The first two-and-a-half months of the 2023-24 NBA season are already in the books. So far, we’ve seen teams and players fall into place as the standings begin to take prominent shape.
The Minnesota Timberwolves remain atop the Western Conference standings with their 24-8 record, a place they have been for the better part of six weeks. This is a historic start to the season for Minnesota, as President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and his staff have put together one of the deepest, most well-rounded teams in franchise history.
The Timberwolves have had the NBA’s best defense, Anthony Edwards has blossomed into a bonafide superstar, Karl-Anthony Towns has settled into a consistent two-way role, Rudy Gobert has been bringing an MVP-level impact to every game, and Mike Conley has been there to round everything out amongst the starters. On top of that, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Troy Brown Jr. have stepped up admirably for stretches during the absences of Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, while Naz Reid has been doing Naz Reid things. Overall, this has been an almost picture-perfect start to the season, considering some of the adversity that the Timberwolves have endured.
However, the roster still has some holes that need patching from within the organization or the trade market. The starting five, when healthy, is set in stone. Therefore, all of those roster needs revolve around the lack of offensive production Minnesota has received from its bench.
The NBA trade deadline is just over a month out. However, come early January; front offices begin making phone calls around the league regarding potential trades ahead of the February 8 deadline. Usually, the early discourse is amongst teams who already know what they will be at the deadline — buyers or sellers. We already saw the first trade this season between the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors last week, which officially welcomed us to the 2024 NBA trade season!
In recent years, we’ve seen the Timberwolves completely overhaul the makeup and complexity of their roster at the trade deadline with moves such as the one to acquire D’Angelo Russell in exchange for Andrew Wiggins and picks in 2020 and, coincidentally, the trade to ship Russell to the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team deal to acquire Conley last season. Connelly and Co.'s potential moves this year won’t be that splashy. However, it’s worth looking at some realistic trade targets to keep in the back of your mind as the roster finalization date creeps closer and closer.
As of January 3rd, here is a complete look at the Timberwolves roster and cap sheet, courtesy of our Jack Borman:
Monte Morris — Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons have been a barnfire so far this season. They snapped a historic 28-game losing streak against the Raptors, who only had nine players active, last week and own an NBA-worst 3-30 record.
Detroit is the third-cheapest team in the league, as nine players on the active roster are making less than $10 million this season. However, they still have a few veterans on the roster who would fit in perfectly with championship-contending teams. One of those players is 6-foot-2 guard Monte Morris, who the team acquired via a trade with the Washington Wizards over the summer.
Morris has yet to play for the Pistons this season as he continues to nurse a quad injury he suffered during training camp. On November 21st, the team announced that the sixth-year guard would be re-evaluated in 6-8 weeks, meaning he will remain out until early January at the earliest, around a month before the trade deadline.
Trading for an injured player is always risky. It’s hard to value their skills, and the possibility that they won’t live up to previous expectations is very real. However, Morris has been an incredibly reliable player during his four years with the Denver Nuggets and last season with the Wizards. When looking at him as a potential trade partner for the Timberwolves, he could be precisely what the team is looking for off the bench.
- Floor spacing: 39% career 3-point shooter on 3.3 attempts per game.
- Smart with the ball: Averages four dimes per game on just 0.8 turnovers.
- Availability: Played in 82 games in 2019, 73 in 2020, and 75 in 2022
- Off-ball: Started next to Nikola Jokić frequently in Denver during Jamal Murray’s absences and knows how to play off-ball effectively.
- Poor defender: Can be pesky but makes miscues and lacks rim pressure + size.
- ISO scoring: Can run in a set offense but has trouble creating when attacking downhill.
According to The Athletic, Connelly and his staff have registered interest in Morris dating back to last summer, and the same could still be true. As you’ll notice throughout, most targets listed below are potential backup point guard options. Minnesota has lacked a scoring punch off the bench and someone to calm the tides when things go rocky with the starters on the bench.
Monte could help in those areas, but trading for him may not be worth it.
The 28-year-old guard is in the final year of a 3-year, $27.7 million contract he signed with Connelly’s Nuggets in 2021. After this season, he will become an unrestricted free agent. He is making $9.8 million this year, so for the Timberwolves to acquire him, they would need to part ways with at least that number to make a deal work. Players that would fit the criteria are Kyle Anderson ($9.2M this season) or a combination of Shake Milton ($5M this season) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker ($4.6M) or Troy Brown Jr. ($4M).
Alec Burks — Detroit Pistons
This list wouldn’t be complete without at least two potential trade options from the Pistons, so here we are with Alec Burks.
