This upcoming offseason has the potential to be a game changer for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The franchise will have many questions to address, many of which have been discussed ad nauseum, but one that hasn't been examined with the same frequency is what the Wolves should do with Shabazz Muhammad.
Muhammad is at least somewhat of a known commodity. Awesome is a word that has been perverted due to its frequent and excessive use, but Muhammad's motor is the word personified. It is a skill that cannot be taught, it is only God given, and is therefore a valuable commodity to have on any team. It is arguably Muhammad's greatest strength and allows him to execute and, as he displayed against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night, dominate in ways that shouldn't be possible for a player his size.
Checking in at 6'6" and 223 pounds, Muhammad is a forward with sugar-high craze to his game though he's stuck in the body of a two-guard. He uses this profile to abuse smaller or less athletic defenders in the low post, especially the left block, and to out hustle larger defenders on the boards and during fastbreaks. Muhammad has also developed into a fairly solid shooter from the corners, as he is shooting 42.9% (27/63) from the corner three spots this season according to NBA.com.
However, for as obvious as his strengths are, his weaknesses are just as glaring. Muhammad has poor court vision, both on offense and on defense, too often falling victim to tunnel vision when the ball is in his hands; he tends to only focus on the getting the ball through the hoop and doesn't notice teammates that are open for easier shots, and on defense he often looses his man and neglects to rotate over to help. According to Basketball Reference, Muhammad is last on the team in defensive box plus/minus at -4.0, third to last on the team (only in front of the injured Nikola Pekovic and Damjan Rudez) in defensive rating at 114, and is ranked 458th out of 459 in ESPN's defensive RPM. Additionally, Muhammad is atrocious from above the break, converting on only 14 of his 79 three-point attempts (17.7%), according to NBA.com.
In an ideal world, Muhammad brings a unique skill set that would probably be best utilized coming off the bench for 20+ minutes a game as the perfect offensive curveball for nearly any team. However, it is fair to question if "ideal-world Shabazz" can come to fruition in Minnesota. Muhammad's role has been anything but consistent under interim coach Sam Mitchell, as he has seen his minutes fluctuate from month to month. His shooting percentages have dropped as the months have gone on (culminating in a 41.9% field goal percentage during March, according to ESPN.com), and his monthly three-point percentage is reminiscent of a sinusoidal curve (again, his worst month was March in which he converted only 14.3% of his shots from behind the arc, according to ESPN.com).
These numbers in addition to the fact that he brings next to nothing on defense puts his future role with the Wolves into question. It would be one thing if the players coming off the bench alongside Muhammad could play stout defense and could better facilitate to his skill set, but the reality is that nearly every player on the current bench has a similar bare-bones profile to Muhammad: good on offense (or at least projects to be) and brings little defensively. The ubiquity of skill sets on the Wolves bench prevents the team from being able to hide Muhammad on lesser offensive players and doesn't allow for maximization of Muhammad's talents on a game-to-game basis.
Moving Muhammad to the starting lineup (or at least playing next to Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns) to function as a small-ball four has provided similar results. According to NBAwowy.com, Muhammad has actually seen drops in his effective field goal percentage (49.4% compared to 48.1%), true shooting percentage (54.8% compared to 51.8%), and points per possession (1.12 compared to 1.11) when playing next to the four starters listed above (given in a much smaller sample size: 1,192 minutes without compared to 410 minutes with). Even if the numbers indicated otherwise, moving Muhammad to the starting lineup would be unwise due to the chemistry the starting unit has formed since the All Star break and his weaknesses that have already been discussed.
Now, this is not to say that Muhammad should be moved necessarily. Surround him with complimentary skill sets (i.e. defensive-minded players) on the bench and the offense and the energy that Muhammad brings could be a real game changer. However, it is fair to assume that Muhammad would be attractive to other teams this offseason, especially if he is packaged with the Wolves upcoming top 5 draft pick. It would be wise for the Wolves to shop the pick if they fall outside of the top two or three, and coupling that pick with Muhammad could potentially net the Wolves a pretty return. Moving Muhammad would also resolve any upcoming contract drama as he is due to become a free agent after the 2016-17 season, the same year as Gorgui Dieng and two years before Wiggins and LaVine, all three of whom will be seeking or due big money if they continue progressing at the rate they currently are.
Ultimately, the decision to either hold on to or move on from Shabazz Muhammad will rest on the shoulders of general manager Milt Newton. There are positives and negatives to either decision, but it would be unwise for Newton to not at least do some digging. As has been discussed before, this upcoming off-season is an important one as the team finally seems like it may be ready to contend for a chance at the playoffs. The Wolves may be a couple of players and a competent defense away from contending for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Baiting the hook with Muhammad and a top five draft pick may be enough to catch those prize winning fish.