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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 07/15/2016 - 12:00 pm.

    Solid take

    Hoping KG can convert that final contract year into ownership points. Thibs and KG butting heads could only make this team stronger.

  2. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 07/15/2016 - 12:25 pm.

    Wing defense

    It certainly does feel like we have another move or two to make but I’m fine with our signings to shore up the bench so far. Yeah, I’d like to have Noah or Deng but getting a defensive-minded backup center to anchor that second unit is just fine, especially at the price. I doubt any significant roster moves will happen until we hear more about the futures of KG, Payne, and maybe Pekovic.

    If we do free up one or more of their roster spots, I’m willing to take a chance on a d-league wing defender who has a few years of experience and is entering their prime, and I suppose summer league is a chance to assess that possibility. That’s easier said than done, but so many young players have gotten to this level by being high-level scorers that players with defensive skills, like the next Ben Wallace or Bruce Bowen, are often overlooked.

  3. Submitted by Django Zeaman on 07/15/2016 - 12:35 pm.

    Deng still seems like he would have been worth it

    If we could have landed him for 4/72, I think that’s a reasonable price to pay.

    I’m concerned that we won’t make the kind of strides forward in the win column this year that will make it easier to land a higher-caliber free agent or two next year or the year after. And we’re going to need to do that no matter how good Towns becomes, because I don’t think Wiggins is ever going to reach a high enough level of performance that we only need role players around those two.

    The pickups we did make seem like savvy or at least non-harmful signings, which is a big step up from our expectations of previous Wolves FOs. I’m happy about that, but unless we make the 7th or 8th seeds this year I think Deng was a real miss.

    Unless, of course, there is an excellent free agent option next summer I don’t know about that Thibs and Co have an inside track on. I guess I’ll reserve full judgment until we get past that signing period. But I do hope they’re aware of the Tundra Tax and that unless we start making the playoffs we’re just going to be a high-potential Omaha. 🙂

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/16/2016 - 04:26 pm.

      But could we have a team

      with both Deng and Djieng?
      Announcers would go crazy!

  4. Submitted by Kyle Lysford on 07/15/2016 - 01:48 pm.

    Best case scenario

    Apart from getting Durant (which was never going to happen) this off-season has been about the best we could have hoped for. We didn’t over-spend and set ourselves up for failure in the years to come by ham-stringing ourselves with bad contracts so that we could get a few more wins this season. Unlike last year, there aren’t any veterans on the team taking minutes from the core that we need to be evaluating (although that’s not to say that I disagreed with that approach to begin last year). We still have an extremely young team, but Thibs will have no problem telling the team EXACTLY what he needs from them not only from night-to-night, but minute to minute within the game.

    In my mind, we had 2 enormous needs that we needed to fill coming into the off-season. The first was a capable backup point guard, and Kris Dunn fits the bill exceptionally well. Dunn should be able to step in and play (at least) 15 minutes/game right away, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his minutes load goes up relatively early in the season. I also like that Dunn is 22 and already a pretty mature player despite being a rookie, I was in the camp in favor of trading the pick simply because we have so many young players already, this pick was kind of the best of both worlds.

    The second huge need I saw was a capable starting center or power forward that can play defense. They didn’t necessarily have to be a starting caliber player either, as I think we can hodge-podge that spot in the lineup with what we have without needing a dedicated ‘4’ that plays 30+ minutes a night. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Towns play alongside Aldrich for large stretches this season, and it will be extremely interesting to see how Dieng responds to his new coach after having a very good season last year under Sam Mitchell.

    Despite being a long suffering Wolves fan, I am filled with much more hope for the future after an off-season showing a steady hand from the new front office rather than a splash for its own sake.

    Great post here Britt, most appreciated that it comes in the beginning of the long stretch without basketball being played. I’m now a contributor to MinnPost almost entirely thanks to your writing.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/15/2016 - 02:36 pm.

    A case could be made

    for the strategy behind these moves.
    The Wolves have a pretty good starting lineup, and given its youth it should get better.
    The real problem is the second team dropoff, and this is mostly what the Wolves signed.
    Two of the new players might be starters:
    Dunn provides a better scoring alternative to Rubio at the point, IF he’s as NBA-ready as he appears to be.
    And Aldrich could provide the bulk that KAT and Gorgi lack up front.
    One question: I’ve seen Aldrich list as both 230lbs and 250. If he’s only 230, he won’t provide any more of a physical presence underneath than Towns, who given his age should bulk up a bit.
    An inside info on the physical stats, Britt?

    • Submitted by alex mashug on 07/16/2016 - 01:29 am.

      Thibs is genius and Cole is looks 250… Easy

      #1 KAT is versatile. By getting a bunch of PF/C you can really test what fits best next to KAT. I really liked Gorgui with G guarding 5’s to reduce wear an tear on our Golden Boy. I always wondered about PEK/KAT so Aldrich might be interesting. As dominating as towns can be at 5. Developing his 3pt, and giving him space to create might be more beneficial to his career, Youth = Mobility > Size. Aldrich is local guy. who rooted 2004 wolves as a kid. He’s on the longest contract-3yr which is part of the reason.

      #2. In general speed and tempo should be team mantra if we can come up with a wing defense that Lavine/ Wigs and Rush/Bazz can play next to either Rubio who is starter for 2yrs, today our Best player.
      or Dunn who has similar attributes to Rubio but athletic. I have been team Dunn since November. Yes November. I watched a lot of his games and have been a believer in that as important as rim protection is the point GUARD is closest to the ball on both Offense and D. lockdown or at least stifle a Offense at Head of the snake.. body follows.Dunn being like Rubio is a good thing. 1. Rick can improve what Kris does well 2. They can both improve weaknesses (shooting). 3, They do similar things making a smooth transition both long-term and even simple transition during the game. I would really like to see Dunn play next to one of the young 3 to develop future long term. Dunn/Zach/Baz would be a QUICK bench

      #3 It was a good move not to get too much shooting. Rush was a good move I think as much as a Bench leader and vet role player next to Dunn to help with his growth. But as much as instilling a D system, working on OVERALL team 3pt should be a priority. Even if everyone only improved 1%

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/16/2016 - 09:49 am.

