Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.
- Zach LaVine (Round 1, 13th overall). Signed via rookie exception to rookie scale contract.
- Glenn Robinson III (Round 2, 40th overall). Signed via minimum-salary exception for one year, $507K. Partially guaranteed for $250K.
Rookie Contract Option Decisions
For the second time in seven years, the Timberwolves were forced to deal away their star player and begin anew. Team president Flip Saunders certainly hopes this time around brings Minnesota better results than when Kevin Garnett was shipped to Boston back in 2007, seeing as the franchise has only averaged 25 wins per season since that trade.
In this rebuilding sequel the player being dealt was Kevin Love, and much of the offseason headlines and speculation around the league were focused squarely on where Love was headed, and what kind of package it would take for the Wolves to hit the reset button on the franchise. It turns out that a package of the last two No. 1 overall picks from the Cavs was the answer to that riddle, along with Thaddeus Young, by way of the Sixers, whose talent level makes him much more than just a throw-in.
While I understand how frustrating it must be for fans of the Wolves to see yet another highly talented player leave town, the fact is that the team wasn’t headed to the NBA Finals with Love anytime soon. The franchise hasn’t so much as sniffed the playoffs during his tenure, so this is nowhere near the step back that losing Garnett was. Love was almost assured of leaving the team next summer, when he can opt out the contract that former GM David Kahn designed when he wouldn’t commit to a five-year extension for Love, so Saunders made a tough call, but a correct one.
A deal that sends away a superstar for a package of lesser assets doesn’t usually help the franchise that relinquishes the better player, as is illustrated in my Trade Retrospective Series. This trend might continue with Minnesota, but I applaud Saunders for pulling the trigger on flipping Love for the best possible package available in Wiggins, Bennett, and Young. The Wolves aren’t likely to contend in the brutal Western Conference for a few more seasons, but if and when they do finally break through, this deal could be looked back upon as one that laid the foundation for that achievement.
The primary piece that Saunders acquired is this year’s No. 1 overall draftee, Andrew Wiggins. It will take some time, but Wiggins has superstar potential, and he’s a player whom a franchise can build around, as well as someone the Wolves can use as a marquee attraction to sell season tickets, given his ridiculous athleticism and above-the-rim antics. The only real knock on Wiggins is that he seemingly lacks the killer instinct present in most, if not all, of the true alphas in the NBA. But if that’s true, Minnesota is the perfect place for Wiggins to develop, outside of the spotlight of a major market where he can play for a team not expected to make the playoffs this season. I think Wiggins will end up surprising many in this regard and figure things out sooner than expected. In a few seasons, the Cavs could be ruing the day they traded him.
The other pieces Minnesota acquired are wild cards, however. There is no denying that Young is a talent, and he’ll be counted on for veteran leadership. But the ex-Sixer may be too weary from all those losing seasons in Philadelphia to go through the process again with the Wolves, and with an early termination option for next season in his possession, it’s quite possible he’ll end up having been merely a one-season rental. I’d be surprised if Young didn’t exercise his ETO, as the long-term security of a brand new deal would be the smart play, and he’s almost assured to do better salary-wise than the $9,971,739 that he’s set to earn next year. A strong season by Young should thrust his market value into the neighborhood at least the $12MM per year. That doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t re-sign with the Wolves, but he’d be remiss if he didn’t at least explore the free agent market.
As for Bennett, he’s clearly not going to live up to his status as the top pick in the 2013 NBA draft, though there’s an easy argument to make that he should never have been selected that high to begin with. The Wolves have little to lose by giving him a shot to develop, and he has looked much improved this season, though he’s not likely to be an All-Star anytime soon. Any production they can get from Bennett, whom the Wolves are using almost exclusively at power forward this season after the Cavs tried him at small forward last year, is a bonus.
Minnesota is not viewed as a true free agent destination, as smaller cold-weather cities rarely are in the NBA. So the team is forced to mine the second tier of available free agents. That template certainly applies to the team’s lone free agent acquisition this offseason. The Mo Williams signing was another shrewd move by Saunders, as the team certainly needed veteran leadership, as well as depth at the point guard spot. With the injury to Ricky Rubio, Williams’ presence is even more valuable. At the very least Williams could provide the team with a valuable trade asset later in the season.
