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The Never-Ending Battle With Player Value

Gersson Rosas has vowed to be aggressive in the trade market. But for that to strategy to work, he must perfect the art of finding players whose market value exceeds their contractual value.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell arrives to Target Center Photo by Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images

EDITOR’S NOTE: It gives me great pleasure to introduce you to Jack Borman, our newest addition to the Canis Hoopus staff. Jack was born and raised in the Minneapolis area, and has done some great work in the past over at Dunking with Wolves. Jack brings over a wealth of basketball knowledge and has a lot of fresh ideas/talking points, so please give him a warm welcome to the community. Thanks Jack!

In the first 12 months that President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas has called the shots for the Minnesota Timberwolves, he has frequently expressed the need for the organization to be aggressive in pursuing high-level talent wherever and whenever possible.

When February’s trade deadline came around, his aggressiveness lacked no conviction.

The Wolves’ pursuit of their now-point-guard-of-the-future, D’Angelo Russell, embodies Rosas’s vision for a franchise that has been devoid of true lead guard star-power since the team’s most successful season in franchise history back in 2003-04.

When Russell turned down a four-year deal with Minnesota in favor of a maximum deal with the greatest franchise of the 2010s decade, Rosas did not panic.

He could have traded away negative assets - such as players with bloated contracts in Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng, or a player with a sizable, expiring deal in Jeff Teague - in rushed deals, resulting in poor returns. These types of deals would have been required in order to bring Russell to Minnesota on or after December 15, the date Russell, and other offseason signings prior to September 15, were eligible to be traded.

However, Rosas’s exhibition of patience and planning, combined with his meticulous composition of the front office, shows he has the necessary understanding of how important player value and evaluation is in an aggressive long-term vision like his.

Throughout his first year in Minnesota, Gersson has made it abundantly clear that he wants to maximize the talent of franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns by surrounding him with high-level talent that fits with the organization’s timeline.

At this season’s NBA trade deadline, we saw Rosas work with Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Sachin Gupta to facilitate multiple trades that landed eight new Wolves in Minnesota. As a result, 21-year-old Josh Okogie, a 2018 draftee, joined KAT, who is just 24, as the two longest tenured members of the team. If anything, his hyper-activity at the trade deadline demonstrates that no one on this roster is safe from being flipped for players that better fit the team’s timeline and overall philosophy on both ends of the floor, or future draft assets.

While Rosas and his front office will continue to pursue top-tier talent to deploy alongside Towns and Russell, they are tasked with doing so in a manner that preserves crucial financial flexibility that is necessary to round out the roster both this upcoming offseason and in the years to come. The more value the Timberwolves front office can get out of each dollar they spend, the better.

Tom Thibodeau and his front office failed miserably in their efforts to cultivate a winning team while also maintaining a healthy cap sheet. As a result, this hindered the organization from keeping KAT, Jimmy Butler, and Wiggins in Timberwolves uniforms while also retaining the cap space needed to surround them with essential depth pieces to complete a perennial playoff-level roster.

Ultimately, Thibs and company lost sight of player value, as evidenced by three signings that crippled the team’s finances moving forward. In 2016, Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden signed Dieng to a four-year $62.8 million contact. Just one year later, they inked Teague to a three-year, $57 million deal and Wiggins to a five-year rookie-scale maximum contract worth $147.7 million, per Spotrac. Within just one season of each player’s signing, it had become evident that each player’s market value at that time did not equal their contractual value (or salary).

When a player’s market value is greater than their contractual value, he is seen as a positive asset, while those with greater contractual value than market value are negative assets. When a team is comprised of mostly negative assets, it will struggle profusely to assemble a deep, diverse team of projects, rookies, stars, veterans, and role players. That goes not only for the current regime, but also for the subsequent front office that is left to clean up the mess left behind.

The comprehensive roster overhaul that Rosas and Gupta coordinated was two-fold. Their work aimed at not just bringing in players who fit their offensive and defensive ideology, but also shipping out the Thibs era’s financial gaffes in favor of more positive assets.

Although Allen Crabbe was a swing and a miss, D-Lo and James Johnson proved to be far more valuable replacements than Wiggins and Dieng, respectively. While Johnson may not be a positive asset given his rather large contract, he certainly provides more value than Gorgui does in terms of his fit on this Timberwolves roster. In the team’s four-way trade that landed Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a 2020 first-round pick from Brooklyn in Minnesota, the front office displayed a critical ability to make smart, calculated, low-risk and high-reward acquisitions.

In what is essentially a lost season from a wins and losses perspective, these types of moves are exactly the ones that winning, evaluation-focused front offices execute. Why not take fliers on players that showcased eye-opening potential in poor situations like Beasley and Vanderbilt? Financially low-risk players yearning for an ample platform on which to showcase their talents have time and again become very positive assets that can take a team to the next level.

There are three key routes through which teams can identify and bring in potential positive assets in these scenarios. Thankfully for Wolves fans, the current front office has shown a clear willingness to bring players to Minnesota using all three methods.

