Last week, Brian Windhorst of ESPN reported that the Wolves are talking to teams and are interested in bolstering their front court. This report got a little more juice when Darren Wolfson confirmed it on his podcast on Wednesday, and mentioned three teams the Wolves have spoken to: The Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, and Philadelphia 76ers.
There is no doubt they need more impact off the bench, and these rumors appear legitimate, so we should talk about it.
First of all, “front court” help is somewhat vague—a center? A center-power forward combo? A combo forward? It isn’t clear what they are looking for specifically. Perhaps there is some flexibility to their interests. The one thing we are confident about is they have inquired about Nerlens Noel, but, like many teams, are put off by character concerns and aren’t interested in giving too much up to acquire him.
Second, we have to speculate on the role Tom Thibodeau envisions for a front court acquisition. Though its been better the last few games, the Wolves have struggled badly on defense so far this season, in particular defending the rim. They currently allow the sixth highest percentage of opponent shots within three feet, and allow the fifth highest field goal percentage on those shots.
That would suggest Thibs might be interested in a defensive stalwart in the middle. However, the Wolves currently have three centers who deserve playing time, and signed one of them (Cole Aldrich) this summer to serve this function. Along with Karl-Anthony Towns who is obviously going to get lots of minutes, and Gorgui Dieng who recently signed a contract extension and appears ensconced up front, another true center seems like overkill.
One defensive role that has not been filled is a big man who can guard in space. This has been a problem all season, and might be what the Wolves are looking for—a forward who can blow up pick-and-rolls on the perimeter. Such a player would help the defense significantly, and probably cut into the playing time of Nemanja Bjelica, who has generally been a disappointment this season, as well possibly Aldrich and Dieng.
I remain convinced the Wolves biggest need is a big wing player or combo forward who can swing between the three and four spots, reduce the minutes pressure on Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, and take some of the bigger, more physical match-ups off of Wiggins. It’s not clear whether Thibs is looking at this kind of player, or whether he’s more focused on a traditional four and/or five man like Noel.
Let’s look at some of the possibilities from the three teams Doogie mentioned the Wolves have talked to (though it’s likely they’ve spoken to other teams as well).
Nerlens Noel is the obvious possibility here, as discussed above. The Sixers are looking to move him as things have gotten worse following a promising rookie year. The Wolves have kicked the tires, but are unlikely to give up much to get him, which seems to be the case for every other team in the league as well. Noel does not have a great reputation character-wise, and it’s clear the Sixers are done with him. How he would help the Wolves is open to question, but playing him some next to Towns, who can spread the floor offensively, might allow them to make use of his defensive abilities in the paint. Noel will be a restricted free agent this summer. Is he someone to invest in?
A player who fits the mold of what I would be looking for is Robert Covington. A 6’9” small forward who could slide to the four in smaller lineups. After shooting threes fairly well over his first three seasons, he’s struggled from distance so far this year (30 percent.) For his career he’s over 35 percent on significant volume. He’s started every game for the Sixers this season, and there is no reason to believe they would be open to moving him for the assets the Wolves would likely make available. He has a very inexpensive team option for next season.
Nobody else really fills the bill on the Sixers. Hard to imagine the Wolves are interested in Ersan Ilyasova despite his floor stretching abilities at the four spot—he’s a free agent this summer and doesn’t seem like a fit. I doubt the Sixers are ready to give up on Dario Saric, who also doesn’t appear to be what Thibs would be looking for.
The Magic invested heavily in two front court defensive players during the off-season: giving Bismack Biyombo a big contract to lure him from Toronto in free agency, and trading valuable assets to the Thunder for Serge Ibaka. The results have not been great so far, as the Magic feature one of the worst offenses in the league and remain below average on defense. It’s hard to imagine, however, that the Magic are ready to move on from either player, and hard to envision the Wolves making the necessary investment in money and assets for either. Biyombo has long been a favorite in some corners of Canis, but at $17 million per year he’s significantly less appealing. As a rim-protecting big next to Towns, it sounds good, but that’s a big investment and the Magic aren’t giving him away.
One result of bringing these two players in has been to push combo forward Aaron Gordon further away from the basket. Primarily a power forward in today’s NBA, albeit one with the athletic gifts to defend in space, he’s been playing more at the three this season, and it hasn’t been good for him. His rebounding numbers are down, his average shot distance is up, he’s taking far fewer shots near the rim and relying more on a jump shot that is anything but reliable. Gordon is 21 years old and in his third season—the same class as Wiggins and LaVine. He has one more guaranteed year on his rookie deal, and is obviously appealing for his physicality, youth, and athleticism.
It’s hard to see a deal there, though, because although the Magic do not seem to be prioritizing him, I also doubt he comes cheap. If they are willing to move him, there are likely to be good offers. This is where the pick the Wolves owe Atlanta hurts; not being able to include a first rounder makes it tough. Orlando could really use a wing player with some dynamism, but the Wolves aren’t trading the ones they have. It’s conceivable they would have some interest in Ricky Rubio (and I think Thibs still sees him as movable,) but the Magic have a similar, younger player in Elfrid Payton.
The Suns used two draft picks on young front court players in this year’s draft: Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. Chriss is starting, and predictably struggling at 19 years old and raw. The Suns appear to see things there, however, as he continues to get playing time. Bender has not been playing, and doing poorly when he has gotten out there, but he was also the fourth pick in the draft.
There is no doubt the Suns would be happy to move on from veteran Tyson Chandler and his contract, but at 34 years old and up and down over the last few seasons, how much is left? 34 year olds whose contracts run through 2019 are probably not good acuisitions for the Timberwolves, to put it mildly. I will remark, however, that he’s having a useful season, and the Suns are a pretty good rebounding team largely thanks to Chandler. He’s the type of veteran who could actually help the Wolves if he just was cheaper.
Alex Len is a little lost in the shuffle, a pure center who will be an RFA this summer, coming off his rookie deal. He’s been fairly undistinguished as a pro, and doesn’t bring anything to the table that the Wolves aren’t already getting.
The Suns also have a couple of the bigger wing types that I covet: P.J. Tucker and T.J. Warren. Tucker is older and a free agent this summer, and has struggled shooting it this season, but is a strong rebounder and defender from the wing spot. Warren is a higher usage player, but doesn’t do much else besides shoot. Tucker hits a sweet spot for me: a veteran defender at the wing who is physical and rebounds. If his three-point shooting reverts to his career 34 percent, he helps.
Are there any other players from these teams you are interested in? What would you give up to get someone? What are your thoughts on these rumors of the Wolves making calls?