How We’d Fix It: Minnesota Timberwolves, Part II

These Wolves are flawed — what moves could help them?

The Minnesota Timberwolves have a flawed roster. The young players aren’t quite as good as you think yet, and the supporting pieces don’t fit. And everything is going to get really expensive soon.

We walked through all of the problems in Part I. Now how do we fix it?

There’s room for one key free agent this summer

And it needs to be this July, before Andrew Wiggins’ and Zach LaVine’s extensions kick in next summer.

Last year Minnesota was supposedly in the market for veterans like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, a pair of Thibs stalwarts. Both signed elsewhere and it was for the best. Minnesota can’t afford to tie up its cap room long term with a veteran that won’t be useful in three years when they are ready to contend.

It’s not like Minnesota is going to magically become a free agent destination, even with the fun young players there, and Minnesota can’t afford a big-ticket free agent anyway with the expensive extensions coming. Ideally the Wolves should pay top dollar for a short-term contract veteran who can help the team grow. Until Towns’s virtually assured max contract kicks in the summer of 2019, Minnesota has some cap room to play with.

So what sort of non-star players would fit best with Minnesota’s big three? A strong defending point guard that shoots the ball well and doesn’t really need the ball in his hands much would be ideal. So too a big man that can act as a rim protector while playing more like a stretch four, adding some spacing:

  • Paul Millsap would be great, but he’s getting the full max somewhere and it won’t be Minnesota.
  • George Hill would be an awesome fit. He fits the above description to a T. He’s probably not a full max player, but what if Minnesota offered him a two-year max for $63 million? It’s worth finding out.
  • Serge Ibaka should be a top target. Maybe two years and $63 million would draw interest before putting him back on the market at age 29 for one last big contract? It sounds nice but both Hill and Ibaka may be looking at four years and north of $80 million in this market. That’s a lot of money to leave on the table.
  • Patty Mills could fit, but the Spurs may need to keep him with Tony Parker on his way out.
  • Taj Gibson or Patrick Patterson could be other targets. Neither adds much offensively but both would be Thibs-type players and toughen up the defense in a hurry.

Those are the sort of veterans Minnesota needs if it plans to build a usable defense and a more balanced offense around its big three. But none of those players really fit the team past next year if Wiggins and LaVine sign big extensions — unless Minnesota makes a trade.

So who should be traded?

You read about Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng in Part I. Rubio needs to go. His lack of shooting is a problem and he needs the ball in his hands to be successful. That simply doesn’t fit, and he’s blocking the playing time for Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones. Dieng fits well enough but feels like a luxury at his upcoming price tag, so he might have to move — eventually.

Shabazz Muhammad is another chip. Bazz will be a free agent this summer and is a useful offensive weapon off the bench. It’s hard to see Minnesota bringing him back, so they may as well move him now if there’s a deal.

Cole Aldrich could be useful in a trade. He’s a nice player on a good contract at three years and $22 million but the Wolves are barely using him. He could be a valuable rim protector for another team, and Minnesota would be better off clearing that cap space. If they keep Towns and Dieng, it’s hard to envision Aldrich as the right third big man in that rotation.

You might argue that Minnesota ought to trade one of the young players. Maybe you think LaVine should go in a package for a veteran, or perhaps you’d move Wiggins or Dunn while their name-brand value is high. You can argue those things, and you may not be wrong, but Thibodeau has shot down all motions of breaking up the young core so it’s a non-discussion for now.

Dumping Rubio for an expiring contract

If Minnesota just wants to move on from Rubio and turn over the reins to Dunn and Jones, there are plenty of options.

Weekend reports out of Detroit suggested the Pistons might consider a Reggie Jackson for Rubio swap. Jackson is more expensive than Rubio. He’s also not a much stronger shooter and better in pick-and-roll with the ball in his hands, so the fit may not be right — and Detroit has denied interest anyway.

Here are some expiring players that could be dealt for Rubio.

Rubio for Jrue Holiday

Not bad, especially if the New Orleans Pelicans think they may not sign Holiday this summer when he’s a free agent. Rubio could fit next to Buddy Hield and Anthony Davis and provide some stability, while Holiday’s shooting would certainly help Minnesota.

Rubio for Taj Gibson and Isaiah Canaan

Gibson has been a Thibs favorite and would certainly fit, and Rubio would give the Bulls what they were hoping they got with Rondo this summer. The Chicago Bulls are probably hoping to keep Gibson around themselves, but they’ve been rumored to be interested in Rubio.

Rubio and Aldrich for Nikola Mirotic, Rajon Rondo, and ??

Chicago reportedly wants to move Mirotic, but a Rubio deal is tough to structure because of the salary difference. The Bulls could include Rondo, who can be cut at just a $3 million penalty to the Wolves this summer — or might actually fit with a Thibs reunion. Minnesota offloads $21 million in long-term salary and Mirotic could be the floor spacer they need. Chicago probably has to throw in Denzel Valentine or a 1st rounder too.

Rubio and Brandon Rush for George Hill and Alec Burks

Hill has been awesome for Utah and they’ve been terrific with him, so it’s hard to imagine them doing this unless they’re absolutely certain he’s leaving this summer. Hill fits perfectly in Minnesota but they may not be able to sign him long term, especially if they take on Burks’ $10+ million a year.

Rubio and Shabazz Muhammad for Serge Ibaka and C.J. Watson.

Could Minnesota take Ibaka out for a test drive before free agency? Orlando already has a non-shooting point in Elfrid Payton and a deep but confused roster, but if they think Ibaka is leaving this summer then they at least get a starting point guard out of it.

