Timberwolves Mailbag: Considering the Now and Later of These Timberwolves

Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

These Minnesota Timberwolves do this. They roll up feisty road triumphs, like last week in Miami and Tuesday evening in New Orleans, into lethargic home deflations, like Sunday against Dallas (and perhaps Wednesday night against Chicago). The victories are a reminder that the team isn’t actively tanking while the losses can make you think there might be a better path to take. This is apparently the nature of a roster that doesn’t really know each other while also playing without its best player.

With that nature comes questions. Questions about intriguing out-of-nowhere pieces, like Jordan McLaughlin. And questions about the big picture, like how this all weaves into the draft and free agency this summer. In an effort to take the pulse on all of this, let’s get into this week’s mailbag:

Question: I’m very interested in the Wolves’ pursuit of ducking the luxury tax and how that might affect their ability to sign Jordan McLaughlin. How does this impact his future with the Wolves? — Cal Knickerbocker

First, we should acknowledge that McLaughlin has become a not-so-hidden bright spot in the 10 games that have followed the trade deadline. A through-line of the Wolves three wins in this run is impressive stat lines from McLaughlin. In the first game after the trade, a victory over the Clippers, McLaughlin made 11 of his 15 shots and dished out 11 dimes. In the win over Miami, McLaughlin had the game-sealing bucket over Bam Adebayo — his fourth make on five attempts that night. And Tuesday in New Orleans, he again only missed one shot (6-of-7) and tallied six assists. That’s 77.8% shooting (88.9% from 2, 55.6% from 3) with 7.3 assists per game in the three post-deadline wins for JMac.

While the new pieces — namely D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, who are shooting a combined 43.9% from deep since the trades — deserve shine for their play, it’s McLaughlin who has been the incumbent piece that has taken the increased bandwidth to shift his season-long progression from linear to exponential.

Since the deadline (including the seven losses), the rookie point guard has been playing 21 minutes a night. In that run, he’s shot 62.9% from 2-point range and 51.9% from deep, while dealing out 4.9 assists per game (the highest number on the team on a per-minute basis). The team’s defense as a whole has been awful since the moves were made, but it has performed better with McLaughlin on the floor than when he sits.

This all shapes up an argument for giving the two-way player a real NBA contract, and perhaps a deal that includes multiple years. A (Sachin) Gupta Special, as I like to call it. One deterrent here, though, is the notion that the Wolves currently sit in the luxury tax, after having taken on additional financial weight at the deadline. Even after agreeing to a $681,444 buyout with Allen Crabbe on Monday, Minnesota still sits $454,726 over the tax line.

The bottom line is that signing McLaughlin to any deal beyond his two-way contract (that expires after 45 days of NBA service) would push Minnesota further into the tax. Even if the Wolves were to just extend a 10-day contract to McLaughlin (the cheapest contract available), there would be added costs for the organization to incur — both literally in dollars spent and in opportunity, given that it would push them further away from ducking the tax altogether. For example, a 10-day contract to McLaughlin, given that the Wolves are already in the tax, would carry a cap hit of $91,557.

Even though the deadline has passed for a player to be bought out while remaining playoff eligible, it would make sense that the Wolves would still like to work out a severance with Evan Turner, who has not been with the team since being acquired at the deadline. Purely hypothetically, let’s say Turner would eventually be willing to agree to a $500,000 buyout, so as to be able to play out the rest of the season somewhere else. If that were the case, Minnesota would be out of the luxury with Turner’s buyout but would jump right back into the tax by offering just one 10-day contract to McLaughlin.

Even if it isn’t Turner, Minnesota could theoretically still shed salary elsewhere. This could happen, again in theory, by waiving Jacob Evans or Omari Spellman — who both have not appeared to have been part of the plan since the deadline — provided another team was to claim one of the waived contracts.

Something along these lines is reportedly happening with Jordan McRae, who was recently waived by Denver.

When McLaughlin’s 45 days run out, the rubber will meet the road. (Those days are not made available as public information.) At that juncture, this game of chicken with Turner’s representation — or Evans’/Spellman’s — will be forced to come to a head. At that point, the team will be presented with the decision of determining whether or not they want to wave the white flag, dip further into the tax and sign McLaughlin. If McLaughlin is not extended an NBA contract after his days expire, he will need to play exclusively in the G-League for the rest of the season.

It’s important to note that this decision is not just about saving money for Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. Again, this a calculus of both literal and opportunity costs. If the Wolves finish the season in the tax, they are then subject to the harsher restrictions of the repeater tax next season should they again dip into the tax next season. It’s rare for a team to pay the luxury tax and extremely rare for teams to pay the repeater tax, particularly if they are not a contender.

There will be a resolution to this all at some point. For now, there are just a lot of moving pieces. So long as McLaughlin has remaining days on his two-way, there is no reason for the Minnesota front office to force their own hand. Currently, he’s balling out, and they’re cool with that.

