Timberwolves

MOORE: How Missing The Playoffs Could Benefit The Wolves

(photo credit: Jim Faklis)

So, here’s the deal: If the Wolves miss the playoffs, they get to keep their first-round pick this summer. If they make the playoffs, that pick is headed to Atlanta. While many fans would gladly sacrifice a first-round pick to end the streak, context is important.

But first: Adreian Payne

At the 2015 NBA trade deadline, the Wolves then-President of Basketball Operations, Flip Saunders, acquired Payne in exchange for the Wolves first-round draft pick the next time they were to make the playoffs (or a 2021 and 2022 second round pick if somehow the Wolves don’t make the playoffs the next three years).

At the time, the deal wasn’t as bad as it seems today. There was some logic in the notion that the Wolves already had a wildly young team that almost didn’t need another first round pick — as weird as that sounds for a 16-66 team.

While The Process was garnering all of the national attention, the Wolves were losing almost as much Philly and doing something that the terminology “youth movement” doesn’t give justice to. Literally, more than half the team was on their rookie contract.

Take a look:

Salary data via BasketballInsiders.com

That said, even without hindsight, the deal didn’t make much sense. Payne had only played in three of 53 games for the Atlanta Hawks before being acquired in what was his rookie season. Additionally, Payne was the Chris Weinke of NBA rookies — he turned 24 nine days after being traded for.

Somehow Payne, the 15th overall pick in the 2014 draft, was 1,479 days older than the Wolves actual pick in that draft, Zach LaVine, who went 13th.

This trade often slips the mind of Wolves fans when thinking about the few GM Flip days as the move was kind of Flip’s heat check. Saunders was on a bit of a heater that season after netting Andrew Wiggins for the disgruntled Kevin Love and drafting the thoroughly intriguing — while also maddening — LaVine. Saunders described Payne as a player that “fits (the) mold of young, athletic and talented player.”

Flip was done process-ing; he didn’t want to wait. His thought was that the young Wolves were already on their way. But in reality, that logic is just becoming true now — in 2018, not 2015.

Today, now led by chief decision-maker Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves actually appear to be on that way.  The notion of they don’t need another young guy does seem justified and that same time factor Saunders may have once been feeling is beginning to seem pertinent for Thibodeau.

Wiggins, now, makes almost as much money as Kirk Cousins annually and all of a sudden — as early as this summer — Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler could be two of the highest paid players in the NBA.

The salary cap is full for the foreseeable future in Minnesota. While the notion of adding another rookie may not be idyllic, draft assets are becoming one of the final ways to improve a roster that needs to improve.

Part of the reason missing the playoffs would be helpful is in the fact that getting that asset this summer is more appetizing than a 15 months from now. In a year, that pick is another year younger and another year away from helping the Wolves (or another team via trade — more on that in a second).

It is a true you can’t have ‘your cake and eat it too’ situation. The fanbase is starved for the playoffs and the no longer pubescent roster craves playoff experience. But they can’t have the playoffs and the pick.

While all eyes in the organization are understandably focused on the playoffs, perhaps the fanbase can crave the playoffs while also implementing a bit of objectivity. The pick this summer can’t go overlooked as a mere consolation prize for falling out of the playoffs. It is valuable. If the next five years were to be played out 100 times, there are realities in which that pick wasn’t just helpful but is the savior.

There is a very real possibility that Wiggins, Towns, and Butler aren’t enough. They might need more and if Butler’s knee injury has shrunk his prime, they might need that “more” to be Fed Ex-ed overnight.

The Value of a (Second) First-Round Pick

Having their own first-round pick — likely pick 13 or 14 — would give the Wolves not one but two major assets to work with this summer. The Wolves additionally own Oklahoma City’s first-round pick (currently slotted 24th overall but sliding from 20 to 25 on a nightly basis) acquired in the Ricky Rubio trade with Utah.

Starting first with their own pick — the late-lottery one — the stand-alone value is there. This past draft saw Donovan Mitchell go 13th and Bam Adebayo be selected 14th.

Mitchell might win Rookie of the Year while profiling as a future All-Star and Adebayo looks like a starting caliber center who has made Hassan Whiteside potentially expendable in Miami. But, of course, those were both “hits” in the draft and that value certainly cannot be banked on. It does, however, show the potential immediate value with that genus of pick.

NBADraft.net’s latest mock draft has Michigan State’s sophomore small forward Miles Bridges going 13th and Miami’s freshman shooting guard Lonnie Walker at 14 — the late lottery is a sweet spot for wings.

But sights can be set higher if the value of that pick is coupled with the value of the Oklahoma City pick. In theory, the Wolves could pair the two together for a top-10 pick. There is a bit of a precedent here: The Portland Trailblazers traded two mid-firsts for the 10th pick (Zach Collins) in the 2017 Draft and in the 2016 Draft, the Phoenix Suns did something similar for the 8th pick (Marquese Chriss).

  • 2017 Draft Day Trade

Portland got: Zach Collins (10th)

Portland gave: Justin Jackson (15th) and Harry Giles (20th)

  • 2016 Draft Day Trade

Phoenix got: Marquese Chriss (8th)

Phoenix gave: Georgis Papagiannis (13th), Skal Labissierre (28th), and the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic

***

But maybe this would be Adreian Payne all over again. Drafting another rookie — particularly of the Chriss ilk — is not idyllic for the Wolves who, again, are ready to compete now. The good news is that just because the Wolves trade up to the top-10 does not mean they have to select and roster that someone. They can make another trade.

