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The Robert Covington Dilemma

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To trade, or not to trade?

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment Gersson Rosas took the job as President of Basketball Operations in Minneapolis, he’s promised both aggression and patience in the pursuit of building sustainable success. That mindset has been prevalent in the sense that they’ve been involved in various rumors but have come up short thus far in their quest to acquire top-end talent. For any long-suffering Minnesota sports fan, that sounds a lot like the Twins front office, until they recently handed out the largest free-agent deal in franchise history to Josh Donaldson.

Needless to say, there’s always going to be skepticism. Here’s what we do know about Rosas’ aggression — it’s almost certainly going to have to come through the trade market. Minneapolis is not a free agent destination, especially over the winter months not to mention the cap-sheet situation. Heck, they took D’Angelo Russell on a helicopter ride over Los Angeles in an attempt to recruit him to Minnesota, and that was over the summer when the weather in MN is actually good!

Anyways, here’s the thing about acquiring talent in the trade market — if you want to acquire something good, you sure as heck have to give up something of value as well. That’s a pretty obvious statement, but it’s worth repeating in a situation where your franchise really only has one movable trade asset of great value to other teams.

In Minnesota’s case, that asset is Robert Covington, and teams are very clearly checking in.

It’s easy to see why Covington is such a hot commodity, specifically for contenders or teams that plan to be contenders over the next few seasons. He’s a great role player, inarguably one of the best in the NBA. He’s low maintenance, doesn’t need the ball at all outside of spot-up attempts (which he normally drills), and is a perennial All-Defense candidate. Beyond that, he’s on an uber-friendly deal — roughly $12.5 million annually over the next two seasons after this one. He’s not quite Draymond Green, but he’s similar in the fact that he’s a ceiling raiser for contending teams.

Here’s the thing, for all of those same reasons that Covington is valuable to contenders, he is also valuable to the Timberwolves. Sure, he’s 29 years old, which technically means he doesn’t match the timeline of Karl-Anthony Towns (24). Cov isn’t exactly a grandpa though, and I’d actually argue that while he doesn’t perfectly fit KAT’s timeline, he certainly fits the timeline of the Timberwolves as an organization.

If Karl-Anthony Towns really has expressed displeasure with all of the losing in Minnesota, which I’d imagine is true, Minnesota’s clock is ticking to build a winner. They don’t currently have the luxury of thinking of who they might be able to pair with Towns five years down the line. Yes, Towns is in the first year of his max contract, but those seem to be more of 3.5 year deals these days, with the remaining 1.5 years being contingent on the franchise winning.

So, yeah, I’m not exactly thrilled about the idea of trading Covington, but there’s obviously nuance to all of this. For the foreseeable future, the NBA seems to be as wide open as it’s been in a long time. There are clear favorites in the two LA teams and the Milwaukee Bucks, but there is a decent-sized list of teams who can probably consider themselves a move or so away from joining that group.

That motivates front offices to go out and make that one move that they believe, right or wrong, can jolt them into legit contender status.

So, here’s where I would draw the line in the sand — if you can acquire a stud or very good young player for Covington, you make that move. If, on the other hand, the offer is an okay young guy plus a pick or two, I’d walk away from the table.

As I said, the clock is somewhat ticking for this franchise. It’s too early to fret about Towns leaving, but it’s not too early to put yourself in the best possible position to keep him happy. I know the NBA is a potential-driven league, but the Timberwolves are probably at the end of being able to play the “potential” game. If you’re going to trade the best movable asset and second-best player on your roster, you absolutely must get a good player in return as opposed to a variety of picks.

The 2020 draft class is seemingly poor, and, well, here’s my thoughts on moving a good, established player for future picks when you’re actively trying to compete:

RoCo is Roco, but those future picks? They could turn into anything, even someone as good as RoCo!

Then again, this makes it tricky. If the most likely scenario is trading Cov to a contender, which contender just has good, young-ish players sitting around they can throw into a trade? The D-Lo/Cov swap has been discussed ad-nauseum, although that appears to be increasingly unlikely as time goes on. A deal with Portland centered around Anfernee Simons has been kicked around the twitter-sphere, but your liking to that probably depends on what you think of Simons. Maybe Miami makes an offer with Justise Winslow? I don’t know, he’s oft-injured but I’m struggling to think of other possibilities.

The most likely avenue, from the eyes of said contenders, is an okay young player + salary + pick. Something like Donte DiVincenzo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the Pacers 2020 first from the Bucks in exchange for Cov. If I’m Rosas, I hang up on the phone on that deal immediately, but that’s the kind of structure that seems likely.

This is the dilemma I imagine Gersson Rosas finds himself in during trade discussions for Robert Covington. He’s looking for someone along the lines of D’Angelo Russell, while the teams that are most likely to be in on Covington are unlikely to include a player of that caliber in a trade.

This all kind of brings us back to square one, and makes just keeping Covington the most desirable outcome for the Wolves. If a team comes along and makes an offer you can’t refuse, then obviously you take it, but it’s hard to see exactly where that comes from.

Now, I’ll acknowledge that there’s a level of hypocrisy with all of this. In the beginning, we talk about the trade market being the most obvious path to upgrades, with Covington being their number one asset capable of generating a return. Small market teams such as the Wolves also, more so than large market teams, need to stockpile picks to give themselves the best shot at nabbing a star.

I get all of that. The Memphis Grizzlies looked left for dead after the Grit-n-Grind era, and now find themselves looking at one of the brightest futures in the league with Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson, and Brandon Clarke under wraps.

As long as KAT and RoCo are on the roster and active, though, the Wolves will probably win just enough games to put themselves out of reach for a Morant/JJJ type player. Moving RoCo for picks means you lose more games, clearly giving yourself a better shot at those top players if the ping-pong balls bounce your way. The 2021 and 2022 draft classes currently look really strong, but you’re playing a dangerous game of chicken with Karl-Anthony Towns if you’re still squarely in the lottery during those seasons.

This debate could seriously go in circles all day long. This isn’t black-and-white. There’s no right or wrong answer at the moment, but the consequences of moving, or not moving, Robert Covington in a trade do seem to carry a lot of weight moving forward. It’s smart of the front office to listen to offers, but what they ultimately decide to do will have a long-lasting effect on the franchise, one way or the other.