The Timberwolves’ Financial Landscape After the Jeff Teague Decision

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Teague opting in for his $19 million player option in the 2019-20 season is the first domino tipping over in what will be a Minnesota Timberwolves offseason defined by how the front office manages the team’s minimal financial flexibility. Now, between just eight guaranteed contracts, the Wolves will enter free agency over the league’s projected salary cap of $109 million for the 2019-20 season.

Andrew Wiggins ($27.5 million), Karl-Anthony Towns ($27.3 million), Teague ($19 million), Gorgui Dieng ($16.2 million), Robert Covington ($11.3 million), Dario Saric ($3.5 million), Josh Okogie ($2.5 million) and Keita Bates-Diop ($1.4 million) are on the books for a guaranteed $108.7 million next season. That number overflows to just over $109 million when the $685,000 cap hit of Cole Aldrich’s waived and stretched salary is tacked on.

Aldrich’s hit expires after 2020-21.

Additionally, the current $109.4 million could jump up further to $114.8 million if Towns is voted on to one of the league’s three All-NBA teams.

With all of that, Teague’s decision to return snuggles the Wolves $22.3 million below the league’s projected luxury tax line of $132 million if Towns does not make All-NBA and $17.2 million below if Towns does receive the incentive.

The All-NBA teams are scheduled to be announced on June 24 — six days before the 2019 free agency period is set to begin.

That $22.3 million or $17.2 million number will be squeezed down further when the Wolves select a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft (June 20). The Wolves have a 13.9 percent chance of jumping into one of the top four slots if they find some lottery night luck, but their most likely position to draft is 10th. With that pick, the draft pick’s first-year salary would be $3.8 million — dropping the Wolves’ space under the luxury tax line to just $18.5 million (without All-NBA for Towns) or $13.4 million (with All-NBA for Towns).

Those figures are, also, before negotiations begin with any of the team’s incumbent unrestricted free agents — Taj Gibson, Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Tolliver, Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. Tyus Jones is also a restricted free agent. For both types of free agents, if they are brought back, their new salary will cut into those $18.5 million or $13.4 million numbers.

This all means that it is probably time for the (maybe new) front office to get creative.

The new President of Basketball Operations likely has to cut salary

Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Whoever receives the duties of chief decision-maker of roster construction — whether that be incumbent general manager, Scott Layden, or someone else that is handed the reigns — will face the reality that making any real change will necessitate a trade that cuts salary.

As an example, let’s assume the KAT makes All-NBA reality here — again, $13.4 million of space below the luxury tax line. This reality has nine players under contract (eight incumbent, one rookie), meaning, at least, five roster spots still need to be filled. Simply signing five players for the veteran minimum next season ($1.6 million) would eat up $8.1 million of the $13.4 million in space.

That would be extremely conservative, and not exactly building for the future, as they say. Instead, if it is deemed that beginning to craft the roster of the future is step one for the new POBO is knocking on all of the trade doors.

This process likely will bring the decision-maker back to Jeff Teague. There are more onerous contracts on the books than Teague’s — Dieng has two years and $33.5 million left on his deal and Wiggins has four years and $122.3 remaining on his maximum salary. But it is Teague’s deal that is likely the most tradeable given the single year that remains on the deal. Teague is also, even after an injury-riddled season, the most productive player of the trio.

That said, Teague’s $19 million is nowhere near what he would receive on the open market if he were a free agent this summer — evidenced by his wasting no time in opting into his player option. Because of this, moving Teague will likely require additional compensation heading out the door with him in a trade.

That compensation can take two basic forms: Attaching an asset to him or taking back another contract similarly onerous. Because it is now officially the season of semi-educated guesses, here are a few hypothetical scenarios that highlight the two ways of creating space:

Jeff Teague and a second round pick for Dante Exum

The Utah Jazz meet the loose criteria of a team who could be interested in Teague’s services: substantial flexibility below the salary cap and a potential need at point guard.

The Jazz have only $65.6 million in guaranteed salary dedicated to seven players on the books for next season, meaning they have the flexibility to absorb substantially more money than they send out in a trade. Additionally, Utah’s starting point guard — Ricky Rubio — is a free agent at season’s end. (Don’t worry, the irony of a functional Rubio-for-Teague swap is not lost on me.)

