The craziest 48 hours of the NBA calendar are almost upon us, and the Wolves, along with most of the league, have a lot of money to spend. Free agency is going to be even more of a free-for-all than usual, and the decisions the Wolves make will have a big impact on the team going forward. So, what's up?
The Wolves are in a promising situation going forward: They have Karl-Anthony Towns, a bevy of other young talent, and somewhere in the neighborhood of $27 million in cap space. Everyone around the league sees them as one of the real up-and-coming teams in the NBA, and they should be right.
But there is a bit of an awkward element as it relates to free agency: On the one hand, the team needs more good players. As optimistic as we want to be, and should be, this is still a team that won 29 games while being relatively healthy. On the other hand, there is nary a position where the team doesn't have players under contract who are young, inexperienced, or both. The team needs to improve, but those players continue to need opportunities.
Ultimately, this is unlikely to be a problem; minutes usually make themselves available. But still: What does it say to a Zach LaVine if the Wolves sign a shooting guard? To Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica if they sign a power forward? Hopefully what it says is: You better be ready to fight for playing time. But no player wants a vote of little or no confidence from a new regime.
The other question is one of timing: Most free agents are at least in their late 20s. I have seen a lot of arguments that the Wolves should not be investing in players who are near or over 30, since the presumed "core" of the team is so young. This is an argument I don't really buy into. First of all, I think the window can open for the Wolves to be competitive sooner rather than later if Thibodeau is as good of a coach as I think he is. Second, while signing a free agent can affect your cap space later, it doesn't involve trading any of the young players. Third, players can help your franchise even if they aren't around when (if) you reach your ultimate goal.
All of which is to say I see no reason for the Wolves not to be aggressive this week. Good players are good. Competition is good. Getting better is good.
Tom Thibodeau has discussed the following needs: Size, toughness, and shooting. This of course defines the needs and wants of most teams in the league, and isn't that specific, but let's take a look.
The Wolves defense was by far their biggest problem last season. Their overall defensive rating was 110.1, good for 28th in the league. Other than Ricky Rubio and maybe Dieng, the team was awash in poor defensive players who appeared lost when it comes to team defensive concepts.
Of course there is reasonable hope for internal improvements due to experience and the coaching of Thibs, but finding hard-nosed, smart defenders should be a priority for the Wolves. They could really use a defensive wing player, ideally but not necessarily one who has the size to play some power forward in smaller lineups. There has been a lot of talk about Luol Deng, who is a fine example of this type of player, though he's on the wrong side of 30. There are others who fit this mold, but I suspect these types of players are going to be highly sought after this week.
One of the things Flip Saunders talked about a lot was finding two-way players. Flip was a talker, but this point is well-taken. Finding those hard-nosed defensive players is great, but if they are hamstringing you at the offensive end of the court their utility is limited. Which is why a guy like Deng is more appealing than a guy like Alonzo Gee. It's why Kent Bazemore is going to make a lot of money soon. At least he can make threes at decent volume and efficiency.
While acquiring a wing player makes sense for the Wolves--there will still be plenty of minutes available and if Shabazz Muhammad loses out to a better player it's all to the good--spending on a big man is a bit stickier. One of the problems is that as things currently stand, the Wolves will have two bigs on the roster who are unlikely to be able to play much due to health concerns. That crowds things significantly.
Another problem is what sort of big? I would still prioritize defense up front over spending a lot of money on a Ryan Anderson. While I strongly believe Towns is a center, and obviously he will play a ton, the truth is I'm not eager to see him banging with the biggest guys in the league on a night-in, night-out basis at this point in his career. Dieng is another option, but the truth is his man defense in the post is the weakest part of his defensive game it seems. So they could use a banger such as Zaza Pachulia, but that clogs things up with both of the aforementioned best utilized at the center spot.
A strong defensive power forward is appealing, and I tend to be attracted to the Amir Johnson types, but as Voodoo has pointed out at some length, it's less than clear how valuable that sort of player is going forward. I still think they can help, especially on the glass where the Wolves were mediocre, but it becomes a matter of how much you want to invest in a player who is extremely limited at one end of the floor. Another guy of this general type that interests me is Trevor Booker. (As an aside: I still have high(ish) hopes for Bjelica. He had his ups and downs as a rookie, but overall his numbers were not bad for a first year player. He's gonna have to prove it defensively though).
As for shooters, I'd be hesitant to invest a large contract in a player whose only plus skill is shooting. It's true that the Wolves need to take, and make, more threes, but you are giving up too much in other areas to spend heavily on a guy like Anderson or Eric Gordon. I could be wrong here, and certainly I spent enough time last season lamenting the dearth of three point shooting for the Wolves, but I don't think they are in a position to be able to hide the weaknesses involved like, say, the Cavs were with Channing Frye on the floor.
In addition, that was an area where we saw significant internal improvement over the course of the season. It's possible that doesn't carry over, but it's something I'm more willing to wait and see on. LaVine shot it great in the second half when he got more catch and shoot opportunities as an off-guard. Bjelica found his stroke later in the season and finished over 38% on the year.
A pure shooter would be less of a priority for me than a two-way wing and/or big, certainly, and choices will have to be made, both by the team and the players they pursue.
Another possible need is a veteran back up point guard. This is gets complicated given the roster construction and the drafting of Kris Dunn, but that has been such a sore spot for the team over the last few years that I sympathize with the desire to find someone we know is going to perform at least adequately in that role. Still, it would compel another move; they can't have four point guards on the roster, especially with Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Garnett taking up two spots. It leaves them too thin elsewhere.
Finally, it's worth noting that obviously the Wolves are only one part of this equation. Their signings will be determined by who they can interest, and it remains to be seen how appealing their situation is compared to the many other teams with similar cap room all going after the same group of players. There will inevitably be compromises, and the key for the Wolves will be not getting caught up in the frenzy that they make bad ones.
We'll know soon enough.