The Wolves Have Spent On Style. Will They On Substance?

Photo Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Jaylen Nowell describes his path to becoming the Minnesota Timberwolves’ sixth man as a long, dark hallway. The Wolves took him in the second round of the 2019 draft after he was named the Pac-12 player of the year. Nowell was an accomplished player. He played at Garfield High School, a basketball powerhouse in Seattle, and averaged 16 points per game in his two years at the University of Washington. However, he only played in 15 NBA games as a rookie and 42 the following season.

Last year, he showed signs of promise, though. He played in 62 games, highlighted by a 29-point effort in Minnesota’s late-December win over the Boston Celtics. Nowell was 6 of 9 from three and scored 29 points against the Eastern Conference champions. However, despite shooting 39.4% from three on the season, he played fewer minutes and averaged fewer points than he did in 2020-21.

But Nowell is showing out in a defined role this season. Malik Beasley was Minnesota’s sixth man last year, but they moved him in the Rudy Gobert trade. In the offseason, Chris Finch made it clear that Nowell had the opportunity to replace Beasley as the first player off the bench. Beasley was a great shooter, but Nowell is a more dynamic player. He’s a creative three-level scorer who can also handle the ball and initiate the offense.

Nowell has become a player-development success story for the Timberwolves, an organization that needs to focus on that area given their market size and Minnesota’s cold winters. He says he forged his patience and perspective in his darkest days. Stephon Marbury famously left because of the thermostat. Few players will join the Wolves in free agency, given the team’s track record of losing, the bitter temperatures, and because they play in a mid-sized city.

However, few franchises benefit from being free-agent destinations. The Los Angeles Lakers will always be a draw because of their history of winning, 70-and-sunny winters, and they’re in the nation’s second-largest market. But the New York Knicks falter because of poor ownership, and the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers’ efforts at a manufactured Big 3 haven’t worked out so far.

Conversely, the Denver Nuggets are in a similar-sized market, have cold winters, and are perennial winners. The Utah Jazz are in a much smaller, cold-weather city and had plenty of regular-season success until they blew up their team in the offseason. The Milwaukee Bucks recently won a championship. Minnesota’s plight isn’t simply skyline and snowflakes. It’s that they’ve been mismanaged since their Western Conference run in 2003-04.

Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, Minnesota’s owners-in-waiting, appear conscious of that and seem willing to change the narrative. They moved swiftly in cleaning house, removing Gersson Rosas after he created a poor culture and had an affair with an employee. They spent $40 million to replace him with Tim Connelly, the general manager behind Denver’s recent success. Connelly signed Karl-Anthony Towns to a $224 million supermax extension and executed a blockbuster trade for Rudy Gobert.

Extending Towns is a straightforward yet expensive move. Still, Connelly avoided muddling it as David Kahn did with Kevin Love. Signing Connelly and trading for Gobert catch people’s attention, though. Connelly was content in Denver, and Wolves ownership offered him a big payday and equity incentives to bring him to Minneapolis. Similarly, the Timberwolves could have tinkered with their 46-win roster from last year. Instead, they chose to overhaul it. Trading for Gobert caught the national media’s attention because of the cost of trading for him and because the Wolves are going with a two-big strategy in a league that’s gotten smaller.

There is some substance to Minnesota’s headline-grabbing moves. Replacing Rosas with Connelly improves the culture. Towns is a foundational player, even if Anthony Edwards becomes the Wolves’ superstar. Gobert will improve their defense and rebounding, two follies in their playoff loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last season. Each of those moves will grab more headlines than signing Nowell, even if he becomes one of the league’s premier sixth men.

In late October, Shams Charania reported that the Wolves have engaged in extension discussions with Nowell. However, he is expected to bypass a new deal and enter unrestricted free agency next year. Maybe Nowell is looking for an even bigger role, or perhaps he feels this is the best way to drive value for himself. If Nowell continues to be Minnesota’s best bench scorer, he could make $60 to $80 million on his next contract. $100 million isn’t outside of the realm of possibility.

That’s serious money. But signing Nowell won’t drive headlines like signing Connelly or trading Gobert did. Still, it’s a foundational move. Every good team has depth and usually has a dynamic scorer who they can deploy off the bench. An organization may see Nowell’s pathway to the league and assume they have the infrastructure to develop another late-round pick into a star. Therefore, they don’t need to spend big on the one they developed. But a front office that values winning and culture will spend to retain winning players and maintain continuity.

As prospective owners, Lore and Rodriguez are still building trust within the community. Removing Rosas was an excellent first step. Extending Towns was another. But there is still a lot we have to learn. Will they move quickly to extend Edwards when his rookie deal is up? Will they hold up the city for a new arena? And will they spend, perhaps even overspend, to keep a good team together?

Time will tell, but what they do with Nowell may be our first indication.

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