The Timberwolves just got lucky. Now it’s time for them to get smart.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
By all accounts, the Wolves are almost certain to choose either Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky, above, or Jahlil Okafor of Duke to be their franchise cornerstone in the paint.

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. 

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 05/20/2015 - 03:03 pm.

    Was mainly hoping not to get 4

    At that point, it seems to get dicey because they’d likely be choosing from a top-tier player at a position they just spent $55 million on and a 2nd-tier player who some have compared to Andrea Bargnani (granted as a worst-case scenario). Pairing Russell with Rubio would’ve diversified the offense nicely if everyone could get over the thoughts that Russell needs to play PG or that LaVine will eventually be the starting SG. With that said, I understand and agree with the notion that they go big; it just leads to a glut in the frontcourt, even if KG and/or Pek miss 20+ games.

    I like the fit of Towns and prefer him. With that said, it seems over the top for some to think Okafor is a vastly inferior alternative. Flip and his guys will do their homework and make an informed decision, and that player’s success will have as much to do with how they’re developed as it does with who they are right now. It’s not like this is Wes Johnson vs. Demarcus Cousins.

    I’m worried about what they do with 31 and 36. If they package them to move up into the 20s, great. If not, it’s a waste of assets to sell a 2nd rounder that high or attach it to get rid of Chase Budinger, who they can just buy out. Even if they don’t want 3 rookies to go with their 3 2nd-year players and 2-7 3rd-year players (depending on who they keep), don’t waste the asset just for cash. Mostly, it’s annoying that rosters aren’t bigger so that they could still have 15 ready and be able to have 3 more in the D-League if they chose. So many teams end up cutting 2nd rounders simply due to roster space and existing guaranteed contracts.

    Britt, I’m curious to what degree you’ve explored some of the draft resources out there now. As someone who also doesn’t watch much college hoops, the resources out there give me better understanding of the underlying assumptions that drive these rankings and mock drafts.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/20/2015 - 03:34 pm.

    Hope and change

    IMO – I think we draft the big “O.” He will put pressure on the defense by forcing the opponent into a double team.

    The problem – as you mentioned – the TWolves have few shooters who will benefit from this situation.

    Of course – we could always package RR in a trade for another point guard who can shoot and who the opponent has to guard.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/20/2015 - 04:04 pm.

    Younger healthier

    Okafor is the most likely pick.
    The problem is; will we be getting anything more than a younger healthier Pek?
    It still leaves the rim undefended unless Dieng starts at PF and drops down on penetrations.
    It would be nice to get a real center — someone over 7ft and 260lbs (and reasonable mobile) — but none of the current high picks fit those specs.
    So this draft will not dramatically change the nature of the team.
    And they still need a real backup point guard, but all that seems to be out their are more Lavines.
    Of course, true point guards are raris avis these days.

  4. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 05/20/2015 - 04:12 pm.

    Britt,

    thanks for a good read. Hopefully Saunders will surround Wiggins with some talent so he doesn’t bolt for better pastures like Kevin Love did. I still don’t see where Kevin Garnett fits in other than for the sake of nostalgia. Nostalgia doesn’t win games. I don’t buy into the “mentor” concept. A lot of guys became great players without an obvious mentor (aging superstar) on the bench.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/20/2015 - 07:33 pm.

      Nostalgia

      sells tickets (big ones) when the best you can hope for is a mediocre team.

  5. Submitted by Scott Olstad on 05/21/2015 - 01:36 am.

    Great Read

    Regardless of who we pick, I’m comforted somewhat by the idea of KG teaching them the ins and outs of NBA defense. I’m excited for either Okafor or Towns.

    I noticed that Bill Bayno and the Toronto Raptors have parted ways. He always seemed to be a smart defensive coach and worked particularly well with Pek. Any hope for a reunion?

  6. Submitted by Ian Stade on 05/21/2015 - 09:53 am.

    Towns please

    Pick Towns, make us a better defensive team. Why do I have a feeling the Lakers will be picking him at #2?

