Since 1990, the first overall pick in the NBA draft has been traded for a veteran player exactly one time: In 2014, when the Wolves sent disgruntled Kevin Love to Cleveland in return for Andrew Wiggins and assorted pieces.
Two things have been clear in the six years since that trade:
First, five years and $172 million in contracts signed later, “Maple Jordan” was clearly not the franchise savior for Minnesota that he was talked up to be.
Second, though it would never have worked in Minnesota for a myriad of reasons, Love was an integral part of the Cavaliers 2016 championship run. It’s hard to envision Cleveland going to the Finals for four straight years without him, and his switched-out defense on Steph Curry in the final seconds of Game 7 has gone down as one of the great defensive big-on-little stands in NBA history.
Regardless, the winner of that post-draft, pre-season trade was easy to see: The Cavaliers made off like bandits, trading hype for a guaranteed acquisition of a perennial All-Star at a position of great need.
For the situation in Cleveland that summer, chaotic doesn’t even start to describe it. After getting nowhere in a post-LeBron rebuild led by Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, LeBron’s surprise homecoming meant that this Cavs team was now looking to make win-now moves, and within LeBron’s rigid team construction needs. The Cavaliers needed a stretch power forward, and already had a roster stuffed to the brim with young shot creating perimeter players. The Wiggins for Love trade was a gamble, but it directly fit their team’s largest need, and they were working on a finite window with their existing talent. Plus, Wiggins’ projected fit was far from seamless.
In the abstract, the 2020 Offseason Wolves aren’t too different from the 2014 Offseason Cavaliers, sans a kingly exception. Minnesota has a lot of money allocated to their offensive superstars, and Karl-Anthony Towns has very specific needs. The Wolves have also invested heavily into a shot-creating guard, but D’Angelo Russell has very minimal playoff success and is far from a positive defender.
So, who would make sense with this team as it’s currently constructed? The two non-negotiables have to be that this player has to be a plus defender, and it has to be a player who is okay with taking a facilitating role for both Towns and Russell. It would also be a plus if he is also a strong driving presence and is able to capably handle the basketball.
Luckily for the Timberwolves, there is a player of these abilities who might be available. However, it would certainly be a home run swing with potential for a whiff. And, due to his noted shooting woes and poor fit on his existing team, this player might be the perfect buy-low candidate.
If Ben Simmons is in fact available, and the Wolves can pull off landing him with the No. 1 overall pick being the crown jewel of the package, the Wolves need to pull the trigger on that deal. A popular trade package that I have seen floated around is the first overall pick, James Johnson ($16 million player’s option for ‘20-21) and either Josh Okogie or Jarrett Culver. If the Philadelphia 76ers wanted both Okogie and Culver so be it — as much as it would hurt to lose both players.
The Wolves would be buying low on Simmons, the player most similar to reigning-MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the entire league. Once the Milwaukee Bucks realized the power of pace-and-space around a big, athletic, ball-handling point guard like Giannis, they’ve ridden that formula to the best record in the NBA in each of the last two seasons. Instead of relying on streaky-shooting Brook Lopez for spacing, who has made 35% of his threes on about five and a half attempts a night during his time in Milwaukee, the Wolves would be pairing their Giannis clone with KAT, the best shooting center in the world.
And instead of leaving secondary playmaking responsibilities with the poor-shooting Eric Bledsoe, the Wolves would be leaving them with the complementary skill set of D’Angelo Russell, allowing for lineup flexibility and keeping Russell happy with ample lead ball-handling duties in the Simmons-less minutes. Also, where better to hide Simmons’ poor shooting ability than with a team that already has two legitimately fantastic-shooting stars in Towns and Russell? Even with Simmons coming on board, the team could conceivably still be in a position to retain Malik Beasley in restricted free agency to secure three of the four spacers that Simmons would need to operate in a Giannis-lite capacity.
