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Trade Deadline Primer Part III: The Target(s)

With the NBA Trade Deadline just over 72 hours away, let’s break down some Wolves’ targets.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

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You won’t find a non-playoff team in the NBA that faces more pressure ahead of the league’s 2 PM CT Trade Deadline on Thursday than the Minnesota Timberwolves do.

Despite the Houston Rockets giving the Timberwolves their best shot with an active 20-game losing streak, Minnesota stands alone, looking up at everyone from the bottom of the NBA standings at 10-32.

Unlike other Tankathon participants — such as the Rockets, Sacramento Kings, Oklahoma City Thunder, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers — the Timberwolves are facing the looming sale of their franchise, the ticking patience of their brightest star since Kevin Garnett got shipped out to Boston, and the imminent return of two integral pieces to the puzzle that is their future in D’Angelo Russell (left knee surgery) and Malik Beasley (12-game league suspension).

The Timberwolves are looking for upgrades not to compete this season, but to begin shaping the long-term future of not just the team on the floor, but the entire franchise as a whole. Even though his first at-bat — signing Chris Finch to a long-term deal — is looking to be a high fly ball on track to clear the outfield fence, Gersson Rosas still needs to string together some high quality at-bats. Sacrifice flies, walks, and singles simply won’t cut it. If he wants to keep his job, and keep the Timberwolves on the corner of 6th Street and 1st Avenue in Downtown Minneapolis, he has to win.

Rosas has maintained since the day he was hired that everything this franchise does is support of its mission to build around Karl-Anthony Towns. His first two big moves (Culver and Russell) have done nothing in service to that mission, injury/COVID luck aside. Beasley has been a nice value add, but has major question marks off the floor that could cloud his value to Timberwolves or any other team in the NBA. And while Anthony Edwards and Chris Finch look extremely promising, the team’s fans are long tired of putting hope in ping pong balls and new head coaches. It is imperative Rosas capitalizes on the opportunity to set a small market team devoid of any link to winning back on the path to long-term success.

Atlanta Hawks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The Target(s)

As it currently stands, we’re just north of 72 hours from the NBA’s Trade Deadline at 2 PM CT.

Minnesota has had talks with the Atlanta Hawks about forward John Collins and the Orlando Magic about forward Aaron Gordon, according to Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.

While the Timberwolves were reportedly close to dealing for Gordon before he injured his ankle in February, per Shams Charania of The Athletic, I expect the Wolves to bow out of the Gordon sweepstakes for a few reasons.

First, Gordon will have more realistic suitors than Collins does when the deadline crunch time really kicks in. O’Connor reported that Houston, Golden State, Boston, Portland and Minnesota have all formally spoken with Orlando about the 25-year-old defensive force, but when his price drops, I anticipate more teams trying to get in the mix. With more suitors comes more offers and a higher price that Minnesota is unlikely to meet given its current asset chest.

Second, Gordon does not really fit what the Wolves like to do offensively. He’s a playmaking 4-man who thinks he’s a better shooter than he really is. He has been good in spot up situations (1.152 points per possession | 79th percentile) this season and is shooting 41.1 percent on 4.3 attempts per game from deep (95 total), but is a career 32.5 percent 3-point shooter who shot 30.8 percent on 237 attempts last season. I trust the larger sample size.

Gordon has most frequently played as a PnR ball handler this season (73 possessions) but has generated 0.616 PPP, good for the 12th percentile league wide according to Synergy Sports. The former Arizona Wildcat has spent just eight possessions all season as a PnR roll man, which is a role the Wolves are looking to upgrade.

Orlando Magic v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Third, Gordon has just one year after this season left on his current contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2022. Given that Minnesota is not a free agency destination, it is unreasonable for Rosas to pay a pretty penny to acquire Gordon if they won’t be able to keep him beyond his current contract. It becomes even more unreasonable when you evaluate his offensive fit.

As a result of leaving the Aaron Gordon sweepstakes to other suitors, I expect the Wolves to zone in on Collins. The Hawks’ forward isn’t the defender that Gordon is (although not a bad one), but he is a much better offensive fit, which matters more to this front office. If they made a move for him, the Timberwolves would have matching rights to Collins in restricted free agency. This could ensure Collins is re-signed to a four-year contract, assuming he prefers to sign a long-term deal over playing on a qualifying offer and entering unrestricted free agency next summer.

With all that in mind, let’s dig into who John Collins is as a player.

