This Timberwolves season is moving along really quickly. Tonight’s game against the Lakers at Staples Center will be their 50th. Eighty two games is too many to begin with, but when the night-to-night results become predictable — and especially when the usual prediction is another loss — the individual contests blur together and feel like one collection of themes instead of distinct stories. The Wolves have lost 18 of their past 21 games, so it’s pretty easy to know how each is going to turn out, most nights.
These Wolves have established themes:
KAT’s brilliance and Rookie of the Year campaign.
Zach LaVine’s ongoing education in Basketball Fundamentals.
Ricky Rubio’s positive on-court impact.
The Timberwolves immense struggles when Rubio sits on the bench.
Consistent scoring from Andrew Wiggins.
The yearning hope that Wiggins will expand his game over time.
The list goes on.
The next big event on the NBA calendar is All-Star Weekend. As always, this is soon followed by the trade deadline. The 2016 deadline falls on February 18. By all indications, the Timberwolves figure to be minor players, at most.
Since the unexpected passing of Flip Saunders right before the season began, the Wolves have seemed to defer large-scale decisionmaking until next offseason. They have been extra clear that Sam Mitchell is the “interim” head coach, not the permanent one. (They even introduce him as “interim” coach before home games.) They have not promoted Milt Newton from his general manager title. They have not hired a president of basketball operations. Glen Taylor is reportedly in the process of selling the team to a group of investors led by someone named Steve Kaplan.
Who is They? is a good question itself.
With so little certainty, and no clear boss of basketball operations, the Wolves will not make any aggressive moves between now and the trade deadline. The most significant move imaginable might be a trade involving Shabazz Muhammad or Gorgui Dieng. The most significant realistic move is probably something involving Kevin Martin and/or maybe Adreian Payne.
As these losses pile up, the deep craters in the roster become more apparent. The collective desire of fans to see them filled becomes palpable. Everybody grows tired of losing, even when patience is sometimes required.
The roster hole that I’ve been thinking about lately is the starting frontcourt spot next to Towns.
Towns is second on the team in minutes, and he’s been fantastic. He’s averaging 20 & 12 per 36 minutes at All-Star efficiency levels. He continues to improve and is one of the best rookies in modern NBA history. KAT can probably play either the 4 or 5, depending on who his frontcourt mate is, and who is opponent is. The problem, this season, has been that he has had no consistent partner up front. His best teammate, Kevin Garnett, has logged only 556 minutes, good for 10th most on the team. The vast majority of KG’s time (518 minutes) has been spent next to KAT, and their lineups have outscored opponents by 59 points. Clearly, it’s a combination that works. In KAT’s other 940 minutes of action, sans KG, Wolves lineups are outscored by 147 points. Clearly, the Wolves would be having a much better season if they had a good, full-time big man to pair with KAT. If they can find a player who replicates Garnett’s aggregate impact in ways that complement KAT’s skillset — and who does it in a starter’s load of minutes — their team will improve significantly.
That player is not Gorgui Dieng. He is a useful utility big man who can play spot minutes at either the 4 or 5, but is not talented or consistent enough to be a starter on a good team. He recently turned 26 years old and does not figure to improve significantly beyond this season.
That player is probably not Nemanja Bjelica. He has interesting skills — particularly as a perimeter-based initiator of offense from the 4 position — but has struggled to find confidence in the NBA setting. He somehow both carries a funny nickname that befits a sharpshooter — “Professor Big Shots” — yet refuses to take open three-pointers upon receipt of a nice kickout pass from a teammate. Defensively, Bjelica fouls too much and is not very athletic. He might improve. He probably will improve actually. But he’s older than Dieng — he turns 28 in May — and given his professional accomplishments in Europe, it’s a little bit alarming that his learning curve doesn’t appear to be steeper. It isn’t clear that he’s gotten better as opposed to worse, as this season has gone on.
Most disappointing of all candidates, the KAT sidekick will not be Nikola Pekovic. As the fresh Star Tribune story makes clear, Pek continues to experience pain in his lower extremities from playing basketball. The Achilles surgery didn’t do any magic trick to fix the simple reality that he has chronic problems and he’s much too heavy to be able to run up and down a basketball floor on a regular basis. Through a dozen games, Pek is shooting just 38 percent from the field, and pulling down a measly 4.8 rebounds per 36 minutes; about the same number as Zach LaVine. Pek is a shell of his former self.
With this in mind, I think there are two pretty basic ways that the Wolves can approach the task of lining up a quality big man next to Karl-Anthony Towns. And I think they would be wise to do both of them, as opposed to just one or the other.
The first is to sign a free agent this summer.
