The Timberwolves’ Opportunity Cost of Trading Up

Mandatory Credit: David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images, Timberwolves.com

So…why exactly are the Timberwolves trying to trade up for the fourth pick?

On the surface, it makes some sense. Even beyond the notion that trading up is sexy, and that making a splashy move would go a long way in the public opinion of the new front office regime, there is certainly logic in the move. But weaved into that logic are fair questions to be asked about this type of move at this juncture of the process.

Most likely, if the Wolves trade up for the No. 4 pick, they are doing so in an effort to select a point guard — probably Darius Garland or Coby White. At Gersson Rosas’ first media availability after being named the franchise’s new president of basketball operations, he acknowledged the point guard position specifically as the place on the roster with “some questions that we have to answer.”

Yep. True. The only point guard under contract is Jeff Teague, and both Garland and White are lead ball-handlers. So there’s logic there. But peel back a few layers and the logic begins to deteriorate — if this move is not followed by corresponding adjustments. Let’s start with those questions.

  • Teague is under contract for $19 million next season (more on that in a bit). With already $16 million dedicated to a backup in Gorgui Dieng, it would be a bit odd to slide another thick salary to a bench role. But it would be almost as odd to draft a player fourth overall and to not start them, particularly a player traded up for. (If the trade up is not for a point guard, a similar line of thinking can be applied to using the pick on Jarrett Culver or De’Andre Hunter — as there are Wiggins/Covington/Saric shaped blockades at those guys’ positions as well.)
  • To stick with the point guard hypothetical, rookie point guards historically stink at defense, and this Minnesota Timberwolves group historically stinks at defense. So that’s curious.
  • Tyus Jones and Derrick Rose are free agents, but they exist too. The Wolves own Jones’ restricted rights and Rose’s Early-Bird Rights, making them attractive if for no other reason than that the team can go over the cap to sign them — something they can’t do for other free agents.
  • The biggest question, though — and it’s two parts: 1. What would it cost to move up? 2. Why use those assets to trade up in the draft versus trading for a productive veteran or to get off one of their sub-optimal contracts? This one requires some context…

What Would it Cost to Trade up to Four?

Rosas knows it’s not only extremely difficult to trade up into the top four of the NBA draft, he knows that doing so on draft night would require paying a premium. He said as much on Tuesday in a pre-draft press conference.

“History will tell you, it’s hard to trade up into the top three of the draft, even top five in the lottery. It’s very difficult,” said Rosas. “We know, because we’ve tried, and will continue to try. But that price, the premium that teams charge for that, is at a high level.”

Before paying “the premium,” Rosas would need to determine what positive assets he has in the bag, and what level of attraction those assets carry. The Wolves assets are split into two groups: the more simplistically defined currency of draft assets and then the more subjectively valued asset of players under contract below their market value. Here’s a list of those:

Draft Assets:

  • 2019 1st (No. 11), all of their own firsts from 2020-26 (the furthest out a future pick can be traded)
  • 2019 2nd (No. 43 — from MIA via CHA), all of their own seconds from 2020-26, the greater of DEN/PHI second in 2022

Under Contract Positive Assets:

  • Karl-Anthony Towns (five years, $158.1 million)
  • Robert Covington (three years, $36.4 million)
  • Josh Okogie (three years, $9.3 million)
  • Dario Saric (one year, $3.5 million)
  • Keita Bates-Diop (two years, $3.1 million)

Because of the sheer volume of draft picks, that type of asset is more malleable to fit the needed value — it’s just easier to throw in an appropriately sized sweetener in the form of a future pick than it is to find a player under contract that fits the value. In theory, Minnesota could put together an offer that is just a pile of future picks for No. 4. But that’s where New Orleans, the new owner of the number four pick after the Anthony Davis trade, and their unique situation come in. Given the glut of futures New Orleans just absorbed in the Davis deal, it feels counter-intuitive to think that just picks will do it; a similarly valued, immediate contributor that is under contract is likely more attractive. The reporting on the dealing matches this thinking.

So, onto the under contract Wolves…

The assets to focus on here are Covington, Okogie and Saric. Towns is as close to untouchable as it gets in this league, and Bates-Diop’s contract is a fine value, but certainly not a needle mover in trade talks.

Robert Covington (three years, $36.4 million)

It’s easy to imagine that simply attaching Covington to the No. 11 pick would more than pique the interest of New Orleans. Covington is in his prime, cheap and his two best skills — defensive versatility and 3-point shooting — are the scarcest of resources in today’s NBA. It would be pretty hard for New Orleans to pass up on this wingspan nightmare of a starting lineup:

PG: Lonzo Ball, SG: Jrue Holiday, SF: Robert Covington, PF: Brandon Ingram, C: Zion Williamson

If Covington is too valuable, it’s on to the next one.

Josh Okogie (three years, $9.3 million)

A more reasonable pot sweetener is Okogie.

With the league kicking the price tag on top draft picks up another 15 percent for this draft class (people sleep on this!), the $9.3 million total Okogie is set to earn over the next three years is a bargain. That said, an intriguing, young player on a value contract — even if they’re still a bit of an unknown — may be that premium Rosas was talking about needing to pay.

Just as a player, though, it’s easy to question the fit of Okogie on the Pelicans roster. Right now they already have a lot of awesome, young defenders who can’t shoot. That’s Okogie. So maybe he’s reductive.