Measurables

Height: 6-foot-9
Weight: 235 pounds
Wingspan: 6-foot-11

Statistics

Per game: 18.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.1 blocks, 1.3 turnovers on 30.6 minutes

Shooting splits: 53.8 FG% / 84.6 FT% / 37.7 3P% on 13.1 FGA / 3.2 FTA / 3.5 3PA

Advanced: 62.4 TS%, 58.8 eFG%, 22.3 USG%, .173 WS/48 minutes, 1.8 BPM, 1.9 RAPM

Strengths

Pick-and-Roll Big

Collins would fills a need for the Wolves on the offensive end as a pick-and-roll big. Presently, Minnesota is 15th in the league in PPP generated by bigs in the PnR game. For a team that is aiming to further leverage Towns as a shooter off the ball, while also putting more pressure on the rim, having another player who can step in and work with Russell and Edwards in a two-man game would unlock a new element of this offense.

The former Wake Forest star is an elite rim runner with excellent hands who rolls extremely hard to the basket. He doesn’t always make great contact with screens, but he only committed 17 offensive fouls last season when he was primarily used as a roll man in the PnR game with Trae Young. When he does make good contact, he gives Young the space to make easy passes like this one:

Because the PnR battery was surrounded by three shooters, it left the paint completely empty for Collins to roll into for the easy lob finish. With a possible lineup of Towns, Edwards and McDaniels flanked around a Russell/Collins combo, Collins would have more than enough space to roll down the lane and throw down dunks off feeds from a similarly talented passer in D-Lo.

If he is paired with a ball handler with shooting range, opposing bigs that aren’t playing drop coverage will cheat up and show to prevent the guard shooting off the screen. Collins has excellent awareness as a big in this scenario and has no problems slipping a screen to attack a wide open paint.

The other impressive things about Collins in the PnR game outside of his rolling and slipping is his timing with his guard initiator and how available he makes himself to the passer.

In this play, he hands it off to Young, before sealing off Dennis Smith Jr. He then gets square to Young before he rolls to wall off Smith Jr. completely and force Bobby Portis to lift to Young. This heady play creates a perfect passing lane for Young to fit the ball through on the dive.

Not to mention this is a pretty acrobatic finish for an and-1. Collins has enormous potential as a rim-runner who can also be creative in the way he screens, slips, or seals off defenders to make life easier for himself and the ball-handler in the action.

While aggressive rim runners are good weapons to have, they can be neutralized if they can’t shoot from the outside and keep defenses honest.

3-point Shooting

Collins is one of the rare success stories of a player learning how to shoot 3s once they get to the NBA. Over his two seasons in Winston-Salem, Collins attempted zero 3s while working on his free throws. From his freshman to sophomore season, Collins improved from 69.1 percent on 3.0 free throws per game to 74.5 percent on nearly seven per contest.

He’s seen a similar improvement to his free throws over his NBA career, averaging an increase of about 4.75 percent each season from the charity stripe. From deep, he’s steadily increased his volume while getting more comfortable and has yielded promising results. After two seasons of shooting 34 and 35 percent from downtown, Collins shot 40.1 percent on 3.6 3s per game and is shooting just shy of 38 percent on 3.5 attempts this season.

Collins is capable of doing that popping off his screens, too. There’s no doubt that Young’s speed adds pressure to the defense, and can require extra help from opposing bigs, but there’s good reason to believe that 1) Edwards’s speed can have a similar effect and 2) that Russell’s passing can garner extra attention, too.

In this play, Collins sets a simple side ball screen. Nerlens Noel is set up out wide to prevent Young from getting to the baseline, even though he has Danilo Gallinari ready in the help. Collins sees this, stays above the break, and then puts on a footwork and upper body positioning clinic for a perfect, in-rhythm trey.

If you turn on Collins’s film, you will see a litany of pick-and-pops that showcase very solid footwork and in-rhythm shooting. He isn’t a dynamic shooter that can fly off screens and shoot on the move, but because he has above average footwork and is very athletic, there’s no telling whether or not he could develop that as his career progresses.

Collins is also rock solid in catch-and-shoot (C&S) situations. After shooting 42.9 percent on them last season (83rd percentile), he’s shooting 37.3 percent on C&Ss (45th percentile) this season.

A great way for Collins to fit in the Minnesota offense would be for him to screen off-ball for guys like Edwards or Jaylen Nowell to get free running into a clean hand-off situation from Towns.

Here, Kevin Huerter comes off a screen from Collins to receive a hand-off, when he runs into our old friend Gorgui Dieng dropping in the lane. The leaves Collins wide open on the wing for a smooth 3. If Ant were handling the ball instead of a pure shooter like Huerter, he would either blow by Dieng for a layup or collapse the defense to ensure one of Collins (on the wing) or KAT (above the break) would be wide open. If the defense scrambles and rotates, there would (hopefully) be two shooters ready to take an open look in place of Young and De’Andre Hunter in this play.