Unfortunately, since Pek has played more than 9 games, he will not be eligible for a “career-ending injury” exclusion to the salary cap that might have been possible if they sat him out, and he was agreeable to proceeding to have his career end on paid leave. So his $12 Million salary does not come off the books any time soon. But the Wolves should still have quite a bit of room under what projects to be a significantly increased salary cap. The cap is projected to rise from about $70 Million this year to $89 Million next. If the Wolves do very little else but sign their next first-round pick, they should have over $15 Million in cap space. If they can find a way to ditch Kevin Martin’s contract, they could have over $20 Million to spend on a free agent.
Tom Ziller of SB Nation just posted his Top 100 Free Agents of 2016, which makes the matter of identifying potential targets a lot easier.
The huge names that pop off the screen — Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Andre Drummond — they are not (Rick Pitino voice) walkin’ through that door. Al Horford probably isn’t either, even if the Wolves carved out max space. Dwight Howard isn’t walkin’ through that door, Tim Duncan isn’t walkin’ through that door, and Dirk Nowitzki isn’t walkin’ through that door. To continue with Pitino, “and if they do, they’re gonna be grey and old.”
But there are some interesting possibilities beyond the top and second tier talent pool. Festus Ezeli will be a restricted free agent who commands a big payday that the Warriors may not be willing to match. He only plays 18 minutes per game for the Warriors because they have Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green as better options at center. But Ezeli is 6’11” and 255 pounds, protects the paint, and scores and rebounds well for a center. If the Wolves want to play KAT more at power forward than center — at least in his early 20s as he builds more strength — then Ezeli would make sense as a center to stick next to him in the starting lineup.
If the Wolves instead prefer that KAT play center, then they need look no further than Ezeli’s teammate Harrison Barnes for a “stretch 4” option to pair next to him. Barnes is going to command a huge contract, he’s only 23 years old, and he would allow the Timberwolves to build a modern offensive scheme that better utilizes Ricky Rubio’s passing. Barnes is somewhat polarizing among pundits because his stats (aside from shooting accuracy) are generally weaker than his reputation. But he shoots well, and defends multiple positions well. That has value.
Pau Gasol will be 36 years old when next season begins, but he continues to play at a really high level. Logging almost 32 minutes per game this year in Chicago, Gasol is rocking a PER of 22. There are worse ideas than paying Gasol a lot of money for a 2-year deal. He’s versatile like Towns and the two would probably play well both next to each other and also in staggered situations that allow one or the other to abuse second-unit centers. Gasol is Team Spain friends with Rubio, which is an added bonus. The Wolves could do worse than to make Playing for the Timberwolves a happier proposition for Ricky, as he enters his 6th season next year, never having sniffed the playoffs.
Gasol’s Bulls teammate, Joakim Noah, will be an unrestricted free agent. It’s not clear that he enjoys playing for his new coach, Fred Hoiberg. He’s injured right now. If the Wolves hire Tom Thibodeau — Noah’s old coach in Chicago — it’s easy to envision them making a play for the Bulls defensive ace in free agency. This would move KAT to the 4. Their defense would be absolutely insane.
There are other options on Ziller’s list. Check it out for yourself.
The main point is that, if the Wolves front line can become “Wiggins-Towns-Good Established Big Man” instead of “Wiggins-Towns-Huge Question Mark,” the team will play a lot better and win more games.
The second way to add a big man next to Towns is to draft one; specifically, to draft a 19-year old project big man to be the longer-term frontcourt starter. I’m just getting started on watching the next wave of Potential Timberwolves Draft Picks, but the main draft sites (ESPN, Draft Express) are top-heavy with tall players.
Ben Simmons is the consensus top prospect, and he’s 6’10” with a versatile offensive skillset. The Wolves will need even more lottery luck to land Simmons, but if they do, they’ll have the most frontcourt upside in the NBA.
Duke’s Brandon Ingram is 6’10” with long arms, and makes threes. (Yay!) He’s too skinny, but that’s part of the whole thing where the Wolves can be patient if they sign a good free agent from the list above. By the time a Gasol contract is expiring, Ingram might be really good.
Dragan Bender from Croatia is 7’1″ and has a tricky buyout situation much like Rubio’s was, back when Kahn drafted him and negotiated to bring him here after a two-year wait. In the Wolves’ and Bender’s case, a deferred start to his career could work wonderfully, as the Wiggins/Towns/LaVine core (to say nothing of Rubio) would not need to play next to yet another 19-year old undergoing painful on-the-job training. Instead, they could have a veteran like Noah or Ezeli helping them win, and know that they have an injection of youth and upside on the way in a couple of years.
Those are just a few names, and maybe that list will grow as the college season moves along and Wolves fans pay more attention to the offseason and draft. It’s something to think about amid all of the losing.