    Package the two 2nd round picks for a late first round pick, draft the best shooter available.

    Or we could drop down and try to get Frank the Tank and another midrounder that can shoot.

    Thanks for your insight as always.

  7. Submitted by Robert Garfinkle on 05/21/2015 - 10:43 am.

    I wish for Flip’s continuing wisdom and courage

    I trust Flip and Milt to make these decisions; they’ve shown themselves to be shrewd judges of talent, and not afraid to buck conventional wisdom (drafting Muhammed). So I hope they keep their courage up and do whatever is best for this team, even if that means trading the #1.
    A couple of things to keep in mind: Okafor is a marvelous talent, but the NBA game doesn’t reward that talent very much anymore. The comparisons with Randolph is apt: Memphis is the anomaly in the NBA, a team that is built around size and postups and deft-passing big men. They’ve been very good, but they cannot get over the hump in today’s NBA, which rewards penetration, three-point shooting, versatility on the defensive end, and quick, spread-the-floor big men.
    Flip has expressed his team philosophy and I hope he sticks with it: he wants athletic, two-way players. (And I hope he adds shooters…). If Flip and Milt draft Okafor I hope they believe he can be coached into an agile, willing, active defender and a shooter away from the basket. Without being able to add that to his game, he won’t be a great player in this league at this time. Towns seems to have a more NBA-type skill set. So that is one decision they are sitting on.
    But the other, really big decision they are sitting on, imho, is point guard. I believe in Ricky, and I believe he’ll get better. He may even become an all-star eventually, and I have no problem continuing to invest in him. But the NBA today is a penetrators league, and Ricky cannot do this by himself. In my opinion the biggest thing this team needs this year and going forward is a second point guard, someone to backup Ricky and play alongside him some and shoot well. This is a point guard’s league, and the best teams have multiple guys who can handle the ball and run a pick-and-roll. This is why the Wolves were so high on acquiring Eric Bledsoe last summer, not from any dissatisfaction with Rubio but because you need at least two attacking, good ball-handling guards in this league.
    If Flip and Milt don’t completely believe in Okafor or Towns, but they love Mudiay or Russell, that is also a huge need for this team. And, frankly, serviceable big men are easier to find than talented guards. So if they thought they could trade down to #3 or #4 and get one of those guards, or make some trade with the #1 that would net them a top-notch point guard/combo guard, plus another major asset, I would totally support that.
    And the rules around second-round picks are totally different than first round picks, so much so that that 31st pick is more coveted and valuable than a pick in the late 20s. I know Flip has said they won’t keep both picks but that 31st pick is a prime place to pick a European player that is not ready to come here now but is coveted (reminder: this is the slot we picked Pekovic in a few years ago). The early part of the 2nd round is also a great place to get seniors who have fallen because they are perceived to have less upside than the teenagers. Many valuable contributors have been picked there in the last ten years. Please don’t toss one of these 2nd round picks away for cash, or to trade up to the late first round; let’s use all these assets wisely.

  8. Submitted by Robert Garfinkle on 05/21/2015 - 05:16 pm.

    Speaking of PF…

    Britt, What do you think the possibility is of bringing Nemenja Bjelica in this year? He sounds like a real asset; do they have the financial or roster flexibility to do that, do you think? Can’t wait much longer–he’s already 27.

  9. Submitted by D Stern on 05/21/2015 - 05:47 pm.

    Balance

    Britt,

    I was going over this in my mind at breakfast today. Speaking of the two second round picks, which are a great way to add filler/projects/cheap reserves to a roster (speaking of which…what actually happened with GR III? It was an odd case.) what do you think the perfect balance is between too much youth and the right amount?

