The Wolves Can't Fall Into the Prokhorov Trap

Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Brain Windhorst was on one during his July 1 First Take appearance.

“I’m gonna tell you something that happened yesterday, and league executives are wondering what the heck it means,” he told his bemused colleagues. “And, in fact, it happened within five minutes.”

He pointed to an Adrian Wojnarowski tweet as a hint.

Wojnarowski buried the tweet Windhorst was referencing half an hour later with a more explosive revelation.

“It was a very strange trade,” continued Windhorst, gesturing animatedly throughout. “Very strange trade. You’d really have to be a Jazz or a Nets fan to know what I’m talking about right now.

“They traded Royce O’Neale, who is a role-playing, three-point defensive shooter, to Brooklyn for a future first-round draft pick. So, you’re going, ‘Why do you care about Royce O’Neale? Why does that even matter?’

“Why would the Jazz do that? Why would the Jazz, who have two stars on their roster, take a player who’s one of their starters and one of their best defensive players and trade him in a salary-dumping move? Why would they do that?”

Former Minnesota Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin, who was hosting First Take that morning, asked if the Jazz were making a push for Durant. Her co-host, longtime ESPN radio host Freddie Coleman, wondered if Utah would be part of a three-way trade.

“What happened that same year?” Windhorst continued, hardly containing his excitement about his scoop. “What did he do? He hired this young coach who never coached in the NBA before, and he gave him a long contract. He gave Brad Stevens a six-year contract.

“Will Hardy, who [Utah] just hired, could potentially be a great young coach. They gave him a five-year contract. Very rare for a first-time head coach to get a five-year contract. Why? What’s going on in Utah?”

Of course, now we all know what Windy was referring to.

But he said something interesting to finish off the segment.

“I think the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns need to find out what’s going in Utah as well,” Windhorst offered. “Because what else happened that first year Brad Stevens got hired? Danny Ainge traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.”

Wojnarowski broke the news that the Minnesota Timberwolves were trading for Rudy Gobert just after 2:30 pm that afternoon. Utah got a haul for Gobert:

Bobby Marks was among the ESPN analysts breaking down the blockbuster trade that afternoon. The former Nets executive spent 20 years with the organization, which was originally based in New Jersey. He started as an intern in 1995 and rose to assistant general manager in 2010.

In 2013, he was part of the front office that traded for Paul Pierce and KG. They were past their primes at the time. Pierce was 36; KG, 37. But Brooklyn still paid a pretty penny for them.

The Nets traded:

In return, they got:

  • Kevin Garnett
  • Paul Pierce
  • The 27th overall pick in 2017 and a second-round pick that year

The Nets eventually fizzled out. Pierce spent one year there; they traded KG to the Wolves halfway through his second season with them. The picks Celtics GM Danny Ainge acquired in the trade helped him build the foundation of Boston’s next core. He traded the first-overall pick he received from Brooklyn in 2017 for No. 3 overall and took Jayson Tatum, and used the 2016 first-rounder on Jaylen Brown.

Tatum and Brown led the Celtics to the Finals this year.

Brooklyn rebuilt their team. They reached the first round with Kenny Atkinson as their head coach and D’Angelo Russell as their point guard, tore that down, and tried to build a superteam around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Now KD wants out, and Kyrie hardly plays.

They fired their longest-tenured front-office employee, Marks, in 2015. He spent two years at Yahoo before joining ESPN in 2017.

Marks called Minnesota’s Gobert trade a “swing for the fences”-type deal. “You better hit on it. That better be your foundation player, your franchise player.” He further mentioned that Gobert still has four years left on his 5-year, $205 million deal, so they know they can keep him in Minnesota and that he’s only 30.

“Gobert is a better player in the prime of his career,” acknowledged Marks. “But when you trade all those assets out and it doesn’t work, you’re probably sitting in the spot I am right now. In a media role.”

The be fair to Marks, ownership pushed for the trade at the time. Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets in 2010 and pledged to spend money to turn them into a winner. He moved them from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012 and redid their logo and uniforms. Prokhorov was making a push to try to steal basketball fans who had become disenchanted by the New York Knicks.

Instead, the team flopped after the trade. Prokhorov became parsimonious and sold the Nets to Joe Tsai in 2019.

The Nets can survive a failed transaction because they play in the largest TV market in the United States. They may have moved between New York and New Jersey throughout the franchise’s tenure, but they weren’t going to suddenly relocate to Seattle or Vegas if the trade didn’t work out.

However, that’s always a concern in Minnesota. Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez have pledged to keep the Timberwolves in Minneapolis and frequently attend games at Target Center. They’re also pushing majority owner Glen Taylor to spend money before eventually taking over.

The Wolves paid Tim Connelly $40 million and gave him equity incentives to woo him away from the Denver Nuggets. They gave Karl-Anthony Towns the supermax, have D’Angelo Russell on the last year of a max contract and will have to pay Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels eventually. Add Gobert’s max deal to the mix, and suddenly they’re spending championship-level money on a team that blew three double-digit leads to the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs.

Connelly was wise to hold onto McDaniels, a budding star, even though it cost him four first-round picks and Kessler. He also could trade Russell or allow his contract to come off the books next year. But Lore and Rodriguez are tossing around fun coupons, and owners will sometimes turn off the money tap once the new-car smell wears off of their franchise.

Not only did Connelly make a trade with Ainge, who pulled off a heist when he traded for Garnett, but he’s mortgaged the future for a player on the wrong side of 30. The Wolves recently got burned when they didn’t protect their first-round pick enough in the Russell trade. Now they’re doing it again.

Marks fired off a warning shot when he broke down the trade details. Maybe Connelly found the perfect complement for KAT. Perhaps those picks won’t be worth much because the Wolves have a playoff core and will be drafting late every year.

But if this turns into a modern-day Herschel Walker trade, Connelly will be breaking down transactions on ESPN after Windhorst hints at them on the morning programming. And if that’s the case, where will the Wolves be playing once he’s gone?

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