Now before we get to far along with this thing I want to clarify what I am setting out to accomplish. I am not going to sort through the minutia of data in hopes of predicting the perfect draft pick. If you want to read that kind of thing you can find it here, there and everywhere. I'm also not going to spend an abundance of time identifying free agents or manipulating the trade machine - although I may dip into these topics briefly depending upon my stamina with this thing. It's like doing homework for no reason you know!
What I am going to do is look at who the Wolves have, or are likely to have, under contract next season and try to identify how our roster fits together, what are areas of strength as well as what are areas of need/concern. I promise to do this as unscientifically as possible, injecting large amounts of personal bias and outright misinterpretation. This approach, I believe, allows for the greatest amount of ambiguity and on going basketball dialogue, both of which we are going to desperately need if we as a fan base are going to survive through the draft and free agency periods this summer. Buckle up folks because this isn't going to be for the faint of heart. I might want to put on some comfy pants and take a few deep breaths in preperation.
I'll give you a few minutes to get ready:
Beautiful, if that didn't get you ready I guess I can't help you so let's move forward. I'll start by looking at the players who are under contract for next season. Keep in mind that the opinions regarding what position each player is best suited for, as well as his overall usefulness, are my own and in no way represent SB Nation, Canis Hoopus, or thier shared cooperate interests.
This is an easy one. Ricky is a point guard and only a point guard because he is not large enough to play forward and and the word 'shooting" is in the other guard positions title. Also, he is a point guard. Ricky is under contract to the tune of $12.7 million (hoopshype) and I for one will be very sad and surprised if he is traded this summer. I do understand that he had a disappointing season and I see why some people are concerned about his ability to remain healthy, but I'm still a fan. Personally I am not ready to declare him injury prone but I would like him to spend another offseason gaining strength and consulting with a personal psychic who can help him anticipate and avoid catastrophic and unforeseeable injuries. I would also like to see him continue to work on his jump shot. I'm not sure what I can say here about Ricky that hasn't been said a million times already.
Already it gets a little tricky- at least in terms of deciding exactly what position Andrew Wiggins should ideally play. He spent most of the season as the Timberwolves starting Small Forward and, if I had to guess, that is the position he will occupy again next season. I know some around here would like to see him move to shooting guard but I have to admit that, for now at least, I remain unconvinced. Did I mention that he is under contract for $5.8 million next season and there is pretty much zero chance he will be traded this off season? I didn't? Well, both of these things are true.
I find it hard not to be excited about Wiggins right now. Frankly his acquisition this past summer surprised me and for the most part I have been impressed with what he has accomplished on the basketball court given his age and the way this team churned like an angry sea around him all season. I've been impressed with his calmness, athleticism, and ability to score in variety of ways. If he can mature into his apparent skill set, develop some consistency and efficiency, and remain healthy, I expect the Timberwolves will be happy with him for years to come. If he can't, well... let's see what he looks like next November before we worry too much about that. He's here for now and will be occupying one of the wing positions next opening day. There is a lot to feel good about with Andrew Wiggins right now and I'll just leave it at that.
Shabazz Muhammad was the feel good story of the season until, just like that, he was gone. The injury bug hit the Timberwolves like a swarm of locust this season and it was hard not to feel sad for Muhammad when it bit him given the job he was doing of silencing his critics, myself included. Personally, I'm not yet convinced that the young man from UCLA is an NBA starter but his hard work on and off the court has firmly convinced me both that he does indeed belong in the league and that I am glad he is on my favorite team. Shabazz Muhammad is another player for whom it can be difficult to exactly determine the ideal NBA position but I do expect him to earn his $2.1 million off the bench while splitting time situationally between the two forward spots- a unique versatility that makes him simultaneously awkward and valuable.
Kevin Martin is slotted to make $7.1 million next season and $7.4 million the season after that. I was worried about the length of the contract when he initially signed it (in part because he has never been a personal favorite of mine) and I still have some concerns. However, I would like to publicly concede that his professionalism and consistency as a shooter has been critical to what little success the Timberwolves have enjoyed this season and in all likelihood these assets will continue to be important next season if the team is to have any realistic hope of taking any kind of step forward. Given the importance of the three point shot in the current NBA, a skill of Martin's that the Timberwolves are in desperate need of, I would be surprised to see him moved this offseason. Equally surprising, to me at least, is the extend to which I will likely be disappointed if a trade involving the veteran shooting guard does occur. You've won me over Kevin Martin, so stay healthy and don't screw up.
