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With Naz back and Prince out, what’s on tap for the 2023-24 Timberwolves?

If KAT and Gobert again don’t mesh, their combined salaries of $94 million in 2023-24 and $101 million in 2025-26, will be a bloated inefficiency at precisely the time new contracts for Ant and McDaniels propel the franchise toward that dreaded “second apron.”

Minnesota Timberwolves center Naz Reid
Less than a week after the draft, Connelly signed fan favorite Naz Reid to a three-year, $42 million deal that was simultaneously audacious and shrewd.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago at this time, Tim Connelly was the new, marquee hire as president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, recruited away from the Denver Nuggets after a highly successful nine-year tenure with the franchise. Denver won their first-ever championship this past season largely via the players and coaching personnel Connelly had patiently assembled.

Barely six weeks after taking the Minnesota job, he executed a blockbuster trade significant enough to shape his legacy here, obtaining All Star center Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz for five first-round picks and three of the Wolves top seven players in terms of minutes-played the previous season. By pairing Gobert with another career-long center of All Star caliber in Karl-Anthony Towns the deal purposefully went against the prevailing NBA trend of favoring mobile, agile wings who could create space and pace on offense and effectively guard the same on defense.

The nature of the Gobert trade had far more in common with the way Connelly had been hired than the way he had operated as a front office executive during his dogged and distinguished career. It laid down a marker of intention in a manner that was not patient and not careful.

The Wolves proceeded to underachieve on heightened expectations, finishing the 2022-23 season with four few wins than the year before. There were viable rationalizations – most notably a calf injury that sidelined KAT for more than 50 games. But the fact was that the team performed at a chronically mediocre level, winning and losing at approximately the same rate throughout the season, regardless of who was on the court.

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On June 22, the 2023 NBA Draft official marked the onset of the Wolves’ second preseason with Connelly and Gobert aboard. In media interviews before and after the event, it was clear that Connelly had settled in. The casual banter and bon mots that pepper his preferred style of communication flowed with less strain and better precision. There was also more genuine information in what he says.

But that does not alter the looming drama that the Wolves upcoming 2023-24 season as there will be an even higher-stakes referendum of the efficacy of the Gobert trade. Given the package of past and future assets he expended, Connelly almost necessarily has to stand by the courage of his original conviction that Gobert and KAT can be a synergistic duo. At the same time, various constraints in the newly-signed collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the owners and the players union discourage this mode of operation, complicating the process beyond mere success on the court.

All in or fold on the KAT-Gobert duo

Specifically, the terms of the new CBA provide less flexibility and higher penalties on teams that repeatedly go deep into the luxury tax to pay multiple players on maximum or near-maximum salaries. That’s highly pertinent to the Wolves moving forward. Gobert’s max deal is on the books for three more seasons. KAT’s four-year super-max deal kicks in next season. Anthony Edwards will almost certainly sign a max deal next season and Jaden McDaniels will command close to maximum money at the same time.

Spending into the “second apron” level of the luxury tax under the new bargaining agreement will prevent teams from partaking in a variety of lower-spending options used to supplement star-studded rosters, such as the ability to sign a “mid-level” salary player, and pick up players released by other teams.

The new rules coupled with the Wolves looming payroll explosion have intensified calls for the Gobert-KAT experiment to be abandoned. Pundits and rumor mills have been busy agitating for the trading of KAT, who holds more current value than Gobert around the league but will be much more difficult to move once his salary (and the amount of salaried personnel from any trade partner) rises from $36 million to $50 million next summer.

But Connelly is steadfast on the status quo. Asked about his plans for the team the day before the draft he stated, “My strong guess is that we have a core and we are excited to run it back. We think we’re going to be pretty good.”

But here’s the rub: If KAT and Gobert again don’t mesh, their combined salaries of $94 million in 2023-24 and $101 million in 2025-26, will be a bloated inefficiency at precisely the time new contracts for Ant and McDaniels propel the franchise toward that dreaded “second apron,” with three more first-round draft picks still owed Utah between now and 2029.

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The 2023 draft

It’s a compelling drama. The Gobert trade was highly out of character with the way Connelly normally does business in amassing a quality roster. The irony is that, except for the trade, he has been fairly brilliant at his job in Minnesota. Indeed, it has been fascinating to watch Connelly, the master tactician and patient strategist, work to shore up the fissures and replenish the cupboard, simultaneously laboring to maximize the unorthodox present-day Wolves while stashing development opportunities and options for the future.

Begin with the drafts. As the Wolves president of basketball operations over the past two drafts, Connelly has made six picks – two in the first round, four in the second round, none of them higher than the 22nd overall pick. That top choice, center Walker Kessler last season, finished third in the rookie of the year voting last season because of his precocious rim protection and rebounding skills. He would have been a near-perfect fit on the 2022-23 Wolves roster, which is of course why Connelly drafted him. But because Connelly included him as part of package for Gobert, Connelly’s original wisdom boomeranged back and put a dent in his reputation.

Connelly’s mining for value-added talent in the deeper trenches of the second round is perhaps even more impressive. It is part of Connelly’s legend that he plucked two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic in the second round for Denver back in 2014, an outrageous return governed more than a little by luck. That said, his selection of forward Josh Minott with the 45th pick in the second round of the 2022 draft looks like a steal. Even as a raw and springy rookie last season, Minott showed a knack for being in the right place on the court, an intuitive sense that, combined with his athleticism, gives him a high upside going forward.

