With D'Angelo Russell, Glen Taylor is Letting Gersson Rosas Do His Thing

Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Glen Taylor eats a piece of hamburger-topped pizza after every Minnesota Timberwolves home game. In the bowels of Target Center, there is a miniature kitchen that serves up frozen pizzas and Bud Light after games that the franchise’s owner always hits on his way out. After Wednesday evening’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks, Taylor moved in for a slice when a friend of his who had attended the game with he and his wife Becky reminded Taylor that Atlanta is one of the worst teams in the league.

With a smiling cackle, Taylor questioned out loud: “What does that make us then?”

About 14 hours later, Taylor signed off on a trade that brought D’Angelo Russell to Minnesota. And it was no ordinary trade; for Russell’s services, Minnesota gave up their highest-paid player on the roster and the franchise’s longest-tenured piece other than Gorgui Dieng, who would also be traded two hours later. Andrew Wiggins, a player Taylor “looked in the eye” before signing to a maximum contract extension in the summer of 2017, was sent out to Golden State along with a lightly protected first-round pick in the 2021 draft and a second-round pick that same year. It was a raging rebellion against the losing ways the franchise felt cemented in.

If you’re concerned about Russell as a fit next to Karl-Anthony Towns, the draft capital was a large penance to pay for a player Taylor and the franchise was so heavily invested in. Wiggins had three years and $94 million left on that max contract. Trading him was a public indictment of the logic that went into signing Wiggins to that deal in the first place. It was boldly admitting fault in the name of change. On top of all of that, though, it was absolutely the right move given the path Minnesota is on.

When Taylor signed the paperwork that made Gersson Rosas the franchise’s new president of basketball of operations, he signed up for a pivot — a redirection that signaled all of this was coming. Hiring Rosas meant they were tearing it down to the studs. It meant no one on the roster outside of the stud, Karl-Anthony Towns, was safe. It meant change. Massive change.

If Taylor had wanted to take a more linear path to growth, he would have hired one of the known commodities that they interviewed for the position — Chauncey Billups or Calvin Booth, two former Timberwolves players familiar with the way Taylor has historically done things. Which, to be clear, was the wrong way. The list of top-down errors Taylor passed along from ownership to basketball operations ranged in nature from illegal (Joe Smith) to incompetent (David Kahn).

So when Taylor messed around and grabbed a slice of pepperoni in Rosas, we should have known this was going to be different.

Photo Credit: Timberwolves.com

At his introductory press conference in May of 2019, Rosas made it clear that the Wolves were going to be doing things differently. It sounded a bit cliche, but he did warn the fanbase. He said they would think differently because they had to. In a league full of front offices who have cut out the fat of poor decision-makers in those roles, the margin for error was thin. Rosas made it clear that every team is smart these days. Well, every franchise but the Timberwolves. Not only would they have to stop being a team the smart front offices picked on, but they would also need to find a new set of tactics that made them the bully.

For a while there, Rosas’ “actions over words” and “alignment” mantras began to feel tired. What was the action? We knew everybody on the business side was cool with the basketball side. Great. But what would that do? It certainly looked like a whole lot of nothing for a while there. The opportunity cost of fluffing this new system triangulated its way onto the actual basketball floor, leading to lots of losing.

The few moves Rosas made early on looked at best to be underwhelming and at worst hot air. Before the trades this week, the feather in Rosas’ cap was a fruitless free agency pursuit of Russell. Reframed, a plan that led to the contingency of signing Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Shabazz Napier, Jordan Bell and Treveon Graham. Russell literally did nothing for the Wolves by signing with the Warriors, and the other five broadly followed suit in nothingness. The boldest real move was trading up in the draft for Jarrett Culver — a risk which has shown a few blips on the radar while ultimately feeling underwhelming. Things were getting dicey.

But none of that mattered much in Rosas’ eyes. It was intentional that none of the contingency vets that were signed carried a heavy financial burden, making them easy to swing in a trade — as four of the five eventually were. Turns out they were all pawns — tertiary pieces on the chessboard — which Rosas would willingly sacrifice along with a knight and a bishop in Wiggins and Robert Covington to land a theoretical queen next to KAT’s king.

Ultimately, in just eight months, Rosas and his front office traded every player they inherited from the Tom Thibodeau regime other than Towns and Josh Okogie. Yes, the 21-year-old Okogie now holds Wiggins’ old role of second longest-tenured Timberwolf.

How they got to where the Timberwolves currently stand is a bear to unpack. But a key variable is Taylor. Specifically, his staying out of the way. The owner not only signed off on the Red Wedding but paid out for it. After the roster overhaul came to a close at 2 p.m. Central on Feb. 6, the Wolves were not only remade but much more expensive. Rosas added so much salary in the sequence of moves that the team now sits $1.8 million over the league’s luxury tax line. Not only does Taylor need to incur approximately $10 million in additional salary on the books, but he is also going to have to pay out a tax payment of nearly $3 million to the teams around the league who are not a luxury taxpayer.

