Timberwolves

Another Loading Error?: Timberwolves Pivot to Malik Beasley in Robert Covington Trade

Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Remember life before Netflix was a thing? If you wanted to watch a movie immediately, well, you were at the mercy of cable television. What does TBS have on? What about TNT? Two different Nicolas Cage movies!? I guess we’re watching “National Treasure” again.

That’s what the Minnesota Timberwolves pursuit of D’Angelo Russell had begun to feel like — repetitive consumption of the same tired storyline. Gersson Rosas’ never-ending treasure hunt that theoretically ended by stealing Russell away from the Golden State Warriors. To land D’Lo would be Rosas’ declaration of independence; it would finally be his “actions over words” motto brought to life — a signature move that shows the Minnesota Timberwolves are, in fact, doing things his way, with the pieces that he sees befitting a roster headlined by Karl-Anthony Towns.

That all changed late Tuesday evening. Rosas’ tireless pursuit of Russell either paused or folded in what became a 12-player, four-team trade that turned Robert Covington into something very different than D’Lo.

THE TRADE(S)

The trade with Denver, Atlanta and Houston, left the Wolves acquiring the following: Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Jarred Vanderbilt (all from Denver) and Evan Turner from Atlanta. The Wolves also received Brooklyn’s 2020 first round pick (lottery protected) via Atlanta. The cost was Robert Covington, Keita Bates-Diop, Shabazz Napier, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh. A little on each piece:

  • Brooklyn’s 2020 First Round Pick (lottery protected) — If the season ended today, that pick would be No. 16 overall in this summer’s draft. It wouldn’t be inconceivable for Brooklyn to fall out of the playoffs and into the lottery, but unlikely. Currently, Brooklyn is the 7th seed, 4.5 games ahead of the 9th seed Chicago Bulls. FiveThirtyEight gives Brooklyn an 85% chance of making the playoffs. If that happens, the pick would roll over to 2021.
  • Malik Beasley — Beasley, a 6’5″ wing, is the best player asset in the deal for Minnesota. The 2016 first-round pick (No. 19 overall) is in the final year of his rookie deal, making him a restricted free agent this summer. A lot more on Beasley below.
  • Juancho Hernangomez — Hernangomez is a 6’9″ forward, also a first round pick in 2016 (No. 15 overall). He too is in the final year of his rookie deal, so a restricted free agent at season’s end, too. Hernangomez had a volatile role in Denver this season, largely influenced by the health of Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, and impacted by the explosion of Michael Porter Jr. onto the scene.
  • Jarred Vanderbilt — Vanderbilt, a 6’9″ 21-year-old big, was drafted 41st overall and immediately traded to Denver on Draft Night in 2018. He’s a big who has only played 103 total minutes in two seasons for Denver. Vanderbilt is under contract for next season, but his $1.7 million in salary is non-guaranteed.
  • Evan Turner — Turner was the second overall pick in the 2010 draft and is now 31 years old. He’s been bouncing around the league since signing four-year, $70 million deal in the spend-happy summer of 2016. Like Beasley, Hernangomez and Vanderbilt, Turner has no guaranteed money on the books for next season. Turner’s $18.6 million salary is expiring. If the Wolves do not buy him out, theoretically they could bring him back next season using his bird rights.
  • Robert Covington — Wolves fans know Covington’s value to be positive — both on the floor and in terms of his team-friendly contract ($12.1 million in 2020-21, $13.0 million in 2021-22). He’s one of the league’s premier 3+D assets. The Wolves hoped to get two first-round picks in a trade for Covington, and wound up with only one and the pu pu platter of expiring young pieces. Part of the reason the Wolves moved on from Covington, outside of looming concerns about the long-term health of his knee, is that he hasn’t proven to be a presence on the floor that elevates Towns’ defensive output. One of the most concerning numbers this season connected to Covington is the Wolves having a defensive rating of 117.0 in the 747 minutes he shared the floor with Towns. As far as team defensive ratings go, the Washington Wizards have the worst defense in the NBA, and it’s more efficient than the Wolves have been with Covington and Towns on the floor (116.3). So much of that falls on Towns but Covington did not prove to magically cover-up Towns’ warts in the ways Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince did during Towns’ rookie year. All that said, the return is a bit underwhelming for a player of Covington’s caliber and asset status. ESPN graded the trade as a B- for the Timberwolves.
  • Keita Bates-Diop — KBD was the Wolves only other clear-cut positive asset sent out in the trade. The 24-year-old combo forward was proving to be an NBA-caliber player this season, and he is under contract next season for $1.7 million (non-guaranteed). Ultimately, Bates-Diop was a player drafted by the Tom Thibodeau regime, and thus not a “Rosas guy” — illustrated by the fact that KBD began the season in the G-League and only was inserted into the rotation after Jake Layman went down with a toe injury.
  • Jordan Bell — Bell was re-routed to Houston in this trade. He can also be viewed as a positive asset dependent on one’s view of the value of his restricted free agent status this summer. That value was not clear to the Wolves. Bell received DNPs in nearly half of the team’s games this season, and the many of his 235 minutes played this season came in garbage time. When given the rare chance to play alongside Towns, the duo was successful, though. In 102 minutes, the Towns-Bell pairing had a net-rating of plus-8.9 — the best point differential for Towns and any of the 11 teammates he’s shared the floor with for over 100 minutes this season.
  • Shabazz Napier — Napier started 22 games for the Wolves this season. He also came off the bench 14 times and missed another 13 games with injury/illness. On the final year of a contract with a near-minimum salary, Napier was an asset this season but not going forward. The Wolves could have re-signed him this summer, but that would have been another Tyus Jones “let the market decide” situation. Napier’s presence will be missed in the locker room and at the currently vacant point guard position.
  • Noah Vonleh — The Wolves were initially interested in signing Vonleh to a multi-year contract this summer, but Vonleh bet on himself and decide to take a one-year deal for close to the veteran’s minimum. As it turned out, Vonleh found himself in a big-man logjam, buried behind Towns and Gorgui Dieng. With Ryan Saunders largely going with one big rotations, Vonleh was all but prohibited from playing with Towns. The duo only shared the floor for 25 of Vonleh’s 347 minutes this season.

