Well, it’s that time of the year again.
The season is over. That’s really all that there is to say: It’s over. And that’s fine. Karl-Anthony Towns’ injury sent them plummeting to not only the 15th-seed in the West, but they are a team that needed 22 points out of Malik Beasley in the final nine minutes of the game to only lose by five points to the Dallas Mavericks, the 14th-seed in the West, earlier this month.
Seriously, I’ve been writing about how telling small sample sizes can be as benchmarks on the way to wherever the Wolves want to go, and this was the most significant one yet. When a 14th seed cruises out to a 20-point lead against the 15th seed, it doesn’t matter who is missing. If they need a superhuman performance out of Beasley to be competitive with their near neighbors at the bottom of the standings, what’s going on here? Is that same team going to be competitive against the seventh or eighth seed in a play-in tournament, because Towns can’t play all 48 minutes the entire playoffs?
From the moment I started writing here, I’ve been banging the drum for a complete teardown.
And, well, for a guy who has disagreed with Gersson Rosas on his big decisions, this all comes back to one player: KAT. How do you build around KAT?
Here’s my question: Are we sure you can build around KAT?
Yes, the timing of this question is really unfortunate and might look a little heartless. Towns has gone through a year of tragedy that makes basketball feel insignificant, and that should be acknowledged.
But the player that the Wolves thought they were drafting in 2015, the one who was an every-night defender, is not the player that they got. Maybe we were so excited about his unexpected offensive contributions that we never properly reassessed if this was still a player who could be the focal point of a championship team?
Consider this: Even when KAT isn’t involved on the defensive end, he still needs a ball-handling perimeter player to handle the aspects of the offense that he isn’t able to shoulder, mainly penetrating and pick-and-roll play. If that other perimeter player isn’t an offensive star, the Wolves have gone nowhere. If that other perimeter player isn’t engaged defensively, the team can’t hang tough against other contenders.
So, the Wolves need to pair Towns with a two-way perimeter star. … How many of those are available in a given season? One, two, maybe three in a crazy year?
How many of these players even exist in the NBA at a given time? 10?
Now, consider this: The Timberwolves already had one of those incredibly scarce players in Jimmy Butler, and he didn’t want to play with Towns. He ended up demanding a trade, but only after joining forces with two bench players to demolish KAT in a scrimmage.
At this point, especially considering that we should be viewing their selection at first overall as an uncertainty, their window around KAT likely is closing faster than most people would like to think. The cap sheet is a mess, they have a 60% chance of losing their first-round pick (and that’s the best-case scenario), and they are 15th in the West. We should be looking forward to 2021-22, but by then the Timberwolves will only have KAT under contract for the next three seasons.
Consider the likelihood that the Wolves can, in three seasons:
- Figure out how to get off of Russell without impeding their ability to sign yet another max-contract player to try to pair with Towns if the KAT-DLo duo doesn’t work
- Land a max contract player
- Draft/develop young players who will provide cost-effective value in the playoffs
Because that is what it is going to take to have a prayer at getting KAT to re-up in Minnesota. Realistically speaking, the Wolves will not risk trying to meet these parameters in the final season of KAT’s contract, as playing chicken with an expiring superstar on the trade market is too dangerous a game to play with the only surefire trade piece on the team. Basically, if this checklist isn’t complete by the first game of the 2023-24 season, I would hope that the Timberwolves are not stubbornly holding onto Towns still.
With the 2020-21 season basically over before it started, and the 2023-24 season too risky to count on as part of the window of construction, the Wolves should be looking towards and targeting the 2022-23 season as their liftoff date, right? They’ve got all sorts of time then, right?
Not really. It’s currently February of 2021. The 2022 season should, hopefully, be starting in the late fall of 2022.
Between then, the Timberwolves have exactly two drafts and two free agency periods to assemble exactly what they need to keep Towns in Minnesota. If they truly are only one small piece away, I guess you could consider the time before the trade deadline of the 2022-23 season as the very edge of the runway.
As of right now, here are the eight players who are currently under contract through the 2022-23 season:
- Karl-Anthony Towns
- D’Angelo Russell
- Malik Beasley
- Anthony Edwards
- Jarrett Culver
- Juan Hernangomez
- Jaden McDaniels
- Naz Reid
- Jaylen Nowell
And remember, this is not a guarantee that these other players (10, if you count Josh Okogie and Jarred Vanderbilt, who will have gone through restricted free agency before the start of that season) will be here through the trade deadline of this year. As a reminder, of the 21 players who were rostered for the Timberwolves two seasons ago, only two of them remain: KAT and Okogie.
Out of these eight players, how many of them do you feel good about being consistent contributors in Minnesota alongside KAT?
For me, there are two players that I feel pretty confident about, and one that I am hopeful can be dependable at some point.
