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Trade shenanigans and the case for the Wolves standing pat

Brandon Roy
REUTERS/Mike Cassese
The team’s long-term thinking might be foretold by how it treats the expiring contract of Brandon Roy between now and the Feb. 21 trading deadline.

We have entered All Star Weekend in the NBA, the point in time where regular season games are suspended and the trading deadline looms. This is not coincidental. This annual hiatus is meant to provide owners and general managers with the time and impetus to make deals that will ready their respective teams for the stretch run or maximize their leverage on rebuilding for the future by trading players coveted by clubs who want to win now.

Under this scenario, teams are either buyers or sellers. But barring an offer that is simply too good to refuse, I think the Wolves are best off being non-participants. And yes, that’s easier said than (not) done.

The hardest thing to do when seemingly everything is going wrong is to do nothing. And most everything has gone wrong for the Minnesota Timberwolves for quite some time now. As I mentioned in a column last week, the Wolves have never even won 40 percent of their games in a single season without Kevin Garnett. But it might be helpful to flash back to the circumstances that compelled the front office to conclude that giving up KG was a good idea in the first place.

After making the playoffs for seven years in a row, most everyone either involved with or rooting for the Wolves franchise took their appearance in the postseason for granted, and were bedeviled by the fact that the team was eliminated in the first round every time. In response, the front office engineered two trades in the summer of 2003 that netted the Wolves three starters and surrounded Garnett with the best supporting cast of his 12-year tenure in Minnesota.

In June of that year, point guard Sam Cassell and defensive-oriented center Ervin Johnson were acquired from Milwaukee for Anthony Peeler and Joe Smith. A month later, the Wolves landed swingman Latrell Sprewell in a four-team deal that cost them Terrell Brandon and Marc Jackson. The gambits were very expensive — Sprewell’s $14 million contract put the Wolves over the luxury tax threshold, meaning it actually cost owner Glen Taylor $28 million to have him on the roster — but successful in that the Wolves surged past the first round all the way to the Western Conference Finals before being eliminated.

A year later, it all fell apart, as Cassell and Sprewell bickered with the front office over the size of their new contracts, dividing Garnett’s loyalties. (You know the sordid history.) The Wolves, favored by many to win it all in 2004-05, instead missed the playoffs altogether, costing coach Flip Saunders his job. A year later, they plummeted to their first losing record since Garnett’s sophomore season, ending the campaign with the most shameful episode in franchise history — no, not the illegal signing of Joe Smith, but the most blatant tanking performance ever in the final game, featuring awkward center Mark Madsen hoisting three-point shots to seal the defeat. Yet one year later, the Wolves had one fewer win to finish the season, tanking again as KG sat the final six games.

Those were awful times, especially with the team’s then-recent string of playoff appearances fresh in everyone’s mind. Yet it needs to be remembered that KG remained steadfast. He may have been a terrible quasi-general manager, urging the team to make disastrous deals for the likes of Troy Hudson and Mike James, but he never requested a trade.

But Glen Taylor and Kevin McHale thought it was time to make a change. And after three years of strife and regression, it was difficult to blame them.

And oh what a haul in human flesh KG was able to fetch from the Celtics — five players and two first-round draft picks for just one player. Al Jefferson was a starter and low-post stud, averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds his final year in Boston. Ryan Gomes was likewise a starter, averaging better than 12 points and five rebounds per game. Gerald Green was an uber-athletic leaper, reigning slam-dunk champion and regular rotation player. Bassy Telfair was a slick-dribbling point guard who, like Green, was a McDonald’s All American in high school, and, again like Green, not yet 22 years old. And center Theo Ratliff was a veteran rim protector less than four years removed from twice leading the NBA in blocked shots.

Plus two first-round draft picks. Who knew they were going to be Wayne Ellington and Jonny Flynn?

Of course none of those seven players are still with the Wolves, while Garnett continues to shine in Boston, and will perform in his 15th all star game on Sunday. More to the point, since the trade, Boston has won a ring and never failed to get past the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics’ regular season record over that period is 301-145. By contrast, the Wolves’ record from the time of the trade until right now is 123-321, which puts them 177 games behind the Celts in the standings, and a full 20 games behind the next-worst NBA team, the Sacramento Kings. That was a helluva trade.

Chicken or the egg?

Does losing beget personnel turnover or does personnel turnover beget losing? The behavior of the Wolves since the Garnett trade makes that question a fascinating, fruitless conundrum.

