LAS VEGAS — This was always going to be a wild summer for the NBA at-large. But in Minnesota, it was hard to track a path for the Timberwolves getting into the fray. Even though nearly half of the roster was set to become a free agent this summer, the Wolves’ books were still stuffed — brimming over the salary cap once Karl-Anthony Towns’ five-year, $158 million contract took effect.
The construction of the roster and the salaries connected to it suggested a conservative summer was not only reasonable but the most likely path. Something that looked like adding a lottery pick, a handful of players for around the minimum and then maybe nabbing a player with the $9.3 million mid-level exception.
But the logic of that idea was pushed way to the side as a new narrative began to form when Gersson Rosas walked through the door suggesting a new path. Time and again since his hiring, Rosas has banged the “aggression” gong, suggesting this new administration would have a “different tone” than previous regimes.
His words — Rosas said, “we’re going to be very aggressive,” the day he was introduced. And he inflated that ideology further when he said this summer was about “building the core of the team” with a focus on acquiring “high-end” talent.
A match was lit beneath this new narrative when, very early in the offseason, the first report surfaced of the Wolves’ interest in D’Angelo Russell — a 23-year-old high-end talent who would seamlessly fit in as the co-pilot of the KAT core.
Gasoline was applied when it became no secret that Rosas and his new, trade-savvy front office were applying 94 feet of pressure on Russell. It was on. The fanbase familiarized themselves with how even a team as capped out as the Wolves could use a sign-and-trade to loophole themselves into Russell. The prevailing sentiment: We’ve got KAT, it’s D’Lo, you gotta do it.
Towns himself was even using a megaphone. It all seemed like, well, it was happening.
But then it didn’t happen. Russell has now officially been traded to the Golden State Warriors, where he can not be traded again until Dec. 15. And now the Wolves are here.
Where, though, is “here” exactly? Well, here is back to that same place they were supposed to be. That fairly boring reality of Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng commanding $62.7 million in salary for next season. A figure that when coupled with Towns’ maximum deal makes it exceedingly difficult to do anything to the roster beyond, again, rounding out the roster with near-minimum contracts and maybe using the $9.3 million mid-level exception on a free agent.
Unless… a new, different trade is coming.
Here in Las Vegas for Summer League, on Saturday afternoon, Rosas said “definitely” when I asked him if the plan was still to remain aggressive.
“I think you can’t get tied up or married to the rosters on July 6 or whatever day it is today. This is an ongoing process, especially for us,” said Rosas. “We’re not done working. And we’re not done making moves.”
The question for Rosas, now — and one he is wise to not answer directly — is what aggression means. What does he mean exactly when he doubled down on the aggression sentiment this afternoon as he said, “Just know that whenever those players become available, and we feel like they’re fits for our system and our program and our vision, we’re aggressively looking to acquire those guys in any shape or form.”
Back at his first press conference in May, Rosas said that player was going to be the “primary” focus. And separately, he said, that “secondarily I think you’re going to see a lot of system fits, where this team is based on where we want to go.”
So, the question becomes, when Rosas said secondarily, did he mean system fits are plan B? Or, did he mean that those pieces are Part B of a two-part plan that he is working out of order? A plan that requires a Part A of landing a stud? There’s a difference.
The system fits for around the minimum, via the avenue of Jordan Bell, Noah Vonleh and Jake Layman, are here. Whatever is next will be telling. And knowing what exactly that will be is tough to decipher.
Is a different, but equally flashy, version of a D’Lo trade coming? Or is it just that the boring, expected path of signing one more role player with that mid-level exception?
The free agent market may have dried up but it feels like the trade market could be just warming up. The league is currently in the aftershock stage of the earthquake that just hit Los Angeles, and that could leave some foundational pieces floating around, waiting to be claimed. Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal come to mind.
One thing that should change the calculus, now, in a move of aggression is that acquiring said high-end talent will come with a different cost. Now, the price will likely be a positive asset that is already on the Wolves roster, one league executive told ZoneCoverage.
