The Timberwolves approached this season’s trade deadline in an unfortunately familiar place. After a promising 10-8 start that involved holding a playoff spot, the season has gone sideways. Since those first 18 games, the Wolves have gone 5-27 and sit just a half-game ahead of the Knicks for the fourth-worst record in the league.
Even for a weird roster of Karl-Anthony Towns, Robert Covington and an assortment of miscellaneous pieces, this was bad. Few expected the Wolves to contend but a 20-25-win pace was certainly the disaster scenario.
Underachieving is nothing new for the active franchise with the worst winning percentage.
The Timberwolves have gone to great lengths over the last five years to buck this trend. Glen Taylor passed up the familiar and comfortable Sam Mitchell for Tom Thibodeau. Trading fan favorites Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine became Jimmy Butler and a playoff berth.
When those risks backfired and Butler and Thibodeau were jettisoned, the franchise found themselves back where they started: searching for answers. If the Wolves were going to find the elixir for what ails them, they were needed to try something different.
New President of Basketball Operations was sold as the latest iteration of hope to an increasingly skeptical fan base. After an underwhelming summer, we saw that Rosas and the new Timberwolves front office was serious about changing the team’s culture.
The Timberwolves didn’t just make a few moves on the margins and call it good. They looked at where they were and that what they were doing wasn’t working. Rosas didn’t just shuffle the deck, he made radical changes that can alter a franchise.
The changes began when Jeff Teague and Treveon Graham were dealt to Atlanta for Allen Crabbe. Rosas admitted Teague was a poor fit and it was time to move on.
Three weeks later on Feb. 4, Robert Covington, Shabazz Napier, Jordan Bell, Keita Bates-Diop, and Noah Vonleh were traded in a four-team deal for Evan Turner, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Juan Hernangomez, and a first-round pick.
On Thursday, Rosas turned two seemingly immovable contracts. First, Andrew Wiggins was shipped to Golden State with draft compensation in exchange for D’Angelo Russell, Omari Spellman, and Jacob Evans. For his final act of the trade deadline, Gorgui Dieng found himself a Memphis Grizzly and James Johnson a Timberwolf.
In total, Rosas moved seven players and returned eight. Teams seldom turn over half of their roster 50 games into the season but you have to appreciate his willingness to try different things when another way isn’t working.
In all honesty, the 2020 Timberwolves were nothing worth saving. It was good that the on-court product had embraced present-day ideologies. This team needed more than a few 3-pointers and to cut back on their midrange jumpers.
A history of misplaced trust
When you look at what has plagued this franchise’s existence, it’s poor talent evaluation and misplaced loyalty in the wrong people. Teams make bad hires, draft picks and signings all the time but don’t give David Kahn or Kevin McHale years to harm them.
Professional sports is a business and too often this franchise has operated like a Ma and Pop Shop instead of professional sports organization. When an owner treats its franchise like a business, they empower their decision makers to make decisions like Rosas did. The Wolves tried the collaborative and relational approach for years to no success.
Would Glen Taylor like to have re-signed Tyus Jones last summer? Probably. Jones is the local kid and a solid player in his time in Minnesota. However, Rosas had a vision of adding size and becoming more athletic. He wanted versatility, not dissimilar to the Rockets who have multiple ball handlers or the Sixers who have endless size. Jones didn’t fit that mold and Rosas had to have the autonomy to make the call.
Will things be different this time
That isn’t to say there haven’t been questions. It’s worth noting that Bell, Graham, Napier, and Vonleh were all acquired by Rosas last summer and are already gone. None of those pieces fit the scheme but it was reasonable to believe at the time that Graham, Napier, and Vonleh’s familiarity with the coaching staff would work out.
Crabbe was lauded for his familiarity with the coaching staff like Vonleh and Napier were but hasn’t produced in Minnesota. In fact, Napier is similar size to Jones and did not fit the image of a multi-positional player either.
Of Rosas’ acquisitions, only Jake Layman and his draft class remains. Congratulations to Towns and Josh Okogie for becoming the longest-tenured Timberwolves.
How do we know that these moves will work out better than the ones made last summer? We can’t answer that question yet but looking at the record and Towns’ souring disposition and it was clear the team needed to do something fast. If these players don’t work for whatever reason, it will certainly be time to question this front office.
This team will still have problems
Sometimes the goal isn’t to figure out the answer but to move closer to the answer. In no way, shape or form will Russell solve the woes defensive woes. However, the Wolves’ offense nose dived when Towns was out for 15 games with a knee injury. That was the time for guys like Wiggins and Jarrett Culver to show that they could elevate their games without their best player. They couldn’t and that is a part of why things have gone this far.
It is interesting to note that Wiggins was far from an elite defender but the team had the third-best defense in the league while Towns was out. Finding a way to hide Russell could be another challenge for this staff that created a top defense with Wiggins playing 30 minutes per game.
This is where the team may miss Covington. Covington was undoubtedly a good player but on a team with a shortage of shot creators and facilitators, he became a luxury better served on a better team. If you have a guy like Covington with his skills and on that contract about to turn 30 years old and teams already have concerns about his knee, then you have to try to use him to improve your team.
Draft picks and prospects like Beasley and Hernangomez make more sense on this team than a nice role player like Covington.
Make no mistake that attempting to get a new roster to gel over 30 games will be difficult. This group won’t have the luxury of training camps, preseason, or even a bunch of practices. This was already a season of evaluation and that may now continue into next season.
The Wolves have made a lot of difficult decisions over the last few weeks and some of that have been surprising. Leaving themselves with Jordan McLoughlin as their only point guard was a big gamble if they didn’t eventually land Russell. These are the things teams have to do when they want to reshape their culture.
Seeing lack of hesitancy to move on from players that don’t fit the team’s vision for the future is refreshing rather than wasting valuable time on never-ending projects. For Wolves fans, they’ve rarely seen this team run in a more like a business than a hobby.
We shouldn’t be surprised considering Rosas is at the helm. The Rockets were never shy about big gaming hunting whether it was James Harden or Chris Paul. Sometimes these moves work out like they did for Toronto or falter like Dwight Howard’s first Los Angeles stint.
The objective still has to be winning. Making these moves without eventually winning more games will feel like much to do about nothing again. After all, an empty pan can still sizzle.