Defining the Timberwolves Core & What That Means

core

On Wednesday night, the Timberwolves faced a Memphis Grizzlies team that was absolutely depleted. The Grizz were without their best players: Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. They were also missing Vince Carter on Wednesday. Thankfully, the Wolves won. Zach LaVine had a big night, scoring 28 points. Tyus Jones played one of his best career games, racking up 10 points and 5 assists in 19 minutes of (+10) action off the bench.

Tonight, the Wolves face a Houston Rockets team that recently acquired Punch-Drunk Wolves favorite, Michael Beasley. Supercool Beas was recently named Foreign MVP of the Chinese Basketball Association after posting averages of 31.9 points, 13.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. He will be missed by the Shandong Golden Stars… at least until next year.

Yesterday was the first day of NCAA Tournament games. March Madness is upon us.

When teams are ravaged by injuries, Michael Beasley is back from China on a Why not? flyer, and the Big Dance is underway, you know that the NBA season is winding to a close. With that being the case, and with the Timberwolves headed to their umpteenth draft lottery, discussions about the team tend to skew toward the bigger picture, and the future. There are numerous questions, ranging in specificity, that can drive this conversation about the Wolves at this stage in their building process.

What do they need? That’s probably the most general. My knee-jerk reaction to this one is “a reliable veteran big man.” I prefer that they find a full-sized big man who can slide Karl-Anthony Towns over to the four spot (just for a few seasons, until he gets bigger and stronger) and help the Wolves defend the paint and rebound opponents’ missed shots. I know that some other people prefer the Wolves address perimeter shooting, and others feel that a “small-ball four” would be a smarter acquisition than a traditional five.

Who should they draft? This is related to the question of need, and that relationship is an interesting conversation itself. (More on this below.) The NCAA Tournament increases draft chatter, as many of the best prospects are playing in the biggest games of their careers, and NBA fans are actually watching.

Finally, I think a lot of people ask whether Ricky Rubio is, or should be (potentially a crucial distinction) considered a part of this team’s core. The Wolves are undoubtedly planning ways to contend for championships when Towns and Andrew Wiggins hit their primes. That will be in 3 or 4 years. Will Ricky still be around?

All of these questions are intertwined.

The philosophical question of “best player” versus “best fit” gets discussed every year by draft pundits. It is always worth thinking about; especially when your team is in the lottery. It is definitely a question that the Timberwolves face as they prepare to select their next young player. Generally speaking, I think most people believe that NBA teams picking in the lottery should prioritize talent over fit. This makes sense for a number of reasons. I count four big ones.

First, acquiring star talent is the most important step in building a contending team, and the draft lottery is the best way for most teams to acquire a star. Think about the Wolves history itself. Their best player ever, Kevin Garnett, was gotten via the fifth pick in the 1995 Draft. Kevin Love was acquired by trading down from the third pick to the fifth in 2008. Karl-Anthony Towns required more luck, as he was the consensus number one pick and the Wolves finally won the lottery to get him. Outside of the draft, the best acquisitions the Wolves have made are less exciting: Tom Gugliotta, Terrell Brandon, Al Jefferson, and one great year from Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. (Eds note: For whatever it’s worth, Googs, Brandon, and Big Al were all gotten in trades involving former Wolves lottery picks.)

Clearly, the draft is the best way for the Wolves to land star power.

Second, acquiring complementary “role players” at positions of need is much easier in free agency and via trades. When a team’s core is established and a weakness is glaring, it is easier to find that needed skill — shooting, defensive rebounding, backup point guard, whatever — by surveying the available veteran free agents whose games are well understood. It’s riskier to address a specific need by acquiring someone who has never played in an NBA game.

Third, the NBA is becoming a league of positional versatility and interchangeable roles, thus lessening any specific team “need,” and any one player’s ability to fill it. It is better to have 5 good players than to have 5 average ones that each fill one of the traditional positions. This is relevant to the upcoming Timberwolves draft, given their current situation with LaVine shifting between point and shooting guard, Wiggins between the two and the three, and KAT between four and five. If the best prospect identified is a 6’9″ player whose best “position” is far from understood, they might just want to focus on the “best prospect” portion of the equation and worry about positions later.

Fourth, with the best draft prospects entering the NBA at such young ages, they are generally not yet ready to help win games. (Eds note: KAT is a major exception to this rule.) It is therefore more important to acquire someone who might eventually become a winning player in the future than it is to draft someone to fill an immediate need. Don’t draft someone to fill in next year’s shooting guard vacancy, because he might not be able to do the job.

There are probably other good reasons to prioritize talent over need. I think it is pretty clearly the best general way to go. For teams just beginning a rebuild, like the Timberwolves were last year, talent should probably receive 100 percent of the importance, and need should be given zero.

But for some teams, need is a factor to weigh; certainly not 100 percent, but definitely more than zero.

And this year’s Timberwolves are probably a team that should consider need when making its lottery pick.

