Timberwolves

The Robert Covington Trade Doesn't Look Great in Hindsight

Photo Credit: Thomas Shea (USA TODAY Sports)

It was the move that precipitated “The Move.”

While the Andrew Wiggins trade for D’Angelo Russell is going to be remembered as the biggest swap from this post-Jimmy Butler period of the KAT era, the Robert Covington trade reshaped much of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ supporting cast in a four-team monstrosity of a deal. It’s also worth noting that this trade effectively pinched the tail off on the Jimmy era, as RoCo arrived in Minnesota alongside Dario Saric and a token second-round pick in the deal that sent Butler to Philadelphia.

The deal that sent RoCo out of Minnesota was a blockbuster in size, far bigger than the one that brought him in: four teams, 12 players (three starters) and three picks were involved. Though the entire trade is interesting to dive into, I’m just going to focus on the Timberwolves role in it: What went out, and what came back. *Note that the contracts listed below reflect the time of the trade.

Out:

In:

So, a massive trade, and one that has a surprising amount of relative symmetry for the Wolves. Five players going out, four players and one pick coming back. Two bigs and two wings out, two bigs and two wings back, though the wings going out were very different in archetype than the wings coming back.

Alright, time for some quick-hitter talking points to do a little bit of housekeeping before I can dive into the meat of this deal.

Out:

  • Jordan Bell continued his shocking fall off the face of the professional basketball earth in Minnesota. After such a stellar rookie season with the Golden State Warriors that had pundits begging teams not to sell the Warriors any more second-round picks — as the Chicago Bulls had done, clearing the pick-less Warriors a runway to nab Bell at No. 38 — Bell’s main contributions in Minneapolis were DNP-CDs, a trend he continued with the Memphis Grizzlies before being waived by them in March.
  • Shabazz Napier was immediately flipped by the Denver Nuggets for Jordan McRae, a player the Nuggets waived a month later anyways. Napier ended up making spot starts for the Washington Wizards, but as an expiring deal was clearly unlikely to return to Minnesota.
  • Noah Vonleh, another expiring deal, was utilized as a human victory cigar for the Nuggets, and clearly was unlikely to return for another contract in Minnesota at the end of the year had he been retained.
  • Keita Bates-Diop was given more playing time than Vonleh in Denver, but clearly didn’t make much of an impression upon the front office, as he was waived days ago. However, the Spurs quickly signed him to a two-way deal just hours after news of his release broke. While the allure of “The Spurs Way” has waned considerably since Kawhi Leonard forced his way out, it definitely gives this writer some pause that the smartest team of the decade immediately snatched up the 6’8” tweener who showed improvement in both his shooting and ball-handling during his second year in Minnesota. While I won’t stick my neck out with a hot take, it wouldn’t be shocking if Bates-Diop survives as a serviceable bench player in the NBA.

In:

  • Evan Turner never even set foot in Minnesota. As a 31-year old known commodity veteran on one of the worst contracts in the league, which was about to expire, this wasn’t unsurprising or of much consequence.
  • Jarred Vanderbilt spent much of his time with the Wolves down in Iowa, and anybody who claims that it was a success might as well be acting as an unpaid mouthpiece for Gersson Rosas. Turnovers plagued the second-year player, a recurring theme from his G-League stints in Denver, and his overall efficiency was far below the G-League average. The lefty has shown flashes so far in his career, but NBA contributions are far from a guarantee, and even suggesting that more may be in store is simply very unfair to Vanderbilt. Also, the season’s stoppage messed with Vanderbilt’s contract’s guaranteed money date, and Darren Wolfson has reported that the new date for this money flipping from waivable without penalty to guaranteed money is next weekend.
    Before the 17th pick could turn into Aleksej Pokusevski, it was dealt alongside James Johnson’s expiring deal for Ricky Rubio and Jaden McDaniels.

So, for simplicity’s sake, this is how the trade can be defined:

Out:

  • Robert Covington (two and a half years, $12 million per year remaining)

In:

  • Malik Beasley (Pending RFA)
  • Juancho Hernangomez (Pending RFA)
  • Ricky Rubio (two years, $17 million per year remaining)
  • Jaden McDaniels (two years guaranteed, two years team option, then RFA in 2024)
  • Jarred Vanderbilt ($1.7 million, non-guaranteed, RFA in 2021)

So, uh, yeah… This trade is looking a little bit more lopsided, and not in the Timberwolves’ favor. Remember, agents in the NBA are very aware that GMs are in a constant state of auditioning for more freedom and more guaranteed continued employment. While overpaying a restricted free agent looks bad in two or three years, it looks far, far, far better in the near-term than trading for a guy only to let him walk 14 games later.

