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2019 NBA Draft

The Timbewolves Draft and What it Means

Can we learn anything about the new front office from their activity on draft day?

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Now that we’ve had a few days to breathe it’s time to try to sort out what the first major roster actions by the new front office mean, and what they might tell us about what comes next.

The Desire to Move Up

We began hearing about the Wolves working to move up in the draft a week or two before June 20th. Those rumors proved true when the Wolves finally traded Dario Saric to Phoenix to move up five spots to number six a few hours before the draft.

I don’t think we’ve talked enough about the loss of Saric, and it’s reasonable to ask whether it was worth the cost. Of course, we cannot know the answer until we see how Jarrett Culver develops but certainly there were players chosen after 11 that I would have been happy to have, including Brandon Clarke, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and the intriguing Sekou Doumbouya.

But the Wolves wound up with Culver, at the cost of Saric. That might not be a huge cost, but it is a cost. Saric was the only true power forward under contract for next season, and his salary is a mere $3.5 million. Yes, he is scheduled to be a free agent in the summer of 2020, but he will be a restricted free agent, meaning the Wolves would have had some control over his future.

I’ve seen a lot of commentary that Saric didn’t take advantage of his opportunities with the Wolves, and that moving on from him is not a big deal. I don’t see it that way. Saric was one of the team’s best three-point shooters (38 percent) on a squad desperately in need of more perimeter fire power, not less. He paired successfully with Karl-Anthony Towns (+2.9 net rating together per NBA.com. This was the 5th best two-man pairing the Wolves had among combos playing 500+ minutes.) He was (and is) a starting caliber player, leaving the Wolves with one less of those heading into free agency.

In other words, there was a real cost to this move, and it’s impossible to know whether it was worth the price until we see how things play out. I have no objection to Culver, though I do worry about what appears to be a lack of any one elite skill, as well as questionable perimeter shooting. On the other hand, he has some real ball-handling and passing chops for a wing player, and could eventually bring more defense to the perimeter, which is always welcome.

While I’m not entirely sure it was worth it, I do admire the aggressiveness and execution by the front office. They obviously had targets they liked, pursued them, and wound up landing one of them (more on this in a minute.) Whatever I think of the various prospects available at any of these draft spots, they clearly saw a real difference in quality and took decisive action to grab a guy they liked. That’s more than many front offices accomplished and suggests a willingness to make bold moves when they see an opportunity.

The Move Not Made

Through much of draft day, the rumor mill had the Wolves in talks with the Pelicans to acquire the fourth pick. In the end, of course, the Pels found an offer from Atlanta they liked better than whatever the Wolves were offering.

Here’s what I can say with confidence: First, the Wolves were willing to part with Robert Covington in some combinations to move up to the fourth spot. Second, they really wanted Darius Garland.

I don’t want to dwell on this too much since it didn’t happen, but I do find those things a bit disturbing, as I think it’s a misunderstanding of value. Covington is not untouchable, but given his quality, his valuable set of skills, and his contract, he is worth far more to me than seven spots in a dubious draft.

I understand the appeal of Garland, a lead guard who can shoot it, but I find the Damian Lillard comparisons far-fetched. He isn’t nearly the finisher Lillard is, his passing chops are questionable, and he’s not likely going to defend well, at least for a while.

The Move Made

Once it became clear the Cavaliers were going to take Garland at the fifth spot, you can be forgiven for thinking there was a whiff of Flip Saunders’ 2013 draft to the proceedings, when the Wolves traded the ninth pick for two later picks only to see their plan fall apart as the guys they liked went ahead of them.

But I don’t think that’s the proper analysis. Gersson Rosas and Co. are far too experienced and prepared to uncharitably conclude they made such a gaffe. I think they were hoping Garland would fall to them but were happy enough with the alternatives.

In the end, they wound up taking Culver after none of the offers for the sixth pick appealed more than him. Culver was high (as high as #3) on many analytically inclined draft boards, so grabbing him at six is certainly not a reach. The Wolves of course later leaked that they had Culver in the same “tier” as Garland, Ja Morant, and R.J. Barrett.

Whether that’s really true or not we’ll never know, but I’m confident that even if this was the worst case scenario for them when they made the trade, they had made the decision that it was still worth doing the deal.

What Did We Learn?

One of the things the Rockets have been known for during the Daryl Morey era is having the flexibility in thinking to aggressively pursue any star-level player that came on the market. They were willing to alter their plan and their vision if an opportunity arose to acquire top-end talent.

It seems likely that the Wolves under Gersson Rosas will operate in a similar fashion. They saw a break in the talent level after the first five players on their draft board, so they aggressively sought to get to a spot to pick one of them, and they succeeded.

Being flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves will hopefully continue to be a hallmark of this front office, and would certainly be a change from more conservative, less creative regimes of the past.

It might take some time for this group to restructure the salary cap in order to be able to act aggressively to acquire talent on the trade and free-agent markets, but we can conclude that it’s a clear goal.

But...maybe it won’t take as long as we think. Zach Lowe mentioned on his post-draft podcast that the Wolves are intimating to other teams in the league that they have a pathway to getting Nets restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell this summer. If that possibility comes into more focus, we will, of course, discuss whether it’s a good move or not. But one of the things all of this makes clear is that the Wolves are not going to be passive in their roster building.

There will likely be mistakes along the way, but they will almost certainly be mistakes of commission, borne of aggression to keep improving, rather than mistakes of omission, borne of passivity and defensiveness.

What About the Roster?

Rosas spoke after the draft and made clear that the draft is for talent acquisition and they view it as a years-long investment, while trades and free agency are how they will shape the roster for the upcoming season.

That’s good because right now the roster consists of:

One point guard: Jeff Teague, coming off injury

Two centers: Towns and Gorgui Dieng

And a metric shit-ton of wings:

Culver
Covington
Andrew Wiggins
Josh Okogie
Keita Bates-Diop
Cam Reynolds (non-guaranteed)

plus possibly second-round pick Jaylen Nowell.

Given everything: The current state of the roster, their demonstrated willingness to aggressively pursue players they want, and the smoke surrounding Russell, I wonder—and at this point it is just a guess—whether the Wolves already have trade(s), if not agreed to, at least on the table for the taking.

I know they are talking about everyone on the roster except for Towns.

If they are serious about Russell, I have to imagine that they have a destination in mind for Wiggins, because, having already spent to acquire a shooting guard in the draft, it’s hard for me to envision them constructing a roster that also includes a third max or near-max player, one whose skills primarily center around scoring.

In any event, I am confident that moving Wiggins is a priority for them, though I am less confident they will be able to find a deal that both Rosas and Glen Taylor will agree to. But unlike previous years, I believe that moving Wiggins is not only on the table but that a move is actively being sought.

In any event, the wing group will likely need to be thinned out since there are real needs at point guard and power forward that need to be addressed. I think the front office has multiple plans to fill those needs depending on how things play out, and hopefully some of the better ones come to fruition.

Whatever happens, it seems to me that their approach to the draft suggests that we will see more creativity, aggressiveness, and flexibility from this front office than we have perhaps ever in the history of the franchise.

Before I’m accused of excessive optimism, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily work out, but I do think we’ll see significantly more activity in changing the roster than we have at least since the days of...David Kahn. (Hopefully with a better understanding of value and more sophisticated evaluation.)

Get ready for a busy summer.