In the end, the Wolves moved Covington for one first-round pick that will likely fall somewhere in the late teens. Additionally, they picked up two intriguing young pieces on expiring contracts in Beasley and Hernangomez, along with a flier to be taken on Vanderbilt. The dismissal of Bates-Diop, Napier, Bell and Vonleh will likely cost the Wolves wins. For the purposes of elevating their own draft pick this summer, this is beneficial. The Wolves currently have the fifth-worst record in the league — tied in the win column with New York, two wins ahead of Atlanta and Cleveland, and three wins ahead of Golden State. What negative impact the increased likelihood of losing games will have on Towns is another potential cost though.

Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

WHAT MALIK BEASLEY BRINGS

To reiterate: Beasley, 23, is a 6’5″ wing who was selected 19th overall in the 2016 draft by Denver. This puts him in the final year of his rookie deal, meaning he will be a restricted free agent this summer. Much like the Allen Crabbe trade, the Wolves trading for Beasley will serve as a trial run for potentially retaining him next season with his Bird Rights. (Bird Rights allow a team to re-sign their incumbent free agent, even if the player’s new contract pushes the incumbent team over the salary cap.) Beasley turned down a three-year, $30 million contract extension from Denver this summer.

After having a breakout season in 2018-19, Beasley’s production has fallen off this season. The new presence of Michael Porter Jr. and improved play from Will Barton has led to an inconsistent role for Beasley this year. It’s also slid him into more of a shooting guard role, according to CleaningTheGlass. CTG suggests Beasley’s best play came from playing small forward last season.

Beasley’s game is that of a microwave scorer. Much like Russell would have, Beasley is very likely to actively hurt the Wolves on defense. But that scoring last season was elite; he averaged 1.223 points per shot attempt — placing him in the 94th percentile of all scorers in the league, per CTG. His game this season hasn’t changed, the efficiency has just regressed.

