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The Wolves’ modest free agent maneuvers point toward a confident, successful future

The NBA created the circumstances for the biggest free-agent banquet in the history of basketball, and the Wolves were content to consume a few morsels that were swept off the table. That’s good news.

The Wolves priciest acquisition (to date) is center Cole Aldrich, left, reportedly signed for $22 million over the next three seasons.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves were pikers in the great National Basketball Association free agent spending spree of July 2016.

Largely due to the lucrative media contract that kicks in next season, the NBA experienced a whopping $24 million increase in the salary cap that each team is budgeted to pay its players. This enormous jump from $70 million to $94 million in individual team payroll dwarfed the largest previous one-year bump of $7 million. It theoretically enabled nearly all 30 NBA teams — even those previously constrained by excessive spending — to offer maximum contracts to free agent stars on the market.

Coming into free agency, Wolves fans were excited by the size of the splash their perpetually downtrodden team might have in the offing. With back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as their cornerstones and proven winner Tom Thibodeau as their new coach and president of basketball operations, the Wolves finally had the kind of assets that magnetize free agents. Fan anticipation was further whetted by the fact that the free agent crop included players who starred under Thibodeau in Chicago, such as forward Luol Deng and center Joakim Noah, who could caulk unsightly seams in the Wolves player rotation from a year ago.

Nope. Deng and Noah signed contracts with the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, respectively, which are each reportedly worth $72 million over a four-year period. According to the NBA grapevine, the Wolves offered a fraction of that sum to Deng and didn’t pursue Noah, who expressed a preference for the Knicks shortly after his friend and teammate Derrick Rose was traded to New York. And Minnesota’s brief flirtation with another former Thibodeau connection in Chicago, center Pau Gasol, ended with Gasol signing a reported two-year, $30-million deal with San Antonio.

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There were dozens of other Wolves-related rumors during the weeklong wooing period between July 1 when negotiations for free agents can begin and July 8 when they can officially be signed to contracts. But now that we are a week beyond that stage of frenzied speculation, with all the top stars gobbled up and precious few role players of value remaining on the market, it is time to take stock of Minnesota’s decidedly modest haul.

The Wolves priciest acquisition (to date) is center Cole Aldrich, reportedly signed for $22 million over the next three seasons. Forward Jordan Hill, who agreed to terms just a couple of days ago, will reportedly receive $8 million for a two-year period. And swingman Brandon Rush has a one-year pact reportedly worth $3.5 million. (The word “reportedly” is continually invoked because teams generally don’t make official contract amounts public, but player agents and other inside sources inevitably provide reliable numbers.)

Aldrich, Hill and Rush share the status of NBA journeymen. In terms of age, they are at or just past the primes of their careers — Aldrich, the youngest, will turn 28 in October and Rush is the senior citizen at 31. Aldrich has already played for five other NBA teams; Hill four; Rush three. All of them have come off the bench at least twice as many games as they have started.

In other words, the NBA created the circumstances for the biggest free-agent banquet in the history of basketball, and the Wolves were content to consume a few morsels that were swept off the table.

For a variety of reasons, such prudence feels like good news for the Timberwolves moving forward.

Confident patience yields a practical proving ground

When the Wolves inked Thibodeau to a five-year contract just a week after the close of the 2015-16 regular season last April, the logical assumption was that in order to secure the services of such an adept, motivational coach, the franchise also had to grant him control over personnel as President of Basketball Operations. But conceding full authority to a win-now workaholic like Thibs, who was notorious in Chicago for pushing the endurance of his players near or past the breaking point, felt like a risky gambit — without even taking into account his total lack of front office experience.

The Wolves’ caution in free agency this month should quell fears of Thibs running amok with a template for success built on nostalgia or short-term dividends.

For example, the temptation to outbid the Lakers for Luol Deng must have been formidable. Thibodeau’s chemistry with Deng in Chicago was undeniable. So was Deng’s ability to solve myriad deficiencies confronting the current Wolves, such as his versatility in guarding stretch power forwards and large wing players while spacing the floor as a three-point shooter and penetrator at the offensive end of the court.  

As an 11-year veteran who just turned 31 in April and is thoroughly steeped in Thibodeau’s machinations, Deng also could have been an ideal presence in the locker room and on the practice court counseling this talented young roster.

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But Deng will be 35, with, barring injury, some 35,000 rugged NBA minutes taxed on that aging physique when the Lakers pay him $18.8 million in the final year of his contract during the 2019-2020 season.

By then, the cheap rookie deals binding Towns and Wiggins to the team will have expired — replaced, if all goes well, by maximum salaries befitting the stardom that is expected to blossom in both of them. Who knows what the best pieces surrounding those cornerstones will be four years down the road? Time flies in the NBA — four years ago, Luke Ridnour, Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams ranked behind Kevin Love to comprise the top four players in minutes on the team.

Right now, the Wolves enjoy enviable salary cap flexibility down the road. Indeed, not a single player on the current roster, included the newly acquired free agents, is currently signed beyond the 2018-19 campaign. Timberwolves POBO Tom Thibodeau is wisely relying on Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau to develop and then sort out the virtues and vices of this abnormally talented yet still unproven young roster before making any further major commitments.

Barring any other major departures or additions to last year’s top eight Timberwolves in terms of minutes-played (excepting already departed veteran forward Tayshaun Prince), Thibodeau has made the 2016-17 campaign a proving ground for his promising core of youngsters.

