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What Can the Timberwolves Learn From the Wall-Westbrook Trade?

The supermax was supposed to deter players from moving teams but that has not been the case.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Few things are surprising in the NBA anymore. Each offseason brings the possibility of a new splash even greater than the last. With a handful of exceptions, few players in today’s NBA are truly off-limits when it comes to possible trades. Wednesday evening’s announcement of a trade of John Wall and a first-round pick for Russell Westbrook was no exception. Both players are in the back half of their careers but also have signed supermax contracts in recent years.

The NBA and NBAPA agreed to the supermax for players who have eight years or more of league service (at the end of their current contract) and have also recently won MVP or DPOY (or earned an All-NBA selection). Because only the team that drafted or traded for the eligible player can offer the supermax, it was supposed to incentivize players to stay. The “catch” is that the player’s annual salary is 35 percent of the salary cap, which can be a real problem for teams with two such players.

Guys like Damian Lillard and Steph Curry have obviously remained with the original club that drafted them; however, we have seen other supermax players move — and move often. Take a look:

  • Houston traded Chris Paul, then 34 years old, to Oklahoma City on July 16, 2019, for a package that included Russell Westbrook. Westbrook signed a five-year, $205 million extension that began in 2019 while Paul signed a similar four-year, $160 deal in 2018.
  • This past November, the Thunder traded Paul to the Suns for a package including Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre, and a first-round pick.
  • James Harden, who signed a four-year, $228 million contract extension in 2017, was rumored to want out of Houston in November 2020 (and may still be on the move depending on who you believe).
  • Washington traded Wall one season into his supermax extension to Houston for Westbrook.

The point is — it’s clearly evident the supermax isn’t much of a deterrent for players who want to move on. Similarly, teams don’t seem to like the idea of paying one player $40 million per season. Aside from the Thunder trading Paul to the Suns, a supermax player is usually traded for a player on a similar deal.

These large numbers make trying to shed salary or reallocate your cap dollars more evenly throughout your roster more difficult. It’s almost like entering into these agreements means paying someone that money because it won’t stop that player from leaving. Kevin Durant even received his four-year, $164 million from the Warriors in his sign-and-trade to the Nets. Remember, there was no chance Durant played for the Warriors in 2020 even if he was healthy.

The Case of Karl-Anthony Towns

The relevant case for the Minnesota Timberwolves is Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is on his first contract extension that runs through 2024. Do you know why that year matters? It will be his eighth year of NBA service, potentially making him a supermax candidate. Karl being willing to re-up for the supermax in Minnesota would be great. A lot can change in three years but if the team is on the trajectory we think they are on, he should want to re-sign.

Yet, as has been the case with the other star players mentioned previously, Towns signing the supermax wouldn’t necessarily stop him from leaving. The players who haven’t left, like Lillard and Curry, are on stable franchises that compete every year. Stability feels like something the Timberwolves have chased since Flip Saunders’ passing in 2015 but will be important for keeping the entire team happy, not just Towns.

Unless Minnesota becomes a glamour market overnight, there are no scenarios in which you don’t re-sign Towns for the supermax if he’s eligible. You figure out how to build around that salary and a contingency plan if the team decides to trade him, but you have to sign him to that extension.

Considering Towns has already made an All-NBA team and is a perennial candidate for the award moving forward, I’m sure the team is already thinking about these scenarios. Having Towns is a great place to be in, even if the supermax has not provided the peace of mind for teams and fans it intended.