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The Timberwolves can Rebuild and Compete at Same Time

A few teams in the league are already looking to next season, with the draft as their main concern. The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of those teams. Kevin Love forcing his way out and the many injuries to key players that followed forced the Timberwolves into tanking the season. At the moment, they have the second-highest chance at the top pick and will surely pick in the top five. A high quality young player will join the core of Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. The youth movement will march on.

Yet the Timberwolves, unlike other teams in a similar position, have a unique conundrum ahead of them: they not only have young talent, but also a few veterans who can make a positive effect on the team. So do they clear the decks to open playing time for the cornerstones of the future or do they keep their seasoned players to try to stay relevant and teach the youngsters the ins and outs of the game? While there are teams that have already committed to improving over the summer (Lakers, Knicks) and others that’ll continue to build through the draft (76ers), either option is on the table for Minnesota.

Going from the abstract to the practical, let’s assume Minnesota drafts Karl-Anthony Towns. He projects to be an NBA center and the Wolves have Nikola Pekovic under contract. Should they trade him as soon as they pick Towns to force-feed him minutes or do they keep Pekovic, bring Towns along slowly and hope that the mix between young players and veterans keeps them in the playoff run? There’s a case to be made for either scenario.

While the “losing engenders losing” maxim is nonsense (if you lose and get Kevin Durant, you’ll start winning soon after), it’s true that young guys can develop bad habits in situations in which they know they’ll play, no matter how they perform. Most players who have star potential self-motivate, but a push in the right direction isn’t a bad thing even when dealing with ultra-competitive personalities. By keeping Pekovic, the Wolves would be able to give Towns only the minutes he deserves while having someone to teach him how to do the little things.

At the same time, even if they remain somewhat relevant, the Timberwolves aren’t contending with Rubio, Kevin Martin, Wiggins, Kevin Garnett and Pekovic. Why not let the kids learn the game together with as much room to make mistakes as possible? If giving him extra minutes accelerates the development of Towns (in this scenario) even a little bit, isn’t having Pekovic ahead of him on the depth chart counterintuitive to the team’s goal of forming a core that can actually aspire to winning it all? This seems to be the consensus around the league, with the Timberwolves showing similar inclination by trading Corey Brewer to make room for Wiggins.

Yet in this particular case, Minnesota could be wise to buck conventional wisdom and go with the first option for a couple of reasons. First, the team might already be decent, despite what the record says. The four man combination of Rubio, Martin, Wiggins and Pekovic has a net rating of 5.5, per NBA.com, which is virtually the same as the San Antonio Spurs’ net rating. Granted, the sample size is small since injuries have prevented them from sharing the court for heavy minutes, but the eye test confirms that the Wolves’ problems are a result of the depth or lack thereof surrounding the few good players they have. If everyone is healthy and the young players who have disappointed improve even marginally, the Timberwolves could chase a playoff spot.

For most rebuilding teams, fighting for the eighth seed makes no sense if it comes at the expense of ping pong balls to continue to add talent. The Timberwolves don’t really have that problem because they have enough young players who could be contributors on their roster already, including a couple who could be special. LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Wiggins, Adrian Payne, Anthony Bennett and Gorgui Dieng have enough upside as a group to negate the impact of falling a few spot on the lottery odds. Wiggins looks like a future superstar, and the players at the top of this year’s draft have that potential. While another high pick would be good, it’s not as necessary to Minnesota as it is to other teams.

Finally, an unlikely positive for Minnesota is Flip Saunders staying as the team’s coach. Saunders is stuck in the past, with his offense designed to create mid-range jumpers instead of three-pointers, but he’s also the team’s GM. A coach focused on winning immediately at all costs could rely on the veterans too much to save his job, but Saunders can afford to balance everyone’s roles so that the team has a shot most nights while still giving the youngsters minutes to develop. Ideally he would hire a more forward-thinking coach and empower him to do that, but it seems unlikely to happen.

There’s no wrong answer for Minnesota here. If they decided to trade Pekovic and Martin, they’ll likely struggle and get another high pick who could develop into a star. But if they decide to keep their veterans, they could achieve what not a lot of teams have in the past: a quick rebuild that still yields a contender in the future. There’s risk involved, but with the fans enduring a decade of futility, giving them something to root for in the short term while not severely compromising the ceiling of the team might be the way to go.

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