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Minnesota Timberwolves Offseason Retrospective: What Could Have Been

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With the 2017 offseason all but over, a look at what moves were made and what could have been done differently this past summer.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When your team acquires Jimmy Butler, your off-season is a win. Throw in that he was acquired along with the 16th overall pick (Justin Patton) for the affordable price of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, the 7th overall pick (Lauri Markannen) and you have yourself a coup. That move, on its own, made the rest of the off-season impossible to lose. But now, with two months to look back on how free agency played out, there is a feeling that more could have been done.

The rest of the Wolves major signings are at the very least questionable, but to know how “bad” those moves are a comparison is necessary. The difficulty is that we can not know much of anything when it comes to how the rest of the free agent market would have responded to a pursuit from the Wolves.

Signing a free agent is nothing like going to the grocery store where all of the items have a given price for purchase. Rather, the free agents get to look at the buyer and name their price. Players are often willing to play at one price for one organization but at a different price for a team in another city — Patrick Patterson signing for $5.5 million annually with Oklahoma City is a good example of this ambiguity.

Long story short, simply having a budget to spend — salary cap space — does not guarantee each dollar will be spent at the market’s fair price. While money does talk in free agency, other factors are also in play.

What we do know is the final price point on all of the players that signed in Minnesota — Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, Shabazz Muhammad — and we also, now, know what the rest of the free agent population signed for. Before comparing the former to the latter here is a reminder of how the Wolves off-season played out after the Butler trade.

The 2017 Wolves Offseason Recap

  • Ricky Rubio traded to the Utah Jazz for a 2018 lottery protected first-round pick (via Oklahoma City).
  • The rights to re-sign Shabazz Muhammad, Brandon Rush, Adreian Payne, and Omri Casspi were renounced to create approximately $33 million cap space.
  • Jeff Teague signs a three-year, $57 million deal — $19 million annually, player option on the final year.
  • Taj Gibson signs a two-year, $28 million deal — $14 million annually.
  • With cap space all but gone, the Room Mid-Level Exception ($4.328 million) was used in its entirety on Jamal Crawford — $4.328 million year one, $4.544 million year two with a player option.
  • Shabazz Muhammad returns on a one-year minimum contract — $1.577 million.

Those six moves leave the Wolves with 12 guaranteed contracts. With training camp right around the corner, there is a need to sign two more players but only minimum salaries remain. A plethora of players, willing to sign for the minimum, have worked out recently so as to fill out those final two spots.

2017-18 Wolves Salary Cap Situation

Player Salary Cap Hit '17-18
Player Salary Cap Hit '17-18
Jimmy Butler $19,301,070
Jeff Teague $19,000,000
Gorgui Dieng $14,112,360
Taj Gibson $14,000,000
Andrew Wiggins $7,574,323
Cole Aldrich $7,300,000
Karl-Anthony Towns $6,216,840
Jamal Crawford $4,328,000
Nemanja Bjelica $3,949,999
Justin Patton $2,247,480
Shabazz Muhammad $1,471,382
Tyus Jones $1,471,382
Kevin Martin (waived) $1,360,305
---------
Sum of Salaries $102,333,141
Estimated Salary Cap $99,093,000
Luxury Tax Line $119,266,000
Cap Space $0

That is the real life Wolves scenario and, again, with Jimmy Butler, that is a good world to live in. But through adding a little creativity there are other worlds that, in retrospect, seem to have been possible.

With the powerful tool of hindsight, the prices for the rest of the market have been set. If those prices are used as each free agent’s market value then there are some hypothetical tweaks that could be made to the Wolves roster entering the season. The following is a hypothetical offseason in an alternate reality.

The 2017 Wolves Offseason That Could Have Been

Let’s assume, to the dismay of many, Tom Thibodeau and the Wolves franchise was done with Rubio. Below is a more radical approach to the off-season. It’s certainly not the only alternative, but it’s a jumping off point for conversation, and something I’ve been thinking about throughout the summer. (Some of you might remember me caping for Paul Millsap on the JM to DM Show early in the summer.)

