The Minnesota Timberwolves employ at least three — if not four — point guards who are generally more productive than pernicious. Each floor general provides a divergent subset of suitable skills.
In a league dominated by ball handlers, such optionality can be crucial.
Jeff Teague is a methodical tactician. Whether he’s prodding to create an exploitable mismatch, lunging toward the rim to finish past a defender or stopping short to draw fouls and hit floaters, he normally sticks to the hits.
Tyus Jones is an enthusiastic organizer. He’s willing and able to aggrandize his teammates and that tends to portend well for the group as a whole. But this isn’t to imply a lack of individual ability: he currently leads the league in assist-to-turnover rate while the Wolves defense holds opponents to 6.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with Jones is on the floor.
And Derrick Rose thrives as an offensive enforcer. The former MVP is among a scant group of ball handlers with the ability to fashion a shot — especially for himself, but also for a teammate — from anywhere on the floor at any point in a game.
All of these characteristics blend and fuse to form a fruitful amalgam of backcourt alternatives for Ryan Saunders’ staff.
But next year, they all could be gone.
This upcoming summer, Teague will decide whether to pick up the $19 million player-option that his contract extends for the 2019-20 season. Financial implications would predict that he’ll be back, but it’s possible he’s fed up with what’s been a volatile stay; it’s possible he’d like to more seriously chase a championship run as his career elapses its apex.
Jones, who’s played his home games at Target Center ever since he was drafted in 2015, is ready to become a restricted free agent. Unless he and the Wolves agree to a contract extension before July 1, the Minnesota native will take proverbial meetings. Then, the Wolves will either to let Jones walk or match the offer sheet he’s given from a different team.
Rose, to his benefit, is destined to explore unrestricted free agency; his situation is probably the most difficult to gauge. Given the depth of his relationship with Tom Thibodeau, did the head coach’s dismissal damage Rose’s perception of this organization at large? Or, has the Timberwolves’ commitment to harboring his heroics provided a level of trust that Rose will be hard-pressed to relinquish?
However it’s laid out, that the Wolves could be left standing when the music stops playing is a predicament that begs careful consideration. A lead ball handler is integral in this league, especially when your team’s cornerstone star is a center; simply sitting pat and letting this season play out is a tactic that could invite peril heading into the first of Karl-Anthony Towns’ max-contract seasons.
With the Feb. 7 trade deadline quickly approaching, now is an apropos time to ponder the ways a front office might proceed.
Run it Back
First, the path of least resistance: some combination of Teague, Jones and Rose returning to the Wolves.
We’ll start by assuming that Teague opts in to the final year of his contract, Towns falls short of making an All-NBA team (an award that would bolster his future salary) and no other transactions are made before this summer. If that scenario becomes reality, the Wolves will begin free-agent negotiations less than $1 million below the projected 2019-20 salary cap ($109M). The front office will possess little more than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (about $9.3 million per year for up to four years), the bi-annual exception (about $3.5 million per year for up to two years) and minimum contracts with which to lure contributors.
In light of those fiscal barriers and the policies in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), a focus on re-signing talents like Jones and Rose could be advantageous.
By virtue of Jones having spent at least three seasons in Minnesota, the Wolves possess his ‘Full Bird Rights’; retaining a player using their bird rights is one of three ways — along with exceptions and minimum contracts — that a team can supersede the salary cap in free agency. If matching Jones’ offer sheet wouldn’t push the Wolves into the luxury tax ($132 million), they can use far more cap space to bring him back than they could to land an incoming free agent.
Rose, on the other hand, only owes his Early Bird Rights to the Wolves. As stipulated by the CBA, a front office can go over the cap to sign a player using Early Bird Rights by offering them 105 percent (about $9-10 million in Rose’ case) of that year’s average NBA salary. It’s unclear whether Rose would accept such an offer, but the possibility of retaining him without using one of the team’s two exceptions would certainly be appealing.
Conversely, if Teague does opt to leave, the Wolves might aim to recall both Jones and Rose as a point guard duo with harmonious skillsets and an ability to share the floor with success. Theoretically relieved of Teague’s $19 million salary for next season, it’s viable to think that both Jones and Rose could fit under the tax without exhausting an exception.
But if Wolves brass decides that, regardless of Teague’s decision, they’d like to make more of a gamble in identifying Towns’ optimal running mate, then acquiring a young and out-of-favor point guard would be a route worth exploring.
Buy Low on Upside
Anthony Davis’ recent trade request should encourage the Wolves to carefully consider how they approach the Towns era in Minnesota. The Pelicans were intent on making ‘win-now’ moves toward the beginning of Davis’ time in New Orleans, but those decisions didn’t land as close to the bullseye as they’d ultimately need to. And as a result, once Davis truly entered his prime, the Pelicans were starved for any sort of flexibility.