Rubio deals for non-expiring contracts

Moving Rubio for half a season of an impending free agent is a tough sell. Even if the Wolves re-sign that player, that’s inconsequential to the deal now. Is there a deal out there that doesn’t feel like just dumping him for an expiring player?

Rubio for Matthew Dellavedova and Tony Snell

Delly is a poor man’s version of Hill in some ways, and Snell could be a good wing defender for half a year. But Rubio isn’t much of a fit in Milwaukee.

Rubio for Skal Labissiere, Matt Barnes, and Ty Lawson

Sacramento is a popular Rubio destination, but there just isn’t much to trade for, and the Kings don’t really have picks to add. All they can really offer is Willie Cauley-Stein — a great fit defensively but not on offense — or maybe Labissiere. Skal is a long shot and this would be a pretty low return, but he was a top prospect two years ago and could be the exact sort of high-upside player Minnesota needs. He could become a rim protector and a shooter, and he’s under contract for almost nothing for another three and a half years.

Rubio for a first rounder

Always a popular suggestion but not as easy as you’d hope. Any deal has to include around $13 million outgoing to match Rubio’s contract, and teams probably wouldn’t trade a lottery pick. That means a playoff team making the deal, and what playoff team has a point guard position Rubio can improve and a big useless contract?

What if Dieng gets moved instead?

Dieng makes $2.3 million but already signed his extension, so the poison-pill provision means that he gets counted as $13.3 million in an outgoing trade. What deals could work?

Dieng for DeMarre Carroll

Toronto has long been in the market for a power forward, and Dieng could fit next to Jonas Valanciunas. He’s never really fit well with the Raptors and they could clear out his salary and give more minutes to Terence Ross and eventually Bruno Caboclo. Carroll gives Minnesota some options. He could be a small ball four or he could play on the wing when Wiggins or LaVine sits. It gives both teams a new look, but that may not be the right pivot midseason.

Rubio and Dieng for Derrick Favors and Alec Burks

Favors has not been as good this year and has an injury history, so Utah might be thinking about moving on when his deal is up next year. Dieng would fit next to Rudy Gobert, and Rubio provides some insurance in case of a further Hill injury or free agency departure. Minnesota shoots for the moon with a guy that could transform the defense, if he can find a role offensively.

Three-way deal with Toronto and Atlanta

Toronto also sends a first round pick to Atlanta

This is less of a fix-Minnesota trade and more of a Minnesota-facilitates-a-Millsap-trade trade.

Toronto gets Millsap in the oft-rumored deal. They also get Brandon Rush to replace Ross this year on the wing. Atlanta gets Ross and a first rounder while adding Dieng, two possible starters for a guy that is almost certainly leaving.

It’s not much of a return for Minnesota. Both players are expiring so it’s a win-now move and a reset on a contract extension. Patterson and Sefolosha would bolster the defense and might help Minnesota make the playoffs this year, but they give away Dieng for nothing long term.

Three-way deal with Orlando and New Orleans

Now that’s a makeover. Gone are Rubio and Dieng, and goodbye Bazz too. Ibaka is an obvious fit. E’Twaun Moore could work at point guard, a great defender that doesn’t need the ball in his hands and worked well in a similar role for Chicago. Moore and Ibaka round out the Minnesota lineup defensively.

Orlando getting Rubio and Muhammad was discussed above. New Orleans gets Dieng to play next to Anthony Davis in a small-ball up-tempo lineup.

Could it work? It’s tough to say. Trades are hard, and they get even harder with extra teams.

Conclusions

It’s probably too early to trade Dieng.

Dieng may need to be moved in a year or two, but there’s no replacement on the roster yet and he fits well enough for now.

It’s time to trade Rubio — even if there’s not a huge market out there.

Minnesota needs to see what it has in Dunn and Jones. If they start winning, great. If not, they’ll get one final high pick to add to the core and maybe even know to consider one of the top point guards. Rubio will probably only net an expiring veteran contract, a deeper prospect, or a late first round pick, but it’s time to move forward. It’s just too hard to envision Ricky Rubio as the point guard of this team when it’s ready to contend for real.

Muhammad, Aldrich, Rush, or others can all go for any long-term gain.

If they’re needed to sweeten a deal or can be moved for a pick or a useful young player, it’s a no brainer — even if it hurts the team’s chances at the 8-seed this year.

Sacrifice short-term gains for long-term upside.

It’s fun to dream about a playoff berth this year, but the goal for this team should be a decade of playoff berths and a title run down the road.

Last year Portland lucked into a second round berth with a barely-above-average team in a top-heavy West, then locked themselves into that team long-term. Now they’re stuck, one of the many teams “battling” with Minnesota for 35ish wins and the final playoff spot.

Minnesota dare not delude itself into thinking a run at a terrible 8-seed means anything for the long-term success of this team. LeBron is getting old. The Spurs are ancient. This Warriors roster can’t last. Minnesota is positioned perfectly to begin peaking in two or three years, and every move must position them for that window — not this May.

Let the kids play.

Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, Dieng, Dunn, and Jones look like the six core players for at least the next couple years. All but Dieng are 22 or younger. It’s time to let them all play together and see what you’ve got. If Wiggins and LaVine go out and earn max contracts, that’s a good problem. Better for Minnesota to find out now than $100 million later.

With the right trade, one more good draft pick, and a little patience, this Minnesota team can still be great some day — just probably not in 2017.