Question: Do you have any idea why a team gets fined for resting a healthy player but a healthy player can refuse to play for a team (Andre Iguodala in Memphis, Evan Turner in Minnesota) and not face any financial repercussions? — Drew Chuck

This is obviously a question pointing to Minnesota having been fined $25,000 by the NBA for resting Russell in Denver on Feb. 23. With that Wolves game being nationally televised, the league seemed to try and make an example of Russell’s sitting out for “planned rest.” This being their latest grenade in an ongoing battle against load management.

I think the context of this question referencing Iguodala makes a really sharp point. Why was Iguodala, a former Finals MVP, permitted to rest all season before the trade deadline? Memphis played nationally-televised games, and there was no penalty.

I’m not saying it was right or wrong for the Wolves to have rested Russell that night. As someone watching the team play, would I prefer Russell to have played? Of course. But I get why Minnesota, who is miles away from playoff competition, would have wanted to rest Russell on one end of a back-to-back. That happens all the time around the league. Would it have made more sense to rest him on the back end of that back-to-back (the next night in Dallas)? Probably. But still, the punishment just doesn’t seem to line up, particularly when paralleled with Iguodala situation in Memphis. What are the rules, NBA? What are the exceptions to the rule?

Minnesota should have to play by the rules. But so should everyone else. Subjectively punishing teams you think are trying to lock up draft picks is not fair.

Question: With the Kyrie Irving injury news, would it be better to get the Brooklyn Nets pick now or next year? — Jeff T

Speaking of locking up draft picks, I think it’s officially time we put the Brooklyn first-round pick acquired in the Robert Covington trade on notice. In exchange for Covington — and a shuffling of other expiring contracts — Minnesota received Houston’s first-round pick in the 2020 draft and Brooklyn’s 2020 first-round pick. That Houston pick was flipped to Denver, functionally for Beasley and Hernangomez, and the Brooklyn pick is in the Wolves asset coffer for this summer’s draft.

The reason that Brooklyn pick should be put on notice is that it is lottery-protected. This means that if Brooklyn misses the playoffs they retain that pick for 2020, rolling the trade requirements over to 2021 — again as a lottery-protected first-round pick. At the trade deadline that pick looked very likely to convert — Brooklyn was the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of the then-eighth seed Orlando Magic and five games ahead of then-ninth seed Washington Wizards. And perhaps it still does.

Brooklyn still holds similar leads over Orlando and Washington. But with Irving being ruled out for the rest of the season on Tuesday, a shadow of doubt has to creep in — if not because of the loss of talent in Irving (which has somehow become debatable), then because of how Brooklyn could “tactically” approach the rest of the season.

If you think of this from Brooklyn’s perspective, it could be viewed as advantageous for them to keep that pick this year so as to have their debt roll over to next season. With a theoretically healthy Irving and Kevin Durant in the lineup next year, Brooklyn could be viewed as a contender, potentially driving that rolled over pick down to a late-first in the 2021 draft. Some may argue that a pick in the speculatively-strong 2021 draft, even if late in the first, could be more valuable than the 15th or 16th pick in this speculatively-weak 2020 draft.

But that would dismiss a lot of context. Namely the concept of the time value of money as it pertains to Brooklyn. Is a draft pick today more valuable to Brooklyn than a draft pick tomorrow? Maybe. Say the Nets want to go all-in on Irving and Durant next season, having their own lottery pick could be a valuable chip to use in a trade to help bolster their roster. I would not rule out them falling out of the playoffs, swiping that pick away from Minnesota this summer — taking some time value or money value away from the Wolves in the process.

That process could have a ripple effect on the Wolves’ summer. Because Gersson Rosas traded Minnesota’s 2021 pick to Golden State with Andrew Wiggins for Russell, the Wolves are required by rule to draft in the first round this season. Teams are not allowed to go without a first-round pick in consecutive seasons. In this vein, if the Brooklyn were to retain their pick, Minnesota could not trade their own 2020 pick this summer without bringing back another 2020 first — because they would then be void of firsts in the 2020 and 2021 draft.

In practice, this could be problematic. Let’s do a hypothetical.

Say Minnesota and Orlando agree that trading Minnesota’s top-five pick this summer plus the expiring contract of James Johnson would be fair compensation for Aaron Gordon. If that were the case, Minnesota would not be able to make that trade if they did not have the Brooklyn pick. Again, this is because the Wolves would have no first-round picks, and that would break a rule. The workaround could be Orlando throwing their own first back at Minnesota (something like the 16th overall pick). But that deal then looks far less appetizing from Orlando’s perspective, as they would then be trading Gordon just to move up 11 or so picks.

That’s very different than getting a lottery pick for Gordon’s services.

