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Building a Winner Update, pt. iv: Free Agency and Wrapping Things Up

OK folks, we've finally made it to the last post in our updated series of Building a Winner posts.  You can read part one (Basketball Operations) here, part two (the draft) here, and part three (trades) here.  In this post we'll talk about the Wolves' free agent prospects as well as presenting a course that we think the Wolves could take to fielding a winning squad. 

Let's start with the free agents.




There has been a ridiculous amount of hype built up around the 2010 free agent class.  With potential single-name free agents like LeBron, Kobe, Dirk, Yao, Amare, and D-Wade, big media outlets like Four Letter have started the frenzy early.  What is not as widely discussed is the quality of the 2009 class.   It is pretty decent.


At the top of the class are UFAs Hedo Turkoglu, Ben Gordon, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Jason Kidd, Lamar Odom, Mike Bibby, Andre Miller, Ron Artest, and Rasheed Wallace.  If you are a championship team looking for a final piece, this is the free agent season for you.  While guys like Turkoglu, Gordon, and Boozer are probably looking to cash out for as much as possible, it probably isn't unreasonable to think that a guy like Kidd, Miller, Bibby, Odom, or Wallace could take an MLE on a team like, say, the Spurs.  If they don't, this class is filled with 2nd tier guys with tremendous value to a winning franchise: Anderson Varejao, Chris Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Matt Barnes, Kyle Korver, and Zaza Pachulia.  Even guys like Dahntay Jones and Bobby Jackson could play some decent minutes off the bench on a winning squad. 

On the restricted side of things, there are a bunch of players who may have played themselves out of their team's price range with their performances in 08/09: Glen Davis, Raymond Felton, Linas Kleiza, Ramon Sessions, Charlie Villanueva, Marcin Gortat, and Paul Milsap.  It is hard to imagine a scenario where all of these players remain with their squads.  Also, don't forget Atlanta's pair of RFAs, Josh Childress and Marvin Williams.

Free agency-wise, the Wolves are in a pretty interesting situation.  They don't have any big free agent choices to make on their own, and they aren't facing an off-season as negatively turbulent as division-mates Jazz (9 potential free agents) or the Nuggets (7 potential free agents and salary cap hell).  They aren't, however, in a position to cash out a top free agent.  Depending on how things work out in the draft and with any potential trade, the Wolves are looking at coming in somewhere in the neighborhood of $51-54 mil in 09/10 salary.  With a projected cap of under $60 mil, this isn't exactly a lot to work with.  Without a sign-and-trade, you can throw out the idea of signing guys like Hedo, Ben Gordon, and any of the other top tier UFAs.  Marcin Gortat is a name that pops up quite a bit among rabid fans but the only likely way the Wolves could sign him would be with the MLE...which Orlando could then turn around and use to match.  Yes, they will have to get creative in order to sign Hedo, but they still have the same exceptions as the Wolves and I'm not really sure why a guy would want to go from a sweet backup assignment for an NBA Finalist in Florida to a 24 win team in Minnesota.  Gortat is a nice player and he would fill a need with the Wolves but a) he's probably not worth the MLE, and b) even if he was, it would be a stretch for him to come here over what he could still likely get in Orlando (or with another winning squad in need of a bigman).  Also, please keep in mind that if the Wolves are a sub-cap team, they either have to renounce their exceptions or have them count as a cap hold.  This means the Wolves have two likely choices of action: renounce the cap hold and hope to sign a free agent to a modest deal under the cap or accept the cap hold and use it to sign a single free agent.  Folks, this likely means guys like Gortat, Ariza, and Williams are probably not an option for the Wolves simply because they will cost more than the MLE....which the team could renounce in the first place.

I suspect that Paul Milsap will be the most targeted of the RFAs.  I would not at all be surprised if he is moved in a sign-and-trade involving draft picks.  Seeing that he plays power forward, let's just throw him out the Wolves window.  Ditto for Big Baby and Villanueva. 

Getting around to the main point of all this free agent talk, the Wolves aren't going to be able to be big free agency players this off season.  Ramon Sessions and Raymond Felton are interesting options because both can play the point but the Wolves are sitting in a point-heavy draft with (likely) first dibs on the second best available point (maybe even the best depending on your thoughts on Ricky Rubio).  In terms of assets, it's hard to beat the $2.6 mil/year rookie salary at #6; especially when comparing it with a full MLE for Sessions or Felton. 

So what does all of this mean for Our Beloved Puppies?