If you look at his mechanics, everything is very clean and compact with no unnecessary movement. Collins’s 3-point percentage is only going to stay put or rise as he shoots more 3s, because his shot motion is like an ATM. Ask for cash and you shall receive.

Unsurprisingly, Collins has shot 77 percent of his 3-pointers from above the break so far this season, connecting on 39 percent of them. That is because he shoots a vast majority of his 3s popping off screens as opposed to spotting up in the corners, from where he shoots just 33.3 percent on 33 attempts. As Minnesota looks to fortify shooting, Collins’s above the break shooting would be welcomed with open arms, but if he could improve his movement off the ball in terms of flowing into open space behind the arc as Edwards or KAT drive, he’d add a new element to Chris Finch’s offense.

Athleticism and Size

As you may have seen in his rather long highlights from his first 3.5 seasons in the NBA, Collins is a walking highlight reel with his off the charts athleticism. At the combine, Collins had a 33-inch no step vertical, which was tied for ninth overall and second among bigs behind Bam Adebayo. He lives above the rim in the NBA, as you have seen in some of the clips above.

This translates as a roll man obviously, but also in transition, where he can really show off his rare combination of size, athleticism, hands and finishing. Collins averages 1.463 PPP and shoots an effective field goals percentage of 77.8, ranking in the 96th percentile league wide.

Here, he comes flying into the picture to slam down a transition miss with one hand to cap off a blow out of the Wizards.

Collins is a legit offensive rebounder who has been among the league’s best in coverting put-back situations, where he averages 1.353 PPP, good for the 86th percentile, per Synergy. Just like he does in the PnR game, he has good timing with his jumps and great second jump speed, which combine with good hands to create second chances for his teammates.

Again, in the PnR, Collins’s hands and finishing ability are second-to-none. There are a handful of guys who can throw this type of dunk down, let alone do it consistently on a weekly basis.

Poor Tristan Thompson had no chance.

Defensively, Collins’s athleticism works to his favor, as well. In this clutch play, Collins is trailing Pascal Siakam and tracks him down for a perfectly-timed block to help keep the Raptors at bay near the end of the game. His long strides shorten the recovery time while his length enables him to get a piece of a shot in crunch time.

Collins is an incredibly skilled offensive big whose defensive potential is growing by the season because of his increasing awareness on that end of the floor. Without going too deep into the weeds, it’s pretty evident that Collins’s mastery of the PnR game would do wonders for the Wolves’ offense because of how it can further enable Edwards, Russell, and Towns to succeed while co-existing on the floor together.

Weaknesses

Off-Dribble Creation/Playmaking

Like every player, Collins isn’t perfect. Arguably the biggest shortcoming of his game is his limited playmaking. He doesn’t offer much off the bounce (outside of the occasional solid attack of a close-out) or as a passer on the short-roll, largely because he is better at putting pressure on the rim vertically or just finishing when he receives passes.

When he does try and pass off the short roll, he is prone to making passes like this instead of faking them and letting his teammate cut back door.

Collins accounts for just 7.4 percent of his team’s assists when he’s on the floor, which ranks in the 35th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. Most of his assists come from making the extra pass after he is closed out on when he’s catching a pass on a pick-and-pop. If he were to play in Minnesota, he’d have to improve upon hitting cutters (namely Edwards, Okogie, and McDaniels) and making entry passes, since he’d play with a true high-volume post-up center for the first time. When he does see cutters, he hesitates before making passes and at times misreads rotating defenders like he does in this clip.

Despite his lack of creation, Collins turns the ball over very infrequently. He coughs it up on only 11.9 percent of the possessions that ends in a Collins shot or assist, good for the 71st percentile (CTG). When Collins does turn it over, the majority of them are getting stripped because he brings the ball down or puts it on the deck inside, getting happy feet trying to drive, or simply making a lazy pass. Very rarely does he turn it over threading the needle in attempt to make an advanced read or do something he isn’t capable of yet.

Even though he is a good C&S player, he isn’t a particularly great spot-up player, which includes dribble drives off the catch. He generates just 0.95 PPP (36th percentile) and scores in just 36.5 percent of these situations, while only drawing a foul just 3.1 percent of the time he spots up, compared to his 13.3 foul frequency on cuts and 11.3 percent frequency on rolls, per Synergy.

Here, Collins catches, but Josh Richardson closes out on him so he decides to attack the tin. He does so at a slow pace because he thinks he needs to make a play instead of just driving hard to score. He first glances at Reddish to see where his defender is at and then checks Capela’s man before getting stripped on his slow-mo drive.

