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Minnesota Timberwolves NBA Draft and Free Agency Preview

The clock is ticking for the Timberwolves front office. How can they proceed from here?

Seattle Storm v Minnesota Lynx Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

In the midst of NBA chaos, there is also abundant opportunity.

For Gersson Rosas and the Minnesota Timberwolves front office, now is the time to seize that opportunity and take a step forward in a Western Conference that is as fractured as it has been in the last decade.

Kawhi Leonard will likely miss the entire season with a torn ACL. Jamal Murray will potentially be sidelined until after the All-Star Break with a torn ACL of his own.

Dallas replaced Hall of Fame coach Rick Carlisle with Jason Kidd — an unproven coach with a losing record and a troubling off-court history.

General Manager Neil Olshey placed the Portland squarely on the verge of implosion by alienating fans with the hiring of Chauncey Billups, who also has a troubling off-court history, all while rumors of Damian Lillard’s displeasure and pending trade request run rampant.

The Los Angeles Lakers have offered Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to every team in the league, a clear sign of desperation and acknowledgement that their roster outside of LeBron James and Anthony Davis is poor.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are still miles away from playoff contention.

The San Antonio Spurs are going to have zero stars, which won’t end well in today’s NBA.

David Griffin is banking his entire career (and the Pelicans’ future in New Orleans) on landing Kyle Lowry, when a deal is far from a layup.

The Rockets lag far behind Minnesota in talent.

And finally, as of the time of this writing (Wednesday at 6 PM), Memphis has made a deal that makes them worse in 2021-22.

Those are nine teams feasibly poised to take a step back, or finish comfortably behind Minnesota, this upcoming season. Western Conference is wide open. The Timberwolves, even as currently constructed, have zero excuse, other than significant injuries to its core, to fail in their quest to recapture a playoff/play-in berth.

After the D’Angelo Russell/Andrew Wiggins swap left the Wolves without a pick in the 2021 Draft and little wiggle room around the luxury tax line, the team’s only course of tangible improvement is through the trade market. So how will, or should, they go about doing it?

First, let’s start with my team needs for the team.

Team Needs

Minnesota desperately needs more size on the wing. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are a great start, but with a stable of undersized players such as Malik Beasley, Josh Okogie, Jaylen Nowell and Juancho Hernangomez (for a PF) behind them, getting bigger and better on defense has to be priority number one.

Houston Rockets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

After that, it boils down to personal preference, but I’ll go with a legitimate power forward next to Karl-Anthony Towns that is a capable shooter and can defend multiple positions, which would synergize with McDaniels’ cutting and 1-4 defensive versatility. McDaniels is already one of the game’s five best weak-side rim protectors, and enabling him to not only play that role, but also using his length, lateral quickness and screen navigation on the perimeter would be a big boost. McDaniels should be a 3 moving forward, simply because he would provide a significant matchup advantage on both ends as a rangy, 6-foot-10 swingman who can shoot it, handle it, switch 1-4 and be more aggressive off-ball with a solid, defensive presence at the 4.

In addition to a 4-man, the Wolves also need a more traditional 5 who plays well in pick-and-roll and can defend the rim against more physical 5s, who had their way with Minnesota last season. This likely will not be a major needle-moving trade target that requires pushing some of the Wolves’ assets into the middle, so I do not expect this to come via trade, but rather a move that is made with the Wolves’ mid-level exception in free agency next week. Nerlens Noel (likely out of the Wolves’ price range), JaVale McGee, Cody Zeller, Gorgui Dieng, or Isaiah Hartenstein could make sense here.

Minnesota will also need to figure out its backup point guard situation if Ricky Rubio, who is reportedly available for the right offer — per Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic. With Jordan McLaughlin potentially wanting to look for playing time elsewhere, my personal choice would be to split the time at backup point guard three ways between Russell, who killed it in that role last season splitting time with the 1s and 2s, Edwards, and Nowell, who I wrote about last week. All three have serious on-ball skills, can collapse the defense, play very well in screen action above the break, and can score at least two levels off the bounce. Based on Chris Finch’s quote tonight about Summer League and his hope for an expanded role for Nowell next season, I believe it’s fair to believe one of Beasley or Rubio will not be a member of the team at this point next week.

