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The Prices We Pay: Can the Wolves Take the Next Step?

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As a crucial off-season approaches, how much can the Wolves really do to get better, and what comes next?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s NBA draft week, usually a much bigger deal here at Canis Hoopus and around the wider Wolves nation. But for the first time since 2012 when their pick wound up in New Orleans thanks to the Marko Jaric-Sam Cassell trade years prior, the Wolves do not enter the week holding a lottery pick. Before that, you have to go back to 2005 to find a year they didn’t hold a top ten pick heading into draft week.

Of course last season, they entered draft night with the seventh overall pick, but wound up trading the rights to Lauri Markkanen to acquire Jimmy Butler. It was and remains a terrific trade, at least a temporary turning point in the team’s abysmal fortunes over more than a decade.

That the Wolves are sitting with the 20th pick (their own pick would have been 19th, but it was traded to the Hawks) is good news: we’ve been through enough lotteries, high picks, and bad draft decisions to last us several lifetimes. It means the team actually made progress where it counts, on the court. They dragged themselves out of lottery purgatory and won more than they lost for the first time since well before this blog existed.

And now we head into another off-season, with a remarkable number of questions swirling around a team that won 47 games and made the playoffs for the first time in forever. In my imagination, it wasn’t like this. Though I didn’t know if it would ever happen, in my vision when the Wolves finally made a step forward, the path would be obvious: Further development of whatever young players finally got them to this point, intelligent personnel moves to bolster the roster, and ultimately more steps forward into contention.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. The Wolves paid a heavy price, in more than one way, to achieve what they did last season. A couple of recent pieces discuss those costs.

Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic reminds us that Tom Thibodeau is pretty much the only guy left in the league with complete control over both the front office and coaching roles. He quotes Thibs’ defense of the season:

“Winning in this league is very difficult, and we should understand that,” Thibodeau said at the end of the season, a clear message to those who have expressed concern with the state of the team. “When you lose for 14 years, that says a lot. And to change it, it’s a massive change in your culture. And so, you need a commitment that’s made by everyone every day. Everything does matter, so it was a major step forward for us.”

This is pretty clearly a jab at critics who questioned everything from personnel moves to playing time.

In the same article, while acknowledging how quiet the Wolves front office is, Krawczynski reports that they have promised to be “aggressive” this summer in continuing to improve the squad.

But that raises the question: What avenues are open to them?

This is part of the price the team and fans paid for their 47 wins: they are left with no flexibility under the salary cap, and very little appealing trade assets as we head into another vital off-season.

In order to halt the losing, the Wolves spent their cap space (as well as the seventh pick) on veterans including Butler, as well as Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague. Even if Jamal Crawford opts out of his player option as expected, and the team waives Cole Aldrich before his salary becomes fully guaranteed, the Wolves are on the hook for approximately $112M for eight players. That does not include Nemanja Bjelica’s Qualifying Offer, the roughly $1.8M for the 20th pick, or any cap holds for empty roster spots.

This leaves them in a tough spot, with the salary cap expected to be about $101M for next season, and crucially the luxury tax kicking in at roughly $123M. That means the Wolves will be hard pressed to even use the entire MLE and remain under the tax line.

Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether the Wolves will be able to effectively recruit role players this summer. It’s no secret around the league that signing up with the Wolves for a bench role could result in extremely limited playing time as we saw this season, and for players looking to maximize their careers and paychecks, it seems unlikely Minnesota will be anywhere near the top of their lists.

There is no doubt the Wolves will pursue trades this summer, but again, their options are limited. Darren Wolfson reported on his latest Scoop podcast that things are quiet around the league right now, but that talks will of course heat up in the couple of days leading into the draft.

He also reports that the Wolves are likely to shop Gorgui Dieng, but as we have speculated, it will take at least the 20th pick to sweeten any Dieng deal given his contract. Even so, the best they can probably hope for is to transfer the money to a position of greater need. He also notes that while he thinks the front office is willing to engage on Andrew Wiggins, once again they would have to convince Glen Taylor if they want to move him. Given the difficult relationship between Taylor and Thibs, that might be a tough sell. It’s legitimate to question the level of trust that remains between them.

Beyond the numbers, there is another price we as fans, and more importantly the players, have paid. Sean Deveney tweeted this yesterday:

The excellent article he links to discusses issues we are all too familiar with: The uneasy relationship between Thibs and Karl-Anthony Towns, Butler’s unhappiness with Wiggins, the frustration from the bench crew—Tyus Jones, Gorgui Dieng, and Bjelica—with their roles and playing time, and even some of the starters suggesting that the bench should play more.

And this is the price: Thibs exacts a joy tax. His approach to team building, his humorlessness, his willingness to alienate players in pursuit of doing things “his way” is a cost. It’s a cost for fans, yes, and it’s a cost for players, as Tyus Jones was apparently on the verge of asking for a trade, and Jamal Crawford seems likely to get out of town as soon as possible. Gorgui Dieng, one of the best people in the organization is unhappy. It also comes at a cost to the organization, as we discussed above: recruitment becomes difficult when offered a limited role under a guy who, whatever his attributes, is not pleasant to play for.

That joy tax would probably be easier to pay with a team that was winning 55+ games and advancing in the playoffs. We might yet get to that point—the story on this iteration of the Wolves is not yet complete. But until it does, it’s a high psychic price to pay.

Given the situation they find themselves in, reaching that level—top four in the West, winning playoff series’—will require either massive improvement from within, likely from Towns, though we can still hold out hope for Wiggins, or pulling a personnel rabbit out of a hat. But having reached 47 wins, at least it’s within view, something we haven’t been able to say since the reign of Kevin Garnett. Something special will have to happen, and it’s just as possible they win eight fewer games as eight more next season, but at least we know they are capable of quality. For that we should be happy, in spite of the costs.

So the question is what’s next? Jon Krawczynski has consistently been more optimistic than me that relationships can be repaired and things can change. I’m more of a skeptic that Thibs is open to change, both in his personal approach and his tactics.

It remains unclear whether he has any inkling that he needs to. Yes, he has heard the complaining from some of his players, and apparently mollified Jones in a meeting, but on the other hand, the team made real strides in the win column last season, and if winning is the measurement, he can, and does, point out the big improvement they made.

Given the prices paid, however, it’s a fair question whether they have another significant step forward in them. They can hope for internal improvement, especially from Towns, but without money to spend or quality trade assets, making the roster better is going to be a tough task.

He has his chance to get things right, as he remains in charge of the organization. It starts Thursday with the draft, and within two or three weeks, we should have a pretty good picture of what the team will look like next season.