In the final week before the break surrounding the All Star game, the Minnesota Timberwolves played the two best teams in the NBA and executed two minor trades. Both the on-court performance and the personnel moves generated sparks of hope and electricity while imparting a sense of reality: that this team is still very much an uncertain work in progress, with an arduous path toward becoming a legitimate contender for something other than lottery balls in the NBA draft.
Hawks and Warriors, oh my
The Wolves competed hard and effectively in the first half on Monday night against the Atlanta Hawks and for sporadic stints, but especially in the fourth quarter, on Wednesday night versus the Golden State Warriors. The three veterans returning from injury all have played with more panache and endurance than could reasonably have been expected, raising the skill set and emotional intensity.
With the return of swingman Shabazz Muhammad from an oblique injury that sidelined him for 16 games, the Wolves squared up against
The Hawks came out in the second half and physically dominated
Second, Martin hunts for points so relentlessly (and knows how to get open for Rubio’s passes) that Wiggins is often the odd man out when it comes to offensive usage among the five starters. Asked about this after the
That’s fine, but you’re asking a teenager to guard the opponent’s best perimeter scorer at one end and then work as hard as Martin (who is in constant motion after usually conserving his energy on “defense”) to get open while usually being guarded by the more rugged opponent. Not surprisingly, Wiggins is gassed and blanketed. Let Bazzy handle some of the grind—it’s his métier and his passion—and consign Martin to bundling his points on the second unit as he did in
But the Wolves almost stole a win against the Warriors because Golden State was uncharacteristically cold from long range — their All Star backcourt of Thompson and MVP candidate Stephen Curry were a combined 5-for-17 from three-point territory — and because Rubio is such a relentlessly infectious competitor. As happened against Memphis last week, he faced a relatively large crunch-time deficit against a vastly superior team and began gnawing away like a starved mouse on a block of cheese. The best play was a steal Rubio executed by whipping the ball behind his back to Young while flying out of bounds in the fourth quarter. But the entire 16-2 run — over a five-and-a-half minute stretch of the final stanza to eventually tie the game at 87—could be subtitled Ricky’s Charge of the Light Brigade.
The deciding play was a muffed step-through bank shot in the paint by Pekovic with nine seconds to play and the Wolves down a point. Unfortunately, Pek has a history of crunch-time failures, going 2-for-14 late in games where the outcome is in the balance. Better to have gone with Martin, who is on the roster solely to get buckets, or Rubio, who has gone from crunch-time dud to stud thanks to working on his shot with coach Mike Penberthy.
No mo’ Mo, and bringing the Payne
In-between the losses to
First, Saunders sent backup point guard Mo Williams and little-used three-point specialist Troy Daniels to Charlotte for long-range shooter Gary Neal and a 2019 second-round draft pick that originally belonged to Miami (and will be contingent on the Heat’s record in 2018-19).
Just hours later, Saunders acquired rookie power forward Adreian Payne from Atlanta in exchange for a first-round pick that will not be exercised if the Wolves are still in the draft lottery from 2017-2020, after which the Wolves will owe the Hawks their second-round picks in 2020 and 2021.
Unless Payne turns out to be a valuable part of the Wolves regular rotation going forward, these do not strike me as prudent maneuvers, especially for a franchise that still doesn’t have a good fix on how their young roster will develop and gel over the next two-plus seasons.
Let’s begin with the
Well, that part is accurate. Neal had some notable moments during his time in San Antonio, and is a career 38.1 percent shooter from three-point range, but is likewise on an expiring contract and is widely rumored not to be a part of the Wolves plans moving forward. (Saunders denied this during the announcement of the two trades, but unlike Payne, Neal didn’t come to
Besides, if the Wolves wanted a shooting guard who could rain in three-pointers, they already had Daniels on their roster.
Now is the time to point out that Daniels was the living body acquired in the Corey Brewer trade to
The net effect is that the Wolves have traded Brewer, Williams, Daniels and Ronny Turiaf for three second-round picks (
Now that looks worse on paper than the circumstances warrant, but it certainly isn’t a coup. Brewer and Williams were expiring contracts and the Wolves are rebuilding, but why acquire Troy Daniels if you weren’t going to use him? The pedigree of both Brewer and Williams, but especially Brewer, who left with two-thirds of the season remaining, would seem to warrant a better return.
The trade with
Consider that the Wolves acquired two power forwards last summer in the three-team Kevin Love trade. Thad Young came from
What’s the plan here? Does anyone have even a vague notion of what this team’s power forward rotation will look like in two years?