Of course, there is no need to look further back in history than last summer when the Wolves traded the seventh overall pick (Lauri Markkannen), along with Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, for Jimmy Butler and the 16th overall pick (Justin Patton).

While the Wolves are in a more precarious financial spot than a season ago — that allowed them to essentially absorb Butler’s contract into cap space — a similar move could happen given the modern value of a top-10 pick. There will be a team out there that is this season’s Chicago Bulls; a team who would be pumped to hit the reset button with this summer’s equivalent of Markkannen, LaVine, and Dunn.

Another example of the value is this season’s Golden Goose: The apparently untouchable Brooklyn Pick, owned by Cleveland. The Cavs were reportedly unwilling to move the pick to acquire DeAndre Jordan at the trade deadline because the pick was more valuable through its inherent security. Sure, this was in part because the Brooklyn pick could convert to a top three pick if the ping-pong balls bounce the right way in the lottery (an 18.3 percent chance currently) but it also held a floor in value as at worst a top-10 pick.

For Minnesota, it is not inconceivable that with a second pick in the first round that they could make a sequence of moves that render a player akin to Jordan.

To speculate, Kemba Walker could become available and a top-10 pick could be one of the key out-going assets to acquire him. Or maybe a top-10 pick can help net one of this summer’s restricted free agents — the likes of Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, or Jabari Parker — in a sign and trade. Or conservatively, that pick could almost certainly land a reliable, veteran two-way wing like Wesley Matthews. Those players could all be game-changers for the Wolves.

The value is inherently ambiguous but history has shown the propensity for team’s to get thirsty on draft night. With an extra pick, the Wolves would have the necessary assets to quench.

At a minimum, a single first rounder — so, just one of the two picks — could be used as penance to ditch Gorgui Dieng’s contract that will have three years and $50 million left on it entering 2018-19.

A team with cap space would likely absorb Dieng into their space for a first. To speculate, Brooklyn may consider taking on Dieng’s contract and sending out DeMarre Carroll — who will be on a $15.4 million expiring contract and could fill a bench wing role for the Wolves — in exchange for maybe even the late first.

Again, speculative but another way to recognize that value. The Wolves could really use that asset and they could really use it now.

The Golden State/Houston Guillotine

Even if the Wolves make the playoffs, seeds seven and eight are not very appealing. The Warriors and Rockets are two of the best teams the NBA has seen in the past decade.

A 2007 Mavericks losing in the first round to the Stephen Jackson/Baron Davis/Monta Ellis-Warriors isn’t happening. If the Wolves make it, they are nothing more than a sacrificial lamb that has died in the name of 200 minutes of playoff experience — it’s just not that great.

Remember the 2015 New Orleans Pelicans? Yeah, me neither.

That’s because even though it was their first time making the playoffs since Chris Paul was traded it just didn’t do much for the franchise that got swept by Steph Curry and one of the best teams ever. I don’t know, maybe those four playoff games are what has inspired Anthony Davis to go full-Monstar down the stretch here.

It could be, but I more side with the notion that Davis is just actually a Monstar and that series didn’t do much of anything for him or the Pelicans — who have Jrue Holiday as the lone holdover, other than Davis, from that 2015 team.

I get it, another year of the playoff-less streak would be brutal. (I live here too.) I just don’t think it would be devastatingly detrimental to miss out.

If for none of the previous reasons laid out above, then for the fact that the Wolves would have a pretty dang good excuse: Their best player — and heart, and soul — suffered a substantial knee injury.

An injury sustained at the worst possible time, right when the rest of the Western Conference decided to black out and go on double-digit winning streaks. Outside of the Wolves and Spurs, the other nine good teams (yes, nine. I’m including the Lakers who are also Magic-ally awesome too) are a combined 68-22 in their last ten games, as of March 13th. Sixteen of those 22 losses have come against another one of those nine teams.

It’s hard to make an excuse to fall from the three seed to the lottery, but that’s about as forgivable as it gets.

The Odds of Getting the Six-Seed (or Better)

FiveThirtyEight.com’s projection model currently has the Wolves odds set at 95 percent for making the playoffs. However, season-long point differential is a key variable in that calculus.

For the Wolves, this means Butler’s production is being factored in going forward. Translation: Even though the Wolves have flashed two-straight impressive wins, the odds are certainly lower than this. But even those optimistic odds factor in the seven or eight seed.

The odds of finishing in the six-seed-or-better are lower. Hypothetically, let’s say the Wolves have equal odds of landing in the 5, 6, 7, or 8 seed. Even if we take 538’s optimistic 95 percent, that is only a 47.5 percent chance of landing in the “good” spots.

A clear line of demarcation can be drawn there. The six-seed-or-better presents a far different prospectus than being Warrior or Rocket chum. If the Wolves were to square off in round one against even Portland or Oklahoma City (the best of the second-best) they would be playing in a series where they have an actual puncher’s chance. That is a big difference. Those are the series that give discernable playoff experience, maybe even two rounds worth.

If the Wolves can grab the six seed, the Payne details become less painful; the playoffs become (more) fun and the front office deals with the draft and the offseason when they get there.

A lot will happen in the final four weeks; projecting is almost futile. But the glass-half-full view for the Wolves can be that missing the playoffs isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it might end up changing everything.


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