Some combination of Andrew Wiggins, Jarrett Culver, Jordan McLaughlin and Evan Turner will theoretically fill the primary ball-handling duties going forward, and Beasley will be a spot-up piece around that lead guard. Beasley has made 40.5% of 111 spot-up 3-point attempts he’s taken this season, only a slight downtick from the 42.2% he shot on spot-ups last year on a massive 329 attempts. He has fed off of Nikola Jokic‘s passing ability from the top of the key since Jokic became the quarterback of the Denver offense. Beasley often functioned as a secondary option when defenses overreacted to option one.

He’s also really effective in launching himself from the corners, even without a pindown screen. The combination of his speed and footwork make him a threat from all over the perimeter.

Beasley is less of an all-the-way-to-the-rim guy than Wiggins or Culver are, preferring to pull-up from midrange. Nearly a fifth of his shot attempts this season have been pull-up 2s, where he’s made only 38.6% of those looks (down from 43.9% last year).

As far as getting to the rim goes, that’s where Beasley’s production has fallen off most. He’s only made 52.1% of his shots from the restricted area this season (very bad), down from 66.3% last year (very good). This famous Zion Williamson block play is actually a pretty good example of Beasley’s physical shortcomings when attacking the rim. Bump Beasley’s body at all and he slows down, forcing him to release the ball late and low.

Defensively, every stat indicates that Beasley is a turnstile; he graded out 99th of 102 shooting guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus stat in 2018-19 and is currently ranked 76th of 129 at the position this season. In going through some clips of opponents scoring against Denver, plays like this — where Beasley looks confused about what exactly his job is — are not uncommon. He’s one of those guys who is clearly trying, but the game doesn’t seem to move like his mind guesses it will.

Denver didn’t move on from Beasley because they didn’t like him; they did so because they weren’t going to be able to afford him this summer. Denver has $109 million of next season’s $115 million salary cap already committed to just seven players. Moving on from Beasley (and Hernangomez) hints that they are prioritizing bringing back one (or multiple) of their other free agents — Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig. If they already knew they were not going to retain Beasley this summer, recouping assets now is valuable. The positive this season impact Napier, Vonleh and Bates-Diop could provide is more valuable to Denver than it would be to Minnesota.

LONG-TERM IMPACT

Financially, the Wolves got off of Covington’s $12.1 million for next season and $13.0 million for the year after that. Not ideal salary to be rid of but flexibility nonetheless. Outside of Covington, the Wolves took back a non-guaranteed $1.7 million in Vanderbilt — the same non-guaranteed salary as Bates-Diop. A push there because everyone else in the deal, on both sides, is expiring.

The potential for fallout is with Towns, who referred to Covington as his “best friend on the team” on Monday when asked about Covington potentially being traded. In that same interview, he told reporters he would not interject with the front office and their dealings of Covington or any other players.

“My job title is to be a basketball player,” Towns said. “My job is not to make decisions roster-wise or anything like that.”

That sort of explains these Instagram complaints(?) from Tuesday night.

The risk of trading Covington was always the impact it could have on Towns. In having seen the two interact, it’s abundantly clear that they were extremely close. They were friends, but it was more of a big brother-little brother dynamic in my view. KAT, five years Covington’s junior, looked up to RoCo. It always made some sense to trade Covington eventually — he didn’t meet Towns’ timeline. But from a controlling emotions in the locker room standpoint, making that move was always assumed to connect to Towns landing another buddy that would keep him happy; Russell the obvious corollary.

No matter how high you are on Beasley, Hernangomez or the value of the Brooklyn pick, that part of the trade is missing. Beasley and Hernangomez are Towns’ age but do not have the high-end upside Rosas always said he was looking for. It’s likely that this massive move ends up being but a few blots on Rosas’ ever-evolving canvas. Still, the Wolves end the night down the best asset in the trade. We’ll see if Rosas continues to Treasure Russell or if he moves on to a new blockbuster.

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