The Minnesota Timberwolves can no longer blame bad luck in the NBA draft lottery as a factor in their miserable performances moving forward.
On Tuesday night, the Wolves hit upon their 25 percent odds of securing the right to make the first pick in next month’s draft. Having acquired the top overall picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts (Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, respectively) in last summer’s Kevin Love trade, they will be the only franchise in NBA history ever to boast three consecutive number-one draft choices on their roster.
This by itself guarantees nothing, of course. That was made evident in the opening game of the Western Conference Finals, which ensued right after the lottery. It is by now an infamous part of Wolves lore that the team passed on Golden State guard and reigning MVP Stephen Curry (twice!) in the 2009 draft, taking Ricky Rubio with the fifth pick and Jonny Flynn with the sixth before the Warriors gleefully snapped up Curry.
But it is more instructive to look beyond Curry on the Golden State roster to appreciate how shrewd drafting fostered the 67-win team that now leads Houston in the conference finals and is the favorite to become NBA champions this season. You can go back to 2005, when the Warriors plucked Monte Ellis in the second round with the 40th overall pick. Seven years later, Ellis had become such a dynamic scorer that Golden State offered him as the main bauble in a five-player deal that enabled them to acquire Andrew Bogut, the top pick in 2005 and a current anchor of their low post defense.
Or go to the 2011 draft, when the Warriors, choosing eleventh, grabbed the shooting guard, Klay Thompson, who made Ellis expendable. The Timberwolves picked second in that draft and chose forward Derrick Williams, who was traded away for peanuts (specifically, Luc Mbah a Moute, who lasted 55 games in Minnesota) two years later.
Then slide up a year to the 2012 draft. The Warriors took their current starting small forward, Harrison Barnes, with the seventh pick. They acquired their current backup center, Festus Ezeli, with the 30th pick. And they grabbed their current power forward, Draymond Green — who just finished second in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting — with the 35th pick in the second round.
The Wolves had no first round pick in the 2012 draft. They were forced to give up the tenth overall selection as payment for the dreadful deal then-Wolves GM Kevin McHale made way back in 2005, when he sent Sam Cassell and the pick to the Clippers in exchange for the lamentable Marko Jaric, who is now best known for once marrying model Adriana Lima. The Wolves also punted the fourteenth pick, acquired in the Al Jefferson trade, to Houston in exchange for Chase Budinger. They drafted Robbie Hummel with the 58th pick in the second round.
Flip your id
Current Timberwolves head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders is always quick to point out that he was not involved in the rueful shenanigans described above. This is absolutely true. Speaking of luck, Saunders has had the good fortune of being able to contrast his current path toward roster respectability to the feces-stained footsteps of former Wolves POBO David Kahn, an overwhelmed executive who could pontificate on his own idiocy in a most annoying manner.
It is remarkable to consider that it was just two years ago this month that Saunders returned to the Wolves as Kahn’s replacement. Since that time he has deftly seized pretty much utter control of the operation of the franchise, from the personnel on the roster to the playbook they utilize on the court.
As the lead voice on the procurement and judgment of talent, Saunders has had an ungainly but mostly positive two-year run. He began his current tenure bestowing a bevy of fat, now questionable, contracts, most notably on center Nikola Pekovic (five years, $60 million) and swingmen Kevin Martin (four years, $28 million) and Budinger (three years, $15 million). But this was mostly done to appease his star forward, Kevin Love, and his aging coach, Rick Adelman, who were both ready to bolt unless the team stopped their legendary losing.
Alas, the losing continued, Love and Adelman wanted out, and the lousy luck of the Timberwolves suddenly began to Flip.
After all the players he coveted in the 2013 draft were taken, Saunders made lemonade by trading ninth pick Trey Burke for the right to draft Shabazz Muhammad at fourteen and Gorgui Dieng at 21. Two years later, both stand as relatively high-value acquisitions that can provide depth to the rotation moving forward.
But the main reason Wolves owner Glen Taylor is now granting Saunders his every wish stems from the events of last summer. Before the 2014 draft, conventional wisdom clamored for Saunders to trade Love — who had made it plain he would exercise his option to leave the team at the end of the 2014-15 season — so he could leverage the upcoming fluidity of the lottery and subsidiary jockeying for position as a means to bolster his talent base.
Saunders not only resisted these entreaties, he steadfastly maintained he wouldn’t trade Love unless it could improve his team. Given that Love was going to leave anyway after what would have been an uncomfortable final season on the Minnesota tundra, Flip’s intransigence felt like a poker player calling the bet with the mortgage in order to retain the dubious chance of filling an inside straight.
And he hit the jackpot. Lebron James went home to Cleveland and was impatient in his quest to recreate the three-star dynamic that had produced four straight NBA Finals appearances in Miami. The King wanted Love. The Cavs had won the lottery for the second straight year. Flip held out for both Bennett and Wiggins. When Cleveland relented, Flip raked in his chosen bounty, including the one blue chip that mattered; future Rookie of the Year and current franchise cornerstone Andrew Wiggins.
Sure, in retrospect, things got a little frayed around the edges. The Wolves swapped a first-round pick to Philadelphia (along with afterthoughts Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved) for forward Thad Young. Now, it looks like the careless extravagance of a giddy winner — Saunders thinking he could retool the roster and remain a viable playoff competitor at the same time.
