The 2020–21 season has been a frustrating journey for the Timberwolves as they have struggled through injuries, illness, suspension, and a coaching change. As a fan, it has been difficult to get a sense for what really needs to be done to blast the team out of the league’s cellar because until recently they have not been able to play with a consistent lineup or scheme. Since the All Star break however, things have began to take shape. The Wolves are still struggling through injuries, but the playing style and core pieces have become solidified. Because of this, it is fair to start drawing conclusions regarding the team’s most important players moving forward, and how the front office can maximize the current players in their personnel decisions.
Wolves Need Beef: A Way to Improve Minnesota’s Core
Minnesota is coming off of a back to back set over the weekend against two of the most physically imposing teams in the NBA in the Memphis Grizzlies and Philadelphia 76ers. The Grizzlies’ starting center, Jonas Valanciunas is a 7ft. brick wall with legs that rebounds everything in sight. They also trot out Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman at power forward and center, and both are athletic and brauny young players that try to impose their will with physicality. The Wolves countered with Towns at center as usual with 185lb. rookie Jaden McDaniels next to him in the front court. Towns has the requisite size for an NBA center, but he is more of a skill player and is going to have trouble wrestling with Valanciunas all night. While he can hold his own, Towns receives very little help defensively and rebounding the ball against the giants like Jonas. This led to 6 offensive rebounds for the Grizzlies starting center. Clarke and Tillman also spent much of the night getting where they wanted to on the court for rebounds and field goal attempts near the rim. When a team like Memphis sees Minnesota on the schedule, they know the game plan. Physically impose themselves and make the Wolves beat them with finesse knowing the shorthanded Wolves may struggle to do so.
Against the 76er’s on Saturday, the lack of beef and braun consistently on the court for the Wolves was even more evident. Karl-Anthony Towns was magnificent in scoring 39 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, and dishing 5 assists. He outplayed his arch nemesis, Joel Embiid, and nearly helped the Wolves pull off a stunning upset. The main catalyst for the Sixers down the stretch was their ability to use their superior size and strength to get good shots, and make life difficult for the Wolves offense. In their closing lineup, Philadelphia has 3 players in Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid who are at least 6’8″ and weight 230lbs. Only Towns exceeds those height and weight markers for the Wolves’ closing group, and no one else is particularly close. Teams know they can bully the Wolves when they need to. The young players can push back, and sometimes Edwards and McDaniels successfully do, but ultimately players like Harris, Simmons, and Embiid can get a good shot against smaller players almost every time.
The 76er’s are an extreme example of a team that can bully the Wolves as they have a “guard” in Ben Simmons with one of the most unique skillsets in the league at 6’10”. But plenty of the best teams in the league are built with solid players that have the strength and athleticism to go along with their skill. Obviously every team wants players like that, and that is why they are difficult to find. The Wolves have been in a well-documented search for a power forward to aid them in standing up to stronger teams, but maybe they have been narrowing their search too much in only including the forward position.
As many Wolves fans have noted, and Dane Moore recently talked about on his podcast with Britt Robson (listen to Dane’s podcasts and subscribe to his patreon!), Karl-Anthony Towns has been playing on the perimeter more defensively under Head Coach Chris Finch, and he has looked fine doing it. In the NBA, you are the position that you can guard. Can KAT guard most power forwards in the league? If he gets switched on to a perimeter player, would he be totally overmatched? I think most Wolves fans would assume that he could guard on the perimeter competently enough to not become a defensive liability. The reason this is an interesting question to bring up, is because KAT playing power forward could open up the idea of pairing him with a center. Obviously another Towns-sized player on the court beefs up the rim protection and makes it less enticing for a Tobias Harris or a Brandon Clarke to foray into the paint to score or grab rebounds. Another positive effect of a move like this is that it could move Jaden McDaniels to (what I believe to be) his best defensive position as a small forward on the perimeter. Suddenly you have a starting lineup with as much or more height and length as any team in the NBA without totally sacrificing perimeter defense and offensive spacing.
Most Wolves fans have heard all of the power forward options in the past. The guys currently on the team that can play the position are Juancho Hernangomez, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jake Layman, and the aforementioned McDaniels. Besides McDaniels, none of those players has set themselves apart as an obvious addition to the team’s “core” so we are forced to look at guys who were on the trade market like Aaron Gordon, John Collins, or Larry Nance Jr. BUT, if KAT can play power forward and we can look at the center position for potential options, then things become much more interesting. So who are the candidates at center heading into next season?
Myles Turner — Center, Indiana Pacers
25 Years Old, $18 million per year through 2023
The 6th year center has played in Indiana his entire career, and has gained a reputation as a top rim protector in the league. Wolves fans have certainly lusted over him in the past with the team’s utter lack of rim protection in recent years. As a fit in significant minutes next to KAT, he has the skillset to theoretically work well. Defensively he cleans up everything at the rim averaging 3.5 blocks per game, and is a decent rebounder. Offensively he does have the shooting ability to knock down 3’s at a 35% clip for his career. While I do not think he would be asked to do much else for the Wolves, Turner has decent touch around the rim and could potentially work as a cutter or lob threat at the rim. The real issue with Turner comes in acquiring him. Obviously he is under contract, so the Wolves would need to trade for him. Would Minnesota be willing to offer Malik Beasley? They certainly would not want to throw in a future 1st round pick. It is hard to gauge the value of a player like Turner because he is bursting with potential, but it is unlikely he would hit that potential as a 2nd big man option next to Towns. If acquired, that is a huge amount of financial resources committed to the front court as well, and offensive improvement would be needed from Turner to justify his salary and fit. However it is certainly an intriguing option to beef up the Wolves front court.