The McLaughlin domino will better inform this decision. Minnesota likely has until sometime early next week to extend J-Mac his qualifying offer of $1.49M (which would make him a restricted free agent and give Minnesota the option to match any offer he receives). But given their tight financial situation — and needing to sign Jarred Vanderbilt to a new deal — it wouldn’t shock me if they declined to offer McLaughlin a QO and let him become an unrestricted free agent.

The Wolves’ priorities are a little different, though. Krawczynski reported yesterday that Rosas’s preference is to add a veteran (likely a power forward), as the the Wolves’ head man believes the team’s core is “young enough.”

With that in mind, coupled with the fact that the Wolves are uninterested in moving Towns, Edwards or Russell (a likely signal they will be out of the running for any stars on the move), the Timberwolves should be setting their sights on one of two names: Harrison Barnes or Larry Nance Jr.

Top Trade Targets

Minnesota Timberwolves v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Sunday’s Woj and Lowe NBA Draft special that Barnes is a player receiving significant interest around the league, and for good reason. After a tough 2020 season, he bounced back with a rock solid 2021 season, averaging 16.1 points on 49.7/39.1/83.0 shooting splits to go along with 6.6 rebounds and a career high 3.5 assists.

Barnes stands 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, but is strong for his size, adept in the post and pick-and-roll, and is an excellent spot-up shooter. He shot 46.2% in spot-up situations, good for the 80th percentile league-wide. Barnes combines championship experience with a calm demeanor, rare offensive versatility that blends his size on the wing, shooting and handle, solid defense and leadership as a role player, all of which the Wolves are looking for.

The Kings were scored 5.9 more points per 100 possessions and scored 7.0 more points per 100 halfcourt plays with Barnes on the floor, which rank in the 89th and 91st percentiles, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass. Perhaps just as importantly, their defensive free-throw rate dropped by 3.1 percent when Barnes was on the floor, ranking in the 88th percentile league-wide.

Barnes is set to make $20.3 million in 2021-22 and $18.4 million in 2022-23 and could become a more serious target if Sacramento deals Buddy Hield — which, according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick, “is likely on the horizon.” Barnes would become more available especially if the Lakers deal for Hield; the Lakers offer reportedly includes Kyle Kuzma and hinges on Montrezl Harrell opting into the final year of his contract. And if Sacramento wants to re-sign Richaun Holmes, they’ll be over the cap with limited wiggle room beneath the cap by the start of next season.

With that in mind, it would make sense for Sacramento to Barnes and potentially be interested in a player like Beasley, who can replace a significant chunk of Hield’s shooting production. Sacramento could be an interesting team to pitch Jarrett Culver, whom the Timberwolves would reportedly accept a second-round pick for, according to KSTP’s Darren Wolfson.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Nance Jr. is a much more defensive-focused player than Barnes. The Cleveland Cavalier averaged 9.3 points on 47.1/36.0/61.2 splits, with 6.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.5 blocks per game. The main selling point with Nance Jr. is his defensive versatility; at 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, he can stand up bigs in the post, slide with bigger wings attacking off the bounce, and use his 7-foot-1 wingspan to get into the passing lanes when playing help defense.

This past season, Cleveland allowed 9.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Nance Jr. on the floor, good for 97th (!) percentile in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. Opponent turnover rate increased by 3.3 percent (98th percentile) and opponent free throw rate decreased by 1.9 percent (78th percentile) with him on the floor, too.

Offensively, Nance sets solid screens, taps into his solid vertical athleticism catching lobs off the roll, and finishes very well inside. He has ranked in the 89th percentile or higher in at-rim FG percentage in all but one season in the NBA, and is a career 70.1% finisher inside (7050/1070). However, Nance’s best skill offensively may be his passing.

