To land the first overall pick in any draft, a lot has to go wrong.
A 19-45 record would signal the beginning of a complete teardown and rebuild for most teams. The Minnesota Timberwolves brass jumped the gun on that measure in February, but in a pretty unorthodox way. Instead of trading away players in their primes and over the hill veterans for picks and players in their first or second years in the league, the Wolves retained their soon-to-be 25 year old, super-max franchise cornerstone and added a second max player in his mid-20s. They traded Andrew Wiggins, who was on a max contract and massively underperforming, and a first-round pick in the 2021 Draft to get the deal done. A day earlier, the Wolves had added a handful of players about to enter restricted free agency and recouped a 2021 first-rounder from the Atlanta Hawks. The cost was minimal: five largely inconsequential players who no longer fit into the team’s future plans.
Most teams attempt to start a new era by making their initial sweeping changes in a way that lowers roster uncertainty and pushes back important salary cap decisions, at the cost of accepting a longer rebuild timeline. President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas instead signaled that he was okay with accepting a higher variance route in order to keep his franchise cornerstone, Karl-Anthony Towns, in Minnesota. And when these two trades were made, it appeared that the Timberwolves, sitting at 15-35 and in fifth place in the lottery standings, were willing to worsen their draft position in the upcoming 2020 Draft in order to land their man right then and there.
Then, as it always seems to happen, things just broke the wrong way. Towns and his best buddy D’Angelo Russell shared the court for only 25 total minutes because Towns fractured his wrist within a week of Russell’s flight landing and missed the rest of the year. It was another disappointing end of a season for the fifth year pro who blossomed into one of the most dangerous offensive threats among big men in the league, seemingly at the cost of his defensive abilities, which were considered a strength of his coming out of college.
For the second time in the 2019-20 season, Russell found himself surprisingly thrust into a primary role when the original plan called for him to contribute as the secondary scorer. After beginning the year with a depleted Golden State Warriors team, he played about as well as could be reasonably expected of a point guard asked to lead the team while still learning everybody’s names as Towns sat in street clothes on the bench.
The new additions from the Nuggets tore it up on their new team, with Malik Beasley shooting 43% from three and averaging 20 points a night, while his less-hyped travel companion and reclamation project Juan Hernangomez shot 42% from deep and showed glimpses that he could be a starter in this league.
The good news ends there, unfortunately. Both of them are restricted free agents this offseason and their agents will be happy to leverage both their solid play and the fact that Minnesota just gave up assets to get both of them here in their quest to get as much money as possible. The fact that the Timberwolves lost 10 of the 14 games these two played in will likely be chalked up to KAT’s injury and the roster turnover.
Rounding out the key long-term players within the organization are Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver, two wing defenders still on their rookie deals. Okogie became a fan favorite for his explosive effort on both ends during his rookie season, but despite becoming a more consistent finisher, it was troubling to see his already lackluster three-point shooting took a small step back in his sophomore season, going from 28% to 27%.
On the other hand, Jarrett Culver, the quiet late-bloomer from Texas Tech who arrived in Minnesota due to a very publicly botched draft day trade, had more bright spots than his numbers would suggest, but underwhelmed for a sixth overall pick in his rookie campaign.
Jake Layman, a 2019 free agency signee, also warrants mention here. The 26-year old was arguably the canary in the coal mine for the Timberwolves’ season: When Layman went down in mid-November, the Wolves were 8-6, and his absence was visible as the team struggled to replace his scoring punch and general proficiency with their remaining bench players. However, it’s hard to imagine that the Wolves would feel the same attachment to Layman as they do Okogie or Culver, not to mention Towns. He’s useful and locked up until 2022 on a team-friendly deal, but it would be a reach to say he’s essential so early into his Minnesota tenure.
And then on Aug. 20 the ping pong balls bounced Minnesota’s way. In what appears to be a very weak and uncertain draft class, the Wolves lucked into the first overall pick.
Certainly a fan should always root for their teams to get as high of a draft pick as possible, but if given the choice between drafting first overall in this class or another, yet to be determined future class, league insiders have consistently voiced their support for kicking the can down the road. And now, in absence of a clear top prospect to take and already facing salary decisions that will affect what they look like in 2022, 2023 and probably even 2024, and literally no sample size of what their current starting five look like playing together to help make those salary decisions, the Wolves sit at a series of massive crossroads.
Should they trade it with the knowledge that they’re getting something of value in return? Grab a player who has the highest chance to contribute in a weak draft class and might blossom into an All-Star? Swing for the fences, acknowledging that Towns and Russell are paid like perennial All-NBA First or Second Teamers, but have won a total of two playoff games in 10 combined seasons?
Should they sell on Okogie or Culver and hope that we aren’t kissing goodbye to this generation’s Chauncey Billups, or hold onto them like libertarian cryptocurrency hoarders, convinced that Culver Coin and Okogie Cash are going to make them rich?
And what should the Wolves do when it comes to potentially signing Beasley and Hermangomez? In the case of Beasley especially, can you afford not to? Does paying either of those two influence what you do with the first overall pick? Common sense dictates that it would be hard to squeeze both a Beasley deal and an incoming contract of a player who is worthy of being traded for a first overall pick onto the salary books of a team that already has two max contract players.
We’ve got a hectic off-season ahead of us. In the coming months, I’ll try to answer as many of these questions as I can.