The negative fallout from the Garnett deal soon cost McHale his job. Enter new President of Basketball Operations David Kahn, charged with the assignment of reducing the team’s onerous payroll while creating a more competitive ballclub. Kahn, who came to the job with the reputation for knowing how to work numbers better than judge talent, delivered on that advertisement. He both slashed the payroll and squandered personnel assets with a vengeance.

Take, for example, the dizzying series of moves emanating from the Al Jefferson trade to Utah. In July 2010, Kahn traded Jefferson to the Jazz for center Kosta Koufos, a 2011 first-round pick, and a 2012 first-round pick. Seven months later, as part of the blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony from Denver to New York, he traded Koufos to Denver and Corey Brewer to New York in exchange for center Eddy Curry, forward Anthony Randolph and cash.

Curry was waived a week later. Randolph played 57 maddening games for the Wolves over the course of a season and a half and Minnesota chose not to renew his contract. Ironically, he is now riding the bench in Denver, where both Koufos and Brewer happen to rank among the Nuggets’ top seven in minutes as the team has compiled a 33-21 record. Meanwhile, Jefferson currently leads the Jazz, who have a record of 30-24, in minutes, points and rebounds.

So what about the two draft picks obtained in the Jefferson deal?

Well, with the 2011 pick, the Wolves took seven-footer Donatas Motiejunas — and dealt him that same night along with Jonny Flynn to Houston in exchange for Brad Miller, Nikola Mirotic, Chandler Parsons and a future first-round pick. By far the most valuable of the players in that haul turned out to be Parsons — whom Kahn immediately traded back to Houston that night for cash. Parsons currently ranks second on the Rockets, who have a record of 29-26, in minutes, points and rebounds. Of the others, Miller played 146 minutes over 15 games with the Wolves and was involved in another trade that won’t be explained because it would complicate this saga too much, which you’ll realize after you read the next paragraph.

Mirotic? He was traded that same very busy June draft night to the Chicago Bulls for Norris Cole, Malcolm Lee and cash and has yet to play an NBA game. Cole? Traded to Miami on that same frenzied June evening with cash and a future second-round pick in exchange for Bojan Bogdanovic. Cole is now the backup point guard, ranked eighth in minutes, for the defending champion Heat, who currently have a record of 36-14. Bogdanovic? Traded to New Jersey (now Brooklyn) on that same uncontrollable June night for the Nets second-round draft pick in 2013—and cash.

Fortunately, this blizzard of transactions ends with one silver lining for the Wolves. In exchange for Utah’s top pick in the 2012 draft that they received in the Jefferson deal, Minnesota acquired Chase Budinger from Houston.

But let’s step back and take stock of this wayward whirlwind for a moment. At one time or another, if sometimes only for the seconds it took David Kahn to punch up another general manager’s phone number, the Wolves had Al Jefferson, Corey Brewer, Kosta Koufos, Chandler Parsons and Norris Cole — five players in the regular rotation for teams that are currently poised to make the playoffs.

In return, the Wolves have Budinger, a perfect fit for the current roster but with a contract that expires at the end of this season. They have Lee, a defensive specialist who is out for the season after a couple of nasty leg surgeries but is signed for another two years. And after some more back-and-forth, they have managed to position themselves for Brooklyn’s second-rounder in this summer’s draft, currently rated the 50th overall pick.

It isn’t all quite that simple, of course. Kahn would argue that the deals freed up salary cap space that enabled him to go out and acquire other players, for example. Kahn’s detractors would point to unused trade exceptions that could have procured even more talent. And we could have chased some of those draft picks through future deals with contingencies that may or may not happen — like the Wolves possibly forfeiting the pick they got from Houston just to get Phoenix to take Wes Johnson off their hands.

The current bottom line is that since Kahn took over, the Wolves are 77-203, the worst record in the NBA at six-and-a-half games behind 29th-place Washington. But in terms of the salary cap, the team is in much better shape to retain talent without onerous penalties (especially under the new collective bargaining agreement) than it was under McHale. The abiding question is, will Taylor and the other partners conserve this relative dividend for their own pocketbooks or use it to invest in the team moving forward?

Tweak the roster or keep the faith?

An early sign of the Wolves’ long-term thinking might be foretold by how they treat the expiring contract of injured guard Brandon Roy between now and the trading deadline on Feb. 21. If the team deals Roy for currently healthy players or other tangible assets that immediately improve the team but swallow up Roy’s cap space next season, it will likely mean they do not intend to match a significant offer for restricted free agent center Nikola Pekovic.

