As the Minnesota Timberwolves head into the final stretch of the season, they have very publicly committed to finishing out the season competitively. Head Coach Chris Finch addressed the issue head-on, stating that the Wolves have told their core players that they will not be overly resting anyone. Over at The Athletic, Jon Krawczynski outlined the Wolves agenda and reasoning for not tanking, highlighting how the Wolves need to demonstrate that they can win.
This plan is at odds with the savvier fans that imagine themselves as backseat general managers. After all, what is the cost of ensuring that the Wolves optimize their chances of retaining their draft pick? The Wolves even have Sam Hinkie acolytes running their front office, executives who have aimed to win on the margins at every opportunity. The change from 40% to 27% odds of landing a top-three pick may only come down to one or two losses, while the rewards could be incredible for increasing the chance to add an additional star-level player to the roster. I am as guilty as the next of imagining just how perfectly Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley could slot into the starting roster.
But the Wolves won four games in a row and now everyone is jumping on board the winning agenda, even if it costs the Wolves a chance to dramatically increase their long-term sustainability. With upcoming games against the Magic and the Pistons, the Wolves have clear opportunities to protect their draft stock. How can the short-term gains be worth it?
For Gersson Rosas, the opportunity cost of tanking might very well be his job. This Wolves season has, for the most part, been an unmitigated disaster. Without Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves were by far the worst team in the league and D’Angelo Russell failed to keep the team afloat. Ricky Rubio was floundering and Anthony Edwards was struggling to adapt to the NBA. Meanwhile, Jarrett Culver barely looks like an NBA player.
All of Rosas’ big bets were coming up empty and if the Wolves had a dismal end to the season, the rumblings around KAT looking to leave would have gotten louder and louder. With a new owner in tow, it’s hard to believe that Rosas would get a second chance to rebuild if KAT wanted out. If the Wolves finished the season 1-9, the same pundits who are concerned the Wolves are negatively impacting their draft potential would be claiming that the piling losses would push KAT out.
There is also a less definable reduction in the sense of loss of the pick getting sent to the Warriors. If the Wolves retained the worst record in the league, they either kept their pick or would send the 4th of 5th pick to the Warriors. As the Wolves rise in the rankings, this situation becomes murkier, but the chances of sending the 4th or 5th pick to the Warriors decreases dramatically, which is especially important in what is considered a five-player draft. The feeling of having the 5th or 6th best odds and landing 8th, while losing the pick, have a very different outcome than having the worst record and sending out the 4th pick.
The Wolves are also in the entertainment business and business has been bad. Obviously, the pandemic has been a significantly negative factor across the NBA, but teams are gearing back up to have fans in the arena next season. The Wolves have been a mockery and failure for decades and another dismal season only contributes towards the financial difficulties for the organization. It is significantly easier to market a team on the rise than a theoretical draft pick.
Winning is also fun and the most important part of the Wolves’ future — Anthony Edwards — has little direct experience of his efforts contributing to winning basketball. The common mantra in sports is that winning solves everything and this stretch has highlighted how the excitement over the Wolves’ success has papered over long-term roster questions that will need to be addressed in the summer.
Overall, this team has a limited ability to control the fate of its draft pick come lottery time and the Wolves have been burned by playing the percentage game before. It’s about time this franchise build up some good basketball karma and let the lottery gods sort through the wreckage.