When the dust cleared on draft night, the Timberwolves were big winners. Acquiring an All-NBA talent in advance of his 28th birthday is not something that often happens, and no matter what else, it makes your off-season. It makes several off-seasons, in fact. Jimmy Butler makes the Wolves a much better basketball team, and that’s something we will enjoy this season and hopefully for many more. These chances are exceedingly rare, and Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden struck when they had the shot.
After completing that trade, the Wolves were in the following roster situation:
They had two good point guards (Ricky Rubio and Tyus Jones,) two wing players, the great Butler and young scorer Andrew Wiggins, and several bigs headlined by Karl-Anthony Towns. Gorgui Dieng, Cole Aldrich, Nemanja Bjelica, and draftee Justin Patton were (and are) the others. They also had roughly $18.7 million in cap space available if they renounced their free agents (including RFA Shabazz Muhammad.)
Given that roster construction, it appeared the Wolves had three options to continue building their team.
Option One: Aggressively clear cap and go after another star-level player. We’ll call this the You Only Live Once option. The YOLO option pretty much meant going after either Kyle Lowry or Paul Millsap. Both of them came with downsides: age and contract size being chief among them. It appears that the Wolves didn’t make a strong effort at Lowry, since they dealt with their point guard situation prior to free agency even started. Perhaps they knew the kind of contract it would take to lure him from Toronto, and were simply unwilling to go to those lengths.
They did engage with Millsap, though to what extent remains unclear. At any rate, they obviously didn’t spend a ton of time on it, and by the second day of free agency had already moved on. Millsap wound up with a three year deal for $90 million from Denver, but only the first two years are guaranteed. That’s a coup for the Nuggets, though had the Wolves stayed in the bidding, Millsap’s deal with either team might not have been so favorable.
Ultimately the YOLO option is not entirely in a team’s hands. There aren’t a lot of players of this caliber on the market, and it’s not up to the team whether they are willing to sign. That said, it’s obvious the Wolves were never particularly committed to the YOLO, or even if they were interested in it. It’s an expensive, risky option that would have required difficult cap gymnastics and left the roster extremely thin. But getting top caliber talent is the name of the game in the NBA, and it would have been sweet to see Butler, Towns, and Millsap all suiting up in Wolves jerseys this fall.
Which leads us to...
Option Two. We will call this The Filling Available Team Slots option. The FATS option was to look at the roster and realize that the biggest need was a combo forward and wings who could shoot the three. Point guard was stable. Your starting front court and main reserves were still under contract. But the wing spots were bereft after Wiggins and Butler, and a guy who could swing between the three and four was appealing, especially if you lacked confidence in either Bjelica’s quality or his health.
Danilo Gallinari, who remains on the market, would have been an interesting player to pursue, though he might have cost most or even all of the cap space available. There were other options, some of whom remain on the market: C.J. Miles, P.J. Tucker, Thabo Sefolosha and more. Could they have found a way to open up enough space for Gallinari and one of those other guys? Perhaps; as of this writing they are apparently trying to open up space, presumably for players like the ones listed above.
The point of the FATS option is it was obvious the Wolves needed wing shooters following the Butler trade, and in the absence of the YOLO option, resources should have been allocated toward this need. And by wing shooters, I don’t mean Mike Dunleavy types, who can not be counted on for significant minutes, but rather players with multiple skills who can shoot it.
I hesitate to write about Option Three, because I fear it will dominate the conversation, and it is not an option the Wolves would contemplate. But it’s something I would have seriously considered (and still would). It’s the trade Wiggins option. We’ll call it The Radical Andrew Wiggins option.
The RAW option looks like this: As soon as the Wolves cemented the Butler deal, they pivot and begin exploring what the return on Wiggins would be. Could they get a quality three-and-D wing, perhaps another useful player, and a good draft pick or two to keep the cheap talent pipeline flowing? It’s difficult for us to know what sort of return any player might bring, but I have to believe there would have been a pretty good market out there for Wiggins.