        Aldrich looks 250

        IF he’s really 7 feet tall.
        If (like many ‘7 footers’) he’s closer to 6’10”, then he looks 230.

  6. Submitted by Mike martin on 07/15/2016 - 02:43 pm.

    My fears

    1. Wiggins doesn’t like Thibs intense style & being yelled at in public and opts for free agency. (See previous Brit articles about this)

    2. Notice that all the talk about this being a desirable place for free agents stopped when Thibs was hired. Not a lot of players want to practice as hard as Thibs demands or play the heavy minutes he demands of his starters. No player that has played for Thibs for over 3 years looks to have a 10 or 15 year career playing at a high level.

    What chance to all the players getting $ 20+ million this year have to get close to the $ 300+ million Duncan earned by playing for over 15 years at a high level.

    3. Rubio gets injured playing heavy minutes for Thibs & his trade value disappears.

    4.Wiggins, Towns LaVine etc are young players their bodies are still developing, can their developing bodies handle all the minutes Thibs demands of them? I fear they will break down like Rose & Noah There goes the dream of having a good/great team for 10+ years

    5. Thibs got rid of the best trainer the Wolves have ever had. No quality replacement has been named yet.

    6. Still no word on the Wolves having a D-league affiliate. The D-league is a great place for Jones, Payne etc. to get playing etc experience instead of sitting at the end of the Wolves’ bench The D-league is a great place for players who are close but not fully ready for the NBA to practice & hone their skills before becoming injury fill ins. Also let Pec work his way back into playing shape by playing in the D-league.

  7. Submitted by alex mashug on 07/16/2016 - 02:36 am.


    Thibs has to understand the MN nostalgia of KG. At 8 mil a year it’s not a great deal. But I think now that KAT looks at him a certain way and he could still bring valuable spot minutes, along with the ability to instill Thibs Defense it is worth making amends and keeping another year. I hope he can mentor, Hill, G. and AP as much as Towns. I think there are a lot of hungry D leaguer guy that could be more useful than AP on the roster. Examples from Sixers: Wood, Holmes, Webb III,Paul.

    Speaking of Philly, Hinkie kind of had a good idea with “the process”, By stacking PF/C it seems like if you can balance it out enough to weather the storm. Which is kind of what we have. but with better depth than PHI. Some teams look really weak at center where we look set. Teams like LAL, DAL, WAS or CLE who might need a Jordan Hill if an injury occurs. Mavs have bogut/merji Cavs have Kuhn/Tristian…. what would they give up? Back to Philly they look .. ????…simmons/Gerald/ Covington/Noel/Embiid or Okafor a bench of McConnell /stauskas/canaan / TLC / Saric/ Oak…… (plus the above group) kinda….Scary? They should make a trade though, like Oak for Clarkson and Lou or a Celtics guard

  8. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 07/18/2016 - 11:24 am.

    It’s okay to be mildly disappointed in FA

    The main reasons I was stem from their offer to Deng and their lack of interest in an alternative like Jared Dudley (who they apparently never even called). Could they have persuaded Deng with a 2 year offer of the max or all their cap space (whichever was smaller), likely in the $45-50M range? Failing that, Dudley got $30M for 3 years from the Suns; they could’ve easily offered him the same amount over 2 years and justified that decision. That set of skills is still probably missing from this roster and necessary to be considered a legitimate playoff contender next season.

    Summer league for basketball fans is similar to Velveeta for people who like cheese; for some, it’s an acceptable substitute in an absence of alternatives. A few noticeable things emerged. First, it’s not clear whether Dunn’s best position is as a 1 or as an undersized 2. It’s not totally clear whether his athleticism is just good enough to stand out at summer league or would be exceptional during the real games, and on a team where none of the young wings are facilitators, having a PG who gets by despite not having those skills puts a ceiling on how good the team can be. Part of the reason Durant left OKC was because he thought their simplified offense led to their playoff failures. Next season, Dunn seems more like a guy who’ll play 1 and 2, which is good for Jones (who has looked like a real NBA backup in summer league) but potentially bad for Rush or Muhammad. Second, if we assume that the staff is running a system meant to set a foundation for Thibodeau’s style of play, the offense seems to be very open. They’ve been shooting a lot of corner 3s and their bigs are encouraged to take them, which could be interesting when it’s the regular crew and not guys like Xavier Silas and Coty Clarke.

    Nostalgia aside, the lack of resolution on KG so far makes sense (I think it was also reported that he’s had to deal with family health issues with his in-laws). It’s understandable that he needs to figure out if his legs can handle 60-65 games and that the team should expect at least 700 minutes from him. If he can do it, though, roster construction in the NBA is affected by a lot more than who the best 15 players are to have on the team. Guys at the end of the bench are often chosen because they don’t complain, they work hard, and/or because they share an agent with a team’s star player, like AJ Price did with Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. KG has been more loyal to the franchise than it has been to him, and now that it’s clear they haven’t found a legitimate upgrade for his minutes, the thought of seeing him play his last season for the Clippers because the Wolves needed his roster spot for a 14th man or thought that Jordan Hill would give them more than their best team defender seems like an off-putting end for the only Wolf worth mentioning as an all-time great.

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