The only way to justify retaining Scott Layden as the Minnesota Timberwolves general manager is if he was at the complete mercy of Tom Thibodeau over the two-and-a-half seasons the duo crafted the Wolves current roster. Every major roster construction issue this team faces going forward — the contracts of Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Jeff Teague — was signed by the Thibodeau-Layden front office over the past three summers.
If the motivation isn’t just saving money — wanting to limit the amount of dead money to Thibodeau’s salary that will be paid out over the next two seasons — empowering Layden has to be a product of going through the transaction list since 2016 and putting a lot of that was Tom’s fault stamps on the ledger.
If Layden was working in tandem with Thibodeau, the below list of transactions from the past three drafts, three free agency periods and one midseason trade are what his assessment should be drawn from. While there are a few bright spots, the aggregated product is well… you be the judge.
The Summer of 2016
- 2016 NBA Draft — Drafted Kris Dunn (fifth overall)
The first decision Thibodeau-Layden duo made was in the 2016 draft, where they selected Dunn ahead of Buddy Hield (sixth overall), Jamal Murray (seventh), Jakob Poeltl (ninth) and Domantas Sabonis (11th). Dunn flashed elite end-to-end speed and high-end defensive chops in his three years at Providence College, but was an old rookie — selected when he was 22 years old.
Two years later, Dunn looks about as fast as a pretty fast NBA player and his defensive acumen appears to have been overrated. The only player selected in the top 10 of that Dunn is, now, definitively better than is Marquese Chriss (eighth overall).
- 2016 Free Agency — Signed Brandon Rush (one year, $3.5 million), Cole Aldrich (three years, $21.9 million), Jordan Hill (two years, $8.2 million)
Given the league’s massive salary cap spike in the summer of 2016, these cheap signings are actually a weathered feather in the cap of Thibodeau and Layden. The Wolves were flush with young players and thus cap space, making the restraint Thibodeau and Layden used admirable. Reminder: This was the summer of Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million), Joakim Noah (four years, $72 million), Luol Deng (four years, $64 million).
That said, the three signings of Rush, Aldrich and Hill were not needle-movers. Rush was broken down; Aldrich played sparingly on his $7 million annual salary; Hill was… let’s call it… disengaged. The third year of Aldrich’s partially-guaranteed deal was waived and Hill’s non-guaranteed second year was not picked up.
- Gorgui Dieng Contract Extension — four years, $64 million
Thibodeau and Layden may have used restraint in not offering any Mozgov-ian deals on the open market but they do not deserve any special credit for recognizing the poisonous bubble in the market. Dieng, who had hinted at being a capable NBA center the previous season, received the (ridiculous) going rate for bigs from the Wolves’ brass.
What makes this deal almost worse than the other centers who received that money is that Dieng’s deal was a contract extension, meaning he is on the books for a year longer than Mozgov’s. It is for this reason that, to this day, Dieng is on one of the league’s worst contracts — and will be for the next two seasons. The word multiple league executives have used when describing Dieng’s deal to me is “crippling.”
- Shabazz Muhammad turns down four year, $40 million extension
Can’t forget Muhammad and his contract extension that wasn’t. Thibodeau and Layden dodged a bullet when they offered Muhammad a four-year, $40 million contract extension that same summer as Dieng — as reported by Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
In a miraculous stroke of luck, Muhammad turned down the offer, betting on himself to earn more than $10 million annually the following summer. Muhammad played for the Shanxi Brave Dragons this season in the Chinese Basketball Association. If Muhammad would have signed that deal, like Dieng, he would be on the books for two more seasons beyond 2018-19.
The Summer of 2017
- Traded Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the rights to Lauri Markkanen (seventh overall) to Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler and the rights to Justin Patton (16th overall)
This deal, at the time, was revered as a massive coup for Thibodeau and Layden. Dunn had underwhelmed in his rookie year; Zach LaVine had recently torn his ACL and was lightyears away from becoming a competent defender; Markkanen was, inherently, an unknown as a rookie. On the other side, Butler was a 27-year-old star with two guaranteed seasons left on his contract for under $20 million a year. To boot, the 16th overall pick that became Patton was shockingly thrown into the deal.
The glimmering benefits of this deal have completely faded. Butler led the Wolves to the playoffs in 2017-18 and then promptly ruined 2018-19. Patton — instigated by injuries — is arguably one of the worst first-round picks of the decade, currently out of the league after just two seasons.
It’s the process, here, that comes into question. If you spend any time around Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, it is abundantly clear that there may not be two personalities in the league that mesh worse. Butler is a stern, old-soul who periodically swears off technology, enjoying to spend his time drinking wine and playing the card game UNO with his close friends. Towns has told me he doesn’t drink and that he loves cartoons.
After a late-December loss in Milwaukee last season, Towns — as he is wont to do — was rattling off cliches to the assembled media about “playing with fire” and not having “the Basketball Gods” on the team’s side. In the tiny Bradley Center locker room, Butler overheard the musings and exploded with an expletive-riddled rant about how Towns needs “fucking media training.” (It was awkward.)
