Timberwolves

ZONE COVERAGE WOLVES ROUNDTABLE: Five Questions with Three Experts

Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Hey guys, we’re back here for another roundtable discussion. I’m Brandon Warne, and I’ll moderate the discussion between our Minnesota Timberwolves experts. Let’s dive right in!

Brandon Warne: As the postseason has progressed, what has it told you about what the Wolves need to do to play deeper into the playoffs?

Tim Faklis: The troubling thing about the playoffs as it pertains to the Wolves is how little they can change things up from a roster standpoint this summer. They can draft a guy with the 20th pick, sign a guy for the mid-level exception and maybe make a trade, but the main roster pieces will remain the same regardless.

In order for them to advance further in the playoffs, they need the players they currently have to improve — most specifically, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. If that pair improves, the team improves. We saw that when Towns picked up his defense in December and the Wolves were suddenly a top-10 defensive team.

(photo credit: Jim Faklis)

David Naylor: While the roster is somewhat frozen in place without a drastic and unlikely move of either Gorgui Dieng’s contract or Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves will need to rely on the development of Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns had a year that looks staggering in many statistical categories yet most wise heads around the team know that his ceiling is still far beyond what he achieved this season, both on offense and more critically on defense.

For Wiggins, it seems like his development may revolve around different usage of his skill set rather than the excessive number of shots he either takes or is told to take in the framework of Tom Thibodeau’s offense. If Wiggins can increase the efficiency of his shots and decrease the sheer volume in favor of shots from Towns or Jimmy Butler, the value he has and continues to develop on the defensive end can become more clear.

Dane Moore: I remember having a conversation with a few Wolves media folks at the end of the season about whether or not the team is actually a top-five offense in the league. Minnesota, of course, finished with the fourth-best offense in the NBA in terms of efficiency but something about that always felt inflated during the regular season.

The common refrain from those media folks — and myself — was: Nah, not top five. Maybe top 10.

I think I’ve pivoted off that idea.

The sentiment behind the numbers feeling somewhat faux was that an offense with limited ball movement and a focus on isolation could never be great.

These playoffs have suggested the contrary: maximizing isolation opportunities has been king in this spring. Could the Wolves fine tune some things to find that maximization? Sure. But this offensive style can work, provided high-level isolators. The Wolves have those players in Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague, and also Karl-Anthony Towns in a bizarro sort of way from the center position.

Now, the defense.

That side of the ball needs some adjustments to make a playoff run. Better execution should be the primary focus on that end but the playoffs have informed that having versatility in the way a team can defend is crucial. I’d love to see the team experiment with some more trapping of pick-and-rolls and even switching — tactics that were all but forbidden this season.

BW: Which current Wolves player is most likely to be shipped out with the caveat that they must be under a fully guaranteed deal for next season (sorry, Cole Aldrich)?

TF: The player I expect the Wolves to look to trade is Gorgui Dieng. Whether they’re able to ship him and his massive contract is an entirely different story. He still has value around the league and can be a useful backup big on a good team, but the contract will lower any incoming value. 

(photo credit: Jim Faklis)

The easiest player to trade — both in terms of value and financials — is Tyus Jones. He solidified himself as a serviceable backup this season and still has another year on his rookie deal. If Derrick Rose indeed returns to Minnesota, Jones’ services might not be as important to Tom Thibodeau. I expect to see Jones in a Wolves uniform next year, but his departure also wouldn’t shock me.

DN: The Timberwolves will attempt to move Gorgui Dieng’s contract if at all possible, but the cost in terms of other assets may be too much to swallow, whether in draft picks or other young players like Tyus Jones or Justin Patton. Patton’s value after his struggles with injury in his first year may be interesting to gauge, but the 16th pick in last season’s draft with a current injury issue and four total NBA minutes played is not enough to acquire a franchise-changing asset.

An extremely unlikely candidate is Taj Gibson, who had a career-best season, was a critical piece of Minnesota’s best lineups, and is a Thibodeau player through and through. Gibson is also on the final year of his contract, and should Thibodeau somehow view a Nemanja Bjelica signing or a mid-level contract player as a solution to the starting lineup that could free up more space for Towns, a Gibson move could provide some interesting direction.

This is even less likely than a Wiggins or Dieng move, especially under the current franchise leadership, but would be something different to explore than the obvious options.

DM: Players are substantially easier to move when their contracts are viewed as positive assets. There will never be a shortage of trade speculation for Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng — two players on negative contracts — but the reality is that finding a team to absorb negative deals is extremely difficult, particularly in this financial landscape.

If Wiggins cannot be traded for a positive return, then he absolutely should not be traded. If Dieng can’t be traded without trading the Wolves first-round pick (20th overall) — and I highly doubt he can be moved without that attachment — then trading him becomes far less appetizing.

For me, the player most likely to be traded is a player firmly viewed as a positive asset, given his rookie scale contract: Justin Patton.

Yes, Patton has had two foot surgeries in the past year but he still is a value contract with three years and $10.5 million left on his deal. Additionally, there is no clear path to a real role for the 20-year-old who will forever be buried behind Towns to some degree.

If the Wolves can find a team who had a first-round grade on Patton last season — and is willing to be patient with his injury — then the team could use him in a trade. Maybe he is just moved for a future first in this draft — freeing up a bit of money for this season — or maybe he is attached to a negative asset as penance.

Of the players under contract for next season, Patton seems the most likely to be moved from a logistical standpoint.

BW: In a perfect world — while still operating under the salary cap — what does your offseason look like for the Wolves?

TF: If we could work with a scenario where the Wolves were under the salary cap, I’d say go get LeBron James. He’s pretty good and I think he’d help the team.