First, why should the Wolves think about need, and second, what are their needs to consider:

The Wolves should consider need when drafting this year because they now have some “core” pieces, and a lottery pick should be spent to build on that core rather than duplicate a key part of it. Karl-Anthony Towns is The Franchise. He can play either frontcourt position. Andrew Wiggins is going to be a wing scorer who can play either the 2 or the 3 position. Zach LaVine is a work in progress whose upside still dwarfs his present ability to help win. But his improvement has been clear and mostly steady, and he is beginning to look like a natural shooting guard more than the “combo” guard that many envisioned when he was drafted.

Reasonable minds can differ on whether Ricky Rubio should be considered a part of this team’s long-term nucleus. The argument in favor is simple:

Rubio is a good NBA starting point guard on a discount-level contract who has been and remains the Timberwolves’ best guard by a huge margin. He is a marketable personality, plays an entertaining style of play (when used properly) and seems to get along well with his teammates.

The most discussed reason against Rubio is that he is a bad shooter. He is also a bad shooter with bad form with much too large a body of work by this point to expect improvement. There is some merit to this argument, at least in terms of planning this team’s long-term, hopefully-building-a-champion vision. (There is no reasonable argument for trading Rubio for less than market value right now, however, as he remains — by far — the team’s best guard and in some ways its most important player.) The other reason for questioning Rubio’s place in the long-term building plans is probably the better one:

He is 4 to 5 years older than Wiggins and Towns, and will be an unrestricted free agent in 3 years; Wiggins and Towns will almost certainly be under Timberwolves control for 7 or 8 more years after this one before they can enter unrestricted free agency. Combine this reality with the fact that Rubio is entering the Kevin Love (and DeMarcus Cousins) Zone of playing his first five NBA seasons without a playoff appearance and it is more than reasonable to wonder if he will prefer a change of scenery when given the chance. When Rubio hits free agency, it is possible — probable, in fact — that at least one of three things will be true:

  1. The Wolves will not yet be contending for championships (KAT will only be 23 by this time, mind you);
  2. Rubio’s shooting woes will have been exposed as a legitimate problem in postseason play against more specialized/scouted-up defenses; and/or
  3. The Wolves will have a different point guard on the roster who can adequately-or-better replace Rubio.

If scenario 1 is true, Ricky might want to leave. If either scenario 2 or 3 is true, the Timberwolves might not want to keep him.

So without meaning to, I’ve transitioned from Question 1 — the why — into Question 2 — the what.

If need is a factor to consider, then what are the Timberwolves needs?

I think this question for the Wolves is answered pretty easily, actually, but it first needs to be tweaked slightly. The question is what do the Timberwolves not need out of the draft lottery, and the answer is a shooting guard, or any “wing” player who cannot also play some power forward. LaVine, at this point, can only play shooting guard and it seems like he might become a very good one in time. It also seems like Wiggins can — maybe should — play the two, as he is still very skinny and sometimes struggles to defend larger frontcourt players. If the Wolves core for the future is LaVine-Wiggins-Towns, and Rubio is a “maybe,” then the clearest priority would be a frontcourt player, but the Wolves could consider a point guard if the value seemed right.

I guess this is where we should transition over from the abstract to the practical. These players must actually exist, after all, in order for the Wolves to acquire one of them.

With 14 games to go, it seems quite likely that the Wolves will finish “fifth” in the lotto race. They have 3 more wins than the Nets, and 3 fewer wins than the Pelicans. If they finish fifth, the Wolves will have a 29.2 percent chance at a Top 3 pick, 26.1 percent at the 5th pick, 36 percent chance of picking 6th, and an 8.4 percent chance of picking 7th. So 5-6 range is most likely, but they have a realistic chance of lucking into the top three.

Chad Ford’s current Big Board:

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 5.56.51 AM

Jonathan Givony’s Top 10 includes most of the same names, but in a reshuffled order.

This isn’t the post for digging deep into specific prospects, but a cursory run through the likely top prospects shows some players who do and do not seem like possible targets (if we assume that 2/3-type wings are off the table). Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram (who is listed by Ford as a shooting forward, but has more than enough length to switch around in the frontcourt) would clearly be selected by the Wolves if given the chance. Dragan Bender is 7’1″ and is named Dragan. The Wolves will have to consider drafting him for those reasons alone. Dragan has issues with a buyout provision in his Euro contract (ala Ricky Rubio circa 2009) but I think the Wolves would be smart to consider taking him if they feel he has high upside. Delaying the start of Bender’s rookie-scale contract would be great for the Wolves, as they are going to have to pay LaVine and Wiggins much more money in the 2018-19 season. Same with KAT one year after that. Henry Ellenson has enough size and athleticism to play next to KAT in the frontcourt. Jakob Poeltl, like Dragan, is 7’1″.

Jamal Murray is probably the most interesting candidate for the Wolves draft pick, because of what selecting him could mean. Murray is generally described as a “combo guard,” but he plays shooting guard at Kentucky. As noted above, the Wolves don’t need a shooting guard if they plan to build around both LaVine and Wiggins. That means that a Murray choice — if made with an eye toward the current core — implicates Rubio’s place here (read: he won’t be here much longer) and possibly even LaVine’s (in the doomsday scenario where Wolves brass thinks Zach might one day be the point guard, allowing Murray to play the two).

Anyway, there are other names up there to discuss but this isn’t the day for it. I just think it’s time to start asking these questions.

Enjoy tonight’s game at Houston, or March Madness.

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