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The Dame Game: How the Unlikely Timberwolves Can Pounce

Lillard, a seven-time All-Star, reportedly only wants to play in Miami, but the Wolves could be in position to make a deal anyways.

We’ve spoken this offseason about a trade of Karl-Anthony Towns for Scoot Henderson. We’ve spoken about resetting the current timeline to get more in line with a long-term core of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. We’ve spoken about the new CBA necessitating moving a big contract in the next calendar year if the Minnesota Timberwolves can’t prove to be a title contender with the current core.

So, what if we solve that problem not by trading a big contract for smaller, younger, and cheaper assets, but by swapping a big deal for a big deal and really and truly turning this team into a title contender? Friends, Damian Lillard is available, and if the Wolves can add a top-three point guard in the NBA, they should.

Before we go any further, let’s address the elephant in the room. It is basically financially impossible to make just about any Dame trade without also sending out one of KAT or Rudy Gobert. From my point of view, there is no way to make up the gap in assets between Gobert and Lillard. So, that leaves us with Towns.

There is no more controversial topic in Wolves fandom right now than the concept of trading the former Kentucky Wildcat star that has been the only consistent cornerstone of what we’ve watched for the past eight years. I wonder how many people are already scrolling down to the comments to say their piece. I won’t say what side is the right side. I will say that this whole hypothetical is unlikely to bear fruit.

What I do want to say, however, is it is okay to want an upgrade just as much as it is okay to want to run it back. The Wolves are in such a weird spot with the construction of this team and the question marks they face. There may not be a star in the NBA with a more undeserved negative reputation than Karl-Anthony Towns. He also has some pretty infuriating moments and quotes. This article is not a call to shut the door on the KAT era. It is exploring what a Lillard move would mean, and what it would cost. That’s it. Let’s get to it.

Portland Trail Blazers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The main questions with a Dame trade to Minnesota (outside of its improbability) are threefold. First, the value of his contract is large enough that it would lock the Wolves into being a second apron team, even if Mike Conley is thrown in and not expiring for cap relief. Second, his age at thirty-two is not worrying by itself, but when combined with his propensity to miss time over the last couple of years, it’s certainly not encouraging. Third, and arguably most crucially, would Dame enjoy being traded to a team that isn’t his preferred location in the Miami Heat and, even if he’s under contract for another couple of years, is trading for a disgruntled aging player a smart choice? These are all fair concerns but easily mitigated.

The contract value worry has been a common topic in Minnesota this summer. As it stands, the Wolves are one of three teams with three full maxes on the roster. The other two are the NBA Champion Denver Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns, the current betting favorite to win the 2024 NBA title. The Wolves, despite similar financial investments, are not at that level of team. There is minutia to look at here, however.

The Wolves have one 25% max that could jump to 30% in Edwards and then two 35% maxes for Towns and Gobert. This does not account for Naz Reid’s hefty three-year, $42 million dollar extension or the considerably larger offer sheet assumedly heading to McDaniels’ inbox. Minnesota’s situation is not as bad as the Suns, who have three 35% maxes and are paying each member of their big three a massive amount, along with DeAndre Ayton’s 25% max. Alternatively, the Wolves’ situation, although similar in thought to that of the Nuggets, is significantly worse than Denver’s. While the Nuggets are paying three max contracts, two of them are 25% maxes for Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, who played up to that level in the playoffs, and the final max is arguably an underpay for Nikola Jokic at 35% of the cap.

Quite simply, you don’t have a real chance to make a deep run or a deep roster if your 35% max players are not MVP caliber. The Suns have two “maybes” or even “likelies”. The Nuggets just proved their one guy may be the best player on the planet. The Timberwolves’ highest contracts both have never even made an All-NBA First Team, let alone played at an MVP level. Damian Lillard has played at that level, only being briefly interrupted by injury or (mostly) tanking, for seven straight years. That’s how you become a contender in the quickest, most painless way possible: get a top-10 player. Even at his age, Damian Lillard is that.

The next worry is Dame’s age. I personally think this is the least valid worry. First and foremost, Lillard is coming off his best season in the NBA, averaging a career-best 32.2 points per game on 46.3/37.1/91.4 shooting splits. We are seeing stars play at high levels for longer and longer and Dame’s injury history is more a history of manipulation by Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Joe Cronin. Even then, over the last five years, Lillard has had the least “healthy” seasons of his career and has still played sixty games a year. Exclude his 29-game season pre-tankfest of 2021-22, and that average flies up to sixty-eight. Wolves fans just saw a season go down the drain after one injury took a star out for fifty-odd games, so I understand the concern, but it is not as bad as it seems at face value.

If we’re talking about when Dame is on the court, I think the fit is just about as good as it could get. Lillard was regularly begging Portland to bring in any capable defender. If the Wolves manage to retain him, McDaniels would already be the best perimeter stopper Dame has ever played with. Gobert would be the best rim protector he’s ever shared the court with. They both would probably be the best defenders he’s ever seen on the same roster. Additionally, on a team lacking a gravity-shifting shooter, Lillard high pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs would add much-needed levity and space on offense. Edwards would benefit from that. So would Gobert. Honestly, there is no one that wouldn’t benefit heavily from this.

It’s not hard to say that a top-75 player all-time would help a team. It’s especially easy to write something like this when you know it won’t happen. There’s no reason to question whether Dame would embrace Minneapolis after being in “small market” Portland because, more than likely, he won’t be here. He’ll be in Miami alongside Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo for a menial package that will involve Tyler Herro going to a third team.

So, let’s come back to the question of trading KAT really quickly. Staunch advocates will complain about fans wanting to ship out a player that has entrenched himself in Minnesota since being drafted here in 2015 and, for better or worse, became the face of a franchise that doesn’t provide a good reputation and carried that crown of horns impressively. Pessimistic detractors will point to his painfully self-destructive offseason interviews and cringeworthy quotes off the court and his flailing and decision-making on the court. The truth is somewhere in between. KAT is a phenomenal player who unfortunately gets in his own way a lot. My inclination to trade him is not an indictment of Karl but of my lack of belief in the roster construction as is. A Dame trade, however improbable, makes everything make more sense. A lineup of Lillard, Edwards, McDaniels, Kyle Anderson and Gobert makes a lot more sense to me than running it back, mostly because I never think you should stop tweaking things.

People will point to the Nuggets’ success after President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly continuously chose to run it back, but I recommend taking a real look at the roster turnover over the past few years. Running it back just depends on what you think the core is. To me, the core is exclusively Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. Anyone else is liable to be moved. I will also mention that trading KAT to Portland would not mean throwing him to the proverbial wolves. His fit with both of their pillars in No. 3 overall pick Scoot Henderson and second-year super-athlete Shaedon Sharpe is fantastic, and the Blazers are missing a truly impactful big man.

However you feel about Karl, you can admit that a trade for Lillard could move the Wolves into a category they have never been in: contenders. Is that worth the risk of making a second big swing in as many offseasons? That’s something we probably already know the front office’s answer to, but it’s still fascinating to contemplate both sides of this. Minnesota hasn’t made it past the first round since 2004. Dreaming of greener pastures may make you miss what you already have growing, but it’s also the most normal part of fandom. No one dreams of being an eighth seed and losing in five (exciting) games. I dream of championships, no matter how unrealistic it is. This is how you get there.