But considering that isn’t happening, I’m an advocate to use the mid-level and try to grab a good bench wing. My favorite is Avery Bradley. He had the worst season of his career in 2017-18, but is only 27 and could be had for cheap as a result of the bad year. At his best, he’s the best defender of the bunch and shoots around 40 percent from deep.

Feb 14, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; LA Clippers guard Avery Bradley (11) congratulates Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier (12) three point basket at the buzzer in the second quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

DN: The mid-level exception signing (or signings) will be the key to explore, with any top-end potentially limited by whatever amount of money Derrick Rose’s assumed contract offer takes out of it. Should the Timberwolves manage to acquire a player like Bradley while also retaining Rose and signing Bjelica to a team-friendly deal around his restricted free agency, they will have retained many of the keys to a roster that won 47 games while adding a player that can contribute more than many of the bit-part players that occupied bench minutes in 2017-18.

DM: If we were firing up NBA 2K or just getting whimsical with the trade machine, then there is some logic behind messing around with some Wiggins or Teague deals but I think that logic lives in fantasy rather than reality. A more realistic offseason, in a perfect world, looks like finding a way to bring in a younger player for the mid-level exception.

Two players that fit this mold for me are Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (an unrestricted free agent) and Rodney Hood (a restricted free agent). Those two players, both 25 years old, fit the arch of Wiggins and Towns more than Butler, Teague, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose — and I think that should be the priority with almost any addition. Landing a productive wing that can help the team for next season but also has a shot at contributing to the team when the Timberpups hit their prime is more ‘perfect world’ to me. The Golden State Warriors aren’t going anywhere next season.

Oct 28, 2015; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) guards Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood (5) during the fourth quarter at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pistons won 92-87. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

BW: Let’s get crazy for a second — what’s the wildest thing you could see Thibs/Wolves doing this summer?

TF: The wildest thing that could actually happen?

My glass-half-full answer is that Thibodeau finds a team that can make a deal for Wiggins that still thinks he can turn into a star-quality player. That team then trades real, valuable assets for him. It’ll be trick for both of those things to align this summer, but if it does, it could be a gamechanger for next season.

DN: The wildest thing is not necessarily a good thing from a Minnesota perspective, and I think it’s fair to wonder if Thibodeau will be swayed by any conversations around Wiggins, whether or not he is viewed as a negative asset by either the Wolves or a potential suitor. It’s not that I think the front office will mortgage their future to dump Wiggins, but if the right package comes along in the front office’s eyes, one suspects that there will be much more serious conversations than at any time in the recent past.

It’s nearly impossible to see the Timberwolves becoming a suitor on any game-changing names, so the departure of one of their biggest names would be a much more seismic shock than anything else that could happen. While all three of us have commented on just how low the chance seems to be, the chance isn’t zero, and that’s all it takes for a shocking blockbuster.

DM: I know we’re looking for a ‘trade for Kawhi’ answer here but my wild is dark:

The Wolves could use the mid-level exception — their only real tool for bringing in a free agent — on Rose and not add any other free agents for more than minimum (a couple Aaron Brookses). In this dark fantasy, they could also let Nemanja Bjelica walk on the restricted free agent market — to duck the luxury tax — and bring back a team that looks a lot like last season’s, just a year older.

That would be wild because it would be missing another crucial opportunity — they were quiet at the February trade deadline — to make needed tweaks to a roster that clearly cannot compete at the highest levels. To say, “we have more than enough to win with this roster” would be extremely short-sighted, in my opinion.

BW: OK, last but not least — what extensions do you see getting done this summer for the Wolves?

TF: KAT is the only one I expect to get extended this offseason. Butler could also get an extension done, but seeing that happen this summer would surprise me. Most stars — unless they’re in a near-perfect situation — let their contracts go to its final year the second time around.

DN: Regardless of all of the smoke that may or may not exist around the relationship between Towns and Thibodeau, no player has ever turned down the amount of money that Towns will be eligible for — and will be offered — on a rookie contract extension. Towns has every financial reason to sign this deal, and I don’t think he turns that down.

While Butler’s discussion may prove more interesting than I think it will, a more critical extension conversation may be that of Tyus Jones. Jones is also up for his rookie extension this offseason, and if the Wolves can negotiate a deal that is favorable to their cap situation beyond 2019 that Jones and his agent agree to, they will be able to lock in their backup point guard for the extended future.

Beyond that, should Teague depart either in 2019 or, more likely, 2020 after taking his player option, a long-term Jones deal sets the table for him to be the point guard of the future for Minnesota.

DM: Towns’ extension is a near-lock. That deal will kick in for the 2019-20 and pay him (up to) $188 million if he makes an All-NBA team next season. The league’s collective bargaining agreement is set up in a way specifically for situations like this one. That leverage, that Towns has, is the exact reason that Wiggins is now on a $147 million deal. Suggesting Towns won’t sign this deal is either wild speculation or an indication that something is gravely wrong with the organization.

Feb 15, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler (23) during a game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Butler’s potential extension is the one that is more in question. His camp can pass on an extension and pursue that same $188 million deal on the open market a year from now. Or, he can sign an extension for five years at $142 million this summer. It’s hard to subject analysis on how much someone values $142 million versus $188 million but there is some rationale for taking the extension. The $188 million is no lock. A year from now, Butler could be coming off of another banged up season. Is someone definitely going to pony up that kind of cash for a 30-year-old? I’m not sure. If Butler wants security, he can likely find it from Tom Thibodeau in the way of a $142 million extension. My gut would say Butler waits it out to see where the team is at in a year, even if that means sacrificing security.


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