From where I sit, losing Pek in free agency is the biggest danger to this team finally taking a significant step forward next season. The consensus is that the big guy will draw a contract offer in the $35 million to $50 million range over the next three to four seasons, which is a major hit on the salary structure of a team that is already paying Kevin Love max money, owes Andrei Kirilenko $10 million next season and probably hopes to extend his deal, and eventually needs to negotiate what will probably be an expensive long-term pact with point guard Ricky Rubio.

But striking the balance between talent and money is what running an NBA team is all about. Kahn has long promised that he is in it to win it — building toward a championship is what he’s about. Coach Rick Adelman is near retirement on a Hall of Fame career and is probably going to bolt at the first significant sign of the team backing off from a win-now attitude. Taylor has given the go-ahead, at least initially, to give Adelman the tools he needs to be competitive.

Obviously, the horrendous spate of injuries has prevented this team from seeing how their best personnel function together out on the court. Nevertheless, for all the grief we just passively-aggressively gave Kahn for his many maneuvers, the fact is that he, even if it is in deferment to Adelman’s greater wisdom, has assembled a roster that appears could be a synergistic joy to watch. Rubio is a ball-movement maestro and staunch, dogged perimeter defender. Pekovic is a legitimate low-post threat and stolid defensive presence in the paint. Both fit perfectly with Love’s unparalleled ability to pound the boards and step outside for three-pointers. And Kirilenko and Budinger are tall, agile, multi-faceted wing players who move well without the ball and can both hit a jumper and finish at the rim.

Yes, it will be a lot more expensive to see them perform together next season than it would have been this season — and will be in March or April, presuming everyone can finally get healthy and in rhythm by then. And yes, if any trade offers come in that obviously improve the team beyond its current potential in the short term, the front office is obligated to act — but must then be held accountable for their actions.

But after a long, long stretch of performing worse than any of the other 29 NBA franchises, the Wolves are also obligated to reward long-suffering fans with a quality product. The raw materials for that product seem to exist on the current roster. Short-circuiting the chance to see these players gel, for the sake of more savings or senseless churning, will be a fool’s errand if it doesn’t produce an immediate winner. The warranty has expired on reasonable patience.

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Comments (12)

Ridnour interest

In light of the stories that teams are showing interest in Ridnour, do you see an opportunity for the Timberwolves to perhaps package him with Roy's contract to balance the roster with a wing who could stick around for a while? I'd love to see them keep Budinger and AK, but with Pek and eventually Rubio requiring new contracts, I'm not sure how they manage all of that?

I agree completely about the

I agree completely about the importance of retaining Pekovic. It's pretty weird how his impending restricted free agency mirrors Nicolas Batum's from last year. My guess is that they have similar "market value," and each guy is/was important enough to his own team that it essentially HAS to match an offer sheet, even if well above "market value." Portland, Batum's team, seems like the obvious candidate to throw a wad of cash at Pek not only in revenge for our courting and signing Nicolas, but more importantly because of how well he could slide into J.J. Hickson's spot and move LMA to his natural power forward position.

Assuming he isn't traded in the next couple of weeks, Pek will be signing a big contract. A max deal (roughly 4 years, $60 Million) wouldn't shock me. The Wolves have to match it. They can't lose a good starting center for nothing. If Rubio and Shved continue to improve and are up for big paydays in 2015 (when Kevin Love will likely be an unrestricted free agent as well) the team can do like Memphis did with Rudy Gay and trade away Pek or somebody else that is or will be too expensive to keep. But there should at least be two more years of the Rubio-Love-Pekovic trio. I don't see any reason -- barring something unforeseen like a trade proposal that we can't predict -- that Pek should be allowed by the Wolves to walk away this summer for nothing.

Great piece, that Mirotic dude we traded to Chicago gets rave reviews on places like Draft Express. If he can ever escape his European buyout (what fun that process is for NBA fans, we all know) he'll be a great salary-cap saver for a Bulls team likely to be paying tons to Rose, Noah and Gibson by 2016.

expensive either way

Mark--

Luke has one more year to go at $4m so that is $9m is assets coming back. If the Wolves do that, it will be very hard to keep Pek even if you let Bud walk (assuming he draws at least $2m a yr in offers).
I think to keep the top core (I'm including Bud and Pek in there), you need to let both Roy and Luke expire or get an expiring in return.
A better bet in terms of cap management would be dealing Barea, who is on the books a year longer than Luke at slightly more money.

