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The tenuous Timberwolves future of Zach LaVine

If Thibs and Taylor don’t have the stomach to make a big bet on three young players, Zach LaVine could be Zach leavin’.

Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, right, dribbling the ball past Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine during the second quarter of the Feb. 3 game.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a week now since Zach LaVine invoked his patented super-glide motion driving the lane for a successful layup against the Pistons in Detroit. The 21-year-old shooting guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves contorted his body sideways in mid-air yet still drew the foul, receiving just enough contact from 280-pound center Andre Drummond to land inelegantly as the ball went through the hoop.

The play didn’t look gruesome. LaVine stayed fallen for a few moments beneath the basket, wincing and writhing while clutching the thigh area above his left knee. But the collision had been slight by the standards of pro basketball and LaVine scoffed at a teammate’s offer to support his weight as he limped gingerly to the sidelines. After the timeout, he stayed on the court not only to shoot the free throw, but to play another five and a half minutes, grabbing a defensive rebound and dishing an assist off the dribble to teammate Gorgui Dieng.

But when LaVine came back into the game to begin the fourth quarter after a brief rest, he lasted 37 seconds, hobbling around the court before signaling for a substitution. The next day, an MRI revealed that he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee, requiring surgery that, without complications, would sideline him for the next six to nine months.

That is a damaging delay and disruption as the Wolves continue the vital tasks of developing their young core of players while gauging the upside of their collective talent against the financial parameters of their future.

Hope, hype, and dedicated losing

One of the many beautiful things about the National Basketball Association is that it gives struggling franchises a fighting chance to improve if competently managed.

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There is a salary cap that impedes teams from harboring too much talent without player sacrifice or financial penalty, including a “luxury tax” imposed when teams finesse the rules to surge past the cap. And there is a four-year period of time during which franchises can hold on to their young talent at dramatically low cost — and even after that get the right to match the bids of other teams during a player’s first year of free agency.

For the past three seasons, the Wolves have stoked hope and hype under those protections. It has almost become a cliché to proclaim that they possess the most exciting collection of young talent in the NBA. Invariably, the names on the honor roll invoked to justify the boast consist of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine.

Towns and Wiggins have won the past two Rookie of the Year awards. LaVine is a two-time slam-dunk champion and arguably has demonstrated more improvement than his higher-pedigreed colleagues this season. It is not uncommon for all three players to do something memorably spectacular during the course of a single game.

The rub is, much more often than not, the Wolves still lose the game.

Up until LaVine’s injury on February 3, the Wolves had a record of 64-150 in the nearly three years Wiggins and LaVine have been on the Wolves roster. With Towns added to that pair for nearly two years of that time, the record was 48-84.

Yes, there have been all sorts of contingencies that mitigate the terrible results. The Wolves were obviously tanking for a high draft pick — which turned out to be Towns — while going 16-66 during LaVine’s and Wiggins’ rookie season in 2014-15. The shocking death of franchise architect Flip Saunders right before Towns’ rookie season in 2015-16 undoubtedly was a drag on the team’s 29-53 record. And the decision by new architect Tom Thibodeau to hasten the maturity of his three budding stars via a trial-by-fire immersion together with minimal veteran support is a factor in the Wolves 20-33 mark this season (19-31 before LaVine’s injury).

Throughout this incubation period, there was always the comfort of knowing that the Wolves were in an evaluation phase, a time when they could literally afford to throw the kids into the deep end of the pool — LaVine as point guard, Wiggins as wing stopper even when defending much larger opponents — and see what happened. Whether they succeeded or not, it was all grist for development, for testing out the features beyond the bells and whistles in their respective sets of skills.

The LaVine injury is the first really significant intrusion on this theoretically risk-free process. More than that, it might be the dreadful buzzer announcing the end of “the kids will lead us to glory” joyride. Announcing that, too soon, it will be time to pay the fare.

Dollars and sense

Next October, both LaVine and Wiggins will enter their fourth and final season under exclusive control of the Wolves. If they don’t agree to new contract terms by the end of that month of October 2017, they will become restricted free agents. For all intents and purposes, then, LaVine’s injury closes the books on his NBA performance before Thibodeau and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor make a decision about how much they want to commit to avoid putting him on the market.

Even before LaVine got hurt, viable projections of his future value could run the gamut from perennial All Star to capable role player.

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Begin with the fact that he is a ton of fun to watch. His athleticism defies gravity while coated in silk. The form of his jump shot is a thing of beauty. His love of the game is palpable and guileless. His teammates love him. Ditto the vast majority of fans and media.

On the flipside, LaVine doesn’t do all the little things that help win games. His defensive recognition and reactions remain woefully inadequate. His intuitive decision-making at both ends of the court betray his talent to an alarming degree. And too much of his skill-set is redundant with Wiggins, providing less bang for the stupendous buck required to keep them both on the roster.

LaVine defenders have a cogent rebuttal. His defense and decision-making are demonstrably improving and the dude is still a month shy of his 22nd birthday. Besides, Towns and Wiggins have been nearly as wretched — and bigger disappointments, relative to projections — on defense. And as for unique skills, who on the roster spaces the floor with their outside shooting better than Zach?

At this juncture in his arc of development, it is fair to say that LaVine is very valuable. But paying him what he, his agent, and perhaps a rival general manager in the NBA think he is worth would be a huge, potentially devastating gamble for Wolves.

