The turn of a new year triggers the need to dust off a tool those who follow the Minnesota Timberwolves closely are all too familiar with: The dual lens. Twenty losses in the 2018 calendar year and a 21st Wednesday against the Boston Celtics means it is time to begin looking ahead at 2019 without tethering it to the “2018-” portion. Yes, keeping a watchful eye on the day-to-day development of the team is still important but in addition to the now the later should also begin to be considered.
Assessing the future of a franchise, of course, begins with examining the talent on the roster, but it also is about the financial constructs tied to that talent. For the Wolves, this is a particularly intriguing exercise. The once young — and thus affordable — talent is now in the middle of Step Two of their individual financial processes. Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones are either in the beginning of their first contract that proceeded their rookie scale contract expired or on the precipice of that raise next season.
And Dario Saric is one year away from that raise himself.
For the most part, having young talent locked up is a good thing. But that second contract can also be the most fickle. It’s a deal a player signs not on what they have produced thus far in their career, rather, it’s about what they’re projected to become. With a transcendent player like Towns, this isn’t really a problem at all. Other players, mere mortals, present an unavoidable gamble for their franchise. It’s a poker game played on the move. Life of a growing franchise includes making multiple bets before knowing if their previous ones have cashed or not.
The Wolves are under the gun.
The year of 2019 presents a critical juncture in the game and time to really assess what you’re holding. That assessment often requires both a micro (player-by-player) and macro (team-wide) assessment. So let’s do it. Let’s dig into the questions that will define not only this year but years to come.
First, the big picture; then each player’s financial status individually.
Minnesota Timberwolves Financial Overview
For the 2018-19 season, the Wolves financial reality is pretty well-defined. They have 15 players on NBA contracts that total $118.6 million in salary. Factor in the just over $2 million in dead money being paid to the waived and stretched Kevin Martin — yes, that Kevin Martin — and Cole Aldrich and the Wolves sit snuggled up $2.9 million below the luxury tax line.
That’s a pretty normal reality in today’s NBA. It is next season where things get interesting and, well, abnormal for the Wolves. So this doesn’t feel like a Microsoft Excel 101 course, let’s go through some bullet points of next season’s financial realities.
- The Wolves have eight players under contract for next season — Teague, Wiggins, Covington, Saric, Towns, Okogie, Bates-Diop, Dieng. Those eight players will combine to make $108 million — 99.1 percent of the 2019-20 salary cap ($109 million).
- Having cap space this coming summer is a distant dream. Even if Jeff Teague opts out of his $19 million player option for next season (which we’ll get to), Minnesota wouldn’t just have a $19 million gift card to spend all willy-nilly. Its first-round draft pick this summer would cut into that space, as would the cap holds on the other empty roster spots. With no Teague, the Wolves aren’t looking at much more than $10 million in space.
- The non-taxpayer mid-level exception is their only guaranteed spending tool, and it’s about that $10 million number. The “MLE” can be best thought of as a $9.3 million gift card that every team who isn’t over the luxury tax apron ($138 million next year) has the opportunity to cash in. The expectation should be that this is in the Wolves’ arsenal. So dream as big as four-years, $38.4 million — the maximum MLE, including annual raises.
- The cap holds of Taj Gibson, Tyus Jones and Derrick Rose will need to be the first thing addressed in the offseason. If they delay addressing Gibson or Jones, the Wolves will not have the non-tax MLE to work with because they will be in the luxury tax due to the holds. Rose’s hold is a nominal problem ($1.6 million) as he is making the veteran’s minimum this season.
- Other than minimum contracts or drafting rookies, the only other financial tool the Wolves have in their arsenal this summer is the Bi-Annual Exception. The BAE is a one-year, 3.6 million contract or — at most — two-years, $7.4 million total.
- While eight players under contract feels a bit thin, those eight make up an almost decent rotation before any other moves… Good news!
PG: Jeff Teague; SG: Wiggins and Okogie; SF: Covington; PF: Saric and Bates-Diop; C: Towns and Dieng.
- A huge question looming: Will Glen Taylor approve paying the luxury tax? If the answer is no, then the Wolves front office will need to dance below the $132 million tax line. This could preclude using the MLE or BAE to their fullest powers. It could also determine the ability to re-sign Jones in restricted free agency.
There are almost infinite possibilities as to how the Wolves decide to play this game. But that’s the general picture. To fine-tune some options, let’s go player-by-player.
Individual Player Salary Situations
Andrew Wiggins: Five years, $147.7 million
Wiggins’ 2019-20 salary of $27.5 million next season is, of course, high. Of the 2019 cap, Wiggins will be earning a quarter of it. This presents obvious hindrances, more or less egregious dependent on where you fall on The Wiggins Scale.