Frankly, Zach Lavine has had a difficult year to assess. He leapt to national prominence of sorts over all star weekend as he easily won the slam dunk contest. Aside from that he has been asked to do way too much on the basketball court due to injuries and other roster oddities and has responded by looking lost most of the time. Other times, Lavine has shown glimpses of athleticism and three point shooting that make it difficult for even the most curmudgeonly of Timberwolves fans to write him off completely. In fact, at this point it appears that the only thing we know for certain about Zach Lavine is that he is not a point guard. At least not yet (and probably not ever). Lavine will make $2.1 million dollars next season and I would be shocked if Flip Saunders includes him in any kind of trade package. Also, did I mention that he is not a point guard? Well, he is not- a fact that will become important later in this article as I look closer at the Wolves off season needs.
Nikola Pekovic's season was one of the more disappointing given the fact that he was injured most of the year and looked sluggish and out of sync the few times he did manage to get into the game. This is concerning given the importance the big man has to what the Wolves are trying to do offensively as well as the fact that he is still in the beginning part of a five year contract that guarantees him in the neighborhood of $12 million per. Fortunately, Pekovic's success doesn't necessarily depend on the kind of athleticism that his injuries are likely to derail entirely, and all reports are that his recent surgery was successful. Still, his inability remain healthy these past few seasons makes that contract a concern so I'd say it's unlikely he could be traded even if the team wanted to. Not all is lost however. Remember that a healthy Pekovic is a pretty imposing NBA player who is able to use a deft combination of brains and brawn to gain on advantage over other NBA players. I'm still hopeful regarding the future of Nikola Pekovic but that could change quickly if the injury bug strikes him again early next season.
I honestly have no idea what to say about Chase Budinger at this point. You might as well just put a bunch of random NBA player cliches on a dart board and give me a quiver of hand arrows (do people call darts hand arrows?). Budinger has a $5 million player option for next season but I would be less surprised if my dog stated talking to me than if he turned it down. When he signed his contract a few off seasons ago it appeared to be just on the high side of sensible but since then injuries have taken a toll to the point that earlier this season it was difficult to remember him as an NBA level athlete- much less one deserving of a hefty multi year contract. More recently his body has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts and Budinger has looked more at home on the NBA court. If he can spend the entirety of next season healthy enough to display the sharp cutting ability and mostly competent shooting that earned him the aforementioned payday the Timberwolves might be happy with him as a somewhat over payed rotational wing who can sub as needed at both shooting guard and small forward. Maybe, just maybe, some team will view his resurgence as a true sign of life and the Wolves will be able to move him this summer as part of a larger deal- but I wouldn't count on it considering it's only been the last few weeks that he has looked like an NBA player again. Expect Budinger to be back next season and hope for the best.
Gorgui Dieng, a center, will be under contract next season for about $1.5 million. Also, as an aside, I really struggle with spelling his name. I'm not a naturally gifted speller and certain words such as 'neighborhood' or 'license' just refuse to register for some reason. Dieng's name is like that. Anyway.... Dieng has become a weirdly polarizing player amongst Timberwolves fans. I think much of this has to do with his lack of consistently effective defense despite seeming like a player who "should" be good at defense. Personally, I view Dieng as a competent back up center who can play starters minutes if necessary. This is a good thing, especially at his salary, so I would be surprised to see him traded away unless it is as a bonus asset in a larger deal.
One last thing about Dieng. How awesome is that bank shot? I sure didn't see that coming.
You know how sometimes you start a specific task with clear boundaries but towards the end of that task you sort of loose passion for some of the steps? That's where I'm at with Anthony Bennett right now. Obviously I set out here to write a sentence or two about all of the players the Wolves have under contract next season, and obviously Anthony Bennett and his $5.8 million fits that description, but frankly I don't really want to write about Anthony Bennett. I didn't have a problem with his inclusion in last summers blockbuster trade. It was reasonable for Cleveland to insist we take him back along with Wiggins and it was reasonable for us to relent. Bennett's rookie season was historically disappointing but the case could still be made at the time that a young player in a new sitiation might improve. And of course, how could he not? Whatever. Bennett is a frustrating player for a fans perspective because at times he looks very promising. He has an explosive quality on his dunks and a smooth looking jump shot. Conversely, and unfortunately, he also floats around the perimeter on offense, has a propensity for longish off balance jump shots, and frequently just seems lost on the court. I'm also not exactly sure what position he is- power forward I suppose. Ideally the Wolves will find a trade partner for Bennett this summer but I'm not sure how hopeful I am. It's also possible that the Wolves brass still likes him enough to pick up his hefty contract option. No siree, I really did not want to write about Anthony Bennett.
