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Creative Roster Building Key to Wolves Future

The local cagers have never been successful in mining for unrecognized, inexpensive talent, something small markets have to do to become successful.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Last week felt like the nail in the coffin for another Wolves season. They lost four games, all of which seemed winnable when the week began, and punted at the trade deadline, neither making (probably hopeless) moves to try to reinvigorate this year’s squad, nor finding new homes for any of their older, expiring contract players in exchange for even marginal future help. Not surprisingly, they also didn’t take the opportunity to re-imagine the roster without Andrew Wiggins, whose paycheck far outstrips his on-court value.

We’ve often used the myth of Sisyphus as a metaphor for our beloved franchise, and finally last season it looked like they were making some progress pushing that rock up that damn mountain. But many were rightly skeptical, and sure enough that rock crashed right back down again amid Jimmy Butler’s trade demands, Tom Thibodeau’s stubbornness, and Glen Taylor’s decision-making.

And now we are back in familiar territory, 55 games into another apparently lost season, with little to look forward to.

It starts with ownership. Taylor is consistent only in choosing the wrong plan and the wrong people to execute it. Most recently, Thibs proved a disaster, and Taylor seemed ready to let that linger all season despite the insanity during the fall. Until he wasn’t, and Thibs was unceremoniously ushered out, replaced on the sidelines by local favorite Ryan Saunders.

But what’s the plan here? Scott Layden appears to be a caretaker GM, and Saunders has not particularly distinguished himself thus far. Will Taylor launch a focused search for someone to head basketball operations once the season comes to a close, and give that person control over both the roster and the coaching staff? Will he try to split the difference by insisting on sticking with Saunders, who because of the well-known country club relationships might be hard to dismiss after half a season? Could he possibly stick with Layden beyond this season? Does he really believe in the talent on hand?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that ownership isn’t changing in the short-term, so we can wish for that in one hand, and, well, do whatever in the other. The best we can hope for at this point is that Taylor stumbles into the right person to run things, ideally someone who is forward thinking about the game both on and off the court, and has the energy and savvy to build a winner around Karl-Anthony Towns before we reach peak Anthony Davis disaster.

That is all a few months away at least, however. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what separates successful small/non-glamour market teams from unsuccessful ones like the Wolves, because I think in looking for the next person to run the team, it’s vital to understand what such teams need to be winners beyond blind luck (which always plays a bigger role than we like to imagine.)

One of the things I’ve noticed is this: Many successful small market teams find and nurture inexpensive talent, while the Wolves generally do not.

First, in a terrible breach of the rules of good rhetoric, some caveats: All teams make mistakes in drafting and free agency. There are always “Buts” and “Well actuallys.” Yes, luck plays a crucial role at all levels of roster building. Yes, much of my argument involves after-the-fact analysis, which invites in results bias.

But the argument still holds: Over the course of multiple regimes, the Wolves have not shown sufficient creativity in talent acquisition and development to enjoy success in a market that isn’t conducive to drawing established top-shelf talent.

Consider for example the Utah Jazz. Their best player is Rudy Gobert, who was drafted 27th and acquired in a draft night trade with the Denver Nuggets. Another key player was also acquired in a draft night trade with the Nuggets: Donovan Mitchell, who was drafted 13th. But one of the linchpins of their progress, Joe Ingles, was picked up off waivers, played three seasons for them for under $5M total before signing a lucrative (but still team friendly and declining!) contract.

Realizing they probably had a better option in Gobert allowed them to not exacerbate one of their mistakes, drafting Enes Kanter. They moved him along before he qualified for a huge raise, and in so doing got a spare pick that, along with the cap space they had because they were not yet paying guys like Ingles or Gobert, left them with the opportunity to pick up a point guard on a decent contract.

Meanwhile, they have stayed active and flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities. They found Royce O’Neal. who went undrafted, last season to plug a hole in their rotation, and will pay him less than $4 million over three seasons through next year. They were in position to snag key pieces Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver in trades.

Or take the sometimes subject of this blog, the Milwaukee Bucks. Yes, great fortune (but also smart!) to get a superstar with the 15th pick. But look at how they have built their roster. Khris Middleton was a second round pick they got as a minor piece in the Brandon Knight-Brandon Jennings trade with the Pistons after his first, mostly unused season. Eventually they had to pay him, but they found another useful player in the second round in Malcolm Brogdon, who has been an inexpensive contributor for three seasons.

Another example: The Denver Nuggets. They’ve made mistakes, particularly in trading with the Jazz, but they are now rolling, in large part due to their star (second round pick) Nikola Jokic. But let’s focus on a couple of other guys: Monte Morris (their 2017 second rounder) and Torrey Craig, undrafted. They both signed two-way contracts last season, and have emerged as real contributors this season for under $4M combined, and will make under $4M next season as well.

The Wolves...don’t do this. They have occasionally hit on fairly good players later in the first round of the draft: Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones come to mind. But even there...they mitigated Dieng’s value by signing him to an ill-advised extension that they now desperately want out of. Jones has been somewhat in and out of favor, and we’ll see where things go with him, but even there, they had a useful and affordable point guard situation with a young Jones backing up Ricky Rubio, but couldn’t leave well enough alone and spent cap space to make the position more expensive and not necessarily better while also limiting Jones’ development.

Who was the last second round or undrafted player the Wolves got real use out of before anybody else? I suppose the answer is Nemanja Bjelica, but they have been few and far between. And even Bjelica was a case requiring the Wolves to pay significantly more than a domestic second rounder to lure him from Europe. You could argue they have found useful and inexpensive players this season in guys like Luol Deng and, depending on your point of view, Derrick Rose. But there is a key difference: These guys are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning. They are one-year stop gaps, not multi-year inexpensive pieces for your rotation.

I just finished watching the Jazz beat the Spurs on Saturday afternoon, and all of this was on display. Royce O’Neal had a big game for the Jazz, scoring 17 on 6-7 shooting off the bench. The Spurs started Bryn Forbes at point guard. Forbes went undrafted, and by the time his current contract expires at the end of next season, he will have given the Spurs four seasons and probably around 6,000 minutes for under $8M total. Also in the starting lineup for the Spurs was Davis Bertans, who the Spurs acquired the (2nd round) draft rights to when they traded FOR Kawhi Leonard. Bertans is in his third year with the Spurs, and earned a decent contract last summer, but still when it ends after next season, will have given the Spurs four seasons for a total of under $16M.

You might argue that this is all small beer, that championships are won with stars, not guys like those we’ve been discussing. That’s true, but championships are not the only measure of success, or, at least for many fans, enjoyment. Furthermore, having players like these around on inexpensive deals grants you flexibility if you are pursuing a star. At any rate, stars are few and far between, and it still matters to use all available tools smartly in building a roster, regardless of whether stars are in place or not.

Finding stars can often be a matter of luck. But working diligently to find underappreciated talent that brings skills your roster needs is not. It’s something the Wolves have always lagged behind at, and as a result they have wound up paying too much for established talent, hamstringing their flexibility in the process. That’s something that has to change no matter who is in charge of basketball operations come this summer.