The Wolves currently have $17.7 mil locked up in 2010 salaries (if you include this year's 3 1st round draft picks).  They have somewhere in the neighborhood of $22-25 mil in expiring 2010 deals, with 2 or 3 of these guys (Mike Miller, Craig Smith, and Corey Brewer) being functional rotation players.  They are not a hot free agent destination.  What they are is a team that will clear large amounts of cap space in 2010 and 2011 and who can take on relatively bloated contracts from teams that want to unload some dead salary for more temporary and functional options.  The Wolves needed to move about $10 mil in salary this past season in order to compete for top-shelf 09 free agents.  This was why we made such a big fuss two seasons ago about not using Theo Ratliff for acquiring 08/09 expiring contracts.  They had a fantastic opportunity to be a big fish in a little pond.  Now, they're looking at swimming around with a lot of money in a pool filled with bigger fish.

Where am I going with this? I'm talking about the Wolves improving with a trade, not free agency.  I'm talking about targeting guys with money on the books beyond 2010.  Who are these players?  Vince Carter, Eddy Curry, Gerald Wallace, Jose Calderon, Erick Dampier, Kirk Hinrich, Jason Terry, Carmelo, Nene, Andris Biedrins, Jason Richardson, Andrei Kirilenko, and, on the very high and somewhat delusional end of the spectrum, D-Will and CP3.  All of these players are on teams that face radical changes  brought about by finances/economy or prior bad management.  Denver and the Jazz both face a ton of tough free agent decisions that could rip apart their clubs.  New Jersey and Charlotte are hemorrhaging money with bad teams.  Phoenix and Dallas are aging greats that will have to make tough decisions in the next few years.  Toronto and GSW have both made very weird decisions of late and are facing big changes. 

The hope here is that the Wolves could offer up a package of expiring contracts + the rights to Pekovic for one of these players + an additional player or pick.  How much would the Knicks be willing to pay to have Curry taken off their hands?  Would the Nets be willing to part with a conditional 1st or a 2nd rounder + CDR to take Vincanity off the books? 

Personally, I think the prizes for the Wolves are Gerald Wallace, Andris Biedrins, Kirk Hinrich, or Andrei Kirilenko.  I'd like to see them start with Hinrich and AK47.  I have this approach in mind:

- To the Jazz:

  • Brian Cardinal
  • Mark Madsen
  • Craig Smith
  • Ryan Gomes or Randy Foye
  • Return of Utah's 1st round pick

To the Wolves:

  • Andrei Kirilenko
  • Kosta Koufos

The Wolves make this deal because they gain a starting small forward and a young 7 footer.  The Jazz make this deal because they get rid of the $16/17 mil they are spending on a bench player while gaining a back up 2, a backup 4, and the return of a future 1st round pick.  I don't think they can get more of a return for AK47.  The Wolves give up very little in terms of long term impact to get this done.  The future 1st hurts a little, but when you consider that they would be getting Koufos, it's well worth it.

Moving right into the last part of this post, let's tie in our ideal draft and trade scenarios to see how the Wolves can put together a path to success. 

First, the Wolves should do their best to trade Mike Miller to the Bulls for Kirk Hinrich.  This trade makes sense for both teams.  The Wolves should even consider throwing in the rights to Nikola Pekovic to make it happen.  They should then draft either Stephen Curry or James Harden with the #6 pick.  I'd prefer Curry but either player would be worthwhile.  With the 18th pick in the draft they should take the BPA between Austin Daye and Sam Young.  With the 28th pick they should take the BPA between Nick Calathes, Rodrigue Beaubois, or Patrick Mills, all three of whom could play overseas if need be....which they would then be asked to do for a single season.  For the sake of this little experiment (and for the sake of the most realistic draft possible) I will go with Curry at 6, Young at 18, and Beaubois at 28.

They should then offer a 2 year contract to Sheldon Williams  leaving them with a 12-man roster of:

  • Al Jefferson
  • Kirk Hinrich
  • Ryan Gomes (I'm throwing Foye in the Utah trade)
  • Kevin Love
  • Corey Brewer
  • Sebastian Telfair
  • Bobby Brown (player option, yo!)
  • Stephen Curry
  • Sam Young
  • Andrei Kirilenko
  • Kosta Koufos
  • Sheldon Williams

The rotation would go as follows:

  1. Curry/Bassy/Brown
  2. Hinrich/Brewer/Young
  3. Kirilenko/Gomes/Young
  4. Love/Williams/Koufos
  5. Jefferson/Williams/Koufos

When Brown comes off the books they can bring over Calathes/Beaubois/Mills.  When Williams comes off the books, they can bring over Pekovic (if he's not included in the Bulls deal).  This lineup gives them significant (and realistic) talent upgrades at the 1, 2, and 3 while moving Gomes, Bassy, and Brewer to the bench and giving the team the option of bringing along three young players in the rotation (with a fourth coming over next year after Brown clears the books). 

