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Thursday Musings: Assigning Value to Changes

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Do the big moves or the various smaller moves matter more for NBA teams?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

How do we evaluate an offseason?

The easy answer is with a letter grade. That has become the palatable response that is given out to teams after an offseason in any sport. We give grades after draft picks, we give grades after portions of the season that we demarcate as different, and we give grades whenever we feel like it.

We do this because it’s easily readable and discernible.

The challenge becomes the context in which we make these evaluations. For example, what importance to do we place upon one move as compared to another? Or how do we account for the changes after later moves take place? For example, do we rate Justin Patton as a worse draft pick now that we know the Wolves went out and signed Taj Gibson and still retain Cole Aldrich? Or, does that now get canceled out as the imagined red-shirt season for Patton is certainly going to be taking place now that he has broken his foot?

This question has been interesting to me, of how we evaluate teams, particularly due to the divided response on the offseason of the Minnesota Timberwolves. This is not really that surprising, considering that the team made one move that an absolute home run in the Jimmy Butler trade, but then made several other personnel moves that are certainly questionable and also make past decisions look shaky now that we have seen what the future brings.

But of course, we also have no idea how this will all really play out. This is even more true for the Wolves as the roster has been rebuilt almost entirely, with perhaps five of the top eight players in terms of minutes per game changing.

I find it helpful to think about this in percentages (although what the percentages are keep on changing in my mind). For example, we know that success in the NBA is dictated by Stars. You almost are guaranteed not to win a championship unless you have multiple top-fifteen players on your team and most likely need one top-five player. That makes Stars incredibly important to a team’s success. So let’s assign about 80 percent of a team’s grade to that.

The Wolves obviously are doing extremely well in this category. The trade for Jimmy Butler was simply a coup. Having Karl-Anthony Towns to play with him is something that other NBA teams dream of. The question of if Andrew Wiggins will reach the level of a top-twenty player is certainly up in the air, but the Wolves are able to make that bet and retain the other two stars.

The other 20 percent is important, but having the right Stars supersedes this. In the Wolves case, it seems that they have made a bunch of moves that are seemingly fine without context, but our evaluation of them is harsher when they are taken together.

To wit:

  • Trading Ricky Rubio for the OKC 2018 First Round Pick (likely late 20s) and then signing Jeff Teague to a contract that costs about 4 million more per year.
  • Overpaying about 4 million a year or so for Taj Gibson
  • Paying Jamal Crawford about 4.3 million a year when he might be washed
  • Overpaying Gorgui Dieng (at least in this market) about 3-4 million a year
  • Overpaying Cole Aldrich over a too long of a period of time
  • Drafting a center, which is certainly not a position of need

All of these moves are defensible, but when taking together they add up to about a wasted 15-20 million dollars, which a team like the Wolves could certainly use/will need in the future. Will this hamstring the Wolves? Most likely not, as most of these players are good/useful NBA players who fit into what Tom Thibodeau is looking for. But it’s hard not to think that they could be handling this portion of the roster in a better way.

So which is more important?

It seems non-intuitive that five to six personnel moves do not come close to creating the impact of bringing on one single player, yet that seems to be how the NBA works. We shall have to see how this theory plays out in the upcoming years.