  • Ricky Rubio traded to the Utah Jazz for a 2018 lottery protected first-round pick (via Oklahoma City).
  • The rights to re-sign Shabazz Muhammad, Brandon Rush, Adreian Payne, and Omri Casspi were renounced to create approximately $33 million cap space.
  • Gorgui Dieng, Cole Aldrich, OKC 2018 first round pick (acquired in Rubio deal), MIN 2018 second round pick traded to Brooklyn Nets. Dieng and Aldrich’s contracts absorbed into Brooklyn’s cap space with two draft picks given as penance for the absorption. Through this trade, $54.5 million in total salary cap would become available for the Wolves.
  • Wolves sign Darren Collison to a two-year, $20 million deal -- $10 million annually. (Same deal Collison signed with the Indiana Pacers.)
  • Wolves sign Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million deal — starting at $28.55 million and escalating by five percent each season to hit $90 million total, all years guaranteed. (Millsap’s deal in Denver is three years, $30 million annually with a team option year three. Wolves guarantee all three years to entice Millsap.)
  • Wolves sign Patrick Patterson to a three-year, $22.5 million deal — starting at $7.159 million escalating annually to hit $22.5 million total. (Patterson’s deal in Oklahoma City is for three years $16.4 million. Wolves offer an additional $6.1 million over the course of the deal to entice Patterson.)
  • Wolves sign C.J. Miles to a three-year, $25 million deal — starting at $8 million escalating annually to hit $25 million total. (Same amount of years and total dollars Miles signed with the Toronto Raptors for. Miles had reported interest to sign with the Wolves but the Wolves could not get to the $8 million line after the Teague and Gibson signings.)

At this point, the Wolves would be out of salary cap space. Meaning, they can only offer minimum contracts and/or the Room Mid-Level Exception. In reality, when the Wolves were at this point, Jamal Crawford was offered the full Room Mid-Level Exception for $4.328 million.

Rather than offering Crawford the Room MLE, hypothetically, the team could have split up the $4.328 into two separate deals.

  • Wolves use half of Room MLE to sign Ian Clark to a one-year, $2.164 million deal. (Clark signed with the New Orleans Pelicans for the minimum — $1.577 million. An extra $500,000 could be offered to entice Clark by using the Room MLE.)
  • Wolves use half of Room MLE to sign K.J. McDaniels to a one-year, $2.164 million deal. (McDaniels signed with the Toronto Raptors for the minimum — $1.577 million. An extra $500,000 could be offered to entice McDaniels by using the Room MLE.)

Only minimum contracts available to be offered at this point.

  • Shabazz Muhammad returns on a one-year minimum contract — $1.577 million, the cap hit $1.471 million. (As a four-year NBA veteran, Muhammad’s minimum salary is $1.577 million. His cap hit is only $1.471 million due to seniority.)
  • Wolves sign Ty Lawson to a one-year minimum contract — $2.106 million, the cap hit $1.471 million. (As an eight-year NBA veteran, Lawson’s minimum salary is $2.106 million. His cap hit is only $1.471 million due to seniority. Lawson is currently a free agent that could fit in as a backup point guard option. Other free agents point guards conceivably attainable with the minimum: Trey Burke, Isaiah Canaan, Aaron Brooks, Deron Williams, Norris Cole, and more.)

If these eleven moves were to have played out, this is what the Wolves salary cap sheet would look like.

2017-18 Wolves Hypothetical Salary Cap Situation

Player Salary '17-18 Notes
Player Salary '17-18 Notes
Paul Millsap $28,550,000 signs 3 yr, $90 million deal
Jimmy Butler $19,301,070
Darren Collison $10,000,000 signs 2 yr, $20 million deal
C.J. Miles $8,000,000 signs 3 yr, $25 million deal
Andrew Wiggins $7,574,323
Patrick Patterson $7,159,000 signs 3 yr, $22.5 million deal
Karl-Anthony Towns $6,216,840
Nemanja Bjelica $3,949,999
Justin Patton $2,247,480
Ian Clark $2,164,000 signs 1 yr, $2.164 (room mid-level exception)
K.J. McDaniels $2,164,000 signs 1 yr, $2.164 (room mid-level exception)
Ty Lawson $2,106,470 signs 1 yr minimum contract as eight-year NBA vet
Shabazz Muhammad $1,577,230 signs 1 yr minimum contract as four-year NBA vet
Tyus Jones $1,471,382
Kevin Martin (waived) $1,360,305 contract waived and stretched
---------
Sum of Salaries $103,842,099
Estimated Salary Cap $99,093,000
Luxury Tax Line $119,266,000
Cap Space $0

In conjunction, it would have been difficult to pull off all of those moves but every one of those deals is conceivable if not more than fair. The depth chart would look very different than the real roster that lacks balance and floor-spacing ability.

