The Wolves Move Forward with Everything on the Table
A complete drubbing by the Charlotte Hornets mercifully sent the Wolves into the All Star break. After the Hornets played carelessly and sloppily in the first half, they tightened the screws in the second half en route to a mauling of the undermanned and lifeless Wolves. If it was not already clear to the front office, everything needs to be on the table for the Wolves to clear a path forward.
In the midst of a 9 game losing streak the Minnesota Timberwolves will finally get consecutive days off to rest, recharge, and build rapport with their new head coach. During the first half of the schedule, this franchise’s worst case scenario unfolded. A team with an established hierarchy of veterans and intriguing young players that would fight for minutes has quickly given way to an unorganized mosh pit of youngsters trying to play their way through mistakes. Ryan Saunders was replaced as head coach by Chris Finch who is seemingly more qualified, but has very little insight into the players and their fit with one another. Finch is also installing a read and react offense that would be difficult for veterans to pick up in the middle of a season, let alone first and second year players. On top of all of that, the Wolves face the reality of sending a high 2021 draft pick to the Golden State Warriors, so the idea of tanking for a better future loses its luster. Injuries, illness, suspensions, and roster youth have been key contributors to the abhorrent record so far this season, but it is doubtful that the front office ever thought it would get this bad. Whatever the current path may be, it is clearly not working. Everything should be on the table regarding trade deadline moves and playing time for the second half of the season.
Everyone likes to play fantasy GM with the online trade machines, and in a way Gersson Rosas & co. did that at the 2020 trade deadline. They turned over the majority of the team in an attempt to acquire players that better fit the timeline and complemented the team’s core pieces. This season, it is very unclear what will happen at the trade deadline that is just weeks away. Will the front office try to sell off any useful player for future assets? Will they aggressively pursue big names to hit the ground running with a new team heading into the offseason? Or maybe they will stay mostly still and try to find undervalued talent around the margins. Again, anything is on the table.
Most Wolves fans do not expect Rosas to be stagnant at the deadline. Clearly with a 7–29 record, things need to change, and the team could lean into being “sellers” at the deadline. Unlike last season with Robert Covington, they do not have many players with real trade value outside of Karl-Anthony Towns and Malik Beasley. Teams may come calling for Ricky Rubio, but would any team offer more than salary filler and a 2nd round pick? Or at best, a heavily protected future 1st? It just seems unlikely, so that leaves very little else on the roster that could realistically be traded for meaningful future assets. Just a few weeks ago, the idea of moving KAT seemed unreasonable to even think about, but when trading him represents a chance to take a completely different path for a 7–29 team, it has to be considered (for the record I do not want KAT traded, nor do I believe Rosas has any interest in moving him any time soon).
Another option for the Wolves would be to try to make small adjustments to the roster on the margins by hunting for undervalued assets around the league. Last season they snagged Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt for a very small price, and it seems to have been a positive swap for Minnesota. Could the front office try to find those players this season? While it is always prudent to conduct due diligence on those types of players, it is hard to imagine any moves like that making a significant positive impact on winning anytime soon. Those types of “savvy” transactions work great for winning teams or up-and-coming squads that have a nucleus in place, but for this Wolves team it is unlikely to move the needle.
That leaves one final option. Try to redirect this careening path that the franchise is on by taking a swing at a real difference making player. That may involve moving a coveted young player or two and future draft capital, but continuing on the current path may prove to be untenable for a battered fanbase. The Wolves have been linked to just about every “almost star” player in the league. Names like Aaron Gordon, John Collins, Buddy Hield, and others could be options, and it is a smart bet that Gersson Rosas has at least inquired about the cost for these guys. If the Wolves had to part with a future lightly protected 1st round pick, Rubio, and 2 young players (some combination of Naz, Okogie, Culver, Nowell, Vanderbilt, or McDaniels) for one of those players, would they do it? The team would certainly be improved in the short term, but is it enough to keep them being a bottom-five team in the league again next season without other significant changes? At the very least it may install some good vibes back into the team with competent basketball and a partner to star next to KAT as he navigates this difficult season.
When it comes to the trade deadline, Rosas may choose to combine these options. After all, one single move in either direction is unlikely to change the immediate course of the franchise, so maybe we will see another overhaul a la the 2020 trading deadline. It may be prudent to consolidate the copious amounts of young players on the roster, and turn them into a veteran player or two. While it may seem like sacrificing the future to steal a few wins right now, this team needs a baseline of competence to build on. For a 7–29 team heading into an unpredictable trading deadline, it seems we can quote KG by saying “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE”.
