Timberwolves Mailbag: What's Next for the Timberwolves?

Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Now over a week into the NBA’s stoppage of play in response to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, we don’t have many more answers to NBA-related questions than we did when the brakes were engaged. What we do have in the pausing of timing is the opportunity to ask questions with a finer point. As the reality begins to set in that games will be very delayed — if played at all — the better questions for tackling exist in the future.

If this does at some point pass, there is a future for the NBA and the Minnesota Timberwolves. And in that future looms questions about how the offseason can be pursued — in free agency, trades and in the draft. Ultimately, the answers are all speculative in nature. But speculating further into the future feels more responsible. So let’s do that.

What could that future look like for the Timberwolves? If the spring and summer are ultimately “next”, then what could those next steps look like? With this week’s mailbag, let’s get into a few topics with finer points, those related to the spring and the summer.

Question: If you were the GM of the Timberwolves, or really any NBA team, what would you be spending your time doing right now? — Nick B.

For any team’s chief decision-maker, this stoppage of play presents a unique opportunity to watch the rest of the league. Of course, there aren’t any new games being played but there is a catalog of nearly 1,000 games that have already been played this season. That is a substantial amount of recent film available that may have been glossed over in the whirl of a busy regular season. As an executive, this time, theoretically, provides an opportunity to dig into the rest of the league.

With the hundreds of other tasks that these organizational top dogs are tasked with to fulfill their duties as a team president or general manager, the opportunities to watch the actual game — in an intense scouting manner — can fall by the wayside. Some executives go months without really watching other team’s players. There’s just not enough time.

A league executive told me a story earlier this season about how one of his old GMs ruled out a player at the 2017 trade deadline because that GM didn’t like what he had seen from that player back in a game he had scouted months prior. The implication from the executive was that the majority of the GM’s perception of the player was informed by the one and only game that had been scouted by that GM in-person.

Now, that was probably just poor leadership. (Sure sounds like it.) But it does go to show how some lead executives can be both very busy and extremely reliant on their own analysis. If nothing else, this pause of play presents additional bandwidth for these decision-makers to dig in a couple of layers deeper. Probably the best thing to do as a GM would be to craft a group plan — with all team executives and scouts — to make this be the season where their organization is most familiar with the other 400 players in the league.

For a team like Minnesota, this is a great opportunity to make a list of the players who may be available in free agency or trades, and to really scout every angle of those players’ games. The best way to decide how much to pay a player or how much to trade for them is to have the best possible assessment of that player’s value. This break, and the lack of other responsibilities that will eventually come with it, could make for the most comprehensive analysis of player value ever. Executives can take in the scouting reports and break down the stats as they always have, but also dig into the film more than ever. With the gift of time, this is an unprecedented opportunity for comprehensive analysis.

I’m not a GM. But if it was me, amongst other things, I’d take this time to dig into the hoops that have already been played this season.

Question: How is the lack of March Madness going to affect teams and draftees? — Dustin B.

If a GM didn’t like my idea of digging into the film of NBA players during the break, they would be alright. Each team has scouts that have been gathering information on the players on the other 29 teams all season. Even if a GM went into hibernation for the entirety of the stoppage, they would have ample information to make offseason decisions whenever the offseason does roll around. The same can not be said about NBA draft prospects.

Without the NCAA Tournament, league executives and scouts will miss out on one of the most valuable times of the year to gather information about the upcoming draft class. The limiting won’t stop there, though, as the whole draft process could be derailed in the wake of this pandemic.

Pre-draft workouts where teams bring prospects into their facility begins in the spring. Will these players be permitted to fly around the country in April so teams can get a look at them individually? That normal course of action feels unlikely. There are also Euro tourneys that take place in the spring. Will those take place? If they do, will teams send scouts? A chunk of this draft’s lottery players are expected to be playing in those games — Deni Avdija, Killian Hayes and Theo Maledon to name a few.

Then there is the NBA Draft Combine in late-May. If the NBA hasn’t resumed play by then — and it doesn’t look like it will have — will the Combine even happen? The combine is like speed dating for front offices and prospects. The load of in-person interviews that happen at the Combine would be nixed if the event didn’t happen. The 5-on-5 play that happens at the Combine would also be taken out of the assessment process.

For many players, that’s the highest level of talent they’ve ever been surrounded by in a 5-on-5 setting. Interviews can be replicated (to an extent) via video conferencing and physical measurements can be taken independently but that 5-on-5 play is difficult to duplicate.

There are also pro days that take place after the Combine, where players get together in big groups in major cities. Normally those happen in June. Again, if the actual NBA games aren’t back by then, will the gathering of prospects be permitted?

This all could very well add up to extremely limited exposure to prospects prior to the Draft in late-June. With so many top prospects playing overseas this year, or having their NCAA play limited due to injury or suspension, exposure was already going to be at unprecedented low pre-virus. Like everything else, the Draft process will feel a major shakeup in response to this set of unfortunate circumstances.

Will the lack of exposure cause more players to bet on themselves and roll the dice by declaring? Or will they take the more conservative route in opting to return to college? There’s just no way to really know. What’s known is that this will all be very different.

