The Timberwolves approach the February trade deadline with tremendous holes in its roster, but fortunately with an equal amount of assets in the holster to improve. The deficiencies are agreed upon: (1) lack of interior defense; (2) lack of upper echelon wing player; and (3) lack of competent point guard play. The trade assets at our disposal include: (1) two expiring contracts in excess of around $15 million in expiring contracts of non-contributors Marc Blount and Brian Cardinal; (2) extra first round draft picks from Utah and Charlotte; and (3) Big Al Jefferson.
Virtually any player on an 8 win team is available for trade but there are several players that can be considered "safe." At SG Corey Brewer and Wayne Ellington have both shown tremendous improvement in the past 20 games, and have become an effective duo at that position. At PF Kevin Love has also shown substantial improvement and despite a recent five-game swoon where it appears his coach has become upset with him for lack of hustle on defense, Love remains the most complete player on the roster and has great upside. Jonny Flynn is probably also safe for the time being. While the past 20 games have exposed why it is highly unlikely Flynn is going to become an all-star point guard, he is still in his rookie year, and (similar to Corey Brewer two years ago) there is the potential still there for improvement.
The stated justification for not making any moves is the anticipated salary cap space at the end of this season. But one has to wonder how a team that will probably finish with less than 20 wins, and one which is located in the most undesirable winter climate in the league, will have any bargaining chips to sign a talented player at a reasonable price. Most people agree that it will be impossible to sign a first tier free agent (LeBron, Wade, Bosh) or a second tier free agent (Johnson, Gay). It’s questionable that even the next level of free agents such as Travis Outlaw and Ronnie Brewer would be available, as they are as valuable to their present teams as to us. Thus, the salary cap space that will be there will likely be used on the marginal players that we have overpaid in the past, and even last year (see Ramon Sessions).
There is an opportunity to improve with staying put, but it would take awhile. The draft is rich in the type of talent we need. It has athletic bigs who can defend the rim (Favors, Cousins, Ed Davis, Monroe, Lawal); talented wings (Turner, Wes Johnson) and a potential generational point guard (John Wall). But we are only guaranteed one of these players, and it could be as low as a dreaded fifth pick. As good as Turner and Johnson look, there’s no guarantee that either of them step into the starting SG position next year, particularly if the Brewer – Ellington duo continues to improve. Apparently, Nikola Pekovic, another 6’10" post player that plays "on the ground" will join the team next year, giving us another asset that we already have.
Everyone has analyzed a potential Jefferson trade from the Wolves’ perspective. Few people have commented on Jefferson’s perspective. Al says and does the "right things," but there are ample reasons why he would want a trade at this point. First, the Wolves have never truly shown a commitment to him. Since his arrival, the Wolves have had the opportunity to add players to compliment Al but have not done so. Instead, they added another un-athletic forward-center in Kevin Love, traded all of their outside shooters for Ricky Rubio (knowing he might not come until 2011), and switched a Foye-Telfair point guard combination for an equally ineffective Flynn-Sessions combo.
Second, Jefferson may not have the time to wait for Kahn's master opus to fully play out. Jefferson turns 26 halfway through the 2010 season. If he is still with the Wolves at that time, he will have played only once in the post season (his rookie season with Boston). He is entering his prime, but it’s clear that the Wolves right now do not have the assets in place to guarantee a playoff appearance in 2010 or even 2011. He has already suffered a significant knee injury so he now understands how fragile and fleeting a professional sports career can be. On top of that, there are several Western Conference teams that the Wolves clearly bested in 2009 which have now moved ahead of the Wolves in the rebuilding process including Sacramento, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles Clippers, and arguably, the Golden State Warriors. While the decline of Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix are imminent, the Wolves are now on the outside track to pick up those playoff spots in the coming years. Acknowledging the futility of its situation, Wolves management even previously admitted earlier this year that the Wolves were probably at least three years away from competing. Despite publicly stating a desire to be here, we would be pretty naive to believe his agent is not trying to get him out of this mess as quickly as possible (particularly since that agent represents Love and Pekovic as well, both of whom have more money to earn from the Wolves).
