Over the past few weeks, the beginnings of the conversations around the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves have begun to take shape. This discourse has been spurred by the continued downward trajectory of the Wolves, the injury to D'Angelo Russell, and the shimmers of a superstar taking shape in Anthony Edwards. The long avoided thoughts around Karl-Anthony Towns and a future trade are slowly drifting to the forefront.
The firing of Ryan Saunders and hiring of Chris Finch provided a brief hope that perhaps the Wolves would be able to launch themselves into competitive basketball, but the subsequent losses and Malik Beasley’s suspension have thwarted that path.
A trade request from Towns has always been hanging over the future. Wolves fans have the first-hand experience with the slow disaster of failing to build around a superstar. Across the NBA, it is just as easy to see teams flounder around superstars until they eventually request a trade. The Russell trade has been commonly viewed through the lens of placating Towns, providing the preferred partner-in-crime to pursue NBA success.
That road remains the Timberwolves path. Towns is under contract until the 2024-2025 season, which is a generation away in NBA team lifespans. Stars typically request trades 1-2 years prior to reaching free agency, which, at the very least, gives the Wolves another year to right the ship. The Finch hire presupposes that the Wolves are beginning their quest to be competitive.
But yet, it is significantly easier to see a future path where change appears more rapidly than expected. The Towns-Russell pairing has become reminiscent of the Pelicans' last gasp in building around Anthony Davis when they traded for DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins and Davis rarely shared the floor and, when they did, did not necessarily accentuate each other's skill set. Worse, the Wolves have quite a large sample size showing that they are the worst team in the league when led by Russell and now the heralded rookie's skill set significantly overlaps with the injured guard. Whether or fair or not, a popularity contest between the two would not be close.
Towns' former peers, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, are now leading MVP candidates and perennial playoff contenders. Can Towns vault back to their level on the Wolves? Does Towns believe the team around him can improve to that level?
Add on the fact that increased volatility and player agency are now the norm. James Harden and Paul George successfully demanded trades well before their contracts were up. Anthony Davis pushed the envelope just before. Towns also has an understandable and unassailable context to request a fresh start. Hell, Timberwolves fans would probably be the first to his defense if he felt a new locale would be best for his career and life.
All of this can be handwaved away if the team is good. The Bucks were able to convince Giannis to sign an extension with real championship aspirations. For the Wolves, the underlying foundation is that the team has been bad, is bad, and will likely continue to be bad in the future.
At the beginning of the season, there was hope that the Wolves would be competitive enough to warrant utilizing young and future assets to secure another foundational player to vault this team into real playoff contention. That is no longer the case. It is hard to believe that adding P.J. Tucker or Larry Nance to this roster would rescue the Wolves from the league's cellar.
Instead, the season has centered around Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, two rookies on vastly different timelines than Towns and Russell. Of course, the ideal path is for Edwards to become the unexpected young star, a la Donavan Mitchell or Jayson Tatum, that allows teams to combine a roster of rising rookies and established stars.
Or, Rosas could be right that the Russell-Towns combination is so offensively dominant to justify the draft assets. But that bet is looking increasingly unlikely.
The hard reality is that without Towns, as currently constructed, this team is the worst in the league. With Towns, they are not good enough to contend for the 10th seed. This is now the second season in a row of a rebuild where the Wolves are one of the worst teams in the league while Towns’ peers are on real contenders.
So if the present is uncertain or dismal, as has been the case this season, it is hard not to look to the future. If the Wolves continue to be one of the worst three teams in the league, which is increasingly likely by the week, the 40 percent odds of the Wolves keeping their pick will present an inflection point for the franchise. If the Wolves fall out of the lottery, the chances of them significantly adding enough talent to this team to entice Towns to stay will diminish greatly.
If they keep their pick, the team will have a chance to continue to thread the needle, hoping the young talent can complement Towns quickly or convincingly enough to present a bright future in Minnesota. If you want to give yourself a little taste of the excitement and dread that will come on lottery night, fire up Tankathon and simulate the lottery results to watch the Wolves land the top pick or give the 4th pick to Golden State.
But this is the result of the failed Russell gambit and front office practice of taking home run swings. The Wolves have continuously stressed a stars or nothing strategy from players 1-15 and now the roster is full of players who could be the third-best player on the team or the worst player on the team on any given night.
However, these future scenarios are complicated by the potential sale hanging over the team. Trading Towns is a fundamental breakpoint and represents yet another rebuilding trajectory. This timeline may overlap with a new owner who could feel that the front office that landed the Wolves in this quagmire should not be the ones to lead the team into a new future. Or, more problematically for Wolves fans, a new owner may feel that Towns represents one of the few last ties to a long-suffering and dwindling Timberwolves fan base, where a new locale might be better suited to the Process 2.0.
All of these factors are pushing and pulling the direction of the Wolves as everyone is pressured to win on different timelines to protect their jobs or their standing in the league. We may be at the beginning of the stretch, but the fork in the road is beginning to materialize.