But when injuries felled Ricky Rubio, Pekovic and Martin at the same time during the first month of the season, Saunders embarked on another improbable, borderline-reckless gamble. He tanked the season.
Looking back on the putrid 2014-15 campaign, with its 16 wins in 82 games, the tanking seems as obvious as the swelling muscles of baseball players during the steroid era — in blatantly plain sight even as you chose not to notice it. Put simply, Saunders gave his two teenagers, Wiggins and Zach LaVine, playing time in copious quantities that were beyond all reason, thus speeding their development, and threw everyone else overboard.
LaVine was a ridiculously inept point guard. Saunders traded two solid veterans who were superior at the position — Mo Williams and Corey Brewer (the latter can’t dribble and still ran the offense better) — for pennies on the dollar. He dealt Young for Kevin Garnett, who boosted attendance in a blizzard of positive publicity then went into seclusion, not bothering to camouflage the shameful bait-and-switch.
Aside from Wiggins and LaVine, as soon as a player proved his worth — and increased the Wolves chances of winning games and sacrificing lottery balls — he was banished from the rotation. Reports on the severity of injuries to Rubio and Pekovic were murky and fungible. Muhammad practiced before games for weeks after being sidelined for the season with a thumb injury. Dieng got hit in the face by teammate Adreian Payne — usually the kind of mishap that costs a game or two as a precautionary measure — and was gone for the final nine games of the season.
In the final month, the Wolves as often as not seemed to suit up the minimum eight players. And what a remnant it was: At one point, LaVine, taken in the previous summer’s draft, held seniority among members of the starting lineup.
And for the second time in less than a year, Saunders improbably hit the jackpot. By out-tanking the New York Knicks (final record, 17-65) and the Philadelphia 76ers (18-64), the Wolves (16-66) secured the most lottery balls. It seemed like an enormous sacrifice, given that Minnesota still had a better chance (about 35 percent) of landing with the fourth overall pick than the top pick. But when the result were in, had the Wolves been slotted as the second worst team, they would have received the fate of the Knicks, and fallen to fourth, or been stuck in third if they had been in the Sixers lottery slot.
Now, with Wiggins already in hand, Flip Saunders has the pick of the litter in a very good draft class.
A center of attention, and a crucial marksman?
By all accounts, the Wolves are almost certain to choose either Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky or Jahlil Okafor of Duke to be their franchise cornerstone in the paint. At 6-11, Towns is an inch taller and widely regarded as the superior defender and rim protector. But Okafor is hardly a consolation prize, praised as one of the most polished low-post scorers to come out of college in the last decade. (For the record, I know next-to-nothing about the college game, and am simply passing on received wisdom here.)
After the Wolves won the lottery on Tuesday, Saunders met briefly with the media and said that it was nearly certain the Wolves wouldn’t trade the pick, but didn’t commit as fully to the notion that one of these two heralded big men would be the choice. Why should he? Being stubbornly vague about his commitments has worked out pretty well thus far.
That said, it would be a shock if either Towns or Okafor wasn’t strolling onstage with a Timberwolves cap on come draft night. Pekovic has never played even 2,000 minutes in a season due to chronic injuries on the weight-bearing portions of his 295-pound frame. He has recently undergone surgery in an effort to salvage his career, but it would be foolish to bank on a successful outcome. And Dieng has proven to be a game but often overmatched defender at the center position.
Meanwhile, with the possible exception of Tim Duncan, there may be no better mentor for a young big man than Kevin Garnett among active players in the NBA. Garnett has been working out and is expected to sign a deal with the Wolves this summer.
KG has made no secret of his desire to be part of a group that takes ownership of the Wolves from the 74-year old Taylor sometime in the future. Honing the skills of Towns or Okafor would be shrewd sweat equity to enhance the value of that investment.
Towns or Okafor will thus be the marquee name on the ledger next month. But there is a reason I front-loaded this column with a lengthy examination of how Golden State has risen to prominence.
Yes, Towns (and to a lesser extent Okafor) would be a marvelous addition to a team that allowed the highest field goal percentage (57.9) on opponents’ shots at the rim last season. But the Wolves also desperately need help with their long-range shooting. They ranked last in three-point attempts and 25th among 30 teams in three-point accuracy in 2014-15.
Sure, some of this was Saunders’ antiquated approach to offense. But Saunders the POBO and Saunders the part-owner are likely to override the reluctance of Saunders the coach to change his ways.
The fact is that the four teams good enough to remain in the playoffs rank first, second, fourth and seventh in three point attempts, proving the value of spreading the floor with long-range offense. Those teams also rank first, second, sixth and 14th in three-point accuracy, meaning that being able to deliver on the threat of the long ball is especially valuable.
In his season-ending meeting, Saunders himself brought up the need to become better from long range, and, in answer to my question, said that one of the later draft picks could be a good way to remedy that need. The Wolves currently own the first pick in the second round (31st overall), as well as the 36th overall pick, acquired in the Corey Brewer trade.
Steven Curry is the reigning MVP, and had a wonderful game in Tuesday night’s win over Houston. But the most important player on the floor was Draymond
Green, the 35th pick in 2012, who keyed the surge with his defense and quickness after Golden State went to a smaller lineup.
Flip Saunders and the Wolves have been uncommonly bold and uncommonly lucky in the past twelve months. At this propitious moment, it is time for this franchise to be uncommonly smart with all of the resources at its disposal.