The Minnesota Timberwolves’ cap sheet is a dark place. Andrew Wiggins and his $147 million blunder is the starting point, while Jeff Teague’s $19 million player option and the $33.5 million left on Gorgui Dieng’s deal over the next two seasons limit short-term flexibility. Throw in Karl-Anthony Towns’ (well deserved) max deal and there is little-to-no wiggle room for a front office currently undertaking a remodeling.
With that in mind, it’s a godsend that the league allows each team to have a mid-level exception (MLE). The MLE is essentially a present handed to teams by the league, which varies depending on the league salary cap number and whether a specific team is over or under the luxury tax apron. Last season the number was $8.6 million, and will likely increase this season, however, we won’t know exactly how much until the cap for next season is set.
Using this exception will likely be the only way the Wolves are able to bring in any non-minimum free agents this summer, so it’s imperative they nail it. Leading up to the free agency period, we will be examining some of the best MLE fits, just as we have done for the incoming rookies in our Draft Radar.
First up: Nikola Mirotic
Position: Power Forward
Previous Contract: 2-year, $27 million
Traditional Stats: 15.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 0.7 BPG, 43.9% FG, 36.5% 3PT
Advanced Stats: 58.4 TS%, 110.9 ORTNG, 107.5 DRTNG, +3.4 NETRTNG .133 WS/48, 0.0 BPM, 0.6 VORP
Analysis and Fit
It has been a strange season for Mirotic. After playing a major role in sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers and helping the New Orleans Pelicans reach the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, his fifth NBA campaign was marred by trade movement and injury.
He split a career-low 46 regular season games between New Orleans and Milwaukee, still managing to impress every time he was able to take the floor. He was featured far more heavily in The Big Easy, but proved he can comfortably slot into a smaller role with the juggernaut that is the Milwaukee Bucks.
The linchpin of 28-year-old’s skill set is his ability to reliably drain triples at a high volume. His 36.5 percent clip isn’t going to have anyone picking their jaws up off the floor, but his ability to do it at reasonable efficiency on a bunch of attempts differentiate him from your everyday shooter. Mirotic’s regular season shot profile is a thing of beauty. He shot 40.3 percent when curling off screens, 49.3 percent in transition, and 38.2 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities.
At the power forward or small-ball center position, he glues defenders to the perimeter and opens up the paint for his teammates. That trait would be especially helpful in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves’ streaky shooters don’t strike nearly enough fear into defensive schemes to stop them from running constant doubles at Karl-Anthony Towns.
Nobody on the entire Wolves roster matched or bettered the 6.9 3-point attempts Mirotic jacked per night this season, and only Robert Covington (6.7) attempted over five per game. As a team perennially plagued by an inability to take and make the long ball, Mirotic would immediately give them a high-volume sniper to open up a variety of other scoring options for Towns and to a lesser extent Andrew Wiggins.
While the Montenegro born big man is usually pigeonholed into a shooters box, he is very capable of getting his name on the score sheet in a variety of other ways. He may not be the fastest player on the court, but he has a brimming basketball IQ, one that he uses to get behind ball-watching defenders with hard cuts.
Over the course of the regular season, he scored 1.54 points per possession (PPP) on cuts. That ranked him in the 92nd percentile of all cutters, according to NBA.com.
When he isn’t nailing triples or lumbering through the lane on a well-timed cut, Mirotic loves to punish smalls who switch onto him. Instead of allowing guards to hide on the perimeter on a spot-up shooter, Niko works his way into the post and pounds the life out of his mismatched opponent — getting to his soft hook shot with an assortment of moves.
In his time with New Orleans Mirotic finished with a scorching 1.43 PPP (99th percentile) in post-ups. His production dropped off a bit with limited reps in Milwaukee, but he still managed to post 1.00 PPP (67th percentile), most of which came off exposing switches.
With shooting ability mixed with smart cutting and post play, there are similarities in Mirotic’s game to the way current Timberwolves power forward Dario Saric works on offense. If Minnesota were lucky enough to snatch the 28-year-old from Milwaukee or another contender, the two could mirror each other beautifully on offense, and allow Minnesota to keep a high-IQ shooter at the power forward slot at all times.
Mirotic may be slightly more advanced on that end, but it is on defense where he would provide a sizable profit. By no means is Super Dario a bad defender, he uses that aforementioned smarts to get into decent positions and leverages his big body to wall up and force defenders to go over him.
However, Mirotic does all those things at a slightly elevated level, as well as being able to block more shots and provide a stronger deterrent at the rim.
He finished the season with a +1.01 defensive real plus/minus (DRPM) and a 107.5 defensive rating (he dwindled that number down to 104.2 with the Bucks). Neither of those numbers are elite, but they prove that he can be a useful asset to a squad defensively.
That’s an important aspect to his game, especially if he is to end up in Timberwolves colors. Minnesota have consistently put forth dismal defensive performances in the last decade. In 2018-19 they finished 24th in defensive rating (112.2), 23rd in opponent field goal percentage (46.7%), and 29th in opponent 3-point percentage (37.8%). It will take a lot more than a slightly above average defender like Mirotic to completely turn that around, but adding players like him to an improving core of Robert Covington, Josh Okogie, Tyus Jones, and Keita Bates-Diop is a great start.
There will certainly be questions around whether Nikola Mirotic will be out of Minnesota’s price range this summer, or whether he would consider signing with a team that struggled to make a splash in the Western Conference this season — especially after enjoying his time with the dominant Bucks.
If the Wolves’ evolving front office do manage to pry him away, it would be an awesome get and one fans would be very excited about.