The Minnesota Timberwolves executed two trades within a span of about three hours on Tuesday.
Mo Williams, an aging veteran on a one year contract, was unquestionably the most-likely to be moved before the trade deadline. This came to fruition when he, along with Troy Daniels, were sent to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Gary Neal and a future second round draft selection -- a pick will come from the Miami Heat in 2019.
Flip Saunders, speaking to the media outside Minnesota's locker room yesterday, cited the return of Ricky Rubio and necessary development of Zach LaVine as obstacles that would prevent Williams from playing the minutes he "probably really deserves."
"(...)with Mo's situation he's just not going to be able to get the minutes that he probably really deserves to be able to play as a veteran player. We started thinking that there's an opportunity for him to get him to a playoff type team, we would move that direction. We were able to accomplish that."
Without Williams, Rubio will be expected to play between 35-40 minutes regularly while the rest of the minutes at point guard will, presumably, be given to LaVine. There is also the possibility Saunders wishes to sign Lorenzo Brown for the remainder of the season. Brown would also eat up minutes at point guard and therefor allow LaVine to play off ball -- somewhere many commenters on this website claim he is better suited.
Brown, currently on a second 10-day contract, may very well be in Minnesota for the remainder of the season. He was the third player drafted by Saunders in the 2013 draft, behind Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. Anyone that believes Saunders wants to retain a prospect he once drafted, speculating that Neal will be traded again before the deadline, or come to an agreement on a buyout, is entirely rational.
Although yesterday, Saunders dismissed any notion of that happening and called Neal different than other players on the roster.
"We have not entertained anything with a buyout. Neal's situation is this: Losing Mo, we wanted to bring back someone that had the ability to shoot. We wanted to bring back someone that had championship character. He (Neal) has that (championship character) from San Antonio, and we thought that someone would fill a role. He's different than the players that we have. I don't know, I can't guarantee how many minutes he's going to play, but I think we'll be able to use him in some capacity."
Saunders, later on, seemed to admire Neal's physical presence.
"He is strong defender and has the ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter. As I said, he's been in a championship. He knows really what it's all about."
Bring the Payne
The more significant of the trades made yesterday was done to obtain Adreian Payne, who was taken 15th overall in the draft last summer by the Atlanta Hawks. If the name sounds familiar that's because Payne, 23, participated in Minnesota's pre-draft workouts last summer. Saunders had a chance to acquire him with the 13th overall pick in the 2014 draft, but instead went for the proverbial 'home-run player' in Zach LaVine.
He went over the thought process behind taking LaVine, and not Payne, at 13 last summer. It's almost as if Saunders referred to Payne as more of a ground-rule double.
"We thought Zach (LaVine) had the talent to be a home-run player -- we also thought at that time that (Adreian) Payne could come in and help us win more games. From that perspective it was more like a four-year veteran guy ready to play, and a guy who had a huge amount of upside. It was a tough decision between those two guys but that's also one of the reasons we're here today talking about 'em, because we do think highly of 'em."
The biggest concern surrounding Payne is a lung condition that will at times render him winded and gasping for air. This has been documented as far back as his freshman year of college. I found this article to be a concerning example how this condition has impact Payne's performance in the past. Quotes from Payne and his coach at Michigan State, who happens to be Saunders' good friend, Tom Izzo, illuminated in said article are mildly concerning.
Saunders, though, says he spoke with Izzo regarding Payne and doesn't seem too concerned about the condition being at all an issue.
"I talked to Tom a lot. We've had communication in the last week about three times just about things and concerns that maybe other people within our organization, our scouts, maybe had about him. I felt extremely comfortable with my conversations with Tom on what he thought Adreian could become in the right environment."
"There's nothing physically that he's ever had that would ever prevent him from being able to play. He had a little situation with his lungs and that was more of a hereditary type of thing. That's been pretty much under control."
Payne will have to earn his minutes, Saunders says, and that means outperforming Thaddeus Young and Anthony Bennett. Young may or may not be trade before the deadline, but that seems unlikely, and Bennett has played underwhelmingly throughout most of the season. Payne could very easily insert himself into the rotation if he can keep healthy and do what Minnesota asks of him.
The pick sent to Atlanta in exchange for Payne kicks in 2017 and is lottery protected in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. Essentially, the worst possible outcome of this trade for Minnesota would be for Payne to emerge as a complete bust and, despite this, qualify for the playoffs once between 2017-2020 -- thus granting Atlanta the ever-so-valuable first rounder. The pick then becomes a second rounder in 2021 if Minnesota misses the playoffs in each of those four seasons.
In his time as President of Basketball Operations Saunders has undeniably shown an eye for talent. Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng have progressed steadily since entering the NBA last season. But it's too early to label each of them a success story and the jury is still out on LaVine and Glenn Robinson III, Saunders' other draft picks. The evaluation process of each player remains ongoing.
Regardless of what happens with Neal, his contract expires at the end of the season and is not in Minnesota's long-term plans. Those who fancy Brown -- another Saunders' draft pick -- are hoping for Neal to be traded, or released by way of contract buyout. Moreover, Payne, a 6'10'' forward with a lanky body and ability to shoot from on the perimeter, possesses the size and attributes conducive to becoming an effective power forward in today's NBA.
There are now five first and second year players -- Deing, Muhammad, Brown, LaVine, Glenn Robinson III -- on Minnesota's roster that were scouted and/or selected by Saunders and his staff -- Payne could very easily be added to that mix. This may indicate that Saunders has fully implemented his way of doing things when it comes to player-assessment and roster construction.
Whether or not this is a formula for success remains to be seen.
"As I told our staff, it came down to trusting our evaluation. We trusted our evaluation the last two years with the players that we picked, Shabazz and Gorgui and those guys worked out, and also the evaluation of Wigs and also with Zach. Those guys have all worked out. What we're looking to do with our culture and the vision that we have, everything is planned."