Young is the most established and most valuable of the three. After seven solid seasons in Philly, he was expected to come in and provide veteran leadership, plus a blend of glue and grease to a lineup that featured Rubio and Wiggins on the youth spectrum and Martin and Pekovic as the holdover vets.
When injuries took away Rubio, Martin and Pekovic for two months, beginning around the same time as the death of his mother, Young went into the tank. His mind wandered and his body loafed. On a young roster that blatantly needed stability, Young was another lodestone in the team’s plunge to ineptitude.
Young gradually started emerging from his extended funk a couple of weeks before the veterans started returning. The healthy roster has been an elixir for his play, which now greatly resembles the gritty, unsung contributor who pulled yeoman duty in
Further complicating the situation, Young has an option in his contract that allows him to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season if he chooses. And his contract expires after the next season. How long does he want to be a part of the Wolves? How long does management want to keep him?
Then there is Bennett, the top overall pick in the 2013 draft who experienced a wretched rookie season in
Now Payne is added to the mix. As a four-year collegian at
Compare this trio to
Assuming Millsap gets a huge raise next season, say $12-$13 million per season, Atlanta will still have a depth chart of Millsap, Scott and Muscala (with the ability to go large by bringing in a backup center and sliding Al Horford to power forward) at a cost of $16.3-$17.3 million per year. Assuming Young stays with the Wolves,
For the same amount of money, Atlanta has a cornerstone All Star and two inexpensive role players groomed to the system, while the Wolves sport a trio of maybes—and the onus of giving Atlanta either a first-rounder or two seconds in exchange for Payne.
Those in favor of the Payne trade emphasize that the Wolves don’t have to give up a first-rounder if they are still in the lottery. Or put another way, they only lose their top pick if they are a playoff team. That sounds like nirvana to a fan base in the midst of an 11-year playoff drought.
But fans with long memories may remember how frustrating it can be to be perennially stuck in the middle, as the Wolves were fifteen years ago, in the midst of seven straight first-round playoff exits. Yeah, that vision looks great from this lowly perch in the team’s history. But it gets old in a hurry.
A team with Wiggins, Rubio, Muhammad and a Pekovic healthy enough for 25-30 minutes per game should be ready to compete for the playoffs, even in the rugged West, in two or three seasons. And at that point they will have a much better idea of what they need to take that inevitable next step—without that pick in the middle of the first round to help them.
At this point, very little of the Wolves future involves reliable, bankable assumptions. Will Bennett or Zach LaVine pan out? Is Young going to stick around? Can Gorgui Dieng play power forward against larger front courts? Is Rubio injury-prone? Can Pek ever stay healthy for more than a half-season? What is the ceiling on Wiggins’ stardom?
Answers to each and every one of these questions will have a significant impact on how the Wolves will progress moving forward. Acquiring Payne robs the team of some of its flexibility to adjust on the fly, the way smart NBA use those non-lottery first-rounder to inexpensively supplement the flaws and cement their virtues.
The bright side
The positive scenario here is obviously that Payne is worth this risk. First, this presupposes that his presence is necessary.
It is not far-fetched to imagine that Young wants to go play for a better team (more likely two years from now, when the salary caps will rise, instead of next season) and that Bennett will wash out. It has been revealing how much Saunders has altered his rotation to ensure minutes for LaVine, while not extending the same effort on getting burn for Bennett.
Second, both Young and Bennett are undersized at 6-8. Payne is 6-10 and reputed to be a much better rim protector than the other two, a helpful complement for any power forward playing beside Pek.
Third, Saunders has put together a pretty decent track record for evaluating talent during his thus far brief second tenure with the Wolves. His drafting of Muhammad and Dieng seems increasingly shrewd. His stubborn desire to trade Love to
Saunders also gauged the Love market well by holding on to his blue chip during the draft and waiting until
Saunders likes Payne enough that he almost took him over LaVine with the 13th pick in the draft last summer. He claims that Payne is a good pick-and-roll defender (of course he made the same claim about Bennett last summer). Some of Payne’s endurance issues have reportedly been assuaged through medication. And the red flag of
In essence, the two Tuesday trades come down to Payne or bust. If Payne is not a solid rotation player, if he languishes as another middle-of-the-bench question mark, than the Wolves will have paid too much, further jumbled their rebuilding, and hung a hindrance on their future flexibility.