In the 2020 Offseason Gersson Rosas Shows His Grand Plan

In past years the Timberwolves made a habit out of using cap space and roster spots on older veterans and young players who failed on other teams. The goal was merely to try to be competitive with no true path to a championship. Under the new regime, they now have a clear plan on their journey to become a great team and model franchise.

In May of 2019 the Timberwolves hired one of the most sought after front office executives on the market, Gersson Rosas, to be their new President of Basketball Operations. Rosas promised a new way of thinking and a new era of Timberwolves basketball. Wolves fans have heard these promises from front office executives in the past, but this promise felt different. Rosas had the experience and track record to give credit to his words. He spent years in the Houston Rockets front office learning from a future Hall of Fame executive, Daryl Morey, who has proven to be the most aggressive and forward-thinking executive in the NBA. Rosas wanted to bring the Timberwolves the same bold and creative strategies that made the Houston Rockets successful for years. Since his hiring, he has assembled an impressive front office staff filled with diverse backgrounds and experiences.

During his first 19 months on the job, Rosas has managed to completely reshape the roster while eliminating most of the team’s negative assets and acquiring more valuable players for now and the future. His plan is clear; acquire talent that fits around his cornerstone stars, sign young players to trade-able contracts, and draft players that have a chance to be superstars. Above all, Rosas governs by the same mantra as his mentor Daryl Morey, which is to acquire stars using any means necessary. The truncated 2020 offseason puts this strategy on full display because of how Rosas handled the trade window opening, draft night, and free agency. The Wolves are not building to be good, they are building to be great.

NBA Trade Window Opening: No significant moves

There was a flurry of moves around the league when the trade window first opened. Chris Paul was sent to Phoenix, Jrue Holiday went to Milwaukee, and Robert Covington was moved to Portland. Along with the players that were traded, there were rumors and conversations going on for a host of other players including Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Buddy Hield, and many others which created bidding wars for those guys. While the Wolves were most likely involved in these discussions, they did not pull the trigger on any major trades. The asking price for these non-star players was going to be too rich for the Wolves.

The Timberwolves did strike a deal for fan-favorite, Ricky Rubio, on draft night but we will get to that later. They also acquired a backup center in Ed Davis later in the offseason for a minimal amount of assets. The team showed they will not mortgage significant future assets for a player that does not impact the team’s championship potential, even though it may help them in the short-term. While the Wolves front office is clearly more aggressive and thorough in trade discussions than most others around the league, the lack of significant moves around the trade window was a clear sign of their intentions to keep their powder dry in hopes of landing a star.

Draft Night: Drafted Anthony Edwards 1st overall, traded the 17th pick & James Johnson for Ricky Rubio and two late first round picks, traded a late first round pick and the 33rd pick to draft Leandro Bolmaro, drafted Jaden McDaniels 28th overall

The Timberwolves had a stroke of good luck in the draft lottery when they won the right to the 1st overall pick in the 2020 draft. This year, there was no clear-cut star at the top of the draft, so they chose the player with the highest potential in Anthony Edwards. They do not know yet how great Edwards can be, but he has all the tools to become a superstar in the league if things break right for him. This type of high risk/high reward selection is exactly the gamble the Wolves front office wants to make. On draft night they reportedly received offers from other teams who wanted to move to the #1 pick which would have allowed them to still select in the top 10 of the draft and likely pick up a rotation player. Those conversations were plentiful, but they knew that almost no other player in the draft had a chance to be as great as Anthony Edwards could be. Edwards is a bet that the team was happy to make.

Later in the draft, the Wolves sent the 17th selection and James Johnson to Oklahoma City for Ricky Rubio and two late first round picks. On the surface, the Rubio acquisition seems antithetical to the front office’s strategy. Rubio is a 30 yr old mid-tier point guard in the NBA who makes a little more money than he is likely worth. He is exactly the type of player that the front office wants to avoid. However, if you look closer at this move you can see that it provides options for the team in the future. In the short-term Rubio provides much needed stability to the team’s offense, defense, and locker room chemistry. He is the type of player that can be invaluable to a young team. His contract also ends after only two more years, meaning he could be valuable to use in a trade as an expiring contract next season as the team may look to match salaries in a deal for a star player. If Rubio is not traded and enjoys being in Minnesota, he can always be resigned on a team-friendly contract after his contract ends. There does not seem to be a major downside to the acquisition of Rubio, and he could be a significant chess piece to make a move down the line.

After the Rubio trade, suddenly the Wolves had three more picks in the draft. They packaged two of them to move up to the 23rd pick for the rights to Argentinian wing player Leandro Bolmaro. Bolmaro has been splitting time between FC Barcelona’s Euroleague team and their Liga ACB team. At just 20 yrs old, he has NBA size at 6’6″ and 200lbs. Bolmaro is regarded as a good defender with a relentless motor and is a good offensive playmaker for a wing player. The problem is he has shown almost no ability to shoot or score so far in his career. The Timberwolves have undoubtedly scouted him deeply, and they obviously see enough NBA-ready tools to make him gamble worth taking. If he can develop his offensive skills in Europe over the next year or two, he could emerge into the NBA as a star defender and wing playmaker to help lift the team to new heights.