The recently completed 2023 draft also feels like Connelly has spun flax into potential gold. Because of the Gobert deal, the Wolves began the night with just the 53rd slot in the second round. But when combo forward Leonard Miller fell from his perch in the first round on many draft boards, Connelly coupled two second-round picks – one acquired in the D’Angelo Russell trade in February and another the team already owned for 2028 – to take Miller with the 33rd overall selection. Miller led the G League in the rebounding as a teenager playing against grown men.

Then, at pick 53, Connelly chose guard Jaylen Clarke, named Defensive Player of the Year by numerous organizations and publications during his junior year at UCLA. Connelly claimed Clarke almost certainly would have gone in the first round if he hadn’t suffered an Achilles injury that will sideline him for most of this coming season. At his introductory press conference, Clarke described himself as a “junkyard dog” who loves “to do the dirty work.”

Naz back in the fold

Less than a week after the draft, Connelly signed fan favorite Naz Reid to a three-year, $42 million deal that was simultaneously audacious and shrewd.

It was audacious because Connelly is tripling down on the big man strategy already manifested in the KAT-Gobert pairing. You know those combined salary numbers previously noted for KAT and Gobert? Add $14 million per year to it to accommodate Naz.

But the Naz signing shrewdly creates value because of the way it can either break up or coalesce the Gobert-KAT partnership. Connelly frequently cites the team’s inspired play in late March of last season, when KAT had returned from his injury and Naz was rolling well enough to remain in the rotation. Deploying the three bigs in rotation enabled coach Finch to create supersized lineups that had forward Kyle Anderson at the point as well as another big alongside Gobert. That enabled Mike Conley to operate more frequently with KAT when Gobert was on the bench. Naz toggled between these lineups, allowing more staggering of the Gobert-KAT minutes (and thus reducing their frequency). Naz’s ability to move without the ball also generated the pace and ball movement Finch prefers, momentum that carries over on defense.

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For the past two seasons, the Wolves have been at their best when they lean into a “fly around” mentality at both ends of the court. Naz has his foibles, especially in on-ball post defense, but his presence is also a spark. His inclusion in the rotation creates opportunities for crucial catalysts like Conley and Anderson (“Slo Mo”) to do what they do with kindred matchups.

Last but hardly least, if the Gobert-KAT tandem is found wanting, Naz provides insurance on a modified big man concept if one of the two star bigs can in fact be traded down the line. Conversely, if Naz’s role on the team is constricted by better efficiency from the KAT-Gobert duo, his youth, work ethic and neon skills could get good value in a trade.

Farewell to Taurean Prince

The other significant salary news that has occurred recently was this week’s decision to decline the second year of Taurean Prince’s contract, a gambit that saves the Wolves $7.4 million and enables them to sign a mid-level exception player at slightly more than $12 million, or more than one player for a combined total of upwards of $15 million, and still stay under the luxury tax threshold.

Prince was a consummate pro who was a victim of circumstance; a combo forward on a roster glutted with forwards. How Connelly utilizes that not insignificant salary slice will spark considerable speculation as free agency kicks in this weekend. The most obvious “run it back” strategy is to re-sign Nickeil Alexander-Walker (NAW) to a contract hopefully in the range of $5-7 million per year. Acquired in the Conley-for-D’Lo trade this past winter, NAW gained considerable credibility by stepping in for the injured McDaniels as the Wolves primary wing-stopper, and excelled in man coverage on Nuggets star Jamal Murray in the playoffs. Although not ideal, he can also be a backup point guard for short stints, a crucial stopgap given Conley’s age and the current lack of alternatives on the roster.

NAW also fits into something of a stylistic side hustle being developed by Connelly away from his big lineups priority. If you add his tenacious on-ball coverage to the talents of McDaniels, Ant, and, further down the road, Minott, Miller and Clarke, you have the makings of a formidable cadre of rugged, but lithe and quick, switch-heavy defenders to either supplement or temporarily replace Gobert and/or KAT in coverage. Fly around strikes again.

Excitement for the coming season is not premature

This is all premature – in fact yesterday the Wolves denied their restricted free agency claim on NAW, meaning they hope to sign him for less than $7 million if they sign him at all.

Even so, there are myriad ways to get excited about this 2023-24 Wolves team. More than ever, it is difficult to deny that Ant is on the cusp of the kind of superstardom that can elevate a playoff team into a championship contender, and the strides made by McDaniels and Naz, put visions of a young, hungry, talented pack of Wolves partially out of fantasy and into viability range.

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Ironically, what puts a shroud on this excitement is the KAT-Gobert alignment, which has been the supposed-core element of the team’s identity since Gobert was acquired last July. Yes, the blockbuster deal may yet pan out. But the double-bigs blueprint also feels like a classic case of “too big to fail,” in terms of both what was sacrificed to get Gobert and what is being paid to have both him and KAT on the roster. It constrains as much as bolsters.

Gobert and KAT had insufficient time to familiarize themselves with each other during last year’s preseason because Gobert was dinged up from playing in EuroBasket for France and then had an illness. Yet even as many members of the rosters have shown up for workouts, some for weeks, Gobert and KAT have not yet been prominent among them. Gobert has again announced his intention to play for France. Said Connelly, back when Gobert was still undecided about Euro basketball, “I know how much it means to him to play. I also know how much it means to him to be in optimal shape come October.”

Regardless of how the much ballyhooed pairing eventually plays out, the Wolves abiding priority needs to be the ongoing development of Ant. The stone cold fact is that he is the Wolves best player and inevitable leader. Tim Connelly, patient team- builder extraordinaire, knows this. He is being paid the big bucks to let that knowledge filter through the entire organization. To use a surfing analogy, you want to ride the largest waves, not necessarily the nearest.