Again that specific Orlando example is just hypothetical, but it does illustrate how Minnesota losing their rights to the Brooklyn pick could have a fairly substantial hamstringing impact on how aggressive Rosas and Co. could be this summer on the trade market. The standings are worth monitoring if you see that Brooklyn pick being more valuable to Minnesota in 2020 than 2021. I do.

Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Question: If Karl-Anthony Towns returns, how much does our rebounding as a team improve? If not a dramatic difference, what can be done to fix this glaring problem? — Matt Harren

By most accounts, Towns is a very competent rebounder. Many would say very good. Towns averaged over nine defensive rebounds per game over the past two seasons. So yes, his return should delete some of these rebounding issues that have bubbled up in his absence.

The one account that puts some of KAT’s impact as a rebounder into question is that Minnesota as a team has been in the bottom-six in terms of defensive rebounding rate every season of his career prior to this season. There are a few lines of thinking to the “why” here. The don’t-blame-KAT angle is that he has never received much rebounding support from the wings that have surrounded him. The other line of thinking — the one that is more incriminating of Towns — is that he may only be effective at rebounding within his spot in the defensive scheme, perhaps struggling in a team concept as it connects to defensive rebounding.

One’s opinion there probably connects to their KAT-cynicism level.

It’s probably a little bit of both of those lines of thinking. My opinion is that recent staples of the rotation — namely Jeff Teague and Wiggins — weren’t strong rebounders, while Towns was also not one to rebound at a high level outside of his own zone.

At the end of the day, defensive rebounding well is not about one player. As a team, it is about a group commitment to the least sexy column on the box score. The good team defenses commit to defensive rebounding; Milwaukee has the best defense in the NBA, and it’s no coincidence that they also have the best defensive rebounding rate in the NBA.

One pet theory I have is that a scheme that is more reliant on switching would have a positive impact on defensive rebounding. On a really simple level, it’s easier to find a body to box out when it is more clear who your man is, as it often is in a switching landscape. The Wolves defensive schemes these past few years have often asked both wings and bigs to defend their own man while often also asking them to stunt into another man. That style can sometimes lead to box-out chaos when a shot goes up.

On the other side of the coin, the Wolves have been running a lot of zone without Towns. Zones can be pesky, but can also be very tricky for rebounding purposes. Again, because it’s not clear whose man is who for boxing out purposes. One way or the other, improving defensive rebounding is going to be critical if Minnesota is ever to approach becoming an above-average defensive team. Towns is a big part of that, but he’s only one part.

Question: Any update on Karl-Anthony Towns returning? It’s approaching his two-week Re-evaluation? — Joel Kamali

Rosas spoke with SKOR North‘s Darren Wolfson Monday afternoon, providing an update that Towns is doing everything he can to return, while also not ruling out the possibility of surgery for the big man.

Surgery for Towns would obviously finish his season after playing in just 35 games, and in only one game with Russell. Everything I’ve heard is that Towns very much wants to return before the season ends. But these two weeks are about determining how much the fracture can heal on its own, without surgery. Ultimately, a decision will be made and Towns’ rest-of-season fate will be determined.

If you look around the league at players like Irving and Steph Curry, there is a pretty clear pattern that teams who don’t have a ton to play for exercise extreme caution with this level of an injured player. Irving is having season-ending surgery. Curry’s return has been delayed. Historically, these calculations often factor in where a team is in the standings. We don’t know if Minnesota will factor that in, but we can look at the standings and speculate what impact KAT’s return would have on the team’s lottery odds.

Entering play on Wednesday, even after the victory in New Orleans, Minnesota still has the third-worst record in the NBA. But it’s the loss column that needs to be tracked here. At 18-42, the Wolves may have a worse record than the 19-44 Atlanta Hawks, but those two additional losses matter. At 42 losses, Minnesota is tied in the loss column with Detroit, who currently has the sixth-worst record in the league at 20-42. The margin for sliding out of the top three and into that sixth slot is thin. Probably a lot thinner than KAT’s production would be.

The lottery odds of jumping into the top four have flattened, providing the team with the third-worst record has a 52.1% chance of landing in the top four of the draft while the team with the sixth-worst record still has a 37.2% chance of landing in the top four. But it’s the odds of sliding down that is also important to factor in here.

If the Wolves finish with the third-worst record in the NBA, they would only have a 20% chance of falling out of the top five in the draft, and could fall no lower than sixth. On the other end of the spectrum, if the Wolves finish with the sixth-worst record, they would have a 62.8% chance of falling out of the top five in the draft, and could fall as low as 10th.

This is how the league flattening out the lottery odds has still left incentive for tanking (or whatever you want to call it). Yes, the glittery part of the lottery is still about jumping up above where a team’s record suggests they should draft. But, at the end of the day, it’s also just about where you land when everything is said and done. The shine of one team getting lucky on lottery night is tied to a lever that connects to a trap door that forces another team to drop. Because of this, for Minnesota, every game Towns plays for the rest of the season strings up a new noose to be lassoed toward that lever.

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