Jonas Valanciunas — Center, Memphis Grizzlies
28 Years Old, $14 million expiring salary in 2022
Another potential trade target for the Wolves. While Valanciunas has been invaluable to the Grizzlies this season, They will undergo a minutes crunch in the front court when Jaren Jackson Jr. returns alongside Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman next season. With Jonas on an expiring contract, Memphis may be looking to extract some value in a deal for the big man. For the Wolves, they could use “Lithuanian Lightning” (thanks BBall reference!) as a rim protector and rebounder on defense to take the physical load off of Towns, and offensively he can set hard screens and roll hard to the rim. He would not help the spacing around the 3pt. line when Towns has the ball, but with his threat as a finisher inside it would still be hard for teams to double-team Towns. His biggest attraction is his brute strength and ability to keep KAT fresh for the offensive end. The question is once again, how much would Minnesota’s front office be willing to give up for a big man on an expiring contract? Heavily protected future 1st round picks? Salary match and a young player? It is an unlikely scenario, but one that I would enjoy seeing.
Al Horford — Center, Oklahoma City Thunder
34 Years Old, $27 million per year through 2023 (final season only guaranteed at $14.5 million)
Our last true trade target. Yes, he’s old. Yes, he’s very expensive. It is probably a bad idea, but Al Horford COULD be the perfect offensive and defensive fit alongside Towns. At his age, it would be a stopgap move, but something that could prove successful immediately. Defensively Horford is incredibly fundamentally sound, and his only real weakness on that end would be his age starting to sap some of his athleticism. Offensively Al can fit into most roles they could find for him. As a floor spacer, distributor, or scorer Horford can adequately fit in where he is needed. Acquiring him is next to impossible with the Wolves’ financial situation. They would need to find a way to give up somewhere between $23–27 million, but if they can make the salary work OKC is not likely asking for asset compensation. It would be an incredibly long shot for this to happen, but Horford adds the muscle and knowledge to maximize Towns in the front court.
Realistic Unrestricted Free Agents
Daniel Theis — Center, Chicago Bulls
29 Years Old, Free Agent in the 2021 Offseason
Theis was one of the first names brought up by Dane Moore on his podcast in regards to a center to complement KAT. While he is not an enormous center at 6’8″ and 245lbs, he has shown the defensive versatility and offensive skill to be the starting center for the Boston Celtics over the past couple of years. A player like Theis could be perfect for the Wolves defensively, as his instincts keep him in the right place, and he is capable of switching on to perimeter players and holding his own. Offensively he is a hard screen-setter, an adept passer, and has made 34% of his career 3pt. attempts. With a player like Theis around to help shore up the defense, the Wolves could play 3 shooters around Towns and Theis (ex: Russell, Beasley, Ant/Jaden) and not have to be overly worried about the defense, and allowing the offense to still have plenty of space even when Towns has the ball in the post. Acquiring Theis would be easier than some of the other targets as he will be a free agent, but the Wolves do not have cap space to sign him outright. It would likely require moving off of a salary like Rubio to make sure they have space under the luxury tax line to offer Theis some part of the mid-level exception. He has made $5 million/yr over his past couple of years, so would he take another salary around that amount? Would he need $7–9 million to come to Minnesota? The center market is difficult to read and Daniel will be 30 years old by this offseason, so it will be interesting to see what it will take to get him. Theis is certainly one of my favorite fits for the Wolves front court.
Nerlens Noel — Center, New York Knicks
26 Years Old, Free Agent in the 2021 Offseason
“The Nerlen Wall” (thanks again BBall reference!) signed a 1 year contract with the New York Knicks in the 2020 offseason and he has played significant minutes due to the injuries in New York’s front court. Noel has helped to anchor one of the top defenses in the entire league in starting roughly half of the games and playing 23 mins/gm. For the Wolves, this would be a change of direction heavily to the defensive side of the ball. Noel has been a shot-eraser this season at the rim with over 3 blocks per 36 minutes, and at 6’11” has been especially impressive in switching on to perimeter players. Defensive combinations like that are very rare. On offense, he is mostly a finisher at the rim, and has never attempted a 3pt. shot. He would be best used as a cutter or pick and roll threat. Noel is also averaging over 2 offensive rebounds per game this season, and that could be a valuable skillset to help the Wolves’ 2nd chance points as well. Similar to Theis, Nerlens will be a free agent in the offseason and the Wolves would likely have to shed some salary to fit him into their midlevel exception. He was making $5 million this season, but his defensive value that he has shown will surely earn him a raise closer to $10 million next season. It will be interesting to see how much/how long of a contract he signs, but if the Wolves want to immediately improve the defense Noel would be a huge help.
Richaun Holmes — Center, Sacramento Kings
27 Years Old, Free Agent in 2021 Offseason
Zach Collins — Center, Portland Trailblazers
23 Years Old, Restricted Free Agent in 2021 Offseason
Wendell Carter Jr. — Center, Orlando Magic
21 Years Old, Potentially Restricted Free Agent in 2022 Offseason
This entire exercise may be for nothing if Gersson Rosas and the Wolves’ front office want to continue down their same path. We came into the 2020–21 season with KAT as the lone big man and shooters around him. The idea was that the floor spacing provided by the smaller and faster players would force teams to go smaller to match up with the Wolves. With all of the outside factors messing with the Wolves lineups, this plan has not worked. Most fans can see that the Wolves were woefully undersized when Towns was injured, and they are often still at a physicality disadvantage even when he is on the court.
With the new Head Coach exploring the depths of KAT’s versatility on the defensive end, the front office should not be afraid to widen their search for a front court player at the center position. The beauty of a star player like KAT is that he can likely make it work on offense even with another big body taking up space. At least it could reduce his burden on defense, and give the Wolves a chance to punch back against the NBA’s baddest teams. I hope Rosas & co. explore their options to feed the Wolves some beef.