Sure, they got back three (ok, two and a half, sorry Juancho, but it’s just the truth at the moment) rotational players, but there are so, so many ways you can cut a narrative that simplifies this deal, which I’ll get to at the end of this piece. Also, that Rubio contract number looks worse than it actually is, as James Johnson’s expiring deal ($16 million) was removed from the Timberwolves’ cap sheet in the same deal. However, in return, the Wolves took on an extra year of salary obligation with Rubio.

Additionally, Leandro Bolmaro has entered into the Timberwolves’s draft rights ledger, as the 6’7” Argentinian wing was happy to stay in Barcelona with their 2020-21 season already in progress, wisely avoiding a situation in which he would enter as the 5th wheel in the ongoing Wolves wing logjam.

Historically, the 23rd pick is a little high for draft-and-stash candidates, but that’s by no means an indication of guaranteed NBA success, or even arrival. Anzejs Pasecniks made the Wizards wait two seasons for their 25th overall selection in 2017 to arrive stateside, then submitted a downright pedestrian rookie season at the age of 24 last year. But at least Pasecniks finally arrived, as the Spurs are still waiting on 2015’s 26th overall pick Nikola Milutinov to take the plunge. Milutinov, meanwhile, complained to Euro media this summer that the Spurs “were never serious” about rostering him, before signing another three-year deal in Russia.

Bolmaro might be a fine NBA player someday, he’s got decent size for a wing, his change of direction looks pretty shifty on some of his dribble combos, and not to mention his fearless flair for the dramatic with all of his high-risk, high-reward passing exploits. But, when faced with the potential to chase an NBA dream, Bolmaro appeared to not even hesitate to reaffirm his prior commitment to his mere 13 minutes per game stipend in Spain, a decision I have to believe may have been influenced by his 27% field goal percentage so far this season in European play.

And there’s nothing wrong with choosing to self-stash, better to develop over there on taking up a foreign team’s roster spot than to develop here, soaking up a valuable Timberwolves roster slot and starting the countdown towards restricted free agency, especially if the first year involved predictably rotting on the bench next to either an also-rotting Okogie or Culver. Because, hey, there’s always 2023, right San Antonio?

The analysis of this trade was always going to boil down to this: RoCo for Beasley and a side order of Hernangomez. While the ancillary pieces are worth noting and tracking, this was the meat of the trade, and the trade should be judged with a massive skew towards the contributions on these three players.

The Timberwolves were the lifeline that Hernangomez, the former 15th overall pick, was desperately hoping for as he floundered away in Denver, oscillating between spot starter, bench contributor and DNP-CDs. He started all 14 of his games in Minnesota, and played the best basketball of his career. He averaged 16 points per 36 minutes, shooting 42% from three on five attempts per game.

But, there was a downside: Hernangomez’s defensive liabilities remained, as Juancho often failed to keep track of potent opposing shooters, got bullied in the post, and at times struggled keeping quick perimeter players in front of him on the dribble. While these are assessments that can be made for almost every big man in the league at one time or another, it’s hard to say if there is anything that Juancho does better than the average big man defensively, and he has no track record of supplying any meaningful rim protection.

Not to mention, Hernangomez’s offensive contributions came with several red flags. He struggled finishing at the rim in the half-court, shooting a paltry 45%. His efficiency at the rim in the half-court has been on the decline since 2017-18, but to slip below 50%, especially when it coincides with an inauspicious decline in free throw percentage (Hernangomez shot 62% from the line this season, despite shooting 76% in his first three seasons), is alarming, as it implies that Hernangomez is shooting, at best, in the high 30s when actually attempting to finish through contesting opposing big men. While in those 14 games he was far more efficient than he’s ever been, it came on the back of his 42% three-point shooting and superb transition play.

So, when considering that Rosas signed him to a three-year, $21 million deal earlier this week, there’s a two ways to view that deal: It’s either a steal for a power forward who shoots 42% from three, or that’s probably a lot of money to pay a guy who shot 35% from three in his first 191 games in the NBA and doesn’t offer much else at 25 years old.

Either Rosas looks incredibly smart here, finding a diamond in the rough and locking him up on the cheap, or he paid three premiums on an unremarkable player: The sunken cost premium, the restricted free agent premium and the small sample size hot-shooting premium. Also, this price point isn’t the end of the world, but it’s hard to not compare it to the deal Dario Saric just got from the Suns (three years, $27 million). For two million more a season, the Wolves could’ve gotten a known commodity with a better, proven track record. Sure, Dario has been gone for over a year now, and Saric’s weaknesses are similar to Hernangomez’s, but Dario has the luxury of established strengths. The Wolves are paying Juancho 78% of what Daric makes in the hopes that Hernangomez establishes ones of his own.