While Kirilenko's contract is an albatross ($16.4 next year, $17.8 the year after that), Hinrich has a declining deal and they both could be added to the squad without completely breaking the bank.  The total estimated cost for the above roster in 2010 would be $59.3 mil.  The total estimated cost for 2011 would be $63 mil.  It also places the Wolves in a solid position to have productive off-seasons in 2011 and 2012, with between $20.5 to 24.2 mil coming off the books after 10/11 and upwards of $10 mil the year after that.  We will go into what Kirilenko brings in terms of play in a future post, but just know this: he is significantly above average in 2 year adj +/-, Roland Rating, and WARP.  He is somewhat misused by Jerry Sloan and he is a significantly positive net performer at the small forward position. 

If Big Al is healthy, this is a team that could compete right away.  It would be a team with a legitimate shot at the playoffs.  Last season Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes led the team in minutes played.  Guys like Brian Cardinal (23% of team minutes played), Kevin Ollie (21%), Jason Collins (11%), and Rodney Carney (30%) would all be replaced with significantly more productive players.  Prominent players like Telfair (53%) and Gomes (66%) would be scaled back to reserve levels and their lost minutes would be filled by Hinrich, Curry, and Kirilenko.  Remember, the big problem with the team after Big Al went down wasn't that his minutes were filled by Kevin Love; it was that Kevin Love's minutes were filled by sub-par players.  The same concept applies here; the Wolves field 5 average or above average starters while fielding a capable bench rotation with starting experience. 

This lineup also gives the Wolves the best opportunity to bring Curry along at the point.  Hinrich is the perfect back court pairing for Curry.  He can share point duties while being able to defend up to three different positions. Let's take a look at what these three new players would do to the Wolves' starting lineup.  Here is what we saw with last year's squad:

Bassy -1.1 9.2 1.9
Foye 0.9 13.6 3.6
Gomes -1.0 12.4 5.2
Love 7.4 18.3 12.9
Jefferson 8.3 23.1 12.3


Now let's take a peak at what the new starting lineup would look like:

Hinrich 2.0 13.8 5.6
Kirilenko 5.8 16.8 8.6
Love 7.4 18.3 12.9
Jefferson 8.3 23.1 12.3


Obviously, Curry will be key to this scenario working, but, as we mentioned above, he will have Hinrich to lean on with a capable backup in Telfair.  All he has to do is play at replacement level during his 1st year with a PER above 10 and a WS/40 above 3 (which are VERY modest goals) and he will be a significant upgrade over what the team had last season.  Plugging those numbers into this scenario, the Wolves' starting five would gain 9.0 wins above replacement level and 7.5 WS/40.  Unless Curry is an absolute bust, anything extra he brings to the squad can be put on top of this very modest expectation. 

Another benefit to this new scenario is that it places guys like Telfair, Gomes, and Brewer in situations where the net production of their opponents will be less than what it was when they were pulling minutes as starters.  In other words, the hope here is that they will be more effective going up against fellow bench players than they were against starters. 

That pretty much wraps things up.  We think we have created a realistic scenario that would give the Wolves a solid team with a chance to compete both in the short term and the long run.   The team would be adding two high-priced vets but they would also be adding a large infusion of young talent with Koufos, Young, Curry, and Beaubois.  All of these players could be brought along either slowly (Young, Beaubois, and Koufos) or with someone to lean on (Curry).  The hope for all of this relies on Big Al and the Big Piranha taking the next steps in their development as well as Curry developing into a legit scoring threat at the point.  This is a team that would have significant flexibility with the types of lineups it could place on the floor.  It could go long/big (Hinrich, Brewer, Kirilenko, Jefferson, Koufos), up-tempo (Bassy, Curry, Brewer, Love, Koufos), or athletic (Beaubois, Brewer, Young, Kirilenko, Koufos), in addition to the starting lineup we talked about above.  Most importantly, despite the addition of Kirilenko and Hinrich, it is a roster that doesn't break the bank and allows for some financial flexibility from 2010/11 on. 

What say you?