The Denver Nuggets advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history sent me down the road of thinking about a player’s championship windows. At 28 years old, two-time MVP Nikola Jokić is in the prime of his career, the time when all-time great NBA players generally begin to win their championships. See for yourself:
Age of the the best player on the past 10 NBA champions:
2022 Golden State Warriors: Steph Curry (33)
2021 Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo (26)
2020 Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James (35), Anthony Davis (26)
2019 Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard (27)
2018 Golden State Warriors: Steph Curry (29)
2017 Golden State Warriors: Steph Curry (28)
2016 Cleveland Cavaliers: Lebron James (31)
2015 Golden State Warriors: Steph Curry (26)
2014 San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan (37), Tony Parker (31), Manu Ginóbili (36), Leonard (22)
2013 Miami Heat: LeBron (28), Dwayne Wade (31), Chris Bosh (28)
Historically, championship windows for the game’s greatest players open up after a player hits their mid-20s. Famously, Michael Jordan didn’t start his run on titles until he turned 28, just like Jokić this year. All of the NBA’s greatest players needed to grow their games year-by-year, experience playoff loss, and eventually, gain the right set of players around them to open up the window for titles.
So why this historical glimpse? Last time, I wrote about the franchise’s necessary transition to Anthony Edwards and the steps he has taken through his first three years. Even in what would be a best-case scenario of the Minnesota Timberwolves becoming a contender during Edward’s tenure here, the team is still at least five years away from Edwards entering the window in which the above Hall of Famers did most of their ring collecting.
Assuming Edwards and Jaden McDaniels sign long-term contract extensions this offseason, there would only be one other player currently on the books for the Wolves that would be around for that window: Karl-Anthony Towns. I’ll write more about Towns soon in the power forward edition, but if I had to place a life-dependent bet, the smart money would wager that Towns does not see the end of that contract in Minnesota (summer of 2027 if he declines his player option for 2027-28) due to the Timberwolves’ current financial situation.
This is a necessary perspective shifter. Over the next five-to-seven years, the most important things for the franchise is to develop Edwards and McDaniels as a tandem and build a team around them that makes the playoffs so they can take their lumps and grow towards delivering Minnesota its first ever Larry O’Brien Trophy. As that contending window gets closer, make every roster/contract decision to maximize their time to make a title run.
Yes, that leaves a lot of questions about their current roster makeup and remaining draft capital, and yes, it does make the leveraging of future assets in the Rudy Gobert trade all the more head scratching. It is likely (though to be fair, still not a complete certainty) that they bet on the wrong window. But a previous miscalculation on when to push most of the chips into the middle doesn’t mean that you have to remain pot committed - every season you get a new hand to play. And if everything goes according to plan, five years from now, you may be starting the year with pocket aces just entering in their respective primes.
Let’s get to the grades.
1. These grades are roles-based, so the stats I’m looking at for each player are different
2. There will be three major components of the grades: Regular season (70%), playoffs (25%) and extracurriculars (5%)
3. The extracurricular category is a new one that takes into account things that happened on and off the court that wouldn’t be captured by numbers: Awards, injuries, locker-room problems, etc… One extra way to quantify things that happened this season that would otherwise be missed.
4. For players who spent the majority of the season in the G-League, I’ve added in their stats from the regular season and Showcase Cup.
Jaden McDaniels Final Grade: 89% (B+)
First off, check out Mike O’Hagan’s awesome end of the season write-up about McDaniels’ development this season. He does a great job highlighting Jaden McDaniels’ big steps forward defensively, but maybe just as importantly, the less-talked-about offensive growth that McDaniels showed throughout the year.
Secondly, if I use the five-year window from above, the biggest non-trade regret the franchise will have from this season is not getting a chance to see McDaniels perform in the postseason. His performance in the Memphis Grizzlies series last season was a big reason why the franchise was so reluctant to trade him - it really is a shame that McDaniels didn’t ultimately get more playoff reps.
As for my grading system, I never felt like I could find a way to quantify his full defensive impact as he was so often matched up with the best player on the floor. Thankfully, BBall-Index consistently came to the rescue this season by incorporating matchup difficulty with effectiveness as you can see here:
McDaniels had an elite defensive season, and it is only a matter of when, not if, he’ll be elected to an All-Defensive team.
Extracurriculars: This is the category that could have raised McDaniels’ season into the “A” range, but with what transpired on the last day of the regular season, it ended up holding him back. To be a great defender in this league means you have to have an edge - for some of the greatest defenders in league history, that’s a double-edged sword. In his third season, McDaniels played most nights like he took it personally whenever the player he was guarding dared to even touch the ball. Because of this mindset, if McDaniels made a mistake, got beat by the offensive player, or got a bad whistle, the devil on his shoulder got louder, causing him to slam the ball or get a frustration foul.
