Nobody expected the Timberwolves to be major players in free agency. Being over the salary cap and having a lack of trade assets, it was going to be difficult to significantly improve the team in a move or two.
Now that we’re in the middle of July, the market has been largely picked over. Perimeter shooters like Wayne Ellington, Joe Harris, and Avery Bradley chose to remain with their current teams over finding new homes. Someone like Ellington, who re-signed for one-year and $6.2 million, was likely always out of the Wolves’ price range.
It turns out that skills like shooting and perimeter defense are highly coveted. Considering the Wolves have big money invested in Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins next season, it must have been difficult to call agents and being able to offer less money and fewer minutes than the next guy. That shouldn’t and didn’t stop the Wolves from calling on guys but unless they got lucky, the odds were stacked against them.
At the very least the team replaced Nemanja Bjelica with Anthony Tolliver, who is more or less a more consistent version of his predecessor. But they have yet to add additional shooting and defense on the wings or frontcourt. I don’t hold it against them that they were hard capped and didn’t have much flexibility as two-thirds of the league also didn’t. But it would have been cool to see Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden find ways to get creative with the resources they did have in the bi-annual exception, mid-level exception, and minimum deals.
The Timberwolves can’t go back in time and move a little quicker on these free agents. The roster currently stands at 13 players. The roster is built with five guards 6’3″ or shorter, Wiggins and Butler, three centers, and Taj Gibson. That list excludes rookie Keita Bates-Diop but it’s evident that the Wolves still need to find a way to add size, shooting, and defense to their rotation.
Considering NBA teams like Milwaukee and Philadelphia have been building teams with those three traits for years, the Wolves have some catching up to do. While free agency didn’t provide the upgrades they desired, there are still ways for them to improve over the next couple of months.
So, you want to swing a deal. That would be nice but this team is still bereft of realistic trade assets. It’s going to take attaching a pick or another asset to Gorgui Dieng or Andrew Wiggins’ contract to move them. Seeing the team flip another draft pick just months after having one debited to Atlanta would be less than desirable since drafting well will be key to improvement as long as they’re over the cap.
Not only would trading either contract entail attaching an additional asset, you would have to match salary to comply with the salary cap rules. Most likely, this means having to trade your undesirable contract for someone else’s undesirable contract. This hardly makes sense if the goal is to achieve greater flexibility going forward.
Many want to start trading Jimmy Butler because he turned down a four-year, $110-million contract extension. However, that’s not why you would trade Butler. By taking the Wolves’ extension now, he would be leaving between $30-$70 million on the table. Considering Butler is approaching 30 years of age, it makes sense for him to wait until next summer and cash in one last time.
The only reason you start shopping Butler now is if he tells you that he’s gone at the end of the season. As far as we know, that has not happened and his source of discontent stems from the young players on the roster behaving like young players. Players can mature and that would ease that tension in this case. Not to mention that it would take a lot for Thibodeau to move his guy and the punt on the trade that shipped out Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn after one season.
Unless a unique opportunity presents itself, the Wolves’ answer is unlikely to lie in a trade.
Just because the top free agents are gone doesn’t mean that there are no worthy candidates on the market. Just about everyone in the Timberwolves’ range would be on a minimum contract anyway. It’s not like they’re going to suddenly be able to swing an offer sheet for Clint Capela or anything.
If the goal is to add perimeter shooting, Luke Babbitt is there. If Thibodeau just wants a player who plays hard for 13 minutes a game, Corey Brewer is available. Hey, even Michael Beasley has shown that he can grab a few buckets and bringing him in for a smaller role could work.
One option is bringing back Anthony Brown or Marcus Georges-Hunt and finding out what is really there. We know these guys can play and offer more than we saw last season. Things may be different as the alternatives would be playing the rookies or playing Butler and Wiggins 48 minutes per game.
An idea I really like is Tyrone Wallace. Wallace is 24 years old and fought his way from the G-League to the NBA with the Clippers where he averaged just under 9.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. He’s not the greatest shooter but he can still be efficient. For the amount of minutes that he would play, the team could survive it. At 6’5″, he would also bring some added size that he uses in passes lanes to pluck steals for easy transition buckets.
Player development has been suspect in Minnesota under Tom Thibodeau. Rather than try to mold players into doing some of the things Thibodeau’s former players have done, he’s just gone out and added that player. Just look at the Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Butler and even Aaron Brooks acquisitions.
The moves for Gibson and Butler made sense because they were still good players. Brooks was whatever but Rose didn’t meet a single team need despite playing well in the postseason. Meanwhile, Tyus Jones, Amile Jefferson, Brown, and Georges-Hunt seldom saw the floor. Gibson would have gladly given a few minutes per game to Jefferson and Jeff Teague begged Thibodeau to play Jones more.
Having drafted two versatile wings in Josh Okogie and Bates-Diop, the time is now for the Thibdoeau regime to emphasize player development. Both of these players fit the mold of the ideal NBA wing. They have the tools to grow into players who can defend multiple positions and connect on shots from beyond the arc. Should they develop them, the Wolves will have the inside track at keeping them around for 5-8 years and will cost less for the first three years than overpaying for free agents.
Continuing to develop and draft players will be crucial in providing the roster with a pipeline of affordable young talent. It won’t happen overnight but the Wolves have already begun the process.