It's probably not fair to judge Adreian Payne on the trade that bought him to Minnesota halfway through this NBA season but I guess that's the world we live in. Without delving too deeply on the particulars I'll just say that I had concerns about the trade from an asset management perspective. Sure the pick sent out may eventually be converted into a second round pick but until that is clear it's another first rounder taken out of the asset bag. The counter argument of course is "maybe Payne is worth it." Well, maybe, but to this point it's hard to see that he is. Payne is another collected power forward that looks like neither the short term nor long term solution at that position. Like all, or at least most, players who have risen to the NBA level, he makes the occasional highlight but these seem too few in number when the mistakes keep piling up and the jump shots aren't going in. Maybe Payne will be a useful bench player next season, certainly I'm hoping that he can be, but it's difficult to imagine that that a bench player of his caliber couldn't be found somewhere for cheaper than the $1.9 million he will receive.
Mid Article Recap
So, there we have it. Ten players under contract. Keeping in mind that an NBA roster allows only 15 players, this means that two thirds of the roster for next season is already set (and you thought I didn't do math). I'm not sure this is good news but I'll get to that a little later. Let's now take another quick look at where things are and then we can move into where things might go this summer.
Ricky Rubio - PG
Zach Lavine- SG
Kevin Martin- SG
Andrew Wiggins- SG/SF
Chase Budinger- SG/SF
Shabazz Muhammad - SF/PF
Anthony Bennett - PF
Adreian Payne - PF
Gorgui Dieng - C
Nikola Pekovic- C
Speaking of Summertime, let's have a song...
OK, so now we have listed ten players under contract and listened to a classic version of one of the most treasured works in the American songbook. We're in good shape because we still have five roster spots available right? Well, maybe not. Next I want to take a brief peak at a few things that I believe are likely to happen this summer and add up how these will impact the Timberwolves roster.
Kevin Garnett's return to Minnesota this winter was a high point of the season. Basketball wise Garnett can still be effective when he is on the court and the social/marketing impact the return had on this team and fan base was gigantic. Unfortunately, Garnett has struggled to remain healthy so only got to see a glimpse of this mythical creature before he slid back into his cage. The question now is will he sign on with the Timberwolves for the next season or two. Personally I think he will. His midseason return combined with his public aspirations to eventually take an ownership stake in the team makes the Timberwolves to obvious front runner to sign Garnett in free agency this summer.
I suppose it's possible that, given his injuries this season, Garnett will decide to retire, but my guess is that he still believes he can contribute and that he wants to play at least one, maybe two, more seasons. This is at once both exciting and concerning to me as a fan given his historical importance to the franchise and the preciousness of roster spots. Can we really afford to give one up to a player who we know going in will not be healthy and will only play a limited role on the nights that he is? Conversely, perhaps Garnett is worthy of a lifetime achievement roster spot and this is, after all, a business enterprise and he will certainly sell a few tickets. Mark me down as ambivalent but I do expect to see Kevin Garnett in a Timberwolves uniform again.
I'm not really sure what I can say about Bjelica other than that he exists and is a power forward. If you are desperate for more information you can re-read the words Eric wrote about him in December because my guess is not much has changed since then. The idea that the 26 year old Euro-star will take up a Timberwolves roster spot next season is purely speculation at this point but it does seem like if he wants to play in the NBA the time has finally come. The Chicago Bulls and Nikola Mirotic perhaps give some hope that Bjelica could be useful next season but of course they are different players in different situations so that's actually a pretty lazy comparison on my part. My apologies. Maybe Bjelica will come here, maybe his rights will be included in a trade, or maybe he is leveraging the NBA against his Turkish squad as part of a shrewd negotiation strategy. I have no idea so I will stop writing about it. Just know this, one of the few remaining Timberwolf roster spots might go to Nemanja Bjelica.