That wasn’t the case in the unique D’Angelo Russell situation. In the sign-and-trade path for Russell, Rosas would have likely had to kick a future first to Brooklyn for facilitating the deal while also attaching another first to Teague, Wiggins or Dieng to dump their money on another team. (Those were the prices Golden State paid — sending a future first to Brooklyn and a future first to Memphis for absorbing Andre Iguodala’s contract.)
Now, with the sign-and-trade avenue dead for the Wolves, Rosas is likely looking at Robert Covington as that core asset. ESPN reported on July 4 that Covington is a player league executives believe is being shopped by Minnesota.
Trading Covington would be bold — even if it were for a player that is the caliber of Russell. The briefly opened window that provided a peek into the Towns and Covington pairing was quite the sight. So nice that it could be argued that swapping Covington for anyone that doesn’t represent a bonafide star could actually be a step in the wrong direction.
The sign-and-trade option for Russell was just smoother. In needing to move on from Russell to create cap space for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Brooklyn was willing to negotiate on a different plane than, say, the Washington Wizards would. Sure, Beal is by most accounts a superior player to Russell, but that negotiation would likely be different because Washington does not need to let Beal go in the way Brooklyn was ready to cut ties with Russell.
I highly doubt Washington would facilitate a deal to move on from Beal — who has a comfortable two years and $56 million left on his deal — for a mere future first-round pick. And what about the money Minnesota would need to send back? What type of premium would the Wizards charge for taking on the sub-optimal contracts of Wiggins, Teague or Dieng? It’s a lot harder to loop in a third team now to absorb that salary fodder. The cap space league-wide is all but gone.
A different Russell, Russell Westbrook, is now available, according to ESPN, who is reportedly working with Oklahoma City to find him a new home. Theoretically, for the Wolves, the pursuit of Westbrook, and working with Oklahoma City, would more parallel a Russell deal with Brooklyn. Negotiating with a team that is actively trying to move on from a player presents a different negotiation process.
Westbrook’s contract adds another multi-faceted wrinkle. The point guard turning 31 in November is set to earn $38.5 million next season in a deal that will pay him $171.1 million over the next four seasons. If Rosas does, in fact, have an appetite to acquire a second star by any means necessary, that swollen contract presents an opportunity. It’s irrational to label Westbrook’s contract as a value, meaning it wouldn’t necessarily need a bevy of assets attached to it. Oklahoma City may just be looking to take back palatable salary that matches Westbrook’s figure.
Wiggins’ contract may not meet that criterion on the surface, but his youth would be attractive to a team moving into a full rebuild. The Wolves could match Westbrook’s salary with Wiggins and one of Teague, Dieng or Covington.
Finding a fair compensation package along those lines complicates the already wonky fit of Westbrook. Yes, Rosas said he is looking for a high-end talent but he also made it clear that the talent must match the team’s system and vision. Westbrook wouldn’t exactly help the Wolves’ shooting woes and he’s also seven years KAT’s elder — just like Jimmy Butler was.
My best guess would be that the contingency plan of rounding out the roster in a not-so-sexy way is not contingent on the Wolves landing a star. It seems very reasonable that this could very well wind up being a summer where the Wolves are speculated to maybe-sorta-kinda have interest in every flashy guard that becomes half-available only to end up bringing back Tyus Jones.
“Free agency can be a hard place to live,” Rosas said Saturday. “The reality is that you have your plans in place, you have to do what you can to execute those plans and then you have to have backup plans. But, for us, we’re not gonna overreact, we’re not gonna panic.”
It feels important to remember, even in a league that has tectonically shifted, that before all the noise turned microphone-infused fire, that working on the margins was a reasonable summer for the Wolves. If Rosas demands a strategy of coloring outside of the lines just because that’s what he said he would do, that could make an underwhelming summer a bad one for the Wolves. Free agency can be a hard place to live.