The trade deadline came and went yesterday without the Timberwolves making any moves. So, now the attention of Wolves' fans shifts to the remainder of the season and what is in store for the franchise. I thought I would use this space to discuss a few story lines fans should keep an eye on over the next couple of months and into the offseason.
Kevin Martin and His Player Option
This will be arguably the most important story line for Wolves' fans to pay attention to and will most likely be the one that garners the least national media attention. Kevin Martin has a player option for next year worth roughly $7.4 million and his unwillingness to waive that albatross was the main reason he was not moved before the deadline. One cannot deny that it makes sense for Martin to not want to waive his option, because it is highly unlikely he would be able to receive that sort of money in free agency, but its presence puts the Wolves in a tough place.
Martin will undoubtedly pick up his option should he remain on the team, and if the Wolves and his agent cannot agree to a buyout, that would limit the amount of money the organization would have to spend in free agency. Now, the Wolves aren't annually big spenders (so in the end it may not effect the Wolves activity at all), but as I wrote about previously, the team could be in position to offer a max contract in free agency as soon as this summer; the caveat is Martin's contract cannot be on the books for that to happen.
If Martin remains with the Wolves through this season and indeed picks up his option at least his expiring $7.4 million contract would conceivably become a valuable trade chip next year. Of course, that still doesn't guarantee another team is going to be willing to take on his deal. If no team is willing to take on Martin in a trade, and no buyout is reached, his roster spot may functionally be dead space.
The Lineup (Specifically the Starting Lineup)
It will be interesting to see what the Wolves starting lineup looks like for the rest of the season. Will Sam Mitchell hand over the starting two-guard spot to Zach LaVine, or will he continue to give the nod to Tayshaun Prince? Will he stay true to his word and rotate the two, as Darren Wolfson notes here? Will Gorgui Dieng go back to the bench when Kevin Garnett returns from injury? Will Garnett even return from his injury? Ditto for Nikola Pekovic? And what about Nemanja Bjelica's mysterious foot injury? How will that effect the rest of his rookie campaign?
Mitchell is going to have to give LaVine time in the starting lineup at some point, and now seems like a good time. LaVine has been on a tear over his last 10 games, averaging 16.3 points per game with an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 57.1% in 29.8 minutes per game. That is nothing to scoff at and, while Tayshaun Prince is effective on defense and provides a stabilizing effect while on the court, I think it is time to hand the reigns over to LaVine; I don't think Mitchell should even bother with rotating the two in the starting lineup. What does the team have to lose at this point?
I think an argument along the same vein can be made for keeping Dieng in the starting lineup and allowing for Garnett and Pekovic to recover as much as possible and come off the bench once they are healthy. Dieng has been playing extremely well as of late (averaging 15.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, with an eFG% of 61.5%) and has formed a nice combination with fellow big man Karl-Anthony Towns. Allowing LaVine and Dieng to start over Prince and Garnett would allow the Wolves to stick with their proverbial hot hand lineup (remember, the Wolves won three of their final four games going into the All Star break), help give valuable playing time and experience to them, and shore up some of the defensive issues in the second unit while letting Shabazz Muhammad do his thing on the offensive end.
Go for Wins....Or for the Number One Pick
Will the Wolves try to win as many games as possible or will they "tank" once again? Either option has pros and cons, but, personally, I would like to see them win as many games as possible over the final 28 contests. As mentioned on a recent Dunc'd On podcast (I highly recommend subscribing to this one if you're into podcasts), the Wolves are currently on pace to finish with a record of 27-55. I'm not sure if they will be able to reach 27 wins, but I would like to see them do everything the possible can to hit that mark, rather than throwing in the towel for a second straight year.
I have no way to prove this, but it just seems intuitive that winning games is just as important for the future success of the team as gaining talented assets. Should the season end today, they would be projected to end up with the fifth pick in the draft. Although this class is for the most part seen as a two horse race (Ben Simmons of LSU and Brandon Ingram of Duke) one would think the Wolves would still be able to end up with a valuable player no matter where they pick as it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that they will fall out of the top ten. Winning games would allow for the young guys to gain experience (and an overall feeling of accomplishment) and would still allow for them to be in a position to draft a highly regarded talent to add to the young core.
In an ideal world, the Wolves would finish with 27 wins and get lucky in the lottery to wind up with the first pick, but since both almost certainly won't happen (I mean, the Wolves aren't Cleveland after all), I would rather see them win games and build positive momentum heading into next season than tank for the first pick.