For the Timberwolves, who are currently slotted to have two top-15 picks, theoretically, they are dealing with the more “known” players. But still, nothing is clean. Does that make those two picks more or less valuable? That’s an important question to answer if the Minnesota front office is considering trading those picks. One way or the other, the impacts will be real.

Question: What’s your confidence level in the several NBA season continuation scenarios that have been presented? — Chris S.

To me, the best-case scenario would be to find a way to round out each team’s schedule at one universal number. At the stoppage, 23 of the 30 teams had played 64 or 65 games. A few teams have played as many as 67 and a few as low as 63. For both playoff and draft lottery purposes, it would be ideal to round that number out at something like 70. The playoffs could then be fairly seeded and team records could be used to create fair lottery odds.

To hit 70 games per team, 79 more total games would need to be played. Even outside of health reasons, this would be logistically difficult. Finding venues and staffing for those 79 games would be tough. If those games were played with fans (big if), and we assume that each game generates $2 million at the gates, the good news would be that would be a boost of nearly $160 million in revenue. For the league’s economy and the salary cap for next season, that would be meaningful.

But that all just seems like a big stretch. The most likely scenario for a return to play seems like it will just be a fast-forwarding to the playoffs, or something along those lines. For the playoffs, it would be weird for a team like Dallas to have played 67 games while the Los Angeles Lakers have only played 63. As for the lottery, teams like Atlanta (20-47) and Detroit (20-46) might be frustrated with the imbalance given that they fall percentage points in the lottery standings behind teams like Minnesota (19-45), who have played fewer games. Finding a fair balance might just be impossible, leaving teams with competitive balance issues that they’re just left to deal with.

One thing I’ve thought of in this “fast-forward to the playoffs” scenario is that this will create a long break from play for non-playoff teams, like Minnesota. If everything gets pushed back and next season doesn’t start until Christmas, non-playoff teams will go more than nine months without playing a game that matters. I’m sure some sort of additional exhibition schedule would be implemented, but still, nine months would be nuts. Good time to be a young team, I suppose.

Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports
Question: If the season is over for the Wolves, what impact does that have on James Johnson‘s incentives? Could that keep us from ending the season as a tax team? — Cal K.

The elder statesman on this Timberwolves roster has a $242,000 incentive in his contract that is tied to meeting certain physical benchmarks. That incentive exists in his salary for next season as well — for $253,000. For luxury tax purposes, that number is not relevant, as it is already included in team salary.

Currently, Minnesota is $454,726 into the tax this season. A negative externality of this stoppage of play is that the team may no longer be able to find a way to shed that half-million in salary to duck the tax for this season. There are past examples in the league of teams pulling off waiver wire moves late in the season that another team agrees to in good faith to help another team duck the tax. It seems increasingly unlikely that a move like that will be able to happen with the season on pause.

This isn’t the end of the world at all. By paying the tax this season, Minnesota would miss out on the redistribution of all of the tax funds. But that should be a fairly negligible number with only four teams looking like they will pay the tax this season. Any time a team pays the tax one season, there is a somewhat daunting ghoul of paying the tax the next year, due to the harsher penalties that come with being a repeat offender.

For Minnesota, next season doesn’t feel like an “all-in” season where they’d be wanting to spend to a degree that would leave them paying the tax. With the cap and tax line dropping next season in the wake of likely lost revenue, this pinches things a little bit more. But even then, Minnesota could spend into the tax in free agency — perhaps to sign both Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez — and still use the regular season to make corresponding moves that allow them to shed salary. Being a repeat tax offender is not about touching the tax in consecutive seasons, it’s about finishing the season in the tax two years in a row. Sometimes we (hand raised) overblow the whole stigma of being in the tax.

Question: Do you think the stoppage of play, if the regular season is over, scales back the value of Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, considering it makes the sample of play shorter? — Mike F.

Earlier this week, I wrote about how a shorter season could impact the salary cap for next season. In that, I touched on how less cap space available league-wide should theoretically decrease Beasley’s market value. I also went into how if Hernangomez is going to be negotiating for an annual salary under the $9 million per season line that he might be impacted by a lack of cap space in a way that is less advantageous to the Timberwolves pursuit of retaining him.

But I think the question here is more getting at the sample size of those players play more than it is about economic pushes and pulls of lacking games. While Beasley and Hernangomez will have only played in 14 games for the Timberwolves if the regular season does not resume, they both did quite a lot within that limited sample. Both given the opportunity to start — something rare for them in Denver — suggested that a larger role does not hurt their efficiency. This whole efficiency notion is largely buoyed by the fact that both players shot over 42% from 3 in those games. But they also showed chops elsewhere — at least in counting stats. Hernangomez averaged 13 points and 7.0 rebounds a night while Beasley blew up, scoring 21 points per game, tacking on 5.0 boards and 2.0 assists to his stat line.

A more complete picture would have obviously came into focus had the two players been able to play in the final 18 games of the season, but they really did make a lot out of the time they were given. Had Beasley duplicated his first 14 games, maybe his market could have ticked up a bit more. But there is no guarantee that he would have continued his torrid shooting. I don’t feel either player’s market value needed 18 more games. They both made the point that they can be more than the bit role players they were asked to be in Denver.

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