MOORE: The Five Pivot Points of the Minnesota Timberwolves Offseason

Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

For the Minnesota Timberwolves, the first domino of the offseason fell last Tuesday evening when Jamal Crawford opted out of his $4.5 million player option. Crawford’s decision, like every other pivot point of this offseason, now presents a new and different set of potential outcomes for the logic game that is the Wolves offseason.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of offseasons over the past decade, the Wolves are — to an extent — operating from a point of leverage as they have become a tenable free agent destination. Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Crawford — all of whom signed as unrestricted free agents last summer — were the first indication of this reality. The other — and unfortunate — side of the coin is that some of that leverage has become nullified due to the team’s financial bind.

For as impactful as Gibson and Teague were on the court, their price tags of $14 million and $19 million, respectively, come with baggage when coupled with Andrew Wiggins who is set to kick off the first year of a five-year, $146.5 million contract. This imminent bind comes with a new operating reality for a franchise that was once desperate for any impact free agent to join: Money is going to be tight.

Creativity, patience and situational aggression will all need to be implemented by the Wolves’ brass this summer if this team is to make another stride in effectively insulating the Wolves tripod of Wiggins, Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Below are five crucial pivot points for Minnesota this offseason.

Operating Above or Below the Luxury Tax Line

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As recent as Tom Thibodeau’s first season at the helm, the Wolves who were saddled with a plethora of inexpensive rookie scale contracts did not even meet the league’s salary cap floor — the minimum amount of salary (90 percent of the cap) that must be handed out to players on the roster.

For the 2018-19 season, the Wolves will have jumped multiple thresholds, beyond the cap’s floor and the salary cap itself, and into an existence around the league’s luxury tax threshold.

At a projected $123 million for the 2018-19 tax line, the Wolves are already dangerously close with $110 million in guaranteed salaries dedicated to only eight players, even after Crawford’s departure.

If the Wolves opt to operate above the tax line, that will come with restrictions on what exceptions the team can use in free agency. Most notably, the mid-level exception for a taxpayer is about $5.3 million annually, whereas the mid-level exception for team’s below the tax line is about $8.6 million. That $3 million difference could be the line of demarcation between adding a surefire rotational piece and end-of-the-bench fodder.

The bigger and more pressing concern for the Wolves as it pertains to the tax lies in team owner Glen Taylor’s willingness threshold for writing a tax check to the league. Some good news for Wolves fans is that Taylor is a very rich man, with a net worth of $2.5 billion, according to Forbes.com. Better news, Taylor showed a willingness to pay the tax when the team was a true contender in the early 2000s.

The bad news is that the luxury tax has grown a new set of teeth since those KG days. Now, teams face an extremely punitive tax when they exceed the threshold in consecutive seasons. This is important to note for the Wolves who are a near lock to be in the tax entering the 2019-20 season when both Towns and Butler can earn maximum starting salaries of $32.4 million annually.

There is a strong financial argument that the Wolves should do everything they can to avoid the tax this season while on the brink of the repeater tax. This past season, the league saw the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Charlotte Hornets do everything in their power — including cycling through the G League like a used toy bin (Clippers), trading away young talent (Blazers) and ignoring the mid-level exception altogether (Hornets) — so as to avoid the tax.

However, there is another argument to be made that the 2018-19 Wolves are on the precipice of something those three franchises were not; contention. If Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden believe the window is now, paying the tax would assuredly help a team that just did not have enough to contend this past season.

A commitment from Taylor to pay a nominal tax this season with the knowledge that he will then be paying an extremely hefty tax bill in 2019-20 could go a long way in creating financial flexibility. That flexibility could bring back restricted free agent Nemanja Bjelica, renegotiate a long-term contract for Butler, allow Layden and Thibodeau to be aggressive in trading for (or away) expensive players, and/or utilizing the mid-level exception to the full extent of its power. (All things we will get to.)

Deciding to operate above or below the tax is the most critical domino for this season as it will not only affect this offseason but seasons to come. However, it should be mentioned that the distinction of being a “tax team” is not determined until the end of the season. Meaning the Wolves could enter the 2018-19 season above the tax — like the Blazers were this season — but make a trade during the season to get below it if things go awry or Taylor has a change of heart.

Nemanja Bjelica’s Restricted Free Agency

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The Serbian combo-forward will be 30 years old entering next season and is up for a new contract. Given Bjelica’s non-traditional route to the NBA, those contract negotiations with the Wolves (or another team) will functionally operate the same way player’s coming off of their rookie scale contract — like Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Marcus Smart — will.

The process here is called restricted free agency and it gives teams what is called the right of first refusal. Essentially, this means the players can go out and test their market value, sign an offer sheet with a new team and bring it back to their previous team with the option to either match or decline.

The interesting wrinkle with the Wolves and Bjelica is that while they will own the right of first refusal, Minnesota does not have the cap space to match any offer.

Fear not, this does not spell certain doom for Bjelly’s days in a Wolves jersey.

Thibodeau and Layden could match the contract offer by using the mid-level exception if they see the price to be right. But that path also is unlikely given the notion that the Wolves would like to save the MLE for a new player — likely a wing defender/shooter.

Still, all is not lost.

The Wolves can skip the whole offer sheet process by negotiating a new deal with Bjelica before he hits the open market. Because the Wolves own Bjelica’s Bird Rights, the team is allowed to exceed the cap — and luxury tax line if necessary — to re-sign the big man.

If Bjelica is brought back, this is the most likely path as it would not restrict the Wolves freedom to sign another player with the MLE. The issue, again, is found in the team’s willingness to creep close to that tax line. Minnesota already has $110 million — $13 million below the tax line — dedicated to eight players. How much of that $13 million — that also has to fill out the rest of the 13 total roster spots — do the Wolves want to spend on Bjelly is to be determined and a fair question.

