The Timberwolves bring the Payne

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Adreian Payne playing for Atlanta during a Jan. 13 game versus the Philadelphia 76ers.

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 Atlanta with their most talented roster of the season thus far, given the improvement of Bazzy, Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng and the relative health of Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin. There was a stretch that lapped over from the first to the second quarter that might have been the best the Wolves have performed this season. It was triggered by the tripartite hustle and flow of swingmen Wiggins, Muhammad and Thad Young, who crashed the glass at both ends of the floor and flew up and down the floor with youngblood swagger that finally abated when coach Flip Saunders rested Wiggins and Young for the first time more than three minutes into the second period.

The Hawks came out in the second half and physically dominated Minnesota, with the relentless energy of DeMarre Carroll eventually taking its toll on Wiggins. From the moment Muhammad returned, it has become apparent that he and Wiggins are a better wing platter than Wiggins and Martin, for two reasons. First, Bazzy is relentless enough in the paint to inevitably draw the more rugged wing defender, freeing the less physical Wiggins up for less contact on offense, a welcome respite, given that he is the team’s wing stopper at the other end of the court.

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 Golden State game Wednesday, Saunders pointedly proclaimed that “great players don’t ask other players to defer; they step up and find a way to assert themselves.”

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 Oklahoma City. At the very least, his talent for getting open will provide more opportunities for poor Zach LaVine to generate assists.

The Golden State defense is long and sinewy enough to rough up all the wings. After a sterling first game back versus Atlanta, Muhammad encountered the likes of Golden State’s Andre Iguodala and the switch-happy collection of swingmen that range from shooting guards to power forwards. Ditto Wiggins, who was unable to get off against Harrison Barnes and was taken to the hoop at the other end by Klay Thompson, in distressingly routine fashion. Martin’s quick trigger off timely feeds from Rubio was a better alternative, at least in the first quarter.

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 Atlanta and Golden State, the multi-positioned Saunders sidled over from head coach to President of Basketball Operations and pulled off a pair of trades on Tuesday.

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 Charlotte trade. Williams was on a one-year contract and unlikely to be retained. He was thus the most predictable Timberwolf to be dealt before the February 19 deadline, and was not expected to garner much in return.

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 Minnesota on Wednesday.) In any case, with Martin again healthy and Wiggins better suited to the shooting guard position, and with Chase Budinger not going anywhere with that $5 million contract option he will certainly exercise for next season, the Wolves are jammed at that position.

Shabazz Muhammad
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
With the return of swingman Shabazz Muhammad from an oblique injury that sidelined him for 16 games, the Wolves squared up against Atlanta with their most talented roster of the season thus far.

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 Houston in December. Yes, the Wolves also received Sacramento’s second-round pick this coming summer in the swap, but in retrospect, Brewer was undersold.

The net effect is that the Wolves have traded Brewer, Williams, Daniels and Ronny Turiaf for three second-round picks (Sacramento’s in 2015, Houston’s in 2016 and Miami’s in 2019) and Gary Neal, who may or may not hang around for the final two months of this season.

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 Atlanta for Payne is problematical for a different reason, most prominently because it perpetuates roster churn and confusion.

Consider that the Wolves acquired two power forwards last summer in the three-team Kevin Love trade. Thad Young came from Philadelphia in exchange for Miami’s first-round pick in 2015, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Alexey Shved. Bennett was included along with Andrew Wiggins (and the first-round pick Minnesota gave to Philadelphia) in exchange for Love. Now Payne is added to the mix in exchange for either a future first round pick or two second-rounders.

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 Philadelphia. But that moribund stretch from late November to mid-January tarnished his reputation.

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 Cleveland and has followed that up with an underwhelming performance in Minnesota this year. Yes, there have been flashes of talent, but Bennett’s exalted draft status garnered him a hefty salary, a contract that will pay him $5.8 million next season before the team has the option of cutting him loose or forking over $7.3 million in 2016-17.

Now Payne is added to the mix. As a four-year collegian at Michigan State, he is two years older than Bennett—he turns 24 next Wednesday. He has small lung capacity that saps his endurance. One of his virtues is that he is a “stretch power forward,” meaning he can shoot the three-pointer. But Saunders has been notoriously inhospitable to the three-point shot in his system throughout his career.