He has a good handle for his size, makes great reads, and is unafraid of threading the needle with pocket passes, hit-aheads in transition, or lobs over the top. He can make just about any type of pass, which would fit very nicely in a Minnesota offense with explosive cutters in Edwards, McDaniels, Okogie and Vanderbilt, and excellent spot-up shooters in Russell and Towns. Nance Jr. isn’t a great shooter, but is more than capable of knocking down the occasional open 3 when presented the opportunity.

According to Krawczynski, Nance Jr. is “widely believed to be available in Cleveland.” Because of this, his descending contract with two years of team control left at less than $21M total, and all-around acumen, I see him as a much more getable and more beneficial target than Danilo Gallinari, who our good friend Dane Moore reported as a player the Wolves have pursued this offseason.

The Pipe Dream

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Timberwolves still figure to be in the Ben Simmons conversation as it progresses, but fans have to understand how many things have to happen for the stars to align and Simmons to wind up in Minnesota.

To start with, the Wolves have no place in any Simmons conversation with an offer of Rubio, Beasley and a laundry list of first-round picks. Philadelphia is interested in players that can help them win now, and assets that can be readily flipped for those kinds of players. Minnesota’s only hope of entering the Simmons negotiations with any kind of legs to stand on is either Lowry agreeing to return home to Philadelphia, or Bradley Beal requesting a trade (which is yet to happen) and Washington deciding to not only trade Beal to Philly, but also want to re-route Simmons to a third party. This could make some sense when left with Russell Westbrook’s supermax contract and young role players, but it is still an unlikely outcome.

Let’s quickly run through the reportedly interested teams: Cleveland, Sacramento, Indiana and Toronto.

Cleveland is not going to part with the No. 3 pick for Simmons, which signals their offer would be centered around one of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, Larry Nance Jr. and Taurean Prince. That right there is already a better offer than just about anything Minnesota can come up with on their own, before picks are baked in.

Sacramento will not be in the running for Simmons unless they put Fox on the table, which won’t be happening.

Indiana could offer Domantas Sabonis and Justin Holiday for Simmons, which is a very compelling offer for a team interested in winning now. Philly is still left without a point guard, and would then have to pray Toronto would take back Tobias Harris if they wanted to make a run at Kyle Lowry in free agency. It’d be sweet if that worked out, but it’s a clunk fit for Philadelphia in a two-team deal. A three-team deal with this format that netted a high-level point guard would again beat anything the Wolves can offer.

Like Cleveland, Toronto is not going to part with their top (No. 4) pick. They would have to hope for a sign-and-trade with Lowry, while also likely needing to include OG Anunoby and potentially Malachi Flynn or a future first, at least. That’s a damn good offer, and a Simmons/Fred Van Vleet/Pascal Siakam/Scottie Barnes (or Jalen Suggs) would certainly be intriguing and a much better offer than anything Minnesota can offer.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Even a Wolves package with Lowry, Beasley, 2 first-round picks (both lottery protected) and a pick-swap doesn’t beat Toronto’s best offer, Indiana’s best offer, or Cleveland’s offer. With that in mind, adjust your expectations accordingly. I’m not saying Simmons can’t be a Timberwolf in principle by this time next week, but it’s very unlikely, and in order for it to happen, there is so much outside of the Wolves control that would need to happen —namely mutual interest between Lowry and the Sixers, as well as Toronto agreeing to sign-and-trade Lowry away, while helping facilitate a trade in which a player they want doesn’t end up with them.

Also keep in mind that the Pelicans made their big trade, which will be official on August 6, in order to throw big money (potentially $30M annually) at Lowry. If you’re a front office, don’t make a move like that unless you’re damn confident the player you’re cleaning space for is coming, or have extremely solid backup plans in place.

The next week will be absolutely insane across the league, I do not expect Minnesota to be catalyzing the chaos. I expect the front office to make an effort to shake up the roster a bit in order to better position themselves to make the playoffs, but the chances that comes in the form of Ben Simmons rocking a Wolves jersey are extremely low. The stars may align, but you’re probably better off placing your belief in Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jaden McDaniels gelling and finding success in a healthy 2021-22 season.