A team source confirmed that the sequence of moves did, in fact, push the franchise into the tax and that Taylor approved the added expense.

Two of those teams who will receive dividends from the Wolves tax payment are the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. Not only by trading Russell, but also by sending Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman to Minnesota in the process, Golden State — who is printing money in their new stadium — ducked the tax. Trading Covington to the Rockets also allowed Houston general manager Daryl Morey to get his franchise out of the tax. Owners hate paying the tax when they don’t feel they have a chance at a championship. Taylor is paying it for a team that hasn’t come close to filling half of the stadium at home games and only has 15 wins in 50 games.

It’s not so much the paying up that Wolves fans should be encouraged by — Taylor is very rich — it’s the autonomy that he has given Rosas to do his thing. Taylor seems to be trusting the process. And to believe in this process is to have some blind faith. I highly doubt Taylor understands every mechanic of the four-team trade with Denver, Houston and Atlanta — that sent out Covington, Napier, Bell, Vonleh and Keita Bates-Diop. And I’d be willing to wager he just nodded along when the Wolves decided to get involved in a three-team trade with Miami and Memphis — that sent out Dieng, bringing in James Johnson.

It’s imperative to understand that Taylor being this type of owner is critical to a process like this, which has just begun. The success of the ever-evolving plan Rosas and his second in command, Sachin Gupta, are executing is explicitly tied to the ability to use every resource at their disposal. To win, they need to be able to: send out cash in trades if the market calls for it, use every salary-cap exception available and be able to go into the luxury tax when deemed necessary. That absolutely requires buy-in from ownership.

The Wolves are not going to build a contender like the Los Angeles teams did. They don’t have the sunshine and celebrity influence to entice players to sign in Minnesota. If they did, Russell would have signed here this summer. Russell chose California and the Warriors over Minnesota. Not mincing words, this trade forces Russell to play for the Timberwolves.

Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The process, if that’s what we’re calling it, also requires being strategic about the paths taken for signing free agents. The return in the Covington trade — Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez and Jarred Vanderbilt — serve as the example here. Beasley and Hernangomez are going to be free agents this summer. Had the Wolves wanted to outright sign them in July, they would have had to jump around and through hoops that would have hamstrung their other pursuits.

As a specific example, assume they love the idea of pairing Beasley — a knockdown shooter who can play on the move — with Towns. Well, to have landed him without this trade, the Wolves would have needed to make a competitive (read: expensive) contract offer this summer that Denver would have had the right to match, forcing Beasley to stay a Nugget. But even before that part of the puzzle, Beasley would have needed to agree to sign an offer sheet in Minnesota. We sure he would have signed an offer sheet with the Wolves over another team with cap space, like Miami?

That negotiation likely would have ended before it started. Further, the Wolves weren’t going to have cap space in the first place — even before the Teague trade, the Wolves had over $100 million committed for next season to just seven players. They didn’t have money to offer Beasley on the market without at least one of those bloated salaries being dumped. Sure, they could have offered Beasley their mid-level exception ($9.8 million), but would he have accepted that? Beasley turned down a three-year, $30 million extension from Denver this past summer.

By having Beasley’s rights (and this goes for Hernangomez, too), the hurdle of peeling him away from the vice grips of restricted free agency has been removed. The cap space that would need to be created is no longer a need. As a bonus: the mid-level exception can now theoretically be used to go out and sign someone else on the open market. That’s a pile of mini bets that are likely to turn into a profit in the aggregate.

Now, they paid a hefty price to acquire these rights. Covington was traded for two first-round picks. The lesser of the picks (Houston 2020) was functionally flipped for Beasley, Hernangomez and Vanderbilt. Covington’s value has to be considered in all of this, too.

So… was that worth it? Time will tell. But as the hourglass spills, this all cannot be viewed in a vacuum; every move is a different sprawling ball of yarn. Reflecting on the day, every move deserves its own analysis with a grade that ultimately stands as incomplete. The next chapters have yet to be written. An element to be assessed in the now is Taylor. His willingness to close his eyes and tie the pieces of yarn together makes this all go. Not to mention, a crisis averted in the process.

It’s weird to write an appreciation of Glen Taylor column on the day he indicts himself for the foolish signing of Wiggins. But this is all a game of three-dimensional chess. They might ultimately lose this game — it’s still an uphill battle — but without Wiggins, they’re no longer in checkmate.

Time for a piece of pizza and a beer. Hold the hamburger.

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