The Minnesota Timberwolves popping up in a report that details interest in the services of restricted free agent point guard D’Angelo Russell is a splash. But in the deconstruction of what the franchise’s financial reality is and through the vision Gersson Rosas has laid out for the team he now commands, the report probably speaks to the philosophical due diligence this new-look front office will employ more than it does any sort of probability that Russell ever dons Timberwolves garb.
That said, it is by no means impossible. Russell could play for the Timberwolves next season.
Rosas, the Wolves new president of basketball operations, spoke incessantly at his introductory press conference on May 7 about a new front office that would be “aggressive,” “creative” and “strategic.” Russell’s name and the Wolves gathering steam in the same sentence is a suggestion that those adjectives have some legs.
“We’re going to be very creative,” said Rosas to gathered reporters back in May. “I think you’re gonna see a different tone from this administration and part of it is gonna be we have to maximize every resource — draft, free agency, trades, what we have on the roster in terms of player development. We have to be creative.”
Rosas also said it was going to be about “action over words.” That described action manifests in the nature of the report provided by Shams Charania of The Athletic, detailing Minnesota’s interest in pursuing Russell. In addition to the Wolves, Charania lists the Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers as the other teams who, currently, comprise the market for Russell.
Sure, the Wolves share a common need at the point guard position with those other three franchises, but a clear differentiator exists: The Wolves have no reasonable path to salary cap space to sign a player of Russell’s status this summer.
In a what is projected to be a $109 million salary cap environment, Utah only has $65.6 million in guaranteed salaries for next season, with Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh expiring, and Derrick Favors’ $16.9 million being non-guaranteed. Orlando faces the unrestricted free agency of Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, leaving them with a fairly flexible $85.1 million in guaranteed salaries. Indiana has six players under contract for next season, totaling a mere $54.9 million in guaranteed salary.
The Wolves are different: Minnesota has $108.7 million in guaranteed salaries on the books for next season, putting the roster $7.1 million over the salary cap when cap hits, roster holds and the 11th pick in this June’s draft are factored in.
Inherently, the lack of financial flexibility of the Wolves compared to the competition in the market suggests Rosas is acting on what he said he would do: be aggressive.
“Anytime a player becomes available, whether it’s free agency and trades or even in the draft. We’re fortunate to have a pick where we’re at, I think that’s an important resource. We’re going to be aggressive,” said Rosas. “How can we get to where we need to get in order to acquire a player at that level is going to be important to us.”
This is where a distinction comes in. Being aggressive in the NBA is not simply defined by the volume or the impact of moves made; instead, aggression is defined by being tenacious about knocking on every door that has the chance of opening. For the Wolves, as it relates to Russell, that knocking would come in the form of attempting to work out a sign-and-trade deal — a particularly aggressive move that is less common in the modern NBA than it was in years past.
The Wolves may be a little more restricted than others in their pursuit of Russell but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a shot. Russell’s status as a restricted free agent and Brooklyn’s positioning in this summer’s free agency creates a friction that makes a sign-and-trade anything but improbable.
For every inch of financial strapping the Wolves face, Brooklyn is unchained. With only $45.4 million in guaranteed salary for next season, the Nets currently have no restrictions on being able to accept the salaries that would be sent back in a sign-and-trade deal. Minnesota has a handful of players with 2019-20 salaries that could be in the range of the first year salary of Russell’s new deal: Andrew Wiggins ($27.5 million), Jeff Teague ($19.0 million), Gorgui Dieng ($16.2 million).
Even if Brooklyn’s dream summer begins to take form and their salary cap space dries up in the presence of, say, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, it still would not be impossible for the Wolves to work out a sign-and-trade for Russell’s services.
For example, if Russell agrees to play on a four-year contract that would pay him $80 million over the duration of the deal, his first season salary could start at $18.6 million, escalating annually up to $80 million. In this specific example with the Nets out of cap space, half of Russell’s new salary would count as outgoing money. Definitely still workable with creativity. Further, and probably more importantly: Wouldn’t Brooklyn landing a superstar in free agency — particularly at the point guard position — make Russell all the more expendable?
It is possible for the Wolves, even in their pinched financial environment, to make a move happen. And it is for these reasons that it makes sense for Rosas and his new-look front office to knock on Brooklyn’s door when the time comes. Recently hired general manager, Sachin Gupta, has earned a sturdy reputation around the league of being an executive with a hunger for leaving no stone unturned in potential acquisitions. And Rosas’ other new hire at the assistant general manager position, Gianluca Pascucci, literally worked with Russell in Brooklyn last season.
“We’re going to explore every resource, whether it’s cap space, whether it’s sign and trades, whether it’s market trades, whatever the case may be, draft trades, we’re looking at everything,” was how Rosas put his vision for the offseason. “We have to utilize every resource, we have to maximize every opportunity. And that’s one thing Timberwolves fans should know — in this office, we’re going to be looking at everything possible to help this team next year.”
Now, just because there is a path for Rosas to pursue Russell doesn’t mean the acquisition is by any means imminent. Again, aggression just means knocking. More than anything, if there is any substantial traction to this report the more important information to glean it is that this type of creative aggression Rosas speaks of is a real thing — theoretically being applied to numerous different potential scenarios that the front office is exploring.
Rosas did not sign Gorgui Dieng to a four-year, $64 million contract extension in the summer of 2016. Rosas isn’t the one who inked Andrew Wiggins to a five-year, maximum contract extension worth $148 million in 2017. And Rosas wasn’t the president of basketball operations who doled out a three-year, $57 million free-agent contract to Jeff Teague after the Wolves traded for Jimmy Butler on draft night 2017. Rosas’ signature is not on the contract of any player on the roster, suggesting there isn’t the same type of marriage to incumbent players that the previous regime may have had.
At both his own introductory press conference and at the presser that introduced Ryan Saunders as the team’s new head coach, Rosas spoke of assessing the entire organization “from the inside-out” — including the roster’s construction.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of system fits,” said Rosas when asked what types of players the franchise needs to add. “I think there’s a lot of diversity in terms of the wing position. There are some questions that we have to answer at the point guard position. At the bigs position, there’s a good strength, there’s good depth there. But a lot of it is going to be what the market bears in terms of trades, what the market bears in terms of free agency.”
Russell plays a position that the 2019-20 Timberwolves need to address. Because of that, it makes sense to pursue the possibility of his acquisition, even if the odds are stacked against Rosas in terms of feasibility. The improbable is worth pursuing. That is the job of a diligent front office.
In the summer of 2012, the Houston Rockets did the improbable: they acquired a 23-year-old, left-handed combo guard who, at the time, was thought to be a critical character in the future of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Out of nowhere, and for a shockingly cheap price, James Harden wound up in Houston. The Thunder chose to invest in two different superstars and Harden was the collateral damage of the movement.
Who knows what Brooklyn will do — ironically — in the pursuit of Durant this summer? There is at least a possibility that Russell is the odd man out in Brooklyn’s movement. If Rosas is, in fact, expressing interest in Russell, he is setting himself up to be a net for Russell to gracefully fall into. Just in case, and just like they did when he was in that Houston front office that acquired Harden.