Let’s get down to figures. A maximum contract for someone is LaVine’s position next October will reportedly be $25.8 million per season. Obviously the same applies to Wiggins. That’s nearly $52 million a year for two incredibly talented but physically undersized (especially if they play together) wingmen. And don’t forget that Towns will be in the exact same situation a year after that — or perhaps owed more of a max, if he racks up some league-wide awards and honors in the interim.

That’s at least $78 million for three players, beginning in the 2019-20 season. While there are no reliable salary cap projections for then, the big cap increase as a result of the television contract is behind us. The 2018-19 cap is currently estimated to be $103 million, with the luxury tax being imposed at $125 million. This would be a tiny uptick from the 2017-18 cap projection of $102 million, with a $122 million luxury tax threshold.

Let’s say the 2019-20 cap is $104 million with a luxury tax level of $128 million. If you sign Towns, Wiggins and LaVine to the max deals each expects to receive, you have $26 million in cap room for the remaining 12 players on the roster and $55 million for that dozen before you start forking over millions more in tax penalties to the league.

If you believe the young trio pretty much by themselves can lead you to a ring, it is a sound investment. But wouldn’t it be nice if their teams could take a baby step and win more games than they lose before committing three-quarters of your salary cap space to the cause?

Musical chairs

It is quite possible, if not probable, that the Wolves will hedge their bets and retain only two of the three young kids. In that scenario, it is likely that LaVine would be the odd man out.

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The sober fact of the matter is that throughout his NBA career, the Wolves have performed better when LaVine is off the court than when he is playing.

We won’t cite the huge discrepancy that occurred in his first two seasons because LaVine was played out of position at point guard for much of that time. Suffice to say that in his rookie season, no player has ever been less prepared to log so much time in the NBA — playing LaVine at the point was Saunders’ secret tanking strategy. And in his second season, LaVine rarely got to play with Kevin Garnett, or, until the second half, with Ricky Rubio, and those two were the largest factors in improved team performance.

This season the Wolves are -117 in the 1,749 minutes LaVine has played and +49 in the 810 minutes he has been out. Those who prefer analytics beyond that most basic statistic can point out that Wiggins fares worse on measures such as “box plus/minus,” which accounts for what teammates are on the court, win shares, and VORP (Value Over Replacement Players).

But eyes were opened when the Wolves rattled off impressive wins over Houston and Oklahoma City when LaVine was out with a previous injury in January. It added credence to the idea that, at the very least, LaVine and Wiggins were not synergistic.

There are some among the Wolves fan base who, forced to choose, would take LaVine over Wiggins. Thibodeau is not likely to join them. Despite the fact that LaVine arguably has a better handle on the dribble, it is Wiggins who Thibs has designated as his crunchtime players and chronic, if sporadic, “point forward” in the half-court offense. And in both eye test and statistical measure, Wiggins is a superior defender, despite frequently having to guard burly small forwards instead of shooting guards who are more easily contained by his strengths as a defender.

Clash at the top?

This does not necessarily mean that Thibs won’t push for all three of the kids to get max deals. After all, at the end of the day, it is not his money. It might also be telling that the places he has coached over the past 20 years — New York, Houston, Boston and Chicago — are major-market franchises with either large budgets and/or storied histories that create large expectations.

By contrast, Taylor presides over the least successful franchise in modern NBA history. Even amid the current renovations, Target Center is and will remain an outdated building. The fan base, burned by a steady succession of bait-and-switches about the future of this team, is variously cynical and apathetic.

Do the Wolves currently have an exciting product? By all means, which is why they rank 8th in average road attendance in the NBA. But average home attendance? Next-to-last at 29th.

Taylor has proven he will pony up for a legitimate chance to win. His signing of Garnett to a 6-year, $126-million contract stunned his fellow owners into a new collective bargaining agreement that introduced the salary cap in 1990s. His willingness to pay the luxury tax to add Latrell Sprewell as well as Sam Cassell cost him double Spree’s salary — from $14 million to $28 million — to underwrite the run to the conference finals in 2004.

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But then Taylor was burned by Sprewell, who never received a penny after turning down the owner’s $21 million, three-year extension offer the following season. He vowed to look ahead beyond a single season in future negotiations.

Now he is looking at an incredibly expensive situation where deafening hype has not been matched by any semblance of even competent play. For years, the hype machine made the analogy between the Wolves core and what Oklahoma City put together seven or eight years ago. But by the time Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were the ages of Wiggins, LaVine and Towns, the team had won 51 games and gone to the playoffs — and even then, ownership pulled the plug on Harden due to the looming expense.

Can Thibodeau, just one season into a 5-year deal that gives him control over the roster, convince Taylor to stay the course despite all the losing? Does he even want to go in that direction? These are the things that will begin to be determined in just eight months.

Meanwhile, since LaVine went down, Thibs has begun to turn up the heat on his two young stars, demanding better effort on the defensive end. It is the only path to winning games consistently enough to justify a splurge.

Barring a blockbuster deal, the Wolves’ three precocious kids will once again take the court for the 2017-18 season. But there will be distractions, be it from the failure of the team to negotiate new extensions for Wiggins and LaVine, the status of LaVine’s recovery, or the sudden pressure to deliver, at long last, on the promise of winning basketball in Minnesota.