Simmons’ benefit would be felt not only on the offensive side, but also defensively too. Simmons is one of the few legitimately great lock-down perimeter defenders in the NBA, and his ability to jump passing lanes on the perimeter and act as emergency rim protector against driving guards makes him a truly unique defender. Given Towns’ defensive problems, having a strong point-of-attack defender could go a long way towards hiding him in pick and roll. As for Russell, Simmons would be a security blanket who would guarantee Russell is allowed to be hidden on the worst offensive perimeter player on the floor at all times.
Now, pushing all the chips in on a KAT and Russell-centric team will come with far, far less guarantees by way of contending chances than any LeBron-led team, but this is kind of polarizing decision point that this organization backed itself into. I’ll look more into the presumed top picks in the coming weeks, but none of them figure to gel well with the established Towns and Russell, and attempting to fire sale on Russell after the Wolves were likely bidding against only themselves this winter would likely result in the team taking a bath on the resale.
LaMelo Ball will want to play point guard and run the show, and his apathetic approach to defense would see a Ball-Russell-Towns trio giving up 125 points a night. Small forward Anthony Edwards would be the best fit in theory, but his lone season at Georgia left a lot of his hype largely unanswered — especially his efficiency, decision making, shot selection and outside shooting ability. Seven-footer James Wiseman, the pre-season favorite to go first overall, would be untenable playing alongside Towns. His selection would likely plummet Towns’ trade value, because it would clearly signal a desire to hedge against Towns’ future in Minnesota.
Unfortunately, however, whether or not Simmons would even be available, and for what price, isn’t entirely up to the Timberwolves. Sixers general manager Elton Brand could easily have conflicting motives that influence his choices this off-season. On one hand, Brand occupies the hottest GM seat in the NBA, after prioritizing re-signing Tobias Harris over Jimmy Butler, and then allowing Al Horford to eat up the little spacing remaining on the court and the little cap room remaining on the team’s books with a $109 million contract.
After a 6th-seeded finish, it would appear as though Brand will have to choose either Joel Embiid or Simmons if he wants to give himself a chance to remain in Philadelphia past the 2020-21 season. However, in late August, Brand was adamant that the 76ers wouldn’t be trading either player, and new coach Doc Rivers chimed in after his hiring that he thinks the two together are “a good thing.”
Earth to Elton and Doc: This is not working. A back-to-the-basket, lane-clogging seven-footer is incompatible with a non-shooting, driving point guard. It always has been, it’s just more clear in this spacing-obsessed era of basketball.
Frankly, it’s more believable that this is a smokescreen to hide their true intentions of breaking Embiid and Simmons up than paying out to those two plus Tobias Harris and Al Horford in full for another mediocre season. Those four players are due a combined $120 million in the 2020-21 season, and Embiid and Simmons are the only ones who will retain positive trading value when Brand eventually (and, it is an eventuality) has to trim salary and attempt to improve offensive chemistry.
Both teams, the Wolves and the 76ers, need what the other is offering. James Johnson’s expiring deal would be a small price to pay in freight cost to land LaMelo Ball, with his potential for off-the-dribble shooting from deep allowing Embiid ample room to work underneath, and Embiid’s defense covering for Ball’s pedestrian defense. Not to mention, once Johnson’s contract is off the books, Ball would come at roughly 30% the cap hit as Simmons’ max extension that kicks in this summer. Additionally, as long as keeping Embiid and Simmons together wasn’t contingent to securing Doc’s coaching services, Brand could easily find that dealing one could temporarily chill his red-hot seat, even if it’s just for 12 to 18 more months.
Seriously Elton, what do you have to lose? Unless Doc is able to turn the 76ers from the moodier version of the Isle of Misfit Toys into a contender that reaches the Finals in his first season, you’re as good as canned, the writing from ownership is that clear on the wall.
Pick up the phone, Elton, let the Timberwolves and the 76ers help each other, and help you, too.