When Collins puts the ball on the deck he needs to be more instinctive and decisive. His game is so predicated on a split between C&Ss and rim runs that when he isn’t in one of those situations, he isn’t really sure what to do with the ball. He’s often loose with the basketball on drives and in the post when he doesn’t have a smaller defender he can immediately rip a post move on and score on. Despite having an excellent understanding of the PnR game, his offensive awareness outside of that is poor, but hopefully will improve as he diversifies his offensive skill portfolio.

Defense

Simply put, defense is not a strength nor a weakness of Collins. Like his potential frontcourt mate Karl-Anthony Towns, Collins is not best suited to play in a drop coverage scheme on defense.

This season, he’s only been tasked with guarding the roll man on 29 possessions, but he’s allowed an average of 1.207 PPP on those 29 trips (26th percentile). He’s much better when he can fly around on the back end and use his athleticism to deter shots at the rim.

Here, Collins maintains good help defense positioning, making sure he doesn’t get dinged for a defensive three seconds. As Stanley Johnson cuts hard to the rim, Collins reads the paint cut perfectly and jumps behind him, squaring his shoulders to the backboard for an excellent clean block. While he won’t set the world on fire on this end, he’s capable of making common reads and correctly acting on them consistently.

When he gets taken off the dribble by bigger and physical wings, Collins has no issue walling up and forcing them to beat him with moves, rather than strength. Jae’Sean Tate pops for a catch and then goes right at Collins, but can’t move him off his spot without losing the handle. As he recovers the ball, Collins takes his space, regains leverage, and swats the ball out of his hands for a clean block.

How about doing it against KD, too? He did that, too.

The big fella can get in the passing lanes, too, because he knows how to use his 6-foot-11 wingspan. In this play, he perfectly times his reach-around steal on the entry to PJ Washington to start a fast break.

Based on his skillset alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and potentially Josh Okogie or Jaden McDaniels in the starting/closing five, it would make almost no sense to play a drop defense. The NBA is moving away from drop coverages and more at-the-level defense where teams switch ball screens or blitz the ball handler instead of inviting them into the paint. If the Wolves started Russell, Edwards, Okogie, Collins and Towns, they would have wingspans of 6-foot-10, 6-foot-9, 7-foot, 6-foot-10 and 7-foot-4. That is a whole lot of length that can make up for Russell’s inability to fight over screens and hopefully help Edwards’s defensive awareness, too.

Trade Mechanics

Since the trade season began, Minnesota has been most frequently linked to Collins and it is evident the two sides have been engaged based. The Timberwolves have engaged in what is essentially a leak war with the Hawks regarding Collins.

On the March 11th episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullen offered what she was hearing about Collins:

There’s no doubt that the Hawks leaked this information to try and portray the Wolves as desperate for Collins in order to drive the price up ahead of the deadline, while also playing up the potential image of Gersson Rosas as someone who identifies who he wants and stops at nothing to acquire him. He certainly did that last year with D-Lo and it is a smart move from the Hawks’ perspective.

Keep in mind a couple of things:

1) despite Woj saying he doesn’t think Collins will be traded until the offseason, he said the same thing about Russell in December of 2019, and again before the deadline, but we all know what happened.

2) if we get more leaks this week, but they then stop coming out within 24 hours of the deadline, that likely means a deal is in the midst of being hammered out.

Given that Collins is due to be a coveted restricted free agent following this season, his market is likely somewhat suppressed. Very few teams in the league are willing to play ball with the Hawks’ asking price — which is reportedly a first-round pick and a good young player per O’Connor — and pay him the money required to sign him to a long-term contract. Taking this into account, it makes sense the Hawks would try and play up the market for him.

It appears to have worked, considering that O’Connor is reporting the Hawks are receiving “significant” trade interest from Boston, Sacramento, Dallas and Detroit in addition to Minnesota.

Of those teams, Minnesota unquestionably has the best young player (Beasley) it can deal for Collins. Boston couldn’t re-sign him this summer, nor could Sacramento unless they had a fire sale, and Dallas would likely have to move Kristaps Porzingis before actually making good use of Collins’s skillset next to Luka Doncic. Not to mention it would make Porzingis a spot-up shooter making max money. The only other team that makes some sense is Detroit, but the chances they move what are expected to be very good first-round picks in the future doesn’t make sense for them. They’d also run the risk of Collins signing the qualifying offer and hitting unrestricted free agency next summer.

So, why does Minnesota make perhaps the most sense out of these teams?