Burks is a 12-year NBA journeyman drafted by the Utah Jazz in 2011. He’s made stops along the way with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, Philidelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, and most recently, the Pistons. During his time with all seven teams, Burks has always made a living on the offensive side of the ball with his ability to put the ball in the bucket in a multitude of different ways.
- ISO scoring: His 6-foot-10 wingspan and impressive dribble moves allow him to score off the bounce.
- Floor spacing: DET posts Burks up in the corners frequently, and he is reliable from range, as he shoots the ball at a 35% clip from beyond.
- Ball mover: He is naturally a scorer but can move the ball freely.
- Quick decisions: Either he is attacking the rim, shooting, or passing — no wasted dribbles, similar to what Naz Reid does.
- Poor defender: Has good physical tools but lacks technique and can be slow on the perimeter.
- Efficiency: He takes 8.6 shots per game and has had 18 sub-40 % shooting games. Regardless of whether the shot is falling, he is never bashful.
Amid Detriot’s historically bad start to the season, Head Coach Monty Williams has made a point of playing his younger players more. Burks is 32 years old and isn’t getting any younger; it’s obvious he isn’t a part of the long-term plans in Motor City. The Pistons acquired the 6-foot-6 combo guard in the summer of 2022 via a trade with the New York Knicks. The deal was money-saving for the Knicks, as they navigated off Nerleans Noel and Burks’ contracts, which freed up around $20 million in cap space.
Burks is in the final year of a 3-year, $30 million contract he signed with the Knicks in 2021. He is making $10.5 million this season and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Burks would give the Timberwolves a viable scoring punch off the bench. However, making the money lineup in a trade that would positively impact both teams would be tough. Detroit would need young assets or picks in the deal, and Minnesota would likely be required to deal a player currently a part of the rotation.
Malcolm Brogdon — Portland Trail Blazers
Continuing on with the noncompetitive teams, we have the Portland Trailblazers and their situation with point guard Malcolm Brogdon.
This past off-season was quite the eventful one for the Trailblazers. They parted ways with 11-year guard Damian Lillard, the face of Blazers basketball during his ten years with the team. In the same trade that sent Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks, Portland also moved off Jusuf Nurkic and brought in Deandre Ayton and Jrue Holiday. It was made known that Portland wasn't going to hang onto Holiday for the 2023-24 season, as just over a month later, the team shipped him off to Boston in exchange for Malcolm Brogdon and center Robert Williams.
After the departure of Lillard, the Blazers geared up for the start of an eventual rebuild. The core of young guard Anfernee Simons, number two overall pick Scoot Henderson, Jerami Grant, and Ayton made Portland appear as a team that could possibly contend for a Play-In spot. However, that hasn’t materialized as Rip City currently owns a 9-23 record, which slots them at 14th in the Western Conference.
Overall, the Blazers are a young and cheap team, but they have one player in particular who is making quite a bit of money and doesn't exactly fit their timeline. That player is Brogdon, who is in his seventh year in the NBA and is on the first year of a two-year, $45 million contract extension he inked back in 2021 with the Indiana Pacers that didn’t go into effect until this season. The 6-foot-4 guard makes $22.5 million annually until he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2024-25 season. He is the fourth most expensive player employed by the Blazers, but with Brogdon, you get what you pay for.
This season, Malcolm is averaging 16.2 points, 5.7 assists, and 3.6 rebounds on 44% from the floor and 42% from deep in 28 minutes. Lately, he’s taken on a more significant role with the plummeting Blazers, starting in 16 of his last 20 games. The former Virginia Cavalier has a skill set built for a team like the Timberwolves, as they could benefit highly from his consistent offense and high basketball IQ.
- Floor general: He has started for the Blazers 16 times, most of which operating with the ball in his hands, facilitating to his teammates.
- Capable shooter: 42% 3-point shooter who lives above the break, with most of his attempts coming off the dribble from the top of the key.
- Low turnover rate: 3.97 assists-to-turnover rate this season, which is 18th best amongst guards (minimum of 20 games played).
- Needs ball in hand: Most of his success comes via pick-and-rolls, with not much off-ball usage this season.
- Selective passing: Tends to prioritize the roll man in PnR sets too much, leaving shooters open in either wing/corner.
Again, due to Brogdon’s high price tag, it will be difficult for Minnesota to make the money work in a potential trade, which is a common trend. However, the Wolves would be getting one of the most offensively sound guards in the league and someone who could help fix the bench-scoring woes in almost every aspect.
