The Wolves Are No Longer The Underdog

After a draft day heist for Jimmy Butler, the Minnesota Timberwolves are positioned to make the Western Conference playoffs for the first time in thirteen years.

The draft day trade for Jimmy cost the Wolves very little of value, meaning they can continue to be aggressive going forward.  Because Wiggins and Towns are still on their rookie scale contracts, the Wolves have a ton of cap flexibility this offseason. Towns will earn roughly 6.2 million next season and Wiggins 7.5. This allows the Wolves to add to an already talented roster. With the right moves, the Timberwolves will not only push into the playoff conversation, they could potentially challenge for a top-4 seed in the West.

In most cases acquiring a top ten two-way talent like Jimmy Butler depletes a roster. However, in this case, the Timberwolves came away largely unscathed. The deal involved Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn and the number 7 pick in return for the number 16 pick. While Zach Lavine has shown promise, he’s looked more like a “good stats, bad team” guy so far and his upcoming payday would have seen him earn more than Jimmy Butler in 2018. Because he’s on a max under the old CBA, Butler will only earn $38 million over the next two season. Given Lavine is coming off an ACL surgery and relies heavily on athleticism, it’s probably a positive for the Timberwolves that they don’t have to commit financially to a player that may never be worth it.

Similarly, Kris Dunn was a fan favorite when he was drafted fifth overall twelve months ago, but after a horrible rookie season, the Wolves probably consider this a sunk cost. Dunn is already 23 years old and on his current path, he projects as a backup point guard. It would seem that at this stage only the Bulls front office has any hope that he will ever be an above average starting point guard. They have to believe this right, otherwise, why trade him for Jimmy? Sliding back 9 spots in the draft may hurt, but considering that Lauri Markkanen was taken at 7, I know I’d be fine sleeping at night if I were Thibs.

The Wolves now have the game’s best young big man in Towns (yeah I said it), a top ten two-way talent in Jimmy Butler, and a high-level scorer in Andrew Wiggins. Personally, I’m not sold on Wiggins, but I am optimistic about his potential as the third best player on a good team. Playing alongside another big wing like Butler should only make it easier for Wiggins to find and exploit size mismatches, as the better defender will often take Jimmy. That will leave Wiggins to feast on smaller guards at the two spot, which is where he belongs. Butler will also take the opposition’s best wing player on defense, which could potentially allow Andrew to develop into a positive defender. However, for this trio to work, the pieces around them will need to fit perfectly to make up for some of the concerns – ball movement and outside shooting.

All three of Towns, Wiggins and Butler need an offense built around their strengths. Neither Butler nor Wiggins is particularly effective in an off ball role and Towns will ultimately be more effective with the ball in his hands. As a result, the supplementary pieces around these three players should theoretically work to space the floor. To do so, the Wolves will need to add shooting at the point guard and power forward positions, meaning Gorgui Dieng will likely transition into a backup center role. Dieng is overqualified for that role given his $64 million contract, which means he should be traded.

A number of people feel that Dieng should start at center with Towns at PF, but this isn’t the best use of Towns skill set. Towns can shoot it, but he also has a strong back to the basket game and he’s an underrated passer. Playing KAT at the five with a stretched floor is the path to superstardom. Playing him at power forward next to a center – like the Wolves did for the early parts of last season – cramps the floor spacing and led to early season struggles for Towns. After being moved to a more permanent center role, Towns averaged 28 points and 13 rebounds post all-star break.

The second position of weakness for the Timberwolves is point guard. Ricky Rubio is a solid player, but due to his limitations he falls into the same boat as Dieng; he should be traded. In fact, the Wolves have been publicly shopping him ever since the Butler acquisition (as they have been for years). Rubio’s weaknesses are well-documented, but he’s solid on defense, he’s one of the league’s most creative passers and overall he scores the ball at a league average rate (54 percent True Shooting – mostly due to his free throws). He and Dieng have value in the league – someone will take them.

With the cap projected at 99 million next season, the Wolves are currently operating well below. As it stands right now, the Wolves have 73.5 million committed next season after waiving Pekovic under injury eligibility. Given they now have Butler and Wiggins on the wing, they can let Shabazz Muhammed go to open up even more space. That leaves them with almost $30 million in cap space to work with. Finding deals for Dieng ($14.1 million) and Rubio ($14.1 million) could open up even more.  Moving Rubio (which is likely) and Dieng (which hasn’t been rumoured, but makes sense) for dead salary would open up over $58 million in cap space for the Wolves, which is enough for two max free-agents! However, that’s unrealistic.

In another unlikely scenario, the Wolves could try to acquire talent through trades. For example, if Houston looks to unload salary for a big name free agent they could potentially add Patrick Beverley and Ryan Anderson for a combined salary of $25 million (most from Ryno). However, outside of that, I’m not sure where the talent comes from, as a Paul George to Minnesota trade doesn’t seem likely. I would pay to see Kevin love dealt back to Minnesota, though.

Instead, the Wolves should look to acquire role players on smaller contracts to build depth while also shedding salary for free agents.

Just spit-balling here, but maybe the Nets would look at a deal involving Quincy Acy and Trevor Booker for Dieng if the Wolves throw in a pick? This would add two quality power forward options to the Wolves roster, with Acy potentially a great fit next to Towns as a stretch four. Booker perhaps doesn’t add the shooting you’d like, but at $9 million for only one more season he’s a much better fit than Dieng financially for a backup big man role – plus his salary comes off the books in a year. The Nets get a pick (first-rounder?) and a decent player in his prime. They have no incentive to tank, so why not take on Dieng for a draft pick?

Just spit-balling again, but if Jrue Holiday bolts from New Orleans, maybe they’ll entertain a Ricky Rubio for E’Twuan Moore deal? At $8 million, Moore would work well as a backup PG and again opens another couple of million in cap space for the Wolves. In this situation, Minnesota collects some depth on short-term contracts and still has $35+ million in cap space to work with. You could build a damn good team with that alone, let alone when adding to a core of Butler, Towns, and Wiggins. These particular trades may not even be available to the Wolves, but it gets the imagination flowing and shows how well-positioned the Wolves are to build around this core (the ESPN trade machine says both of these deals are possible).

With that cap space, the Wolves could throw a 3 year, $70 million deal at George Hill, who would be an excellent fit. Alternatively, they could throw a similar – but lesser – deal at Patty Mills who works almost as well. That would still leave them with the money needed to overpay for a 3 and D power forward like Patrick Patterson or even a knockdown shooter like Ersan Ilyasova.

Given the talent in place and the flexibility, I’d be surprised if the Wolves don’t catapult into the playoffs next season. If everything breaks right in Free Agency, even a top-4 finish wouldn’t shock me. The Timberwolves are in the position to possibly push for a top-four seed in the West. With talent, coaching, continued development, and the acquisition of the right free agents the Wolves could be ready to compete much sooner than we think.


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