Even though Thibodeau’s tenure was almost compulsively focused on the present, it’s not too late for this leadership to adjust. Trading for a recently drafted point guard wouldn’t be a move that optimizes this season or next. Instead, it would be a move that gives the Wolves illusive upside; a move that could pay dividends down the road, when 23-year-old Towns reaches the peak of his powers.
Despite the fact that Mavericks’ sophomore Dennis Smith Jr. was the most logical target before being traded to the Knicks on Thursday, there are other up-and-comers who may be on the gradient of availability.
Markelle Fultz — Philadelphia 76ers
That the No. 1 overall pick from last year’s draft is already indicating a preference to be traded seems unimaginable; that his team may be willing to unload his salary for rotational depth may be an exploitable inefficiency in the NBA’s market.
That Fultz’s shoulder is so mysteriously injured begs a surfeit of serious questions. That the University of Washington alumnus could fail to re-find his form is a real possibility; that Fultz’s salary will pay him nearly $10 million on average would make anyone gulp.
Maybe the 76ers are to a point where they’d like to get off his salary and add a capable forward — like, say, Anthony Tolliver — to their rotation.
Trading for Fultz would be a risky investment, one made even more daunting by the time it could take to show any return. But there is a world where the player who was almost universally preferred to Jayson Tatum and De’Aaron Fox returns; nabbing that piece at the expense of a veteran not long for the Wolves would be a franchise-altering coup.
Lonzo Ball — Los Angeles Lakers
As The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported on Monday, “Should Lakers/Pelicans trade talks pick up,” Ball would prefer to be traded to a third team that “doesn’t have an established point guard.”
Well, Ball — the second-year player — doesn’t have much of a say in any Davis trade talks, outside of the fact that his boisterous father could make life difficult for a team if he chooses. And the Wolves do roster several established point guards. But, as discussed above, none of those options are sure to be here in the future; Ball, on the other hand, is under contract through at least 2021-22.
The Wolves would certainly need to forfeit assets in a bid to land Ball, but his defensive and playmaking abilities could be a fit with Minnesota’s core.
Dennis Smith Jr. — New York Knicks
The New York Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke to the Dallas Mavericks for Smith, Wesley Matthews, DeAndre Jordan and a couple of first round picks. Essentially, the Knicks’ priority in a return for Porzingis — a truly special talent when healthy — was to create cap space that they can spend on free agents this summer.
Is it possible that the Knicks, hell-bent on making life as easy as possible for themselves in the offseason, would be enthusiastic about flipping Smith? If the Wolves are willing to take on 30-year-old Lance Thomas, who’s guaranteed to receive more than $7 million in 2019-20, will the Knicks pick up the phone?
Exchanging both Smith and Thomas for expiring deals would provide the Knicks an additional $12 million in cap space. Congruently, it would synch their ability to sign the two max free agents they’ve long heralded. If this is something that sparks intrigue in New York, the Wolves won’t be the only team calling. But that doesn’t mean they should avoid picking up the phone.
Put a Premium on Present Value
The Wolves could also pursue a more established point guard like Grizzlies veteran Mike Conley, who is reportedly available in trade talks as well.
On Wednesday night, Conley dazzled a frigid Target Center crowd to the tune of 26 points, eight assists and five rebounds, though his Grizzlies ultimately fell short in overtime.
The 12-year veteran’s playstyle would complement Towns like petrol compliments the engine in a car; he’s an established scorer from all over the floor, one of the league’s best pick-and-roll ball-handlers and a commendable point-of-attack defender — all without being a dreaded ball stopper. A veteran of the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies, Conley’s attitude and experience could help the Wolves in a myriad of ways.
The downside to Conley, however, is twofold at least. Since 2012-13, he’s only appeared in more than 70 games on a single occasion. Even though he’s on pace to leapfrog that figure this season, it would be difficult to feel totally comfortable about his durability. What’s more, Conley will make more than $30 million through 2020-21. As such, constructing a deal that brings him to Minnesota may be a difficult task.
Assuming they’re entering an extended rebuild, are the Grizzlies interested in acquiring Andrew Wiggins as a reclamation project of sorts? If so, then swapping him in a deal for Conley could provide both present value and future cap relief for the Wolves, given that the 31-year-old’s contract is guaranteed for two fewer years than Wiggins’. It also might be difficult to roster both Conley and Teague; would the Grizzlies be willing to inherit the Wolves starting point guard as a temporary replacement?
The Action Network’s Matt Moore recently floated a deal that would send Wiggins, Teague, Jones and Jerryd Bayless to Memphis. In exchange, the Wolves would attain Conley and the expiring contracts of Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green. There’s a very good argument that such a transaction could be mutually beneficial, especially if the Wolves are willing to relinquish a draft pick.
If none of these avenues are ultimately pursued, the Wolves may be left to fish through the draft for their point guard of the future.
But however it’s tackled, they have to get this right. Everything should revolve around Towns; around the goal of assembling a championship caliber roster by the time his max contract nears its conclusion. Identifying a primary ball-handler to act as the Robin to his Batman is a pivotal first step.
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