Aldrich, Hill and Rush are the opposite of flashy — they are dependably modest grinders who understand their place in the pecking order and will gratefully strive to provide what is best described as legitimate depth for this ball club. Along with top draft choice Kris Dunn, their task is to banish the days when the Wolves were routed on defense beyond any hope of victory because their second-line consisted of Tyus Jones and Zach LaVine in the backcourt and Adreian Payne and Nemanja Bjelica in the frontcourt.

But it might go deeper than that. The trio of free agents and the draft pick Dunn will all push to crack the top seven or eight in the core rotation. Much has legitimately been made of Thibodeau’s reluctance to praise or unilaterally include starting point guard Ricky Rubio in his optimism over the future. But it is difficult to see how Dunn, who projects as a capable two-way player, doesn’t offer a stiffer challenge to the shoddy perimeter defense of LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad. The arrival of Aldrich and Hill almost certainly spells the end of Payne’s tenure in Minnesota, and eases the pain of watching the $20 million of combined salaries paid to Kevin Garnett and Nikola Pekovic sit on the bench (more on that in a moment). And all three free agents could put the squeeze on Bjelica in the frontcourt rotation, with Rush’s three-point shooting reducing the need for Bjelica’s accuracy from deep.

Put simply, the modestly talented but more reliable depth that Thibodeau and his general manager Scott Layden have injected into the roster will serve as a cudgel to obtain the improved dedication to the defensive principles and alert team performance the coach demands. Rather than making rash judgments without tangible interaction, Thibs can use this season to absorb for himself how much or little the young core can deliver in various aspects of his system.

A year from now, everybody will have a much better sense of where they stand, buttressed by a continuity of expectations. (Wiggins, for example, will enter his fourth NBA season, on the cusp of restricted free agency, finally playing for the same coach two years in a row, which hasn’t happened since he was in high school.) Meanwhile, the salary cap will have taken another, albeit smaller, leap upward, an estimated eight million to a $102 million payroll.

The demanding coach and the callow roster will get to know each other in a very meaningful way that will set the future course of this franchise on the basis of systemic synergy. What a concept. And what a future that might entail.

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Loose ends and frayed weaknesses

My optimism for the Wolves is sincere, mostly on the basis of Towns likely becoming a bona fide superstar, the resultant bumping of the marvelously athletic Wiggins into the status of an overqualified sidekick, and the firm hand of Thibodeau on the rudder, with the time and authority to implement his system.

But NBA competition is brutal and the road beyond mediocrity will not be easily attained — if it is achieved at all. The Wolves are not the only non-playoff team poised to make waves in the Western Conference — a case can be made that they currently slot in between Utah and Denver as teams on the rise next season.

Different seasons will present different challenges during the Thibodeau regime. Barring a significant trade or a jarring barrage of injuries, here are a few that should worry fans of the franchise for 2016-17.

The ongoing drama between Thibodeau and Kevin Garnett needs to be resolved. KG and Thibs melded their white-hot intensity into a championship defense for the Boston Celtics during the 2007-08 season and were nearly as good for two years after that in Boston. But there was a falling out somewhere along the line since then, and the reigning architect of the franchise obviously would rather not have the greatest player in franchise history exercise the final year of his contract for 2016-17.

Since coming over in a trade with New Jersey in the spring of 2015, Garnett has sat out with injuries far more often than he has performed on the court. His mentorship of Towns by itself probably justified the $8 million he was paid last season. But with the exception of the controllable presence of assistant coach Ryan Saunders, Thibodeau clearly wants a clean break from the Timberwolves of yore in order to put his imprint on the franchise as rapidly and thoroughly as possible.

It is an understatement to say that KG complicates that process. A proud player deserving of reverence for his exploits and leadership, he returned to the team burying a grudge against Wolves owner Glen Taylor and with an outspoken desire to someday own a piece of the franchise. Then Flip Saunders died, Sam Mitchell was fired, the emergence of Towns and Wiggins prioritized the future over the buffing of his legacy (compare it to Kobe Bryant’s situation last season in L.A.).

As it now stands, KG is owed $8 million on the final year of his contract. He is an NBA icon and, with the retirement of Tim Duncan, the lone player remaining who performed during the 1997-98 season. Neither Thibodeau nor Garnett will comment on what is happening behind the scenes. But it will require some extraordinary diplomacy to achieve an appropriate resolution for both sides.

By the way, Garnett could still help this team on the court, if he could will his body to perform for 1,000 minutes over the majority of the season. The signing of Aldrich and Hill indicates that Thibodeau and company neither expect nor want that to happen.

But whether KG is compelled to retire or relocate to another franchise or not, the Wolves still sorely lack a mobile combo forward capable of guarding stretch power forwards out on the wing — a significant weakness in the modern NBA.

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Hill is springy but simply not quick enough, and Bjelica has to prove his foul-prone cluelessness guarding NBA players in space was a rookie aberration. Muhammad was the worst wing defender on the team last year (against stiff competition) and neither Rush nor Wiggins have the size and bulk to match up with power forwards. Yet adding another player to match up with stretch power forwards would further unbalance a roster suddenly loaded with frontcourt players.

Fortunately, Thibodeau is pretty close to a defensive genius, who has figured out a way to scroll film beneath his eyelids as his sleeps (I think), and prioritizes getting stops so markedly that I can’t imagine him being bereft of a solution to this problem.

And like so many other aspects of this coming season, I can’t wait to see how it pans out.