets — like Tyus Jones — and talks gets louder.

Oct 18, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Tyus Jones (1) is fouled while shooting by San Antonio Spurs center Pau Gasol (16) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Jakob Poeltl — Tyus Jones (and Justin Patton)

While Tyus Jones is one year further into his rookie deal than Poeltl, he is six months younger and probably a better fit in San Antonio given the Spurs big man logjam.

LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Davis Bertans might completely prevent Poeltl from receiving consistent minutes. Jones would play right away — with only Dejounte Murray and Derrick White as the only true point guards on the roster.

The Wolves could — if pressed — also sweeten the pot by inserting Justin Patton. While Patton’s first 12 months in the league have been an injury-riddled nightmare, the 21-year-old holds value while on a rookie deal with three years left on it.

Still… Jones and Patton, together, may not hold the value (or intrigue) of a lottery pick — something the Wolves can not offer.

Which brings up an interesting hypothetical within the hypothetical. (Yikes.)

Two 2018 First Round Picks Had The Wolves Missed The Playoffs

If the Wolves would have lost the 82nd game of the season to the Denver Nuggets, the Minnesota fanbase, Glen Taylor and Tom Thibodeau all would have been devastated; even if it was only for the eighth seed in the playoffs. Breaking the drought was important to all Minnesotan parties.

However, oddly, there would have been some added immediate value in the Wolves missing the playoffs. That value: Two first-round picks in the 2018 draft.

This is the case because, years back, the Wolves traded a lottery protected first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Adreian Payne. By losing to the Nuggets and missing the playoffs, the pick would have been protected for another season — allowing the Wolves to select 14th overall this June. This means that not only would the Wolves have been able to use the 20th pick — acquired in the Ricky Rubio trade — on Josh Okogie but they also could have selected Michael Porter Jr. who went 14th to the Nuggets. Those are two strong assets.

However, the timing is a bit funky here as the actual Leonard trade went down a month after the 2018 draft. Draft picks lose value like new cars. Once you drive them off the lot (make the actual selection) they begin depreciating as assets because to sell them you have to find a buyer. With the 14th pick, it can’t be known that Porter was the top player on any team’s board — notably San Antonio’s, for this example. Same goes for Okogie at 20.

Still, even if depreciated, Porter and Okogie are valuable; certainly more than the protected 2019 draft pick Toronto actually sent.

So, in theory, it is fair to say had the Wolves missed the playoffs they would have had superior and immediate draft compensation to offer San Antonio. Even if depreciated, the Spurs could have done with that compensation what they like. Porter is definitely an injury risk and Okogie’s skillset overlaps much of the profile of Lonnie Walker (the Spurs 2018 first round pick) but, again, those assets could have been repurposed into an immediately productive player.

For example, Kemba Walker.

Nov 23, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) looks to pass the ball during the first half of the game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Hornets point guard’s name has been tossed around as a potentially available player. Walker is still in his prime, plays for a team that doesn’t appear to have much of an immediate future and plays San Antonio’s biggest position of need.

The Hornets face some of the greatest financial strife in the entire NBA. Porter and Okogie — who will combine to make just over $5 million this season — could have eased some of that burden. Throw Danny Green to Charlotte in what becomes a three-way trade and add in Dwayne Bacon’s $1.3 million back to Minnesota and the money would have worked in simultaneous trades.

San Antonio Receives Minnesota Receives Charlotte Receives
Kemba Walker (1 year, $12M) Kawhi Leonard (1 year, $23.1M) Danny Green (1 year, $10M)
Andrew Wiggins (5 years, $147.7M) Dwayne Bacon (1 year, $1.3M) Michael Porter Jr. (4 years, $15.10M)
Tyus Jones (1 year, $2.44M) Josh Okogie (4 years, $11.43M)

This is, of course, just a guideline. Who knows San Antonio’s appetite for Wiggins or Walker; Charlotte’s willingness to rebuild; or Thibodeau’s risk-threshold on Leonard’s flight risk?