    Looking at the roster as it stands now, the veterans are KG, Pek, and Martin. I would still love to add another vet or two in the mold of Turiaf or Neal to help set a tone and build some culture, but I wouldn’t break the bank for it. In my perfect world, I’d love to see us unload Payne and pick someone of value at 31/36 and pick a Euro. It seems that Flip as a weird aversion to Euro picks.

    Also, what do you think of the future of Brown and Hamilton with the team? I liked their contributions, but at the end of the day, they were second and third string on the worst team. Are they worth developing or replaceable?

  10. Submitted by Jeff Germann on 05/28/2015 - 12:23 pm.

    Great read as always Britt…

    So couple of comments:
    First off, I’m really hoping the pick is Towns. He clicks off so many boxes that the Timberwolves need its not even funny. Scoring is the only thing that Okafor “maybe” has on Towns and even that can be debated because Towns wasnt a focal point of the offense. I am hating the comparisons of Okafor to Duncan. Other than footwork…I dont think they compare at all. Okafor does not defend and cannot shoot. Two qualities that Ducan had. Okafors abisymal free throw shooting may or may not be able to be improved. If it cant be, that along with his lack of defense should be reason enough for the Wolves to favor Towns. This years playoffs show that the Hack A Shaq is alive and well in the NBA. You have to hit free throws. In addition….it is becoming more and more apparent that nationally Towns is the candidate that is considered a better fit and a better player than Okafor. I feel this is “somewhat” of Flips “Curry/Flynn” moment in that the wrong pick coudl really come back to haunt the Wolves.

    And on that note…I can envision the nightmare scenario of Minny passing on Towns and the Lakers gladly drafting him. With Towns defensive presence in the fold…that allows the Lakers to bring in other players who maybe are not as adept at defense but maybe excel at scoring. Oh…lets say a certain former wolves power forward who has continually been linked to wanting to go to the Lakers. With Towns, Love and thier first pick from last year Randle…the Lakers have the potential to really benefit from one bad move by the Wolves. And becuase most free agents will always look to LA before other teams…having a solid core like that makes them even more attractive….making the rebuild very fast.

    C’mon Flip….draft Towns and move to the modern NBA.

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 06/02/2015 - 10:57 am.

      Let’s not overstate things

      As mentioned in another comment, I prefer Towns. However, this isn’t even “somewhat” a Curry/Flynn decision. Even if he’s favored above Okafor, that difference is more 60/40 or 65/35, and that’s mainly due to fit with current personnel. Most mock drafts are based who they think the team will take (based on what the sources they talk to say), not who they think should be taken. Fans like the idea of who Towns could be more than that of Okafor, but they aren’t the ones putting in hours of film study and having the experience of doing this as a job for years.

      As for the Duncan comparisons, the problem with those who dismiss that idea is that they’re thinking of prime Tim Duncan or even Duncan in his junior and senior years of college. In his freshman year, Duncan shot 55% from the field (vs. 66% for Okafor) and averaged 4.4 free throw attempts per 40 minutes (6.8 for Okafor). For his college career, he shot 68.9% from the foul line, and he’s at 69.6% for his pro career. He was far better defensively in college, but he developed the offensive skills over four years that Okafor had as a freshman, and his free throw shooting didn’t hold back his offensive game.

      Everyone’s also assuming that Towns will reach his peak, but what if he can’t make 35% of his 3s? What if his post game, which was basically backing down shorter/weaker players and shooting over them, doesn’t evolve? What if he fouls as much as he did in college? This is a guy who averaged 10 and 6; to me, that doesn’t equal “sure thing,” no matter what the fit or how good his college teammates were. After all, it’s not like Okafor did his damage with a bunch of scrubs that barely made the tournament.

      Just because people have Flynn/Curry as a frame of reference and are conditioned to worst-case scenarios doesn’t mean that’s going to happen. This draft seems much more like those in the mid-90s, where ’94 (Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill) ’95 (Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, KG) and ’96 (Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Marbury, Ray Allen) had several good options available. Yes, some will turn out better than others, but all turned out to be good players.

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