Compare this trio to Atlanta’s situation at the power forward slot. Their starter is Paul Millsap, a current All Star who has been paid roughly the same amount over the past two seasons that Young will earn in Minnesota this season and next (provided he stays with the Wolves). Backing up Millsap is veteran Elton Brand, being paid $2 million on a one-year contract. The Hawks also have a pair of “stretch fours” in Mike Scott and Mike Muscala. Scott is signed for the next two seasons at $3.3 million per year, while Muscala is under contract for the same amount of time at $1 million per year. Both were taken in the second round.

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, Minnesota will have a depth chart involving some order of Young, Bennett and Payne at a cost of $17.4 million per year.

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 Golden State in order to obtain Klay Thompson has proven prescient in light of Thompson’s emergence as an All Star this season.

Saunders also gauged the Love market well by holding on to his blue chip during the draft and waiting until Cleveland came calling for a partner to Lebron James. Saunders compounded his wisdom by holding out first and foremost for Wiggins.

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 Atlanta giving up an inexpensive player like Payne while keeping Scott and Muscala may simply be that the other two couldn’t fetch the same compensation that Payne brought.

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.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 02/12/2015 - 12:22 pm.

    Atlanta and Golden State

    Despite the loss, last night’s game against Golden State was one of the most fun games I’ve watched all season. I did not think this team would look *this* much better with Rubio (and Martin and Pek). Either that, or the last two months of ineptitude have really lowered the bar for what I consider entertaining.

    But I generally agree that the trades we’ve made thus far are fairly pedestrian. We didn’t exactly get good value on either Brewer or Williams, and giving up a first-rounder for a guy who can’t get off of the (deep) Atlanta bench is questionable. But I have no problem with Flip admitting that the PF position is up for grabs. Bennett has not shown that he has any useful skill beyond dunking, and while Young is a solid starter (and IMO catches too much flak from Britt for not carrying the team when three starters were out), he could be out the door next year. Bringing in a new player like Payne can always change the chemistry a bit, especially if he can provide a more physical presence. I don’t know much of Payne’s game, but ever since Ricky arrived I’ve been hoping to find a big man who looks for lobs.

    Also, I actually like what Flip said about Wiggins needing to find a way to get the basketball. It’s not some terrible tragedy that Martin is taking shots, considering he’s been shooting the ball well recently. For Wiggins, nights like last night are going to start becoming the norm if he doesn’t assert himself. Yes, maybe he’s out of energy, but during that end of game run, he was by far the least threatening Timberwolf on the floor. He and Rubio are simply not on the same page right now – they’ll get there but need time to create that chemistry. I want to see aggression from Wiggins (best expressed in the form of FTAs, which he had zero last night), and am willing to accept the mistakes that come with that.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/12/2015 - 12:58 pm.

    Pointless

    So now the Wolves are down to one (somewhat fragile) point guard.
    LaVine appears to be the designated backup, but it’s not his natural position. At best, it will delay his development as a two guard; at worst ruin him.
    So unless Flip is going to pull a point guard out of a hat, we’re going to have a directionless team for the rest of the year.

  3. Submitted by Mike Reynolds on 02/12/2015 - 01:07 pm.

    Thanks Britt. While I am not losing sleep over this, in summary my views follow your own, and additionally:

    1. First of all, does this team need another prospect right now to begin with? 9 first and second year players is a lot for an iffy coaching staff to handle and some don’t even have a clear path to playing time as it is. Glenn Robinson, for example, can’t even get on the floor. Why add another rookie to begin with? I’d rather this staff concentrate on the ones who matter and a guy like Jeff Adrien fill those gaps. My belief is that there is a point where you CAN have too many prospects, and why give up a first when there is no real path to playing time for Payne this season? And, when a big man is likely coming their way in this year’s draft?

    2. More of the same. A player from someone close to the vest (Izzo) and another first out the door, leaving the Wolves 2 in debt when trade assets and flexibility will decrease as the payroll increases.

    3. As you said, in 5 years if the Wolves are a playoff team, expectations will rise quickly with the win total, and fans will probably be mighty disappointed to see the Wolves enter a pivotal summer with no real way to improve or fill a need in 4 years. We saw it happen many times during KG’s prime. It just isn’t great planning.