How Thibodeau didn’t have a strong inkling after spending a year around Towns that this Butler character — who he coached for four seasons in Chicago — wouldn’t coalesce with his young star was a massive oversight. As for Layden, who has taken credit for the work he does in the draft, the Patton selection — even if Patton would have been healthy — made little sense. Thibodeau said multiple times last season that he saw Patton as a center. With Towns the franchise cornerstone who plays the same position, there was never going to be more than 15 minutes per night for Patton to play. Not to mention Dieng, also a center, being in the first year of a four-year, $64 million deal.
Patton was the highest player remaining on the Wolves draft board when the 16th pick came around and that’s why he was selected, multiple sources have said.
All-in-all, the trade was both good and bad. The assets were evaluated in a vacuum accurately — Thibodeau and Layden won that. But the human element was skimmed over and the construction of the roster had numerous misallocations of resources after that deal.
- Ricky Rubio Traded for 2018 First-Round Pick
Thibodeau never showed an affinity towards Rubio in the ways he did for Dunn, often deflecting Rubio praise in media availabilities to something about how Kris played well, too. This was exposed when Thibodeau worked with Layden to send Rubio to Utah for what became the 20th pick in the 2018 draft.
The move was a salary dump of the two years and $28 million that remained on Rubio’s contract, and the return ended up being a coup when Josh Okogie was selected with the pick traded for. (More on Okogie and the successes of the 2018 Draft when we get to the 2018 Summer.)
- 2017 Free Agency — Signed Jeff Teague (three years, $57 million), Taj Gibson (two years, $28 million), Jamal Crawford (two years, $8.9 million). Also: Shabazz Muhammad and Aaron Brooks signed for the league minimum
League-wide, the spendings of the 2017 offseason are brushed off as OK compared to the heaping spoonful of crippling deals handed out in 2016. But the reality is — now with ink dry on those deals — that most teams were overzealous in their spendings in 2017, as well. This is an important point of context in assessing the Teague, Gibson and Crawford signings that summer.
Given the years and dollars, even in an inflated market, the Teague contract is easily the hardest of the three signings to stomach two years later. The $19 million player option for 2019-20 season on Teague contract is a major obstacle that hangs over the Wolves 2019 summer. (It doesn’t help that Teague was paid $5 million more annually than the dumped Rubio, without providing much additional production. Rubio couldn’t shoot 3s and Teague prefers not to shoot 3s. The Wolves moved from last in 3-point frequency in 2016-17 to… last in 3-point frequency in 2017-18.)
Gibson’s deal seemed expensive at the time, but he has been a productive member of the team both on the floor and in the locker room. Unlike Teague — who has been frustrated since his friend Butler departed, and Crawford who turned down his second-year player option — Gibson said Tuesday that he would be interested in returning to the Timberwolves in free agency this summer. “Without a question.” Gibson said, “it would be cool to come back.”
The Gibson signing should go down as a win. Not so much for Teague and Crawford.
Thibodeau and Layden also signed Shabazz Muhammad to a two-year deal at the league minimum in 2017 free agency. Muhammad had a player option in the second season that he opted out of when asking to be bought out during the first season. Aaron Brooks was also signed to a one-year deal at the league minimum to be the third-string point guard. Both deals, because they were for the minimum, were a fine utilization of roster spots — even if the production was dismal. Minimums are lottery tickets.
- Andrew Wiggins Designated Rookie Contract Extension — five years, $148 million
The Wiggins contract is extremely difficult to justify. As arguably the most onerous contract in the NBA, the process of choosing to extend Wiggins rather than letting him hit restricted free agency the next summer is, with hindsight, feels very misguided.
Not only did Thibodeau and Layden not need to offer maximum dollars to Wiggins, had they waited until Wiggins was a restricted free agent, the maximum length of a deal he could have signed an offer sheet for was four years. In other words, had the Wolves waited a season, the deal would have been (at most) four years at the maximum — what the Utah Jazz did with Gordon Hayward, who went out and signed an offer sheet with the Charlotte Hornets only to have the contract matched by the incumbent Jazz.
If Thibodeau and Layden would have taken this route, Wiggins would, today, only be on the hook for three more years, rather than the four years and $122 million that remain on this contract. Who knows? The down year Wiggins had in 2017-18 may have driven the offers down even further in his restricted free agency — in both years and dollars.
The Summer of 2018:
- 2018 NBA Draft — Josh Okogie (20th overall) and Keita Bates-Diop (48th overall)
If the Wiggins contract is the black mark on the last three seasons, the 2018 Draft, arguably, receives the gold star on the Thibodeau-Layden transaction list. It’s very difficult to find a player drafted after Okogie or Bates-Diop, respectively, that had a better rookie season than the Wolves’ selections.
Jalen Brunson (33rd overall) and Mitchell Robinson (36th overall) had impressive rookie years. But so did Okogie, who has progressively improved his defense and his ball-control — dribbling and playmaking — on the offensive end. There’s no one picks 48 through 60 who has popped more than Bates-Diop, who is already defending multiple positions effectively and cutting with the intellect of a vet.