Not only can the Wolves afford him this summer, but Collins’s camp is also on board with the 23-year-old landing in Minnesota. According to KSTP’s Darren Wolfson, playing next to “somebody with KAT’s skillset, that’s very enticing for Collins.” Wolfson also described the Collins’s camp’s view that the young big’s fit next to KAT is “favorable.”

So, what could a Collins trade feasibly look like?

Trade via tradenba.com.

Minnesota receives: PF John Collins, SG Kevin Huerter, SG Tony Snell, SG Ben McLemore

Atlanta receives: SG Malik Beasley, PF Juancho Hernangomez, 2024 FRP (Lottery protected from MIN), 2021 FRP (protected 1-16 in ‘21 and ‘22, 1-18 in ‘23 and ‘24, 1-13 in ‘25, 1-11 in ‘26, and 1-9 in ‘27 from HOU via DET)

Houston receives: SG Jarrett Culver, PF Jarred Vanderbilt, C Mike Muscala

Oklahoma City receives: PG Dante Exum, 2025 SRP (from HOU).

While it is fun to imagine what a starting five with Russell, Beasley, Edwards, Collins and Towns would look like on offense, it just isn’t realistic to have close to $105-110 million tied up with your starting five. Minnesota would have very little flexibility and frankly, they likely don’t get Collins without giving up Beasley in return.

Considering Minnesota turned down an offer including Beasley and a first for Collins, I could see Minnesota pushing to get Huerter or Cam Reddish, but Huerter isn’t as valuable, I’d imagine Atlanta would be willing to part with him and Collins if it received two firsts in addition to Beasley. It is important to note that the Detroit FRP likely won’t convey until at least 2025, barring a rebuilding miracle in Motown.

Minnesota gets Collins, Huerter and some added shooting in McLemore, who is an athletic guard that can get hot from deep at a moment’s notice and attack close-outs well, as a test run before he hits free agency this summer. The Wolves also clear nearly $8 million in luxury tax space and effectively create an open roster spot for next year in acquiring Tony Snell’s expiring contract. If Minnesota wants to keep Rubio next year (highly, highly unlikely if they get Collins), they would be at least $11 million over the luxury tax. If they trade him before the start of next season, Minnesota would have to fill four roster spots with about $10.6 million of luxury tax space. Glen Taylor, or whomever the new owner ends up being, needs to be willing to foot a small tax bill if he or she wants the team to be successful moving forward in a loaded Western Conference.

Atlanta gets Beasley, an elite wing shooter, to flank Young on the wing alongside Bogdan Bogdanovic/Cam Reddish, and a front court shooter to back up Gallinari in Hernangomez. The Hawks also receive not one, but two protected first-round picks for a restricted free agent to be, which would be a mighty haul for a player Atlanta is looking to unload, and does so without forfeiting future roster flexibility.

Houston gets two young players they can take an upside swing on in Vanderbilt and Culver from Minnesota, plus an expiring contract in Mike Muscala from OKC. Culver still has value around the league, but his best fit is with a rebuilding team where he can develop in a system that works for him and get plenty of minutes. The Rockets have little wing depth and need defense to complement what Kevin Porter Jr. and John Wall can bring offensively. As for Vanderbilt, Houston can get a look at him before his restricted free agency while adding some needed defensive versatility and all-out hustle to its lineup. They also save about $1.3 million against the luxury tax, which will help them if they have limited options in trading Victor Oladipo this week, and a nice trade exception they can use in a trade in the next calendar year.

Lastly, OKC gets an expiring Dante Exum to help Houston stay under the tax while accomodating the Culver acquisition. In return, they get a 2025 SRP from Houston.

There is no doubt Minnesota is facing pressure to acquire Collins, or any added firepower for that matter, in the next three days ahead of the deadline. If they do so, it won’t be as cut-and-dry as you think and it’ll involve some complex thinking like the above example did. Rosas and EVP of Basketball Operations Sachin Gupta are masters of working the margins to find added supplemental value not just for themselves, but also for other teams they’re working with.

It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Minnesota also traded Ed Davis, who is a buy-out candidate if he survives the Thursday deadline, or if the Wolves looked to improve their defense at the point of attack and/or shooting in a deal on the margins. Norman Powell of the free-falling Toronto Raptors is another name I’d keep an eye on. He is currently notching nearly across the board career highs this season playing in an offense designed by Chris Finch, and the Timberwolves desperately need another impact shooter who can also be at least a net neutral on defense.

Expect Minnesota to be as active as anyone this week, because the clock is ticking for Rosas on a variety of fronts and the only way to reset that clock is to make moves that set the Wolves up for success as soon as next season.