Crawford’s departure (and his $4.5 million) makes the notion of retaining Bjelica while staying under the tax line possible, but there is no guarantee. To the Wolves, he may be worth somewhere between $5 and $7 million dollars but to another team — with more flexibility — they may see Bjelica worth closer to eight figures. Bjelica’s agent, Jason Ranne, will be sure to take back channels to find out what that number is before sitting down at the negotiation table with Thibs.

The Mid-Level Exception And Derrick Rose

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The mid-level exception is the Wolves best tool for adding an impactful role player to the team’s current core. In 2017-18, the MLE was worth $8.4 million annually and with annual raises paid a player like P.J. Tucker $36 million over four seasons. This summer the MLE will kick up slightly in parallel with the salary cap to approximately $8.6 million for the first season and up to $37.5 million if the maximum four years are offered.

For the Wolves, this level of pay, coupled with long-term security, could lure in one of the league’s impactful free agents who play on the wing:

Potential Mid-Level Exception Candidates Summer 2018

  • Marcus Smart (RFA)
  • Kyle Anderson (RFA)
  • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (UFA)
  • Avery Bradley (UFA)
  • Wayne Ellington (UFA)
  • Tyreke Evans (UFA)
  • Luc Mbah a Moute (UFA)
  • Marco Belinelli (UFA)
  • Danny Green ($10 million player option in San Antonio)

As ideal as almost every one of those players would be in Minnesota, there is a complicating factor: Derrick Rose.

Rose is also an unrestricted free agent after completing the rest-of-season contract he signed with the Wolves in March. While he may not fall into the class of the players listed above to the outsider, the eyes (and heart) of Thibodeau might say something else.

At last Monday’s end-of-season press conference, Thibodeau called Rose a “terrific addition” for the team. Thibs went on to say, “obviously, he’s a free agent, so we’ll address that down the road. But I thought he was playing very well for us.”

In ways, Rose was very helpful for an underwhelming Wolves bench this season but if he is given the entirety of the mid-level exception or even part of it, the Wolves are out of the running for the players listed above and any other premier MLE candidate.

The ideal situation would be Rose taking another minimum contract — that has no adverse effect on the cap situation — allowing the Wolves to have the full leverage of the MLE when other free agents start taking meetings. If Rose receives the MLE from the Wolves, the team’s roster will only be left with trades to shake things up.

Trading Gorgui Dieng and his $50 million

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The calculus for preparing a Gorgui Dieng trade is complicated. The 28-year-old center is set to earn $15.1, $16.2 and $17.3 million per year for the next three seasons — a value he certainly is not worth given his production level this season.

The complicating factor is that Dieng’s contract is not completely sunk. While he may not be worth eight figures annually, he is a capable backup center worth somewhere between $5 and $8 million annually — dependent on a team’s desire for a more traditional center.

For the Wolves and their stringent regulations on spending, it would be nice to not have Dieng on the roster. The issue is that few teams would be willing to take on Dieng at that dollar value period and even fewer teams who could simply absorb the contract into cap space without sending much or any money back.

Likely fewer than 10 teams will be operating with cap space this summer and only a couple of those teams will have $15 million. If the Wolves can coerce a team into absorbing Dieng, an asset will almost certainly need to be attached to him as penance.

The natural asset to look at here would be the first round pick Minnesota owns (20th overall) acquired in the Ricky Rubio trade last summer. Attaching that asset to Dieng is a hard pill to swallow as it is the only current route to adding young and affordable talent this offseason. Additionally, if used as Thibodeau’s get out of jail free card with Dieng, that asset cannot be used in a different trade to bolster the roster.

Not having Dieng and his money going forward is a path towards having the freedom to get aggressive with the MLE this summer and could relieve luxury tax restrictions not only for this season but the future. Deciding what to do with Dieng is a big picture king domino while also being a pivot point that will have an immediate effect on the roster next season.

Jimmy Butler And A Potential Contract Extension

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Technically, Jimmy Butler has two seasons left on his contract with the Wolves at approximately $20 million per season. The issue is that the second of the two seasons has a player option attached to it, meaning Butler is a near lock to opt out of year two. Through this optionality, Butler is eligible to renegotiate and extend his contract now. If he wants the maximum amount of money, his renegotiation would bump his 2018-19 salary up from $20.4 million to $30.3 million.

Again, this brings up financial issues given the Wolves luxury tax situation.

Further complicating matters, renegotiating Butler’s salary would require the Wolves to create cap space to make up the difference between $20.4 million and $30.3 million. Already $9 million over the cap with $110 million dedicated to eight players, getting down to about $90 million would be a bear of a proposition. Cutting this much space would almost require multiple players being dumped in trades. Trading Dieng would only be step one as the Wolves would likely need to trade another starter — Wiggins, Gibson or Teague — to create the necessary space.

These moves are not impossible to finagle but would put an immense amount of stress on the rest of the roster. The best case scenario for contending next season would come through Thibodeau convincing Butler not to pursue a renegotiation and wait a year to get paid. But that too is a risky proposition. If Butler is not locked up long-term this summer, he becomes a flight risk twelve months from now.

In the NBA’s new financial landscape that allows veterans of Butler’s experience level to earn 30 percent of the salary cap, this is the price of doing business. Given the plethora of other financial limitations both short- and long-term, Butler’s contract is the king of king dominos.

And that is before we even consider Butler’s health and how he is going to age into a contract that demands superstar play from a player who isn’t getting any younger.

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