Tyus Jones — Washington Wizards
Like the Pistons and Blazers, the Washington Wizards find themselves in the bottom half of their respective conference standings. Washington has just six wins through the first 32 games of the season. It hasn’t been a fun start to the season by any means in our nation's capital, which is leading to trade speculation picking up. One of the players that could be on the move is old friend Tyus Jones.
After four seasons in the grit and grind, the Memphis Grizzlies decided to ship Jones off to the Wizards in a three-team trade that saw Kristaps Porzingis land with the Boston Celtics and Marcus Smart with the Grizzlies.
It is no surprise that Jones has been playing great for Washington, as he is averaging 12.6 points and six assists on 54% from the floor and 43% from deep while starting in all 32 games this season. Amid the Wizards’ uncompetitiveness, they could also look to ship out assets that win-now teams are searching for. With Tyus being in his eighth season in the association, it only makes sense that he would want to make a final push on a winning team, and his home state could be the perfect place for him.
- Passing, of course: He has the third-best assist-to-turnover rate (6.77) amongst guards (minimum of 20 games played).
- More scoring: His assist percentage is down to 26.1% this season, which is a career-low, but he is averaging a career-high in points per game (12.6) and field goal attempts (9.8).
- Mid-range maestro: 43% of his shots come from the mid-range, most of which are floaters and runners.
- PnR partner: Runs a ton of PnRs and has an incredible ability to read the defense, knowing when to pass or shoot.
- Switching defense: Being targeted in pick plays can be an issue due to his lack of size.
As you notice, the positives heavily outweigh the negatives for Jones, which is why the Grizzlies gave him a two-year, $29 million contract before last season. He was Memphis’ sixth man then, and he would likely be one of the first players off Minnesota’s bench should the team trade for him. That’s a high price tag for a bench player, especially considering the Wolves’ future financial troubles. Tyus is making $14 million this season and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. From a strictly financial sense, trading for the Apple Valley native is possible if the team parted ways with Anderson and Shake Milton. Picks/young talent would most likely have to be included as well, with the Wizards continuing their rebuild.
But given Minnesota’s tax crunch and an obvious desire to retain Mike Conley beyond this season, he would likely be a rest-of-the-season rental before netting a substantial deal in unrestricted free agency.
Dennis Smith Jr. — Brooklyn Nets
After playing in just 56 total games between 2020 and 2022, Dennis Smith Jr. has recharged his career. The 6-foot-1 guard played in 54 games last season for the Charlotte Hornets and is continuing his revenge tour for the Brooklyn Nets this season.
Smith Jr. has blossomed into a consistent fixture on Brooklyn’s bench. Through 21 games, the North Carolina native is averaging seven points, four assists, and three rebounds on 41% from the floor. The quick and shifty undersized guard has the ability to play at an incredibly fast pace. Couple that with his nonstop internal motor, and he may be the perfect complement to Minnesota’s slow-it-down offense.
- ISO scoring: downhill attacking is where he is at his best; 39% of his shot attempts per game come at the rim.
- Willing passer: defenses are required to help contain his on-ball speed, which opens up DSJ’s teammates. His assist percentage is 28%, which ranks him in the 83rd percentile amongst guards.
- Defense: Smith Jr. is scrappy and physical on the perimeter despite being undersized (6-foot-2). Think of his defensive impact as similar to Jordan McLaughlin’s
- Shooting: Just 28% of his shots per game are from 3-point range. From there, he is shooting 28%, which is just under his career average (30%).
- Turnovers: His assist-to-turnover ratio is 3.41, which ranks him 26th amongst guards league-wide (minimum of 15 games played). His T/O % per game is 12%, which is on the high side amongst point guards.
- Shot selection: Occasionally, Smith Jr. will settle for 3-point or mid-range pull-ups instead of attacking the paint or hitting an open teammate.
Smith Jr. is the most affordable option on this list, as he is making $2.5 million this season before entering the unrestricted free agent pool this summer. It is hard to see the Nets letting go of DSJ, as they are in the thick of the Eastern Conference standings, sitting a little bit below .500 (15-19). However, if Brooklyn enters a rebuild between now and the trade deadline, Smith Jr.’s unique and fast-paced skillset could be a valuable addition to Minnesota’s bench.
At the end of the day, the Timberwolves own a Western Conference-best record. They have just over $2 million in available luxury tax space with an open roster space. A likely possibility would be the team stays pat at the deadline, potentially adding a veteran via the buyout market. Regardless, Minnesota’s war room won’t be empty as the trade deadline inches closer. The players mentioned above could all help the Wolves in their own way. Still, financial implications and roster chemistry may make the front office hesitant to pull the trigger on any trade transactions.