For the rest of the season, head coach Chris Finch will likely not need to adjust the rotation very much if the goal is to tank. Young players lose in the NBA, and no team plays more youngsters than the Wolves. They are currently missing two of their best players in D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, but even with those two Minnesota still sports one of the youngest lineups in the league. In their most recent loss, it was astounding to see the youth that racks up minutes for this team. Both of their rookies played over 30 minutes. The 4 second year players logged a range of 14–24 minutes. The lone third year player, Jarred Vanderbilt, starts and played 18 minutes, but he is essentially a rookie after spending most of his first 2 seasons in the G League. At times, the Wolves’ 2nd unit is on the court together and they are comprised of the 4 second year players and 1 of the rookies. That is unbelievable! While they could navigate the rest of the season like this in hopes that the young guys take their lumps and learn from the mistakes, the team risks alienating the few veterans on the team. It should be very clear to a player like Karl-Anthony Towns that they will not win more games with this amount of youth logging minutes. It may be best to find a balance between development and overall competence.
If the Wolves plan to continue down the same path of developing their young players by letting them play through mistakes on the court, then by all means continue to hand minutes to the youngest guys on the team. With this plan, Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards should continue to see 30+ minutes per night, and the second unit comprised of 2nd year players like Naz Reid, JMac, Nowell, and Culver should play and grow together. While this will lead to even more losses, it could pay dividends in the future by allowing for more development and higher trade value for some of the younger guys. The major downside would obviously be a lack of desire for the team’s best player, Karl-Anthony Towns, to be a part of the process. Who could blame him for not wanting to take part in a major rebuild while young players compete through mistakes? Other players of his stature are consistently surrounded by smart veterans, and he could see this situation as a failure by the front office. Risks aside, this option is firmly on the table.
If I was in control, I would attempt to thread the needle between development and competence when deciding playing time. The team should pick a few core young players to build around. Developing 7 young players at one time is nearly impossible. Choose 2–3 that receive significant minutes, and the rest can be used in special circumstances and can develop in practice. Of course, the Wolves need warm bodies in the rotation until DLo and Beasley return, but when they area healthy the staff needs to prioritize a few young players and use the veterans along side them. When fully healthy, I would like to see Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Jarrett Culver, and Naz Reid continue to get heavy minutes. That would leave Jaylen Nowell, Josh Okogie, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Jordan McLaughlin mostly out of the rotation. This would also allow the coaching staff to have an outlet when they are in need of a change or jolt of energy. Right now, they seem reluctant to bench a young player who is struggling because the only option is to play a veteran. It is much easier to replace a struggling veteran with a young player. This proposed rotation would look like this:
Guard: Russell, Beasley, Edwards, Rubio
Forward: McDaniels, Layman, Juancho, Culver
Bigs: Towns, Reid
That is a tidy 10-man rotation with the flexibility to insert Okogie or Vanderbilt based on matchups in a specific game. Juancho Hernangomez has been mostly bad this season, but he is a veteran player that has proven to be able to space the floor and be in the right spot on offense. Rubio and Layman have had up and down seasons, but mostly know where to be on both sides of the ball. Setting that baseline of competence would just change the bad vibes that have circulated around the team on this 9 game losing streak. While there may not be many more wins that come with this lineup, it may be enough to buy more goodwill with the team’s best player.
Nothing will come easy on the path to quality basketball for these Wolves. With the spectre of giving up a valuable pick in the 2021 draft hanging over their heads, every option leaves uncertainty and the potential to backfire. The most frustrating part for most fans is that there is no clear way out of this. It seems almost every direction could bring a new low, but could also pay dividends for the future. Maybe the worst case scenario will happen and we will gift the 4th pick in the 2021 draft to Golden State (or whomever they choose to trade it too) leaving the Wolves without a 2021 pick and little flexibility to improve. Not wanting to undergo another difficult season, Towns publicly asks to be traded, cratering his trade value, and leaving the team devoid of talent. Or maybe, juuuuust maybe, that 14% chance to land the top pick will hit. Your Minnesota Timberwolves will have the chance to draft a franchise changing player in Cade Cunningham, offering the flexibility to rebuild the team around him or add him to an already intriguing core. As Wolves fans, we are conditioned to assume good things will not happen to our team. We know not to get our hopes up. But all it takes is one positive thing to snowball into a bright future. After all, someone has to win the lottery. Here is the first and only spin of the day on tankathon.com:
The road ahead will offer either the highest of highs or the lowest of lows for this franchise. With that uncertainty ahead, everything will be on the table for the rest of the season in Minnesota.