The necessity for a trade should be equally obvious for the Wolves, and it goes beyond his basketball ability. Jefferson has provided some memorable individual performances, but the Wolves as a team have been atrocious throughout his two-and-a-half years here. In the end, this is a business. No one is coming, or is going to come, to the Target Center to see Big Al, as opposed to just seeing professional basketball. That’s just the reality. And if you can dump an 8-figure contract that’s not producing that much, I expect this organization to do it.
The problem is that Jefferson’s trade value is limited. It’s unlikely that a team would trade a big man of equal quality for Jefferson, so the trade does not present the opportunity to significantly improve our interior defense. With our own SG situation improving, several SG draft prospects available, and a potential generational point guard on the way from Spain in 2011, we are unlikely to trade for a long-term PG or SG prospect.
That is why the Granger trade offer was made public. It just so happens that we could use a bigger SF, and there are some young, big SFs on some marginal teams that might be looking to deal. Granger is one. Luol Deng and Rudy Gay could have been available, had their respective teams not blasted back into playoff contention recently. Andre Iguodala’s name has surfaced in rumors. Galinari, Gerald Wallace, Jeff Green?
But Big Al would probably not be enough to acquire any of these guys on his own. Our expiring contracts are no longer an asset after the February trade deadline, and it’s always been harder to trade those mid-first round draft picks on or after draft night when everyone knows exactly what their worth.
I expect the Wolves to seek a big move before the trade deadline to acquire a significant small forward prospect with using Big Al, and by taking on another contract for an expiring. So if you want Granger, you have to take Murphy as well. Galinari comes with whatever bad contracts the Knicks need to shed to have a new big three starting next year; Deng comes with Hinrich; Biedrins or Curry come with Maggette; and Iguodala comes with Dalembert. Even with the cap relief for the other side, none of these deals are in any way guaranteed. It depends on certain develops in the playoff race and whether any of the alpha dog free agents make it clear to their current teams that they are not coming back next season.
If you think the Wolves have a shot at a great free agent or think that the "savior" is in the draft, the extra contract the Wolves have to take would probably kill one of these deals. On the other hand, the Wolves receive a "proven" wing player for an expendable forward-center. The downside is taking a player (or players) that will eat up around 60% of the $18 million in cap space. That may not be a downside considering the best the Wolves may do in free agency in 2010 would be overpaying Tracy McGrady.
Even if these trades are not available, I can conceive a fall-back that the Wolves would execute. The Bulls have always sought a low-post scorer, and are gearing up for another playoff run. While Deng, Noah, and Rose are likely not available, there is still sufficient assets there for getting some value for Jefferson. Hinrich would be the offsetting contract. We would receive a dependable point guard that could play significant minutes until Rubio’s arrival. This would be a much better version of the role Kevin Ollie played last year and would allow Flynn more room to develop. Hinrich's deal is through 2012, so potentially he continues to play that role to acclimate Rubio to the NBA. In addition, we would want Taj Gibson and Tyrus Thomas. Two young athletic power forwards that can defend the rim better than Jefferson, and can conceivably play alongside Kevin Love. Love could spend more time playing center (as Kendrick Perkins does). Thomas could defend those power forwards neither Love nor Jefferson could keep up with. Gibson (and his 7’4" wingspan) can also play many of the minutes Al (and his 7’2.5" wingspan) currently plays at center. It gives the Wolves more options to shuffle the front line to match up with opponents. Would Chicago take Ramon Sessions contract? Would it be too much to ask Chicago for a draft pick as well? Even if Chicago is unwilling to take Sessions’ contract, I’d still do it because it is otherwise a cap neutral trade for Minnesota.
Certainly there are fans who believe Jefferson is all-star talent waiting to happen, and believe that these returns would be a pittance for Jefferson's value. But even if Jefferson has all-star talent (a question that would be subject to unending debate), the Wolves simply aren't able to match sufficient talent right now with his to put him into the postseason, which is where he undoubtedly expects to be at this point in his career. If the obvious differences between the team's long-term goals and Jefferson's immediate goals have not already created tension in the organization, it soon will.