The Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves in a good spot these days, which is unchartered territory for them. They last appeared in the playoffs when they lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004. The last time they finished a season over .500 was the following year, when they went 44-38. Since then, they’ve traded Kevin Garnett, brought in Kevin Love as the new face of the franchise, traded Love and brought Garnett back for a retirement-tour of sorts.
Last year at this time they drafted Zach LaVine, a 19-year-old, 6’5” point guard with a lot of potential and athletic ability. Then, in what might end up being the best move in franchise history, they waited out the trade market on the unhappy Love and dealt him to Cleveland. In return, they received Anthony Bennett, Thaddeus Young and 19-year-old potential star Andrew Wiggins.
The roster last year was stacked with young talent; Wiggins and LaVine developed on the court alongside Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, Adreian Payne and others. The Wolves traded Young to the Brooklyn Nets in February, bringing back the 38-year-old Garnett for a final stint with the team before he decides to ride off into the sunset.
Flash forward to this offseason, when the Wolves had a chance to make a few franchise-altering decisions. Most obvious of all, they had the first pick in the NBA Draft. The choice there was easy; they drafted 19-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns, a 6’11” freshman center from Kentucky. He was the consensus best player in the draft, combining low-post game, defensive ability and a solid outside shooting touch. He’s pretty much the quintessential modern NBA big man. Check out his top 10 plays of the 2015 season:
Now that the draft is over, Wolves president and head coach Flip Saunders needs to decide what the direction of this team is, in both the short and the long term. It’s a safe assumption that Garnett will be back with the team, likely on a cheap contract. He’s a good mentor to have in place for Towns, and he should be able to challenge the rookie and teach him how to focus in the face of a long NBA season. But with so much young talent on the roster, it’s hard not to think the Timberwolves could be pretty good next year with the right mix of veterans.
To take the bull by the horns and go out and get those veterans, however, we need to analyze the cap situation and look at the trade assets. The Wolves likely have the mid-level exception and bi-annual exception available, which means they could spend $5.4 million and $2.1 million annually on two different players. They also have a $6.3 million trade exception from the Love deal, which means they could take on some salary in a deal.
They’re going to need a combination of veteran players and guys who can shoot, and fortunately for them there are several of those on the open market. Mike Dunleavy is a guy who fits the mold, but the problem is that the Chicago Bulls likely want him back and are supposedly willing to dip into the tax to pay for him.
Mirza Teletovic is another possibility to look at, although he’s a restricted free agent and the Brooklyn Nets can match any offer. He’s a 6’9” small forward, like Dunleavy, who’s a light-out shooter. He’s not as good of a defender as Dunleavy, nor is he quite as athletic, but he’s probably going to cost less money. Getting him of course depends on if the Nets want to keep him or not.
Minnesota hasn’t had a ton of luck in its history bringing in big-ticket free agents, and I don’t expect that to change this offseason. However, they do have some trade chips. It’s been rumored that they’re looking to move Bennett, center Nikola Pekovic would seem to be expendable with Towns and Dieng on the roster, and with LaVine perhaps set to be the point guard of the future, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that they check the market on Ricky Rubio.
The Rockets have made it no secret that they’d like another playmaker on the floor with James Harden, and Rubio could fit in that mold. It was rumored that the Rockets called about Rubio and are willing to part with Trevor Ariza, which would really fit what the Wolves need. The whole idea was floated with the contingency that the Timberwolves would get the Rockets’ first-round draft pick, which they eventually used to draft Sam Dekker. So it’s not clear whether or not the Wolves actually are interested in a deal with the Rockets. But Rubio for Ariza and former late first-round pick Clint Capela would work, if both teams are interested.
A Pekovic trade would make sense at this point with Towns in the fold, although Pekovic and Towns can play together and it might be ideal for Pekovic to play a smaller role considering all his injury problems. It also could be difficult to get something of value in return for Pekovic considering he’s still owed about $36 million over the next tree years and can’t stay on the floor. Minnesota will surely be on the lookout for good deals, but it’s not a necessity to deal Pekovic.
It’s hard to tell what direction Flip Saunders is going to take this team the rest of the offseason, and there’s no telling just how far away this Timberwolves team is from making noise in the NBA. Does he see this year as another year of growth as Towns learns the NBA game under the tutelage of Garnett and Wiggins continues to grow into a star? Or is now the time to begin making the move toward, putting a true competitive team on the court?
No matter what the answer to that question is, one thing is for sure: Towns and Wiggins are going to garner a lot of positive attention, and that alone makes the Wolves relevant next year.