High Draft Pick
It's well documented that the Wolves are going to have a high draft pick in this upcoming NBA draft. At this point it is official that they will draft in the top four- and hopefully the top two. Because of this, and because the Timberwolves are clearly not on the doorstep of the western conference playoff picture, I believe it is almost certain that the Wolves will retain the pick and the player drafted will occupy a roster spot. Currently I'm entrenched in the Karl Anthony Towns wish list crowd but I suppose from a roster balance perspective D'Angelo Russell might be a better fit. Whatever, I'm a believer in taking the best player available anyway and I don't expect any rookie to have a major impact one way or the other in terms of wins and losses next season. I'm not going to spend too much time on this topic here because, as I said above, other people have, and are, doing a better job of that particular task. For my purposes here all that really matters is that this yet to be determined rookie will occupy a roster spot and should not be counted on to be the teams primary started at any position come opening day.
Roster Reality Check 1: Wants and Needs
So now, according to my calculations the Timberwolves have 13 players who could very conceivably be under contract for next season and they have yet to address a few obvious needs. At least obvious from my perspective. For me to the two most glarning roster holes, at least in terms of adding NBA ready veterans, are back up point guard and starting power forward. Now with both of these there is, I suppose, room for a different view point and that, frankly is what I'm worried about given that I'm not currently in charge.
I'll start with the point guard situation. Ricky Rubio is the clear starter at this slot and, despite his having missed substantial time this past season, I continue to be hopeful that he will be a healthy option for most of next year. I believe him when he says he intends to spend the summer getting healthy- after all Ricky has never lied to me yet. So, you have to understand that I am approaching this point guard situation with the assumption that we already have a regular starter on the team. If you are not a Ricky fan, or if you doubt his ability to to remain healthy, you will likely be just as concerned as I am about this need but believe me, even then, you are unlikely to be more concerned.
My opinion on this starts also with the assumption that Zach Lavine is not now, nor will be ever, be an NBA point guard. I also am starting with a belief that the point guard position is very important in the modern NBA. So important in fact that I believe a team must necessary enter the season with three NBA quality point guards on the roster- although I will conceded that it is acceptable for the third of these be a combo guard who is capable of swinging between the two guard positions. Furthermore, and because I am feeling generous, I will even allow for the possibility that Zach Lavine might occupy this third, or emergency, point guard slot. However, and this is important, if the team is going to allow Zach Lavine to play this role it becomes very important in my opinion that the back up point guard be a clear point guard type player who can run the second team and start in the event of an injury to the starter (Ricky Rubio). Last season we saw what happened when the second point guard was Mo Williams who was both an aged player and more of a combo guard. Also important here is that this player be an individual that the coach is willing to give regular minutes to- which unfortunately means it probably cannot simply be Lorenzo Brown. Are you properly worried about the back up point guard position yet? Good, now let's move on to the power forward position.
Now things get really bizarre because, counting Garnett and Bjelica, the Timberwolves could have five players on the roster who could conceivably play minutes at the power forward position. How then, you may be asking yourself, can I conclude that this remains a position of need given the scarcity of roster spots? Well the sad answer is that, since the departure of Kevin Love, and the jettison of Thad Young, the Timberwolves remaining stable of "power forwards" simply does not inspire confidence that there is a clear full time starter in the group. This probably warrants a closer look.
Starting with Anthony Bennett and Adriean Payne I will just say simply that nether of these players appears to be qualified to be full time NBA starters. You can make the case that either one will emerge as a competent bench player (and I encourage you to do so in the comments) but I just don't believe I would feel confident entering next season with either of these guys pencilled in as a starter. It's difficult to trust that Garnett will be healthy enough to be the regular starter across an entire season, although my money is on him to start at this position on opening night, and besides he's become more of a center anyway. Muhammad is, in my opinion, too undersized to be a starting NBA power forward, even if, as some believe, this position is the best match for his still set. Additionally, I like his energy off the bench and would be disappointed to see him take on a starters role at a position where he may be routinely overmatched. Last, and perhaps most promising, is Bjelica who would be a rookie accustomed to playing in a different league with different basketball norms. Maybe, optimistically, Bjelica can become the Timberwolves starting four midway through next season, but are you really comfortable with this being the official plan come next November? Personally, I am not.
Roster Reality Check 2: What now?
So, above I used up approximately one billion words to point out that if things progress as many expect they will, without any surprises, the Minnesota Timberwolves essentially have already determined thirteen of their allotted fifteen roster spots. I have then gone one step further to suggest that, if it were up to me, I would use the remaining two slots on a back up point guard and starting caliber power forward. This approach, I fully realize, leaves us in danger at several positions, most notably at center. Something has to give, right? Well the obvious answer is yes and my guess is that something will.