With Beasley, the situation is, arguably (somehow, and I don’t know how), less nuanced. Beasley is a perimeter player with a proven track record of shooting the ball well, and he showed up in Minnesota better than advertised in every way offensively. He shot 43% from three, 52% from two and started scoring at a literal Steph Curry rate when calling his own number in pick-and-roll. I’m serious: Beasley scored 1.11 points per play in pick-and-roll on his 44 possessions in Minnesota, an efficiency that Curry has only bettered once in the six seasons since Steve Kerr came to town and kickstarted the Warriors’ dynasty.

It’s a tiny sample size and the two guards are not exactly reminiscent of one another, but it’s still a cool benchmark, regardless of feasibility as a primary option. While Curry has shown the ability to shoulder a load of 20-plus pick-and-roll possessions a night, Beasley averaged less than five a night in Minnesota. Still, it’s rarely a bad thing to be compared to Steph, even if it’s in a 44-possession spurt.

So, when Rosas locked up Beasley for four years and $60 million as the Timberwolves first move in free agency, it wasn’t exactly surprising.

But, here are the problems with that deal. First off, Beasley has never had any sustained interest in playing defense in his NBA career. On a team with D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns, that’s a huge problem. Sure, the Wolves have Rubio and young, motivated defenders like Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver, but those are options in the first three quarters of the game. Yes, the spacing Beasley provides is needed, but there’s a limit to the amount of free-loading defensive players a team can play in the fourth quarter.

Are you prepared to watch a lineup of Rubio, Russell, Okogie, Beasley, and KAT try to stop an elite offense in a tightly contested fourth quarter? If you think that’s a gross lineup, it is, but it’s far more palatable than a Russell, Beasley, Edwards, Hernangomez and KAT five-man grouping.

Also if Rosas had any inkling of signing Beasley to be a threat in pick-and-roll, it feels misplaced. Sure, that 44-possession spurt in Minnesota was great, but the other 44 possessions in pick-and-roll that he took in 2019-20, the ones in Denver, drive Beasley’s overall efficiency to 0.84 points per play, far below the NBA’s average — about on par with where Beasley has been in previous seasons in his career. It appears that the Wolves caught Beasley on the heater side of variance, and it’s unlikely he had a sustainable breakthrough in pick-and-roll. It’s unlikely this played much of a role in the final amount, but it’s worth noting that of the comprehension profile Beasley submitted in 14 games, almost one out of every six of his possessions came in pick-and-roll at this unsustainable rate.

And to land the right to overpay these two players, the Timberwolves parted with Robert Covington. An established shooter, an engaged defender, a player who can play his natural small forward position, or slide over seamlessly to power forward in analytically-minded, smaller lineups. Sure, RoCo was streakier than the average player, but he was a steal at $12 million dollars a year, playing a scarce role on a team that desperately needed more of what he had to offer, not less, especially on defense. If the Wolves knew they were getting DLo — and it would be hard to believe they didn’t, considering that the very next day they were finalizing the trade for him — they especially needed more guys like RoCo, not less.

Knowing that the Houston Rockets turned around and flipped Covington for the draft assets needed to land Christian Wood, one of the most coveted free agents of this off-season, just digs the knife a little deeper. RoCo represented the best of everything the Wolves could’ve needed during this previous year: shooting, defense and a player on a team-friendly, long-term contract. Then he also showed that he could’ve, if needed, provided flexibility. RoCo retained his trade value, even in the Tilman Fertitta wasteland that is the current Rockets organization.

It’s hard to image anybody that the Timberwolves got back for him will meet what RoCo continued on the court, or will retain their market in trade discussions if this goes south.

So, this is where I landed for the final tally of the RoCo trade:

Out:

  • Robert Covington (two and a half years, $12 million per year remaining)
  • James Johnson (Expiring)

In:

  • Malik Beasley (four years, $15 million per year)
  • Juancho Hernangomez (three years, $7 million per year)
  • Ricky Rubio (two years, $17 million per year remaining)
  • Jaden McDaniels (two years guaranteed, two years team option, then RFA in 2024)
  • Jarred Vanderbilt (RFA in 2021, if still applicable)

The Wolves traded the best contract in the deal, and got back three overpays (two deferred for a few months) and two cheap lottery tickets.

The Wolves traded the best defender in the deal, and got back a good defender, a guy who has no interest in defense and a guy that makes it hard to tell where he lands on the effort/ability scale.

The Wolves traded a proven, useful player locked in on a team-friendly deal, and got back the right to overpay two players with a recent stench of empty stats hanging over them.

Maybe this works out, but as the uncertainties of the initial deal became set, it became a more and more expensive deal by the day.

While KAT, DLo and Ant Edwards are going to be the rocket fuel of this Timberwolves team for the foreseeable future, because the team will only go as far as those three can take it, the deal was the pivot point that has charted the navigation course for the organization.

If Beasley and Hernangomez can’t live up to these deals, it’s hard to see a market for their contracts materializing. That’s a bitter pill to swallow when it’s the case about Russell, too.

This is the course. The Wolves are on it, for better, or for worse.

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