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What’s Next for the Timberwolves

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Even if it’s not Houston North, there are still things to look for.

It’s really quite amazing, when you stop and think about it, that Gersson Rosas spent 16 years with one organization, filling a multitude of roles for more than one boss. This is surprising because nobody lasts that long with one team, except in rare, Popovichian circumstances.

Although Rosas has promised that the Wolves will not merely become “Houston North,” it’s fair to assume that witnessing and participating in the Rockets evolution will inform how Rosas approaches his task here.

One thing worth noting is that the Rockets had a losing record only once during Rosas’ career in Houston. (2005-6, an injury plagued season in the middle of Jeff Van Gundy’s coaching tenure.) The Rockets, under both Carroll Dawson and Daryl Morey have never been about tanking. Remaining competitive has been a key part of their philosophy throughout.

Let’s consider three aspects of organizational philosophy from the Rockets which might find a place in the new Wolves culture:

First of course is an analytics driven playing style. By this I mostly mean shot selection: The Rockets have been the vanguard of the sea change currently happening in the NBA. They consistently lead the league in three point attempts, are last in two point attempts, and get to the free throw line at a high rate. This is central to their identity. They eschew the mid-range, and either try to get to the rim or find a three point shot.

How much of this style will the Wolves adopt? Well, I wouldn’t expect them to challenge the Rockets any time soon in these areas. They don’t have the personnel to do it, and there are ingrained, organizational habits that will have to change before that happens.

It also depends on the coaching situation. Although the Rockets were moving in this direction even under “old-school” coach Kevin McHale at the behest of the front office, it really went to the next level under Mike D’Antoni, who has long understood the value of the three pointer. The Wolves have been at the other end of the spectrum in recent years, at or near the bottom of the league in threes.

Recent coaches Tom Thibodeau and Ryan Saunders have paid lip service to the importance of taking more threes, and some mild progress was made last season, but they remain a team lagging far behind the league in this area. Hopefully more progress can be made either under a new head coach for whom the three is a central part of their system, or at least at the insistence of Rosas should Saunders remain as expected. At any rate, more three point attempts, especially from Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins should be an early order of business.

The second thing that has defined the Rockets of recent years is their constant hunt for star players. Under Daryl Morey, the Rockets have placed a premium on being in the mix for any stars that come available via trade. In order to be in that mix, they have prized flexibility among the non-star parts of their roster, wanting to always have assets that might be useful in acquiring stars. It doesn’t always work, but being agile and creative put them in position to acquire James Harden from the Thunder and Chris Paul from the Clippers.

I doubt the Wolves will make the headlines as star suitors nearly as often as the Rockets have. The market isn’t as conducive, and their last experience of trading for a star did not end well. Furthermore, it will likely be some time before the Wolves reach the level of flexibility with their contracts that would help land a star.

Third, and related, is a commitment to mining for talent everywhere, and understanding the value of that talent. This is something the Rockets have been on the forefront of for years now, and something Rosas, who served as the General Manager for their D-(now G-) League affiliate the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

One of my favorite examples involves the Wolves. The Rockets got Chase Budinger, a second round pick, on draft night for a future second and some cash. They signed him to a cheap four year deal, got three good seasons out of him, then dealt him to the Wolves on draft night 2012 for a first rounder. They didn’t hit on that pick—Terrence Jones—but that’s tremendous value. Furthermore, they were comfortable making that deal because they had drafted his replacement, Chandler Parsons, in the second round the year before. They got three good years out of Parsons, but didn’t make the mistake of overvaluing him in free agency, rather they let the Mavericks overpay him.

Another Wolves-connected example is Robert Covington, who got his first shot with the Rockets in 2013. He spent most of the season with the Vipers, and the Rockets didn’t wind up keeping him the following year, but they gave him his first shot.

This is key to roster building in the NBA. Inexpensive contributors are necessary in a capped league, and they also provide the kind of flexibility you need to take advantage of opportunities. It’s something I’ve written about before, and one of my favorite parts of the Rosas hiring is that he comes from an organization hat is always scouring for talent, and is willing to sift through as many players as necessary to find who they need.

Of course that makes drafting hugely important, especially when there is just not a lot of salary flexibility. One thing the Rockets did not have much of was lottery picks, so Rosas will get his first chance with what will likely be a top ten pick next month. We’ll find out for sure where they are picking next week,