Are the Wolves Going to Bring Back Vanderbilt and J-Mac?

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn (USA TODAY Sports)

October 19, 2021. That is the day that Minnesota Timberwolves basketball returns.

It seems like just yesterday I was lamenting over the doldrums of Wolves ball. The team was playing better, but to what end? The late-season push, albeit exciting, ended up losing the team their first-round pick this season. They are walking a financial tightrope, and without many ways to improve, a top-three pick felt like the bailout of the century.

This offseason, Rosas and Co. will be put to their hardest test yet. The Wolves have no pick, no cap room, and very little flexibility. But we are entering Year 3 of the Prosas, and the pressure for this team to compete is paramount. If there is one thing we’ve learned about Gersson Rosas and his staff, it’s that they have an ability to make something out of nothing. In February 2020, Rosas flipped Robert Covington and four players who are now nearly out of the league for Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Jarred Vanderbilt, and last year’s No. 17 pick. Through some sort of NBA front office dark alchemy, that pick and James Johnson brought Ricky Rubio back to Minnesota along with Jaden McDaniels and the future face of the franchise, Leandro Bolmaro.

There has been much ado made about the Timberwolves trading for a player who could kick start their climb toward contention. I’ve been championing that the Wolves trade for Ben Simmons since before it was cool. But as more teams join the race for Simmons, Minnesota may be on the outside looking in. Myles Turner’s name has come up in trade rumors, but I seriously question the fit. Their John Collins hopes may have gone by the wayside after the Atlanta Hawks made their run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

So how can the Wolves improve this offseason? First, they have to figure out what they’ll do with their own free agents.

I won’t get too far into the financial nitty-gritty, but I will note that Bolmaro will be joining Minnesota after the Olympics. Assuming that Naz Reid’s contract gets guaranteed on July 30, that leaves the Wolves with 13 roster spots filled. Bolmaro’s rookie scale should have him signing for about $2 million, which means the Wolves will have about $1 million under the luxury line to work with. Since this team hasn’t even sniffed the playoffs, it feels imperative that they avoid the tax. Jaylen Nowell has a midseason guarantee date, and the Wolves have Jake Layman’s $3.9 million contract that is very movable. So even if they dip into the tax, getting out before season’s end should be no problem.

The Wolves have two roster spots to fill. With those two spots, they can opt to bring back Vanderbilt and Jordan McLaughlin or use their MLE ($5.89 million) to bring in some veteran help. Let’s start with the most glaring need, power forward.

Hernangomez separated his shoulder during a scrimmage with the Spanish national team. He’ll be sidelined for several months leaving Minnesota’s power forward spot thinner than McDaniels. I’ve seen more than enough Josh Okogie minutes at power forward for this lifetime. However, the Wolves don’t have very much money to work with, and I wouldn’t consider Minnesota a “destination” for free agents. Among the available, one name stands out to me: Nemanja Bjelica.

Bjelly had a down year partially due to an inconsistent role on the Sacramento Kings. But his 3-point percentage jumped up from 29% to 37% after he was traded to the Miami Heat in late March. He is a career 38% 3-point shooter with the ability to attack off the dribble and create for his teammates. This will be his age-33 season, but I think he’s still got gas in the tank. Adding Bjelly to the roster gives the Wolves a player with a similar skillset to Hernangomez while he’s on the mend. Bjelica also gives Rosas the security to trade Juancho’s contract, which has a player option for next season, making it function as an expiring deal. Hernangomez and Rubio’s contracts are a combined $24 million in expiring money that could be an enticing piece of a package for a team looking for some salary relief.

Towns and Reid are the only centers on the roster, so it might be better to opt for a power forward who can slide up in case of injury. The Wolves could look at a few names: Frank Kaminsky, Daniel Theis, Mike Scott, or Harry Giles, whose island I am stranded on with no help in sight. I’ll just leave this here.

It seems as if the Wolves’ most likely course of action is to let Vanderbilt test the RFA market. Much like they did with McLaughlin last year, they can let the market value Vanderbilt before they negotiate with him and hopefully get him on a good deal. McLaughlin went into RFA last season and ended up back on a two-way with the Wolves. Vanderbilt’s qualifying offer is $2 million, and ideally, the Wolves could retain him for that type of annual money with non-guarantees headed into the future. Vando’s ability to play the 4 or the 5 (break in case of emergency) gives the Wolves an affordable, flexible option going forward. And heading into his age-23 season, he still has the upside that other bargain bin power forwards lack.

What the Wolves decide to do with McLaughlin is very interesting. They have two quality point guards in D’Angelo Russell and Ricky Rubio. Jaylen Nowell has also shown the ability to handle point guard duties in brief stretches. However, Russell has consistently missed time due to injury, so the Wolves need a competent third guard.

The headliners among free-agent point guards the Wolves can afford are Ish Smith, Elfrid Payton, and Matthew Dellavedova. There’s been talk about the Wolves trying a run at Alex Caruso, but I think he may get offers above $6 million per year. McLaughlin may be the best option here.

J-Mac has been solid for the Wolves. Among players who played at least 900 minutes last season, McLaughlin was 24th in the NBA in assists per 100 possessions per Stathead, just edging out Russell who ranked 25th. He’s an efficient player who doesn’t make many mistakes. If the Wolves can retain him at a reasonable price, that feels like the best choice for a team without much financial flexibility.

But can the Wolves meaningfully improve if they run it back with the same squad? The hope is that Anthony Edwards’ post-All-Star play is a reflection of what he’ll do this coming season rather than a hot streak. If he can maintain that level of play with Towns, DLo, McDaniels, and Beasley — who had some most improved player chatter before his suspension and subsequent injury — suddenly, the Wolves are looking like a playoff contender in the West. If the Wolves can’t swing a trade for a star, their best course of action is to continue to develop this roster and avoid the luxury tax until they are ready to make a leap.

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