A lot is going on in the NBA right now. Just a few short weeks ago, the trade talks around the league were starting to heat up. The Indiana Pacers are looking to rebuild, Damian Lillard might want out, and we still don’t know what’s going on with Ben Simmons. All that buzz seems like a distant memory as Omicron sweeps through the league, crippling franchises into postponing games or signing guys like Greg Monroe.
The sudden scramble for the NBA might have been a blessing in disguise for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The frenetic desire to improve the team was met with the vast majority of the NBA taking their COVID lumps. A look around the Western Conference shows that, despite the bizarre circumstances of this season, the Wolves are alright. It makes me think the team would be best served to ride this season out rather than make a big-splash move.
At 15-17, I can’t say that things have gone totally according to plan. The Wolves have put together a pair of multi-game losing streaks and have looked lost and confused at times. But sometimes, they have looked dangerous. Minnesota’s defense has been equal parts dynamic and deficient. They are swarming and unrelenting when it’s working, putting immense pressure on their opponents. When it’s not working, It looks like this:
No, the Timberwolves have found themselves in the heat of the race for a play-in spot because the rest of the West has been incredibly disappointing. Even though the Wolves are two games under .500, they are only two games behind the fifth-seed Los Angeles Clippers. With 40% of the season behind the Wolves, it seems like they have a good shot at making the playoffs as constructed. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR projections give the Timberwolves a 53% chance at making the playoffs. I like those odds.
I’ve been one of the biggest proponents for the Wolves making a trade. I’ve written about it a lot. My main argument is that The Wolves bench unit is one of the worst in the league. If they could swing a trade for someone who can run the unit more effectively, that could improve the team drastically without having to give up as many assets as it would to get the “Great Australian Whale” that is Ben Simmons.
Admittedly, finding the “who” to fill that role is challenging. I posed Caris LeVert as an option, but he has been disappointing this year and his injury history is concerning. I thought Kemba Walker could be a cheap and interesting option, but he has had a 44-point outburst followed by a triple-double in front of the home crowd since re-entering the New York Knicks’ rotation. Just like that, my dreams of trading Jake Layman, Josh Okogie, and a future first-round pick for Walker were crushed.
But just when one dream was crushed, another was created. Jaylen Nowell has taken advantage of the extra opportunity despite all the Wolves players missing time in the COVID protocols. Over the last four games, he’s played 20 minutes per game and scored 12 points per contest. Malik Beasley has also found a groove over this stretch. He’s scoring 21 points per game while shooting 37.7% from the 3-point line.
The signs from the bench unit are promising. The Wolves’ starting group is one of the best in the league, so if the guys in the second unit can start to contribute, that could mean big things for Minnesota’s playoff hopes. Continued growth from the bench could change the entire outlook of the future — the bench unit is incredibly young. Regardless, the Wolves should be able to make the play-in as constructed. And I know everyone wants to see what Anthony Edwards can do in a win-or-go-home type of game. The Wolves need as much opportunity to see just how good all of their young guys are before they make any sort of shake-up.
Additionally, there are financial incentives to wait this out. Right now, the Wolves are about $25 million over the salary cap. Because of that, there is very little financial flexibility in trade conversations. It’s not hard for the Wolves to match salaries in any trade because they’ve got Beasley, Patrick Beverley, and Taurean Prince on mid-sized deals. However, that also means that any significant move virtually has to involve at least one of those three players.
If the Wolves wait until the offseason — more specifically, after the draft — they project to be $10 million under the cap once they’ve signed their draft pick. Barring any extensions this season, that means the Wolves will have more operating room when discussing trade options. In theory, they would be able to trade Jaden McDaniels alone for a player that makes as much as $12 million. By waiting until the offseason to make a trade, the Wolves can have the best of both worlds: making the playoffs this year and setting themselves up to take another step forward in the future.