Okay, folks, feel free to comment away--I encourage it--but I'm headed north to x-country ski for the weekend and won't be in regular communication for some of the time.

Good point

I'm presuming the interest in Ridnour is in part because his remaining contract is shorter than Barea. In looking at the teams that have reportedly expressed interest in him, I didn't see any players or combinations that would add up to $9M in expiring contracts, so standing pat probably is the smart play to keep Pek around and I do agree that Pek and Bud should be part of the core going forward.

I suppose one small silver lining with the train wreck this season has been from all these injuries is the team should have two first-round picks to try and find a wing player that can be both competent and healthy. I'll be curious to see if they try and also bring over Nemanja Bjelica for next season?

I still put Smith 1st

But Madsen's shenanigans left a stench that's lingered since. The sting from Smith was mostly felt after their playoff days ended: when adding in the 1st they traded away for Bobby Jackson and Dean Garrett that took away their '00 1st rounder, they lost a chance at 4 guys who may have been ready for prime time roles from '05-'07. Of course, it didn't help that they ended up with D's and C's in those post-WCF, pre-Garnett-deal drafts when they needed at least 1 more A.

Some things these years of losing have made me believe: having a good coach is an underrated asset, trading future draft picks is like getting in line for a guillotine that never drops when you want it to, having 1-2 vets who can play is a necessity no matter how good your team is, having a set style of play makes it much easier to draft since only the elite players can fit well into any scheme, never trade for a future 2nd rounder from a playoff team, and picks 31-45 in any draft are the most valuable of any besides the ones that guarantee a future superstar.

As for this deadline, they have to find a way to get Roy off their roster for the rest of the season without any future cap ramifications. I don't know enough about the cap aspects of the second year of his deal, but they can't have 2 non-playable guys occupying roster spots when everyone else is wearing down. Beyond that, they have some gluts that might be best addressed now. Why keep Stiemsma if they can get Johnson and a minimum-salaried vet to do everything he currently does? Why keep Cunningham if he has a year on his deal and might have his highest value right now? I'm for keeping Ridnour, but any trade has to get more than an expiring asset in return.

The thing about Pek (and FAs in general)

Is that we'll never really know what we have until they're gone. And it's sometimes difficult to identify their weaknesses (and to a lesser extent, their strengths) until they get replaced. With Pek, we know what we're getting - a top-10 offensive rebounder and post-scorer, a fundamentally solid on-and-off-ball defensive player who shows no signs of slowing down in the near-term.

But I think his game contrasts with our best opportunity to maximize the talents of Love, Rubio, and Adelman. As it stands, we have one of the most creative playmakers and elite lob passers in the game (Rubio's oop-tosses are right up there with CP3 and Andre Miller), but our two biggest dudes (Love and Pek) do NOT look for that pass. And I bet most everyone here can name the dunking big men on the playoff-bound teams that Paul and Miller throw oops to. (FYI, Griffin, Jordan, McGee, and Faried are top-6 in NBA-wide dunk totals this year as of this writing)

This was actually one of the main reasons I was excited about the AK signing - he cuts backdoor and dunks on those cuts. Same with Budinger - he's a high-level athlete who can have his talents maximized by playing alongside Rubio (and within Adelman's system).

So is $15mil/year worth it for a consistent post option at the expense of an outlet for Rubio's vision? Maybe, but there are more than a few other teams in this league who could pay that money and not be saddled with that same problem due to personnel. I think we should take a hard look at the types of bigs we can find for a fraction of the cost that could fit into Adelman's system and play well with our playmakers - bearing in mind that playing next to a elite rebounder and three-point shooter in Love really expands the type of player you can look for (i.e. you don't NEED to find a great rebounder if they bring other things to the table).

And none of this means I'm down on Pek, I just think the opportunity cost of keeping him is a bit steep, especially if that means losing AK.

You have a point

Either way, I think they have to sign/match and deal with that later if they don't trade him before the deadline. It's much better to have his salary slot available than to have less $ in cap space (which they would) to bring in someone else.

With that said, it's an example of understanding the threshold where a player makes too much to justify keeping him, which is mostly the case for role players. My second-favorite part of the Randy Foye trade was avoiding a tough decision on a former lottery pick who became a starter and an important offensive option on a bad team but didn't deserve more than $3 million a year. What makes it difficult is that there aren't cheap replacements for a center who does what he does. Most current good centers had 1-2 good seasons before they were making 8 figures per season, there are no good free agent replacements available (if Asik had been available this summer I could see going after him), and teams aren't giving up their young centers (think about how much the Wiz wanted for McGee before the '11 draft). The players who teams can afford to let walk are the ones who could be replaced by a cheaper player with an adjustment time of less than 50 games. That's not the case with Pek.