“Josh has blossomed into an amazing player we all knew he would be,” said Towns on Tuesday afternoon. “I think he has so much room to grow. And I think it’s going to be such a great offseason for him when he comes back… He’s just scratching the surface.”
“I want him to do a lot of the things that Luol (Deng) does,” Ryan Saunders said last week of Bates-Diop. “If Keita can be a guy that just blends in and be an active cutter, we need guys who are able to make shots with Karl and the attention that Andrew commands when he gets downhill. Just playing within the framework of an offense and being a great defender that can eventually, hopefully, guard 1 through 5.”
It was a great draft, and one that Thibodeau credited Layden with leading the charge on.
- Signing Derrick Rose and Luol Deng for the league minimum
The Rose transaction actually bridges the gap of the 2017 season, when Rose was picked up off the scrap heap after the trade deadline, and the 2018 summer when Rose re-signed for the minimum. From an on-court production standpoint, Rose was excellent when healthy, both seasons. Even with one of the worst individual defensive ratings on the team, Rose’s offensive production more than justified his minimum salary.
The Rose signing is also the opposite of the Butler move in the sense that Thibodeau (and Layden) accurately assessed Rose’s personality to be one that would seamlessly fit in with Towns’ quirky personality.
“He has MVP type of talent,” Rose said of Towns on Monday. “No ands, if or buts about it… Everybody knows that, and everybody knows that we’re playing through him, and he’s the best player on the team.”
Deng was also superb in the 22 games he played this season. He leads the team — by far — in net-rating this season. The Wolves outscored opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions in the 392 minutes Deng played.
- Anthony Tolliver (one year, $5.8 million) signed over retaining Nemanja Bjelica
Tolliver may be a better player than Bjelica, but the decision to sign Tolliver over Bjelica sacrificed the ability to use the little financial flexibility Thibodeau and Layden had last summer. In theory, Bjelica could have been signed, using his Bird Rights, in a manner that would have allowed the Wolves to go over the salary cap. Had they done that, the midlevel exception used on Tolliver could have been used on another position — perhaps a shooter on the wing.
Instead, the Wolves used the majority of their midlevel exception — the $5.8 million Tolliver signed for — on a different type of stretch big than Bjelica. By doing so, the flexibility provided by Bjelica’s Bird Rights was distinguished.
(It is unknown what it would have cost to retain Bjelica. Initially, after having his qualifying offer rescinded by the Timberwolves, Bjelica signed with the Philadelphia 76ers only to pivot to go overseas and then to pivot to the Sacramento Kings on a multi-year deal for $7 million annually. I wrote about this lateral move at length here.)
- Karl-Anthony Towns Designated Rookie Contract Extension — five years, $158 million
The Towns extension is the most meaningful signing of the Thibodeau and Layden regime. Retaining Towns to any deal, at any price, is a win. However, it’s not as if it is rare to give transcendent talents a maximum contract.
Towns signed his max deal, in the fray of the early stages of the Jimmy Butler drama. It was critical for Thibodeau and Layden to retain Towns as they knew Butler was on his way out. In turn, they threw the kitchen sink at KAT, including what functions as a $32 million incentive for making an All-NBA team. If Towns is named to one of the All-NBA teams this spring, his total contract will swell from five years, $158 million to five years, $190 million.
Keeping KAT is huge, but there wasn’t exactly front office ingenuity used in this contract coming to fruition.
The Second Jimmy Butler Trade
- Traded Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick
This midseason trade should also go down as a win. Even if you remove the dark cloud of the drama that comes with Butler, finding a way to not have to pay the 30-year-old the maximum contract — five years, $190 million — he will ask for this summer is a bullet dodged.
To boot, Thibodeau and Layden acquired Covington in the first season of a four-year, $47 million deal — arguably well below his market value, when healthy — and Saric who had two years left on his rookie deal when acquired. Star power was sacrificed by doing what they had to do in trading Butler, but the lack of role players void was filled.
While trading Butler was akin to a root canal for Thibodeau, he did credit the work Layden put in to find a profitable mid-season deal. Layden deserves credit for this move.
There you have it: The Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden Resumé.
April 20, 2019 will mark three years since Thibodeau and Layden took over basketball operations for a franchise with a pubescent roster and extensive financial flexibility. That’s not the case anymore. Naturally, the roster aged and became more and more expensive, but it is fair to argue that this simulation was one of the worst possible outcomes.
All isn’t lost. Hope springs eternal in Towns. But The Summer of 2019 is a tremendously critical juncture for a franchise with only a few darts left to throw. It’s time to stop missing the dart board. The decision on who is going to become the chief decision-maker is about picking the individual who will both have a high hit-rate and the vision to craft a plan.
It is known that Tom Thibodeau, who called the Wolves roster “one of the best young cores” in the NBA,” had trappings on a different Timberbull-flavored plan that didn’t work. The only way to justify keeping Scott Layden is to acknowledge that he has been an expensive remote control for the past three years.
Maybe it’s just me, but when my television broke last year, I threw out the remote, too.
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