The draft is extremely important to the fortunes of the team, given Minnesota’s lack of appeal to marquee free agents. Saunders’ selection of Zach LaVine comes with some intriguing possibilities. LaVine is a stellar athlete who has off-the-charts leaping ability, and his potential is unlimited. But he’s incredibly raw, having played only one season at UCLA, and he wasn’t even a starter during that time. Scouts have compared LaVine favorably to another Bruins alum, Russell Westbrook. That is a tough legacy to live up to, though Westbrook entered the league with many of the same concerns about his game, and he turned out pretty well for the Thunder. It’s going to take some time to be able to accurately gauge what kind of player LaVine will be, but Saunders deserves some credit for gambling on him.
With his second round pick, Saunders selected Glenn Robinson III, another player with intriguing long-term potential. Robinson has the skills to develop into a useful rotation player, though he’ll likely spend more time in the D-League than on the NBA hardwood this season.
Saunders also needed to find a new head coach to replace the retired Rick Adelman. He surveyed a number of marquee college coaches, and at one point owner Glen Taylor was keen on Saunders hiring ex-Raptors coach Sam Mitchell, who had a long career with the Timberwolves as a player. But Saunders’ primary target became Grizzlies head man Dave Joerger, whose job security was tenuous at best since Memphis owner Robert Pera was revamping his entire front office and had been rumored to be considering firing Joerger back in November of 2013. But Joerger and Pera patched up their relationship and Joerger signed an extension to remain in Memphis. This led Saunders to fill the role himself, though his arrangement is “open-ended” in terms of length, meaning Saunders will have the opportunity to revisit a search for someone else to coach the team in the future.
The final move the team made during its active offseason, and perhaps the most important one aside from the Love trade, was to lock up Rubio on a long-term extension. Saunders was obviously determined not to run the risk of losing yet another player to free agency, though $55MM plus incentives over four years may be a bit of an overpay for the 24-year-old from Spain. Prior to his injury, Rubio was enjoying an excellent season, averaging 9.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 10.0 assists per game. If Rubio can ever develop a reliable jump shot, something his contract incentives are tied directly to, and resume his early-season production level when he returns, he’ll be worth that chunk of cap space.
Heading into 2015/16, the team currently has more than $49MM committed in guaranteed salaries. That figure doesn’t include Young’s salary, though he’ll likely exercise his ETO, and the player options for Chase Budinger ($5MM) and Corey Brewer ($4.905MM). If the team re-signs Young, and if both Budinger and Brewer opt in, which is likely in Budinger’s case, the team won’t have much room under the cap to play with. Brewer is currently the subject of numerous trade rumors, though Saunders has hinted that he’s too valuable to trade. That is something I believe is posturing on Saunders’ part, designed to try and increase any return the team would receive for Brewer. Budinger, too, found his name in trade rumors prior to the season.
Another contract on his books that Saunders should consider trying to unload is Nikola Pekovic‘s. The team still owes him three more years and $35.8MM after this season, numbers not in line with Pekovic’s production. While talented big men are at a premium in the league, their importance in the guard-oriented NBA world we currently live in has been diminished. And at 28 years of age, Pekovic isn’t likely to provide much more than his career averages of 13.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. This contract will hamper the team’s growth similar to how Roy Hibbert‘s deal is hamstringing the Pacers.
With Love gone, the immediate outlook for the Timberwolves’ fortunes hasn’t improved, though they weren’t likely to shine even if Love had remained in Minnesota. For the long term, the team’s outlook has a glimmer of hope in the core of Wiggins, Rubio, and LaVine. The franchise will continue to struggle to attract top-tier free agents, but if the Wolves can maximize their future draft picks and add the right mix of role players, the long-suffering fans in Minnesota just might have something to cheer about.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post. Chuck Myron contributed to this post.