Like the 17 other players who are scheduled to make more than Wiggins next season, those players’ franchises are in a position where that player defines so much of their team. There isn’t much to analyze here. It’s a tough spot. But I found some solace in realizing 17 players are making more next season. Here they are:
Steph Curry ($40.2), Russel Westbrook ($38.5), Chris Paul ($38.5), James Harden ($38.2), John Wall ($38.2), LeBron James ($37.4), Blake Griffin ($34.4), Kyle Lowry ($33.5), Paul George ($33.0), Gordon Hayward ($32.7), Mike Conley ($32.5), Kevin Durant ($31.5 player option), Al Horford ($30.1 player option), Damian Lillard ($29.8), Kevin Love ($28.9), DeMar DeRozan ($27.7) and CJ McCollum ($27.6).
See, not all super-duper stars…
Karl-Anthony Towns: One year, $7.8 million; Five years, $158.1 million
This year’s $7.8 million in salary marks the final massive bargain season. Next year is the big spike. The big question that looms is how big will the spike be? The cost of Towns’ extension is dependent on whether he makes an All-NBA team this season. If KAT does grab one of the three center spots, as he did last year (third team), that extension swells to $189.7 million over five years. An extra ~$7 million a year is no small deal for future roster constructions.
Jeff Teague: Two years, $38 million ($19 million player option in 2019-20)
When Jimmy Butler was initially acquired by Tom Thibodeau he had two years remaining on his contract that he originally signed with Chicago Bulls. Gibson signed a deal that matched Butler’s in length (two years, $28 million). And then there was Teague, who signed a two-year deal with — wait for it — a player option in 2019-20. It’s decision time for Jeff.
As it always has been, the assumption remains that Teague will pick up that $19 million option. Even if Teague is ready for his time in Minnesota to come to an end it would still likely be the optimal strategy to pick up the option and then ask to be traded.
One would have to imagine that Teague’s future will be married to the fate of Thibodeau — who may be Teague’s greatest supporter in the league. A different coach may be less enamored with Teague, who will be 31 years old entering the 2019-20 season.
As mentioned above, Teague’s opting out would not create oodles of cap space given the raise Towns is due to receive. The biggest factor of the Teague decision, beyond a point guard just being super important to a team, is that it will likely have a big effect on whether or not Tyus Jones is retained. There is also Rose — an unrestricted free agent at season’s end — who factors in here too.
My bet is on Teague opting in and his future being determined by whether he is traded or not.
Gorgui Dieng: Three years, $48.7 million
Despite Dieng being a seemingly tertiary part of the rotation this season, he is a definitively part of the team’s core in a financial sense. With only two years and $33.5 million left on his deal after this season, it will be interesting to see if his contract becomes more tradeable.
Dieng’s production this season — albeit in a small role — has reminded some that he is still a more than capable rotation piece. The issue is that the salary is high to pay for a backup. And for a team whose best player plays the same positions, the deal is particularly onerous.
If the penance to get off Dieng’s deal decreases with one fewer year on the contract, it will be interesting to see how aggressive the Wolves are. The best — and probably only — path to meaningful cap space this summer comes with Teague opting out and Dieng being salary dumped. If that happens, the Wolves could have upwards of $25 million in space. Whether it is Thibodeau or a new general manager, there will definitely be an assessment of how many future assets are worth attaching to Dieng to create that approximately $25 million.
Taj Gibson: One year, $14 million (unrestricted free agent at season’s end)
Gibson will be the first domino to fall this summer. His cap hold of $18.2 million will need to be renounced before the Wolves can make any other meaningful move. Gibson’s appetite to stay in town is ambiguous, as is his market value.
Any deal Gibson were to sign for here would likely cut into any money they spent using the midlevel exception. Basically, it’s safe to assume there will be a decision to be made between Gibson and the MLE marketplace. One would also have to assume Saric’s presence clouds Gibson’s future further.
Robert Covington: Four years, $46.9 million
When Covington was acquired, the Wolves locked in what will be a primary building block of the future. Covington affordable annual deal — $12.1 million on average through 2021-22 — locks in a third piece to the long, long-term picture. The Wolves will have four players under contract in 2021-22: Towns, Wiggins, Covington and Okogie.
An optimistic way of looking at Wiggins’ deal comes from gluing it to Covington’s. Next season, the Wolves’ wing duo will combine to make $38.8 million. Having just over a third of a team’s salary cap dedicated to its starting wings is definitely reasonable.
Jerryd Bayless: One year, $8.6 million (unrestricted free agent at season’s end)
Bayless has proven to be more than just cap filler in the trade with Philadelphia. The Wolves have leaned on his backup point guard skills out of the necessity provided by injuries this season. Still, he likely isn’t long for this team.