    4. The dozen times the Wolves have pulled a trade like this over the last 15-20 years it hasn’t worked out once. I don’t expect this to be any different, even if I will be strongly rooting for Payne to be successful and prove curmudgeons like me wrong.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 02/12/2015 - 01:19 pm.

    I don’t have a strong opinion on this

    I hate seeing them give up first round picks because of how many they gave up or had taken away last decade. As for the player’s value, Brewer and Williams had little. Dallas gave Brewer away for free to Denver in 2011; last summer, the Clippers gave the Bucks a first rounder to take Jared Dudley. No one’s giving up first-rounders for backup wings unless that player is young or has a clear, needed skill. Williams’ deal was more about fit in relation to value; he’s the type of player who teams will wait on for a buyout instead of trading a pick. They were lucky that the Walker and Augustin injuries created a market. The Daniels part only makes sense if the Wolves were required to take him in the Brewer trade; I get why they wouldn’t want to use a roster spot on him next season, but it’s less value on that deal if they wanted him and now don’t. Also, Miami’s 2019 2nd round pick could come in the post-Wade/Bosh era and be similar to the 2008 pick they sent to Boston and ended up with the Wolves as the first pick in that round.

    One overused argument when it comes to the Wolves’ moves is “________” wouldn’t make this move. That’s almost always false. Last June, the Hawks traded their 2013 1st-round pick (Lucas Nogueira) and Lou Williams (who has 1 year left on his contract) for John Salmons just so they could free up cap space a year early. That’s basically the Wes Johnson trade if the Wolves had traded an actual good player instead; coming off a sub-.500 season with no true stars, that should’ve been viewed as a huge risk, bigger than the one the Wolves are taking with Payne.

    With that in mind, this seems like a deal that would’ve been available this summer. Payne was playing a lot in the D-League and doing things to help his game; now, he hurts any trade leverage they had with Bennett. They could justify keeping Young by giving him more SF minutes, but it doesn’t help that situation, either; they also have 2 guys who should be given some consideration as small-ball PFs in Muhammad and Hummel. It’s also possible the best player available next June is a PF: Towns, Porzingis, and Turner all might be the Wolves’ best option wherever they end up picking. I don’t understand why they moved now instead of using that open roster spot to evaluate D-League options for the rest of the year and in summer league. The value of the trade is fine; Payne seems to have a desirable skillset for a PF, and he played 28 mpg last season in college. They should really have an internal unwritten rule of the franchise, though; only 1 owed 1st round pick at any time, until the team reaches the conference finals again.

  5. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 02/12/2015 - 02:57 pm.

    Roster balance

    To emphasize your point from above, the Wolves — if the plan goes as scheduled — have five players in their first or second seasons who are likely envisioned as part of the long-term plan (Wiggins, Muhammad, Lavine, Dieng and the winner of Payne vs. Bennett), plus what we expect to be an impact player coming via the 2015 draft. With Rubio inked to a long-term deal, trying to retain all of those players (again, if they develop as anticipated) is going to be impossible and you’ve removed one of your key mechanisms to cheaply refresh your roster.

    If Payne emerges as your starter or as the 3rd big, you’re probably willing to make that tradeoff and Shabazz or Lavine are probably the ones to walk the plank.But if both Payne and Bennett wash out while the others young guys develop, you’re back in a position like the original McFlip teams were in, forced to overpay in the second-tier FA market to bring in supplemental talent.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/12/2015 - 04:17 pm.

    Repercussion

    I think one effect of the acquisition of Payne is that Gorgi is likely to spend less time at PF, since Payne has real PF size.
    I think that Gorgi needs to learn how to play one position well.
    Even when he’s healthy, Pek is better off with limited minutes.

  7. Submitted by Tom Om on 02/13/2015 - 07:47 pm.

    Bjelica Draft Rights = future First Round Pick = Payne

    In his last interview with Britt, Saunders mentioned that Bjelica (who currently plays very well in Europe) wants to play in the NBA. So maybe Saunders’ plan is to trade the draft rights of Bjelica for a first round draft pick which would cover the Wolves’ obligation to Atlanta.

    And Porzingis (who Greg mentioned) would be a great draft pick.
    If he adds some muscle he can be as good as Davis but with a better ball handling.

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