First, a team can simply sign a player who is looking to prove himself after being buried on a roster, had a smaller role and is looking for a bigger one, or a one who is looking to make a comeback. In Minnesota’s case, the organization brought in Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh on one-year, prove-it deals after the two showed promise in smaller roles for the Warriors and Knicks, respectively. While neither worked out the way we all hoped, the ethos was encouraging. A few examples of this rationale succeeding include Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley with the Lakers this season, and Derrick Rose here in Minnesota last season.

Second, front offices constantly scout the G-League young players who exhibit pliable foundational skillsets and target them as salary filler or throw-ins in trades, or on the waiver wire. This is the area where Rosas will *hopefully* pass with flying colors, considering his modus operandi. All we can do is hope that players like Beasley and Vanderbilt grow into long-term Wolves success stories, and that there will be more players who find their same success in the future.

Some other success stories that immediately come to mind are Montrezl Harrell of the Los Angeles Clippers, who, to most, was an afterthought in the Chris Paul trade to Houston back in 2017, Christian Wood with the Pistons, and Khris Middleton, who was a throw-in to the Brandon Jennings trade back in 2013. Harrell is a sixth man of the year candidate; Wood is an up-and-coming talent on the block; and Middleton is now a two-time All-Star wing. All three are undoubtedly positive assets that proved to be big bargains.

And last, but not least, organizations can acquire these players in the second round of the NBA Draft and on the un-drafted free agent (UDFA) market. If Rosas wants to go star hunting, he will ultimately need to fork up first-round picks, which increases the importance of needing to hit on his second-round picks and UDFA signings.

The Wolves have three selections in this fall’s draft - a top-10 selection to be determined by the draft lottery, the 16th pick, and the 33rd pick (the third pick of the second round). With three picks, the front office has a bevy of options. Given Rosas’s consistent vocal commitment to roster fortification, I highly doubt he will trade up or down in this year’s draft, considering it is one of the lesser talented draft classes in recent years.

Instead, expect Rosas to mobilize either of his two first-round picks in an effort to secure veteran talent that fits the team’s timeline and style of play. However, if this is the path Rosas takes, the team’s second-round picks this year and beyond will be pivotal in determining its ultimate ceiling. In turn, this diminishes his margin for error in the draft.

Unfortunately, the second round of the NBA draft has been anything but a sure thing for teams looking to secure a significant contributor.

In the table below, you can see that just seven players from both 2015 and 2016 drafts are still active NBA players, and no players from either draft is on the team that drafted them. When it comes to actual on-court production, the number of solid contributors dwindles further beyond the simple number of active players on rosters.

Data courtesy of Basketball Reference

Just three years removed from the 2017 draft, only 61.5 percent of drafted players have generated more than 1.5 win shares, per Basketball Reference. A win share is essentially how many wins a player’s performance accounted for throughout the course of a season or career. The numbers you see above are career win share numbers. For reference, here are the career win share numbers for a few members of the Wolves:

  • Towns: 50.4 (5.1 in 2019-20)
  • Russell: 8.4 (1.8 in 2019-20)
  • Okogie: 3.4 (2.2 in 2019-20)
  • Reid: 0.8 (0.8 in 2019-20)

In year one, Rosas selected Jaylen Nowell with his lone second-round pick and inked Naz Reid to very team-friendly, long-term contract as an UDFA. Both prospects have very specific strengths that the front office set out to bolster the roster with throughout the season: shooting and raw athleticism.

While many believe Rosas is practicing the preachings of the Book of Morey, whose central dogma focuses on surrounding stars with these types of low-risk, high-reward role players whom have very specific skillsets, you could also make an argument that the Book of Ujiri is a key influencer in his decisions as well.

Ujiri pushed all the chips to the middle of the table in a massive, in-season roster overhaul to capitalize on a timeline focused on its two players of the future, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry and other internally developed core role players such as OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, and Fred VanVleet, all of whom are positive assets. The organization has also crushed the draft in all three phases. Lowry, Anunoby and Siakam were mid-to-late first round picks, Powell was a second-rounder, and VanVleet was an UDFA.

The Raptors also are full of G-League influence. Their head coach, Nick Nurse, spent time coaching in the G-League with the Iowa Energy (now the Iowa Wolves). Siakam was the 2017 NBA G-League Finals MVP on a Raptors 905 team that also featured VanVleet, and Chris Boucher was the 2018-19 G-League MVP.

As it relates back to the Wolves, Gersson Rosas has his team in a similar somewhat comparable position. He has two players of the future in Towns and Russell, core role players from all three phases of the draft in Josh Okogie and Malik Beasley (first-round), Jake Layman (second-round), and Jordan McLaughlin and Naz Reid (UDFA pool), and G-League influence. Rosas himself and Assistant GM Gianluca Pascucci have both served in the front office for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, G-League affiliate of the Houston Rockets, while McLaughlin and Reid both spent most of this season with the Iowa Wolves.

The Timberwolves have a long way to go before they could become a successful hybrid of the Rockets and Raptors, two of the most consistent franchises in the league, but the blueprints are there and key pieces are setting into place. While it feels like Rosas has been in Minnesota for years, his never-ending battle with player value is just getting started.