Stop the count!
The Timberwolves are on a two-game winning streak. Were the season to end right now, they would be the 11th seed in the West.
You know, that sentence started out great, but by the time I got to the “11th seed in the West” part, I feel like it kind of lost its luster. So, let’s check back in next week to see if it’s time to stop the count, or if the Wolves need more games to climb back into the play-in mix.
Today, in honor of this phenomenal winning streak, I’ve got to add a little bit of sourness into the positive Timberwolves discourse this week. A 6-9 record is nice, but I can’t help but feel a little sting looking around the league. The Wolves were without a pick in last year’s draft. Many thought the 2021 draft class was a five-player draft, but so far, the class has shown an incredible amount of depth. I think we will look back five years from now and realize that 2021 was a bad year for Minnesota to be without their top-10 pick.
This year, the Wolves were without their first- and second-round draft picks because of the “Wiggins tax.” That is to say, the price of doing business with the Golden State Warriors. Former GM Gersson Rosas dumped Andrew Wiggins’ max salary for the more palatable max-player D’Angelo Russell.
Whether DLo is better than Wiggins doesn’t matter here. I’d even go so far as to say it doesn’t matter that Russell is unquestionably not two draft picks worth of value better than Wiggins. That is simply the price the Wolves had to pay to move on from a player who had worn out his welcome in Minnesota.
What does matter is that the Timberwolves missed out on this year’s draft. When the Russell trade was executed, the idea was that Minnesota’s roster was good enough to hang around the play-in mix. Unfortunately, injury and coaching hampered the Wolves’ upside potential, and the team lived in squalor at the bottom of the Western Conference.
When the Wolves replaced Ryan Saunders was with Chris Finch, the team showed signs of improvement quickly. Minnesota faced a difficult predicament. They traded a top-three protected pick to Golden State. Would the Wolves hold back their young team from pushing to win every night to improve their lottery odds and odds of keeping their pick? Or would they tank for a chance to draft Cade Cunningham, the darling of this year’s draft class?
Minnesota opted to win as many games as it could. At the time, it seemed like the right move. Draftniks had hailed this class as having five players who could be stars: Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Jonathan Kuminga, and Jalen Suggs.
With the flattened lottery odds, the Wolves had no guarantee they would keep their pick even with the worst record in the league. It was imperative to give the Warriors the worst odds at nabbing one of those five players. Dylan wrote a great piece about it here.
Well, the Wolves ended up with the seventh pick, and the Warriors drafted Kuminga, one of the “five best players in the draft.” The Wolves accomplished their goal, I guess? They showed signs of improvement and reason for optimism heading into this season while also icing the Warriors out of a top-five pick.
The only problem is that this year’s draft ended up being a lot deeper than many had imagined.
The top-10 picks in this class have shown more promise overall than the 2020 draft. I’m not sure if there is a better player in this year’s class than either Anthony Edwards or LaMelo Ball. But through and through, the top 10 this year has shown more upside than last year.
At the risk of opening a can of worms that I really don’t want to open, I won’t go into too many what-if scenarios. But what if the Wolves had managed to secure tighter protections on the draft picks they traded. Would two lottery-protected or top-10 protected firsts be more valuable to Golden State than a top-three protected first and a second? Should the Wolves have tanked in hopes of adding Cunningham, Mobley, or Barnes?
These are hard questions to answer.
What we know is that Mobley and Barnes are already contributing to winning for their teams, a rare feat for a rookie. We know Josh Giddey, Davion Mitchell, and Ziaire Williams have regular rotation minutes for play-in teams. Cunningham and Green haven’t gotten off to the greatest starts, but they are both dripping with potential.
Suggs is probably the disappointment of the top 10 but has shown flashes, especially defensively, that suggest he can drastically improve. I don’t want to talk about Franz Wagner.
As for Kuminga, he’s yet to secure regular rotation minutes with the Warriors, who currently hold the best record in the league. Though he isn’t polished, his size and athleticism are promising. He’s yet to show an excellent feel for the game. But in his limited minutes with the Warriors, he’s shown a knack for getting to the basket and solidity on the defensive end.
There’s no telling how Kuminga’s career will pan out. We also don’t know whether he is a part of the next generation of Warriors or an asset to acquire another player. Either way, he provides distinct value to that franchise.
Losing out on last year’s draft pick is just another chapter in the 32-year-old book of “Nothing Seems to Go Right for the Timberwolves.”