This option is more or less appealing, of course, depending on your view of Wiggins and his future. But one benefit it has is reducing the risk inherent in the maximum contract extension he’s likely to sign before playing another game. Wiggins is still young, and perhaps has not had the best development over his first three years in the league, with three different coaches, the first two of whom probably coddled him too much. All that said, he has not been a great player, or really even a good one so far.
And his player type tends to be overvalued. It’s the “scores a lot on OK efficiency but doesn’t do much else” player type. As I’ve written before, guys like this often wind up being big scorers on bad teams (which, in fact, is what he’s been so far in his career). The Wolves have employed other examples of this broad player type: Al Jefferson was sort of like this. Kevin Martin, especially in his Sacramento days, was like this, though a more efficient version. Another good example is Antawn Jamison.
At any rate, had the Wolves been able to trade Wiggins and, say, off-load Cole Aldrich as part of the deal, for a couple of useful parts for now and later (in the form of picks,) they could have preserved the cap space for other pieces and built around Butler and Towns without Wiggins’ contract being their problem.
It was recently suggested to me that while good players on rookie contracts are some of the most valuable commodities in the NBA, merely good players coming off their rookie deals may be among the most overvalued. If you do not think you are likely to get max-value for the player you are about to have to pay a max or near-max contract to, better to get what you can and move on, much like they did with LaVine.
The RAW option is not something the Wolves are willing to consider, however, and the hope of course is that Wiggins develops in multiple facets over the next couple of seasons.
At any rate, the Wolves took none of these options, instead choosing a path that, so far, seems confusing.
Instead, before free agency began, they flipped Ricky Rubio to Utah for a pick and immediately came to an agreement with Jeff Teague on a three year, $57M deal (player option in year three.) That cost them about $4 million in cap space as compared to keeping Rubio. We’ve discussed the pluses and minuses of Teague and Rubio plenty already, but making this move reduced them to about $14-15M in space.
Then, after what appeared a rather half-hearted attempt at a YOLO (Millsap,) they reached an agreement on the second day of free agency with Taj Gibson, a former Bulls player under Thibs. It’s reportedly a two year, $28 million deal that eats up essentially all of the remaining cap space.
I do not wish to denigrate Taj Gibson, who is a quality ballplayer who has had a fine career to this point. However, he is now 32 years old, is a power forward/small ball center, and provides no shooting, spacing, or play-making, things the Wolves obviously need. He’s been an excellent defender through his career, and brings a tenacity that will be welcome, but it’s unclear at this point what he does that Gorgui Dieng, already under contract for the next four seasons, does not.
So essentially, facing a situation in which shooting and wing players were desperately needed, the Wolves turned Ricky Rubio and almost all of their cap space into Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. Amazingly, even with jettisoning Rubio, their shooting is probably worse, given that Gibson, who cannot shoot, will be getting significant minutes. The defense, from a pure personnel standpoint, might be a bit better, as Gibson should help there, at least to the extent that he’s well-versed in Thibs’ schemes.
The off-season is not over yet, and obviously they will add players to the roster one way or another, but the exchange described above feels like a missed opportunity. They neither got the best talent on the market, nor addressed the most pressing roster needs. Teague feels like an unnecessary expense, though as I wrote the other day, he’s not a bad player and the Rubio saga needed to end, for our mental health if nothing else.
Gibson feels like a luxury purchase: They weren’t desperate for a player with his skill set, he didn’t come cheap, and it was a the expense of more pressing issues.
Getting Jimmy Butler changes the outlook for this team for the better. And it is going to be better.
The follow-up moves we’ve seen so far, however, fail to capitalize on that brilliant maneuver nearly as well as I hoped after draft night. This is the summer the Wolves have to shape their roster in the medium term. With the competition in the Western Conference reaching brutally high levels, they absolutely have to get it right. Their use of assets since the Butler trade doesn’t feel like that to me.
We’ll see what comes next.