With 17 games remaining in their 2018-2019 regular season, the Minnesota Timberwolves are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
On one hand, the Wolves are currently 6.5 games out of the 8-seed in the Western Conference, meaning that while the team isn’t mathematically eliminated (yet), there’s a better chance of a hurricane hitting Target Center than a miraculous 17-game winning streak. Armed with their own pick, the Wolves are set up beautifully to shut down their franchise player and let young guys like Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop steer the tank all the way to the finish line.
On the other hand, very few teams in recent memory actually have more to play for than Minnesota does. Ryan Saunders is literally (and figuratively) coaching for his job. Well-aged veterans like Luol Deng, Derrick Rose, and Taj Gibson are all nearing the end of their current contracts, meaning they are trying to produce as much as possible before their agents pick up the phones again this summer. Hell, even younger guys like Tyus Jones and Dario Saric have motivation to play hard and get extended minutes, in the hopes that they too can cash in with the Timberwolves or another team when their deals expire.
And then there’s Karl-Anthony Towns, a one man wrecking ball as of late who is worth the price of admission alone. Since returning from his two-game absence caused by a freak car accident, KAT is averaging 34.3 points and 14 rebounds, while simultaneously connecting on 48% of his 6.7 3PA per game. It’s no secret Towns has been a new, refreshed man since Ryan Saunders was inserted as head coach, and while his recent play hasn’t necessarily resulted in immediate value (i.e. wins), the drawn-out ramifications of his production are what’s becoming more and more interesting:
If @KarlTowns makes all-NBA this year, he gets a $31.6 million contract bonus. A look at his phenomenal recent play, his competition, how the Anthony Davis situation affects things, and did we mention that's a lot of money? pic.twitter.com/BvhZDuUVHn— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) March 7, 2019
Again, while this isn’t necessarily a new topic to many of us, it is becoming one that is gaining more and more attention, both locally as well as nationally. My guy Dane Moore was one of the first to break down this situation back in early February, and that was before Towns went on his most recent onslaught. In layman’s terms, Towns is starting to fill up the stat sheet enough for two NBA players, which is ironic, considering his production may be just enough to earn him a spot on an All-NBA team, thus eliminating the potential cap space for another contributor to pair with Towns in the future.
Which brings me back to my original point — how can a team whose best long-term strategy involves short-term losses even remotely execute “tanking” when it’s two most valuable assets (Towns and Saunders) have more motivation than ever before to produce right here and right now? How does the coaching staff shut down their best player when it could likely end up costing him the approximate GDP of Tuvalu? How does management prioritize lottery standings over regular season standings when no one in the front office is even sure where their paychecks will be coming from this summer? How does ownership evaluate the potential success of both management and the coaching staff if the team itself is actively trying to lose?
For certain parties to win, other parties must lose. If Towns continue to produce like this for the rest of the season, he will maximize his potential earnings while simultaneously minimizing the Wolves financial options going forward. If Saunders pulls the right strings and keeps his squad competitive through April 10th, he may do just enough to keep his job, while simultaneously reducing the team’s likelihood of landing a potential cornerstone to compliment KAT. If Scott Layden prefers development over production, it could prove to be just the strategic move Minnesota needs to increase their Zion odds from say 1% to 9%, while simultaneously expediting his termination from the franchise.
In the end, when you really think about it, this current situation truly is the most Timberwolves thing ever. The best course of action is simultaneously the one that has little to no chance of actually happening.