Flip Saunders, sometimes to his credit,sometimes not, has been fairly active in the trade game and I expect this summer will bring more of the same. I'm not going to spend a lot of energy speculating on specific trade targets or available free agents. This reluctancy on my part is threefold: first, and foremost, I have written too much already and feel the need to show mercy on anyone brave enough to still be reading. Second, I'm not really sure I have any great ideas. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mr. Eggplant already did an excellent job of it. Similarly, I'm not going to expend an undue amount of energy trying to convince anyone that the team should find a way to retain fan favorite Robbie Hummel because that too has already been wonderfully done. What I do want to point out is that the feeling of existential dread in the pit of your stomach is there for a reason because people, I think this is going to hurt.
We have all heard the tired cliche that one needs to break a few eggs if one wants to make an omelet and in this case, my assumption is that the broken eggs will be represented in the form of making trades that most fans are hoping the team can avoid. Sure, we can all spend an hour on the trade machine convincing ourselves that there is a team out there looking to trade a veteran point guard for a stable small forward (Chase Budinger), and a promising big who hasn't found the right situation (Anthony Bennett), and, who knows, maybe something awesome like that will happen. I am not married to my opinion on this stuff, in fact I really hope I am wrong, but the truth is I do not see the Wolves making a roster salvaging move like the one I just suggested without giving away something that hurts to give.
We already used up one potentially useful asset when we gave up a first round pick in the Adreian Payne trade. I know, I know, that pick has protections, but until the final pick is conveyed it remains a first rounder which means it can't likely be used to get us out of this. If you are still not convinced that this trade was a mistake imagine my above scenario in which Budinger and Bennett are flipped for a veteran point guard- you have to admit that it seems more plausible if we add a first round pick. But I digress....
Since there is little value in fretting about what the team can't do, I'm going to look a little at some of the things they can do. First, can we agree that it is highly unlikely that the Wolves will trade the 2015 first rounder which we now know is guaranteed to be in the top four? Good. Can we also agree that the team is unlikely to trade Zach Lavine even if some fans still seem to think it would be worthwhile to simply give him up for roster space? We can? Excellent. I am also starting from the mindset that Pekovic is more or less untradable due to his contract and injury concerns. Last I will say that I am not hopefully that GM Flip Saunders will find favorable trades for Payne, Budinger or Bennett- although I could be wrong about these three and will sleep with my fingers crossed just in case. Maybe those second rounders can be used as trade bait.
This leaves the four players I see as most likely to be traded in order to balance out this crooked roster. First there is Bjelica's contract rights. We have been stashing this player for a long time and many, myself included, are anxious to see what he can do. There is also the fear that we will trade him to a team to which he ends up bringing great glory- a fear that is deeply embedded in all Timberwolves fans. It would be disappointing to trade Bjelica but it could also be a blessing. Risk is, after all, everywhere. Next there is Gourgi Dieng. In recent weeks I have heard descriptions of Dieng ranging from "most disappointing Timberwolf" to "the season's team MVP." My analysis falls somewhere in between. Regardless, trading Dieng creates a new problem at the center position, although I suppose it's possible that this could be addressed with that top draft pick. Expect some Dieng trade speculation come season's end. Next is Kevin Martian, a player who continues to hold value in the NBA despite his limited range of skills. This is, of course, because he is able to score in a sport in which the team with the most points at the end of the game wins. Last, and many of you are not going to like this, we have Shabazz Muhammad. Muhammad's current popularity is well documented and well deserved. His hard work and explosive play would make him incredibly painful to trade. However, the fact that he occupies roster space right in the middle of the most crowded part of the rotation might make him expendable in the eyes of the GM/Coach. Now I want to be clear that I personally am not advocating that the team try to trade Shabazz Muhammed but I do expect that in order to make this roster work the team is going to need to make some difficult decisions and this one would certainly qualify.
When I was in middle school I was taught that good writing has an intro, a body and a conclusion so I feel slightly bound by the convention. However, I also think I have probably said enough already and should allow each reader to draw his or her own conclusion. Maybe a brief recap would be better.
- The team has a limited number of roster spots
- Many of these spots are already spoken for
- There is not ideal balance as it stands currently
- A back up point guard and a starting power forward are priorities
- Miracles can happen
- Difficult and painful choices might need to be made
- Go Wolves!!