I feel confident about Malik Beasley and Jarrett Culver. They are both proving they can fill roles on this team. The expectations are lower for Culver than they were on draft night last year, but if this season can be seen as a floor for a 22-year-old player, I can live with that, even if it’s only as a bench contributor with a potential starter upside.
The two players I am hopeful for are Jarred Vanderbilt and Naz Reid. Reid has been one of the most efficient scorers on the Timberwolves this season, and Vanderbilt is a player who can be trusted to give effort and energy the whole time he’s on the floor.
As far as the two notable exceptions to those four players, it’s all quite logical: Russell has been completely unable to maintain an even somewhat competitive team during the time KAT has missed. Why would I feel comfortable continuing to shell out for a max contract to a player who is an awful defender and apparently can’t weather the storm and provide some consistency offensively when KAT is on the bench? Not to mention, if Beasley is basically providing the offensive scoring contributions expected of DLo, and at a much more efficient clip so far, why do we need a third poor defender to pair alongside Bealey and KAT who will only siphon mid-range shots away from those two?
As far as Edwards goes, I’ve written about him multiple times, and have walked away feeling more vindicated on my draft analysis after every week of underwhelming play. I won’t change my tune on a player who consistently and repeatedly takes awful shots until they stop taking those awful shots. It’s the same reason why I haven’t once taken KAT’s claims that he’s about to return to the defensive prowess that he showcased at Kentucky at face value once he’s shown that he’s an indifferent NBA defender.
For those two, it’s a question of “will they?” not “can they?”
I guess that’s what makes them so frustrating to realists, yet so enticing to optimists.
From where I stand, the Wolves have a centerpiece, two guys who should be able to fill roles, two guys who might be able to fill a role, and two guys that should but so far have not been able to fill a role.
Even if both of the maybes work out, and one of the talented-yet-underachieving hyped scorers decides to start playing basketball with purpose, the Wolves are looking at filling, what, four rotational contributors, one of them likely being a two-way, max-contract-worthy stud, all in two drafts and two free agency periods?
That margin for error is, in a word, small.
Considering that there is only a 40% chance of retaining the first round pick that the Warriors currently own, that margin for error is almost nonexistent.
You’re going to tell me that the Wolves, who haven’t drafted, traded, or signed free agents well in most of their existence, are suddenly going to go on a two-year team-building run for the ages?
Not to mention, depending on any rookie — even a top pick — to be able to contribute meaningfully in a playoff push in their first season is a complete longshot, statistically. And this isn’t me comparing Anthony Edwards to the other top-five picks in his draft class, this is comparing a rookie to the established veterans of the league.
That’s what makes this Edwards situation so much more frustrating: It was the only surefire chance to grab a top pick to salvage the KAT situation, or start anew. Instead, the Wolves landed a guy who isn’t helping the KAT situation, or a guy you can build around without him.
Because when you look at the Timberwolves’ carnival of disappointment in the KAT era, one theme stands out time and time again:
In 2016, Tom Thibodeau and Layden draft Kris Dunn over the much younger and offensively potent Jamal Murray, because they think they have all the offense they need in KAT, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine.
In 2017, Thibs and Layden trade away Dunn, a pick, and the still meteorically improving LaVine for Butler. They chose to keep Wiggins, who despite being in the same situation and draft class as LaVine, didn’t improve dramatically in three seasons. Then they give Wiggins one of the biggest contracts in NBA history after being given his word that he’ll try harder.
In 2018, Butler comes to management and tells them that he can’t play with Wiggins and Towns. Butler forces his way out. He was dramatic, but that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong about KAT and Wiggins, and things just… go back to the way they’ve always been run.
Under new management in 2019, the Timberwolves agree to a trade hours before the draft and announce their plans to take their point guard of the future, who ends up being selected a pick before their new slot. Then, instead of sticking it out with the pick they do have, they crash his trade value to the floor by constantly shopping him around the league, despite actually showing multi-game stretches of promise.
A year later they trade Wiggins and a scantily protected first rounder in a dynamite draft class and take back a deeply flawed player who may be a poor on-court fit with their remaining franchise cornerstone.
And, in the 2020 draft, they are unable to get value for their pick and gamble on a heavily hyped wing coming off an underwhelming college season and without a single can’t-miss offensive skillset.
That is a recipe towards going 139-195. Take out the games Jimmy Butler played, because he clearly read the writing on the wall and fled to Miami, and the team was 100-166.
All it would’ve taken to avoid literally every single one of these mistakes was a hard, impartial look at the roster. Not buying into the self-created hype, not wanting to believe that the higher-picked or -ranked a player is, the better their career will turn out. Not seeing what you want to believe.
Because it’s not too late to start on that track.
If the Timberwolves decided to start doing this — better late than never — they would realize that perpetuating this hopeless situation is a lost cause.
Trade KAT while you can still get the king’s ransom for him.