This tendency culminated in game eighty-two when that wall found his fist and ended his season. It also meant that his teammates would be missing out on one of their most important players for the biggest games of the season. It was a self-inflicted wound - a mistake that can never happen again in his promising career.
The Big Question: Should Minnesota offer Jaden McDaniels a five-year contract worth $25 million per season?
Yes. In sharpie. Next question.
I chose the highest number I’ve seen, which could equate to something as big as a five-year, $125 million payday. It may end up being less than this, but even if the number is that high, I’m not sure you could go to a lab and design a better running mate next to Edwards. Elite defense, efficient outside shooting, a growing offensive repertoire both on and off-ball, and someone who, like Ant, takes losing personally.
With whatever ends up happening over the next year with the two-big experiment, signing Edwards and McDaniels means that the Timberwolves will have the core of their future under contract for the next decade. Edwards got a chance this last postseason to show that he is up for the task - next season, McDaniels needs to be there so their games can continue to grow together.
Taurean Prince Final Grade: 78% (C+)
Now we enter the space where the tandem of:
1) league’s new collective bargaining agreement
2) the Timberwolves’ financial situation with respect to their five-year outlook
may claim its first victim. More on this in the big question, but if the team needs to make any space under the luxury tax line to re-sign Naz Reid and/or Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Taurean Prince’s Wolves tenure could end ahead of free agency this summer.
On the court, Prince did everything you could ask of for a veteran on a mid-level contract. He was the team’s seventh or eighth-best player throughout the season and was ready when called upon to play a heavier usage role in the postseason, even if it wasn’t his best stretch of games. Prince was unarguably one of the team’s most consistent shooters and a solid (albeit at times a little slow-footed) defender.
Extracurriculars: Taurean Prince ends up with an “A” in this category for stories like these. There were numerous times throughout the low points in the Wolves season that teammates shouted out Prince’s ability in the locker room to help hold everyone accountable. You won’t find anyone on the team who says a bad word about Prince, which speaks volumes about the respect he commands on the floor, off of it, and in the locker room.
The Big Question: Does the team have plans for Taurean Prince beyond the 2023-2024 season?
The Wolves’ complicated financial future is going to become one of the top offseason stories for this team (and into the future), and it is possible that Prince becomes one of the first casualties of it.
Prince’s contract for the 2023-24 season is non-guaranteed until June 28, when it becomes fully guaranteed. This means if the team waived him before June 28, the $7.455 million he is slated to be paid for next season comes off the books, and can instead be re-routed into funding new contracts Reid (unrestricted free agent) and Alexander-Walker (restricted free agent). For a team that should be desperate to stay out of the luxury tax on repeat years due to the new CBA, that $7 million may loom a lot larger than it actually is.
Beyond the resigning of other players, the Timberwolves plans for Prince going forward may depend on how they feel about the development of the next player on the list: Josh Minott.
Josh Minott Final Grade: 80% (B-)
Even though springtime minutes never came for The Lawnmower, Josh Minott flashed enough his rookie season to leave fans intrigued about what his future could bring for this Timberwolves team. He has elite athleticism, capable shooting, and a defensive knack/hustle that at times makes him feel like some kind of Jarred Vanderbilt/Jaden McDaniels spawn.
Much like Nickeil Alexander-Walker at the trade deadline, Minott’s player profile brings things to this roster that they could desperately use - the question is whether or not he can be a consistent and effective NBA player.
Extracurriculars: Hard to give a grade here as we didn’t get much of a glimpse into his development outside of G-League games and some pretty spectacular practice dunks. Personally, I love “The Lawnmower” nickname and hope that it sticks.
The Big Question: Will he see rotation minutes for a consistent stretch next season?
The answer to this question is dependent upon what happens with Prince this offseason, as Minott would be a natural successor to those minutes. I’m still under the assumption that outside of re-signing NAW and Reid, a veteran backup point guard is going to be the focus of their offseason money, not necessarily another wing unless it’s at a minimum deal. If Prince is waved, Minott could have as good a shot as anyone to earn 10-15 minutes off the bench as a backup wing for this team.
It would be a lot to ask from a developing second-rounder to come in and take the role of a beloved and very consistent veteran. These minutes would most certainly come with rollercoaster performances. But to build a successful contending team, developing late-first rounders, second-round selections and undrafted free agents (see internal examples: Edwards, McDaniels, and Reid, or ask the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets) are the marginal roster wins that a team needs to create on in order to make the leap.