What this does definitively illustrate, however, is the higher level trade talks the Wolves could have entered with a second first-round pick this summer.

Does that outweigh the cost of missing the playoffs last season? That lies in the eye of the beholder. Thibodeau may have been fired had the Wolves not made it, Butler may have demanded a trade and the fanbase would have remained crotchety. None of which are necessarily terrible things.

For me, it’s Kawhi Leonard, and I would argue that makes a gamble worthwhile — even if Leonard is a serious flight risk.

The Risk of Butler and Leonard

Zach Lowe disagrees. In the article in which he named the Wolves as an “interesting” potential landing spot, he also suggested the risk was too great.

Lowe: “It’s hard to see Minnesota going into 2018-19 with both Leonard and Butler on expiring contracts. That is too much risk. It’s logical to then flip the discussion to a Butler-for-Leonard deal — expiring for expiring — but that seems unworkable.”

I would agree, given Thibodeau’s affinity for Butler, that a Leonard-for-Butler swap seems unworkable, but not because of the risk.

Even if Leonard walks in a year, the clear-cut positive assets it would cost to obtain him would be Jones (also on an expiring contract) and two firsts of some kind. Yes, Wiggins too but that very well may be a blessing in disguise. If Wiggins cannot make the jump to DeRozan-levels in the near future, that is the type of deal that derails a franchise through the elimination of financial flexibility. If Wiggins remains the Wiggins he’s been, his contract is a five-year-long wall that all but prevents a meaningful partner from joining Karl-Anthony Towns via free agency — even if Butler also walks.

The worst-case scenario of Butler also walking is a future built around Towns, a new coach and cap space. If Towns signs a five-year extension (a near lock to happen), then that doomsday is still far superior to whatever is going on around Anthony Davis (who can opt out of his contract in the summer of 2020) in New Orleans. It’s also arguably a better path than Milwaukee’s, who have a ragtag bunch that surrounds Giannis Antetokounmpo (whose contract expires in 2021). Towns’ max extension won’t expire until 2024. That’s awesome.

Six years from now is plenty of time to recover from the gas pedal stomping that has already happened: Thibodeau-Butler-Teague-Gibson. And even a fake Kawhi trade that goes south — but gets off of Wiggins.

Which is all to say, once Towns is locked into the fold long-term — likely within the coming weeks — calculated risks for stars like the next Leonard are worth it.

Yes, the Leonard trade is fake but exemplifies one of those wise calculated risks that the Wolves — particularly if they missed the playoffs last year — could have and should have got in on. Having made the playoffs, they probably did not have enough to one-up the Raptors offer, but more opportunities will come.

The tremors of the latest collective bargaining agreement have shaken the league. They sent Kevin Durant to Golden State; redirected LeBron James to Los Angeles; blocked Kawhi Leonard from getting to California — and sent him to Canada.

This is only the beginning of the crazy.

Half of the league — literally — will be a free agent next summer. Which might as well be dropping the NBA snowglobe directly into the middle of an earthquake’s fault line. But with Towns staring as the great stabilizing snowflake in Minnesota, the Wolves are in a good spot to be cautiously assertive in all future tremors. This time they missed out on Kawhi; next time could and should be different.

ZONE COVERAGE WOLVES ROUNDTABLE: Five Questions with Three Experts
By Zone Coverage Wire - Jun 9, 2018
Four Players the Timberwolves Could Target in Trades This Summer
By Dane Moore - Apr 6, 2020

The Top Minnesota Sports Moments of the Decade

Mar 21, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots in the third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves guard Andrew Wiggins (22) at Target Center. The San Antonio Spurs beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 100-93. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Enjoy our staff’s compilation of the top moments from each local team this past decade. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (Sam Ekstrom) Was there any doubt about this one? The […]

Continue Reading