Yeah, I agree that we have to

Yeah, I agree that we have to spend the money, which is why I'd like for us to push our trade options hard now rather than backing into Pek's re-signing as the default option. But I think with our ownership situation, we're going to be hesitant to take on a "buyer's remorse" type of contract (one that has lots of future money tied up - maybe an Al Horford or, to a lesser extent, Amir Johnson) in exchange, as it devalues the franchise on paper.

And I think there are teams out there that have no choice but to give up their young centers, either out of financial considerations or personnel ones. If the Blazers sign Pek, for example, who is paying JJ Hickson next year? And there are always guys that just need a change of scenery and change of teammates to regain their motivation (as one guy who I think is a bum but turned it around, look at Andray Blatche this year for Brooklyn). The guy I wanted in the Wes Johnson draft was Greg Monroe, who would be a good Adelman fit, but Drummond is probably a superior center, so would the Pistons move Monroe for JJ/Luke + a pick when they figure out that Brandon Knight is actually career backup? Larry Sanders, Ed Davis, Tiago Splitter - I think there are plenty of attainable young prospects who can reach their ceilings by playing with Rubio, and Pek is not on that short list.

I think there are options out there if we know how to look for them - find big guys who fit in Adelman's system (can pass), guys who work with Rubio (look for oops), and anything else (rim protector, rebounder, screener) is a bonus. (On a side note, if anyone knows a service not named Synergy that would allow me to compile/sort/formulate stats such as "pick-and-roll screener" ppp and "alley-oop recipient" and scoring percentages on other types of plays, I'd be grateful. I've mucked with bbr, hoopdata, and 82games but can't find exactly what I want)

One correction- the Jonny

One correction- the Jonny Flynn pick was not from Boston. We did get two picks from boston, but one of those was a pick that we owed them from the Ricky Davis deal that could not have been conveyed until two years after the Clipper pick. This pick is often cited as the pick we used on Flynn, but Boston never would have had the rights to that pick.

Pekovic replacement?

Tiago Splitter? A different player, but very efficient. He's a RFA too and the Spurs have a lot if cap room, but they're somewhat cautious and might balk at a big deal (but less than Pek).

Balance

What the Wolves need is a balanced roster with less money committed to backup PGs. I like Luke, but we are never going to truly contend with him playing the bulk of our SG minutes. There's lots of interest in Luke apparently and I'd love to leverage him into a legit sized wing. The Knicks supposedly have interest and if they'd be willing to give up Shumpert, I'm wondering if PHX would put Dudley on the table. Luke to NY; Shumpert, Thomas, White, and a lotto protected pick from the Wolves to PHX; and Dudley to MN works financially. Dudley, Shved, AK, and Budinger is a great wing combo.

Getting crazy...I'd take Gortat too adding DWill and Stiemsma. Gortat would be insurance in case Pek gets maxed and at worst is a GREAT backup and trade chip as an expiring next year. If you can get Bud and Pek for under $15-16 million next year we'd be under the tax and have:

Rubio, Shved, Barea
Dudley, Shved, Budinger, Lee
AK, Budinger, Gelabale?
Love, DC, AK
Pek, Gortat, C. Johnson

This topic continues to interest me

1. They have to determine which types of players are more difficult to replace. All-Stars are obvious on this list, as are good/great point guards. Systematically, a SG who can handle the ball is probably also a must. Supply and demand also matters; it's obvious that competent centers get overpaid, but most good teams value them over non-superstars at any other position.

2. The draft has been a running joke for this franchise, but high expectations are necessary from here on out. Whatever has happened can't continue to happen; with the best drafting teams finding rotation help within the top 45 picks, they have to get serviceable players every year, even if they're not ready right away. They have enough deserving candidates for high salaries already on their roster that some positions will have to be revolving doors where a guy does well here because of the system, leaves at the end of his rookie deal for more $ elsewhere, and is replaced by another young player.

3. Within the draft, it seems obvious that, in the absence of a sure-fire superstar, international players or guys who fall down the draft board are the way to go in the first round, undervalued college guys are the way to go in the second round, and stockpiling as many picks in the 31-45 range is a helpful strategy. They need to keep their picks unless a good deal arises or it's out of the top 45.