Hypothetical 2017-18 Depth Chart

Centers: Karl-Anthony Towns, Justin Patton

Power Forwards: Paul Millsap, Patrick Patterson, Nemanja Bjelica

Small Forwards: Jimmy Butler, C.J. Miles, Shabazz Muhammad

Shooting Guards: Andrew Wiggins, Ian Clark, K.J. McDaniels

Point Guards: Darren Collison, Tyus Jones, Ty Lawson

Patterson would have vacillated between the two forward positions just as Miles and Muhammad could have swung between the two wing roles. While this roster would have lacked depth at center and taken a dip in point guard productivity there would have been substantially better shooting, depth, and positional diversity.

Real 2017-18 Depth Chart

Center: Karl-Anthony Towns, Justin Patton, Cole Aldrich

Power Forward: Taj Gibson, Gorgui Dieng, Nemanja Bjelica

Small Forward: Jimmy Butler, Shabazz Muhammad

Shooting Guard: Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Crawford

Point Guard: Jeff Teague, Tyus Jones

To be fair, there are explanations as to why these type of moves did not happen. Moving the contracts of Dieng and Aldrich would have been crucial in creating space for Millsap and Collison. Together, Millsap and Collison would have cost more than Gibson and Teague.

A team would need to be okay with absorbing Dieng and/or Aldrich’s contract. Theoretically, a first-round pick could make that absorption palatable but that lies in the eye of the beholder. Brooklyn is one of very few teams who could have handled the combined $21.5 million of Dieng and Aldrich. Splitting up Dieng and Aldrich would have been more difficult and possibly hurt total salary cap space had the Wolves needed to take back money in a deal.

The Wolves also may not have wanted to move the OKC first at all. Minnesota does not have their own first to use this year if they make the playoffs due to the Adreian Payne trade that sends the Atlanta Hawks the Wolves lottery-protected first round pick.

Additionally, signing Millsap, Patterson, and Miles to three-year deals is a longer-term commitment to the roster than Gibson, Teague, and Crawford who could all be out of Minnesota in two years. Future flexibility is a valuable resource to the Wolves who are set to pay Wiggins and Towns handsomely in the future.

And while having a real bench would be ideal, signing Patterson and Miles to be backups hurts the starting point guard spot. Regardless of what you think about Teague, Collison is certainly worse. Also, Patton as the team’s only other player who could play the five is a scary proposition for the very raw rookie.

That said, all scenarios have their drawbacks. These drawbacks would have been the price of signing Millsap. Many would argue that price in dollars and logistics is too high — a fair assertion. But it is my belief that if the Wolves could have found a path to Millsap, alongside Butler, Towns, and Wiggins, then it should have been pursued. Given the price point Millsap settled at — well below the maximum — there was a real potential upside to be tapped. The 32-year-old’s production is sure to fall off by the end of that deal but today he is a serious two-way weapon.

Adding good to great role players — Patterson and Miles — around a Towns, Milsap, Butler, and Wiggins core is enticing, to say the least. The Wolves would be a real contender in the West.

But therein lies the true downside — the West is hell. That fantasy Wolves team is certainly still behind the Warriors and the super-charged Rockets would still be better. Even the Spurs (because they are the Spurs) would be holistically superior. This all-in approach probably boosts the Wolves from the fifth or sixth seed in the West to the fourth.

All-in is a high price to pay for a four-seed. The Wolves, if all-in, go from little flexibility to essentially zero room to adjust in the coming years as Towns and Wiggins move into their primes.

It is fun to play hypotheticals and it is fair to rip on the “value” of the Teague, Crawford, and Gibson contracts but the Wolves as currently constructed are a playoff team. And that is a step. The all-in, though tricky to convert financially, is coming in a different off-season.