An interesting nugget to Bayless this season is that he could, again, be used as cap filler in a trade. A team that is eager to carve out cap space this summer could desire Bayless’ expiring contract. On Jan. 12, Bayless becomes eligible to again be aggregated in a trade. If the Wolves aggregate Bayless and Anthony Tolliver’s contracts in a trade, the returning player in the deal could be in the $14 million range. Same goes for Bayless and Jones, an $11 million return.
Given the other financial restrictions, the Wolves front office may be hesitant to trade Bayless for a contract that extends beyond this season. His fate may very well just be his deal expiring in Minnesota.
Anthony Tolliver: One year, $5.8 million (unrestricted free agent at season’s end)
Tolliver has taken the brunt force of the Butler trade, striking him out of the rotation due to the presence of Saric. This makes him a more than reasonable trade option. But as it is with Bayless, the Wolves may not want to trade Tolliver’s expiring for long-term money.
Even without a trade, it is hard to see Tolliver returning to Minnesota next season. Perhaps Gibson walks and Tolliver becomes Saric’s backup on a new deal but he would likely appreciate some greater playing time assurances this next time around.
Dario Saric: Two years, $6.0 million
Saric has one year left on his deal beyond this season, and it is for a bargain at $3.5 million. Having a rotation piece — probably a starter — for pennies will be a coup next season. The year after that, however, is a big raise.
The Wolves will have Saric’s restricted free agent rights in the summer of 2020, meaning they can match any offered salary. However, that summer the Wolves will have $91 million committed to just Towns, Wiggins, Dieng, Covington and Okogie. At some point, the Wolves will need to pick and choose their spots with who they pay. In theory, Saric is part of the long-term plan — starting alongside Towns — but the financial pinch is only going to get more real.
Tyus Jones: One year, $2.4 million (restricted free agent at season’s end)
Jones’ future is perhaps the most ambiguous of anyone on the roster. The Wolves will have the right to match any offer he receives on the open market this summer but there will likely be a threshold they won’t exceed.
One line to safely draw is $10 million annually. A handful of Jones’ draft classmates signed rookie contract extensions this past summer for over $10 million. With Jones not receiving an extension, the suggestion is that he is not of that caliber.
My guess has long been something around the $6 million per year line. Would the Wolves pony up $25 million over four years for Jones? To be determined. Probably more than any other decision, Jones’ fate seems tied to Thibodeau’s future with the franchise.
Josh Okogie: Four years, $11.4 million
Ahh, a rookie scale deal. So sweet. The super-cheap $3 million a season Okogie will earn through 2021-22 could be a saving grace in putting together a competitive core under the luxury tax line. His deal also serves as a reminder of how important future first round picks — and hitting on them — is.
Okogie and Covington will combine to make under $15 million each of the next two seasons.
Derrick Rose: One year, $1.5 million (unrestricted free agent at season’s end)
Rose’s health will be a huge factor in the value of his next contract. Duh. Another huge factor is that the Wolves can only pay Rose a maximum of $37.3 million over four years, unless they are to create cap space to pay him even more. As crazy as it sounds, Rose could be “worth” more than that — he’s having that type of year.
The $37.3 million (just over $9 million per season) is the maximum the Wolves can offer because they only have Rose’s early bird rights and not his full bird rights, which would allow them to exceed the cap to pay him anything. If Rose’s market value is over $10 million per year, the Wolves are all but priced out given their lack of cap space.
Rose also has an implicit no-trade clause in his current deal. He could opt to waive that if the Wolves find a suitable destination, but that makes things far trickier for any movement during this season.
Luol Deng: One year, $1.5 million (unrestricted free agent at season’s end)
Deng has served a role as a veteran, end-of-bench presence for this team. His future beyond this season is in question, not just with the Wolves but with any team.
James Nunnally: One year, $1.3 million (non-guaranteed $1.6 million for 2019-20)
Nunnally was signed to a team-friendly deal. The Wolves can opt to waive Nunnally and not be on the hook for what would essentially be the veteran’s minimum if they so choose.
Nunnally’s deal does not fully-guarantee for this season until Jan. 10. If the Wolves choose to waive Nunnally by then, they will not have to pay the remainder of his salary and could create an additional roster spot.
Keita Bates-Diop: Three years, $3.9 million (non-guaranteed third year)
The Wolves used a small portion of last season’s midlevel exception to pay Bates-Diop a little extra money so as to have team control of him for three seasons. While Bates-Diop has not played any sort of meaningful role on the floor this season, he is a potential massive bargain if he proves to be a rotation piece next season. They might need it.