With their final pick in the draft the Wolves selected forward Jaden McDaniels from the University of Washington. Prior to the draft, Jaden was regarded as one of the most boom or bust prospects and was slated to be chosen in the middle of the first round. He started to fall on draft night, and the Wolves jumped at the chance to take him with the 28th pick. There were players selected after Jaden that likely had more NBA ready skills to contribute immediately this season, but none of those players sports the sky-high ceiling that McDaniels has. Even more so than the team’s first two selections, he was one of the biggest bets on potential in the draft. He had inconsistent performances during his lone season in college, but at 6’9″ with long arms and a smooth offensive game his star potential shined too bright to ignore. McDaniels likely will not be asked to help the team this year or even next year as he should spend significant time in the G League. But if his game progresses as he matures the Timberwolves could have a young two-way forward that so many other teams around the league would covet.

Free Agency Period: Resigned Malik Beasley, resigned Juancho Hernangomez, signed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (non-guaranteed contract)

Without cap space to work with, the Timberwolves free agency was always going to be fairly quiet. The front office maintained that their priorities were retaining Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez after acquiring the two in a trade last season. Beasley was the number one priority after lighting the nets on fire in his 14 games with the Timberwolves. They inked him to a 4 yr $60 million deal on the first day of free agency. At first glance that is a seemingly large contract for a player in the middle of legal challenges and who has a small sample size of success, but a closer look at the contract shows a valuable team option for the final year. In reality the contract is for 3 yrs and about $43 million prior to the team option. If Malik continues to play the way he ended last season, or if he improves, that price will look like a steal for the ascending 24 yr old. The contract certainly could be an anchor on the Wolves cap sheet if he regresses or legal challenges continue, but the team is betting on him to continue the progress he showed last year.

The 25 year old power forward, Juancho Hernangomez, took a few more days to test the free agent market, but he ended up signing with the Wolves on a 3 yr $21 million deal. Again, this may seem like an overpay for a player who may not be a starter on a good team, but they did well to add another team option for the third year making it a 2 yr $13.5 million deal before the team option. Juancho could certainly be primed for a breakout season as a shooting big man in an offense that should rank very highly in the NBA, but even if he underperforms this season or next his contract should not affect the team’s cap sheet greatly.

As training camp commenced the Wolves front office made one final depth addition when they signed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to a non-guaranteed contract. He will be given an opportunity to earn a roster spot as a versatile defensive specialist who is still young enough to have offensive upside. This move is another example of a low risk/high reward transaction by the front office. They avoided the temptation to bring in some of the plodding centers that were on the market, or spend more money on other depth pieces that could clog up their future cap space. The one move that Timberwolves fans desperately want to see is the resigning of reserve point guard Jordan McLaughlin. He is likely worth a roster spot, but he does not fit the front office mantra of acquiring players that can be future stars or lead to the acquisition of future stars.

Players like Beasley, Hernangomez, and Hollis-Jefferson are not stars in the league, and it is unlikely that they ever will be. However, they are all young players who will be entering the prime of their careers over the next couple of seasons when a star player in the NBA will want a trade out of their current situation. Rosas and his front office will have the quality players on valuable contracts to put together an attractive offer. That was the entire strategy behind trading for Beasley and Hernangomez in the first place, and resigning them to their contracts was exactly what he needed to do in continuing the quest to build a championship roster.

What is the Grand Plan?

The front office’s roster construction in the past 19 months since Gersson Rosas was hired has been tactical and impressive. They have managed to remove major negative assets while acquiring talent all while only losing a 1st round pick in 2021. Whether large or small, each move continues to display their overarching plan to search for top-end talent. Not only are they looking for great players, they want the right type of players. Bill Simmons from “The Ringer” always asks the same question when evaluating a player: Could he play in game 7 of a playoff series? To stay on the court in the playoffs when every single matchup is magnified, a player cannot have glaring weaknesses for the opponent to attack on offense or defense. Typically plodding centers who cannot shoot or defend on the perimeter become obsolete in the playoffs, along with small point guards who get bullied on defense. Wing players become incredibly valuable, especially if they can shoot and defend. The top players in the playoffs are those who can shoot, defend on the perimeter, and handle the ball on offense. It seems Rosas and his staff have used a similar guiding principle in their draft selections and acquisitions. They know a plodding defensive center, or a small shifty point guard could have been acquired in free agency or via a trade to help them during the regular season. They had opportunities to field a pretty good team. However that was not the goal.

The draft selections of Anthony Edwards, Leandro Bolmaro, and Jaden McDaniels are clear signs that the team wants contributors that have great size, versatile skillsets, and will hold up in the playoffs. The trade for Rubio served the purpose of acquiring a valuable player with a trade-able contract in the future. The same can be said for resigning the two young players, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez. All of these players will certainly help the team now, but their greatest value may be as a trade chip down the road to net the team another star to pair with their current cornerstones. With all of their offseason moves both big and small, the front office continues to signal their intentions. They will not settle for being good. They want to be great.

 

-Jerry W.