Dario Saric (one year, $3.5 million)

A more intriguing premium for the Wolves — and maybe the Pelicans, too — would be Saric. Unlike Covington and Okogie, who are locked up through 2022, Saric’s contract expires at the end of this season.

The hope in Minnesota, of course, is that Saric thrives alongside Towns this season and that bringing him back the following season is deemed worth it. But that’s no guarantee. If Saric and Towns prove to (again) be an underwhelming frontcourt pairing, re-signing him to a new deal next summer would be a tough pill to swallow.

Think about it like this: The Wolves are feeling the financial pressure of currently having eight players under contract that are set to earn $108.7 million this season, right? Well, next season Teague, Saric and Bates-Diop (if his contract isn’t guaranteed) all come off the books, but the team will still have $91.0 million dedicated to just Wiggins, Towns, Dieng, Covington and Okogie. Bringing back Saric that summer for somewhere around $15 million annually would nearly cap the Wolves out with just six contracts. Which is to say: trading Saric now has some long-term logic — particularly if it is for a cheaper, cost-controlled asset, like the No. 4 pick.

Would the 11th pick and Saric be enough to intrigue New Orleans to give up four? The current skill lacking on the Pelicans roster is shooting and the physical need is size. Saric checks those boxes. One would have to think the Pelicans would be intrigued by a Williamson-Saric frontcourt, paired with Ball, Holiday and Ingram on the perimeter. (Man, that would be very pre-Jimmy Butler Sixers-y team. A good thing!)

Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Opportunity Cost of Buying Versus Selling Assets

Whatever the arrangement of assets it would take to trade up from eleven to four are, Rosas and company would appear to be prioritizing a prospect over moving one of the sub-optimal contracts. And that’s an interesting slant to take.

On one hand, the move could be viewed as confidence being placed in Wiggins, Dieng and Teague. Rather than paying (assets) to bail water out of their sunk costs, using the assets from the trade up could suggest the plan is to instead try and recoup some of the value of that three-man canoe. There’s logic in that.

But on the other hand, the player traded up for would likely cut into the role of at least one of those three players. Again, it would seem odd to trade up to four, for let’s say Garland, only to have Teague play over him.

That said, it’s not hard to connect a few dots to come to the conclusion that trading up would require corresponding moves to the rest of the roster. Maybe this trade up is only the first domino. Maybe, if Garland is being drafted with the pick, a Teague trade is coming. Maybe, if the trade up is for Culver, a Wiggins trade is on-deck.

If not, this is peculiar. It’s not that bringing Garland or White off the bench behind Teague would make zero sense, it’s just odd to prioritize that over other moves. It would certainly be an indictment of Jones and Rose, though. And what about the potential for acquiring D’Angelo Russell? Does that just die if they draft a rookie point guard fourth overall? What will KAT do with his microphone if that happens?

What Does This Do For KAT?

I was only kind of joking above when I said the Timberwolves historically stink at defense. Actually, I wasn’t. They have stunk at defense. Particularly their best player has one on-court red flag: defense. Every season of Karl-Anthony Towns’ career, under three different coaches, the Wolves have been better defensively when he is off the floor, per NBA.com.

There are certainly needs on this roster that extend beyond defense, but the four years of defensive struggles Towns has put forth suggest any move needs to be at least glanced at through that lens. Yes, a great deal of defensive improvement can come from coaching adjustments — schematic and inter-personal — but personnel around him shouldn’t be overlooked.

Again, using assets to get a rookie at four limits the ability to use assets to get off sub-optimal contracts, but it also limits the ability to use those assets on other player acquisitions.

In a vacuum, the fourth pick carries a cap hit of $7,059,480 — which is $3,031,200 more than the 11th pick. Making that swap would cut into the $15.9 million the Wolves currently sit below the luxury tax line.

Down at $13 million of wiggle room, the prospect of using the midlevel exception ($9.2 million) on a player like, say, Patrick Beverley — who would certainly help Towns on the defensive end — becomes harder to maneuver.

But it would be unfair to say that Rosas is overlooking Towns. The contrary, actually. Rosas has incessantly pointed to Towns being his key area of focus.

“What we need to do in order to maximize Karl’s window forces you an urgency to do things the right way,” said Rosas when asked if he plans to be immediately active when it comes to making trades. “As we look at that window of time for Karl, we want to make sure that we’ve got pieces in place that can grow and develop with him and can peak at the right time.”

Garland and White will both be 19 years old when next season starts. Towns turns 24 in November. Do they fall in the KAT window? I don’t know — both will be 23 when Towns’ contract expires. Five years feels like forever, but it’s not.

Making a move for a rookie on Thursday night isn’t a bad move. It’s just a move that, when isolated, looks peculiar, given the rest of the roster, and the notion that free agency has yet to factor into the equation. Maybe Rosas is playing chess while I’m looking at this like checkers.

If the Wolves do trade up to four, it will be a move that can’t really be assessed until all of Rosas’ wheelings and dealings this summer have come to a close. For now, it’s fair to be curious about the move. But it’s also important to take Rosas at his word and let him begin to enact his plan before critiquing it.

“The reality is,” Rosas said at the end of his Tuesday presser, “this story will be told three or four years from now — how we did tonight, how we develop these guys. It’s not about winning the press conference, it’s about building a championship organization and this (draft) is a big part of it.”

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