Dante Exum has been the Mr. Glass of the NBA during his young career, playing in only 122 total games over the past four seasons. This lack of health combined with his contract — two more years at $9.6 million annually — make Exum far more expensive than his production suggests. The ideal match for a Teague trade.

With Exum 140 days younger than Wiggins and 125 days older than Towns, he fits the Wolves “age curve” far better than Teague does. Also, if the new POBO isn’t interested in Mr. Glass, Exum could be re-routed to a third team — perhaps in a separate transaction for an even cheaper player, creating even more financial flexibility.

The Wolves do not have their own second-round pick in this summer’s draft but do own the rights to the Miami Heat’s second (43rd overall). Whether that second round pick or any second would be enough penance to pay for Teague and his salary would lie in the eyes of Utah’s whip-smart front office.

Jeff Teague and a future first-round pick in a salary dump to the New York Knicks or Los Angeles Lakers

The straight salary dump path would hurt the Wolves more in terms of attached compensation, and will likely be far more difficult to execute than another deal that returns salary. That said, there are teams out there this summer with a ton of cap space and an even bigger appetite for using it.

The Knicks and Lakers have their eyes set on using their cap space this summer on landing two stars. Teague presents a not-so-great backup plan for a team who doesn’t hit two home runs; his expiring contract would essentially roll over the cap space to the next season while also providing competent starting point guard play for a year.

The Wolves attaching a first round pick could also be a needle-mover for New York or Los Angeles in having an additional asset in their pursuits of Anthony Davis. The Wolves giving up the 10th overall pick in this draft would feel like a lot, but a cap space gift card of $19 million is valuable for them, too. There’s some sort of negotiation that could make sense here. Maybe the Knicks throw Allonzo Trier (one year, $3.5 million) back in the exchange.

Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Handing the reins to Tyus?

Trading Teague, even if it were in a straight salary dump, does lead to a game of Whac-a-Mole. Think about it, paint the perfect picture: KAT does not make All-NBA (-$5.4 million) and Teague is dumped (-$19 million) along with the first-round pick (-$3.8 million) for no money in return. Even in that scenario, the Wolves still have $90.4 million on the books only now they only have seven players under contract. The league requires teams to have roster holds on empty roster spots, so even in this barren scenario, the Wolves would only have about $14 million in cap space to go sign a free agent.

However, doing so would require the Wolves to renounce their rights on all of their free agents, including Tyus Jones — the most logical replacement for Teague. Choose to hand Jones a contract for $6 million annually and almost half that cap space is gone with still only eight players under contract, including a single point guard. Even if the new POBO is alright with extending Jones’ role, another point guard would need to be acquired.

In other words, removing Teague from the books would not create substantial space under the cap, it would just give the Wolves the freedom to use the midlevel exception. For those unfamiliar, every team in the league that is under the luxury tax line receives the ability to use the midlevel exception. I like to refer to the MLE as a $9.2 million gift card that can be spent all in one place or split up into multiple pieces.

Without Teague, even if Jones is retained, it is very plausible that the midlevel would need to be used on a point guard to shore up depth. While having Jones and, say, Cory Joseph — the Indiana Pacers unrestricted free agent point guard — may sound better than rolling with Teague, almost all of the financial flexibility created would have been repurposed back into a still unremarkable point guard position. Which is to say, dumping Teague isn’t some sort of cure-all, it’s just a band-aid.

There are, of course, many different paths the Wolves can take if they are able to rid themselves of Teague but none of them create tons of financial oxygen — the Dieng and Wiggins contracts are still suffocating. It will be fascinating to see what the new POBO’s desire for air is. It is that threshold that will determine Teague’s fate.

What we do know is that Teague opting in for his final season tightens the screws. His trade market is yet to be determined but it is the next question mark that should be addressed. The Wolves offseason begins with weighing that decision. How valuable are the assets that would need to be attached to Teague to move him compared to the financial flexibility that would be created?

The biggest factor tied to this is how comfortable the new POBO is with handing the reigns over to Jones. Any logical mind that comes in to call the shots will intensely look at the point guard position because whoever that player is will have a massive impact on the franchise’s superstar cornerstone, Towns.

The first domino has fallen; it’s time to hire a POBO and get to work.

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