Casino, Cash, Chandler Parsons and an Equal Amount of Blueberries

Steve McPherson —  June 30, 2014 — 10 Comments

chandler-parsons

There’s a scene in 1995’s Casino where Sam Rothstein, played by Robert DeNiro, loses it over a blueberry muffin. He explains to Philip Green (Kevin Pollak) that he has to let the people he employs know that he’s watching “all the details all the time, that there is not one single thing [he] will not catch.” He points to Green’s muffin.

“Look at how many blueberries your muffin has and how many mine has. Yours is falling apart, I have nothing.” The film cuts to the kitchen where Rothstein upbraids the baker: “From now on I want you to put an equal amount of blueberries in each muffin.”

“Do you know how long that’s going to take?” asks the baker.

It’s going to take a long time, but the point is that each small thing is worth doing well. Although Casino is in large part the story of how Rothstein’s hold on the Tangiers crumbles, Rothstein’s operation falls apart because of misplaced trust, because of interpersonal failings, and not because of Rothstein’s attention to detail, which is impeccable. To call in some evidentiary back-up from The Wire’s Lester Freamon, when you’re building something from scratch, “all the pieces matter.”

I bring this up because of two recent and maybe seemingly unconnected tidbits from the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offseason. First of all, once the Wolves had selected Glenn Robinson III with the 40th pick of the draft, the team opted to sell its remaining two picks (the 44th and 53rd) to Brooklyn and Golden State respectively. And secondly, with the Houston Rockets declining to pick up the team option on Chandler Parsons’ contract and making him a restricted free agent, there’s word that the Timberwolves are among the suitors hoping to sign him.

When president of basketball operations Flip Saunders was asked about selling those draft picks that night, he was dismissive. “The guys that we had on our board that we thought were potential NBA-type players, those guys were off our board.” When asked where the money goes, he said, “The money goes to the team — use that as you see fit. Sign free agents or whatever.”

“If you don’t have a player who you think will be in your program,” he continued, “I’m not going to draft somebody just to say we drafted him. The ability to go sign a free agent was more valuable than it was to draft somebody. Did you see how many 44s and 53s make our league? Overall? Go through the book and you can probably put them on both hands over the last five or six years. We didn’t see anybody.”

I will freely admit that I don’t know much about scouting talent in the NBA. I watch the NBA and not a lot of college basketball or international basketball, so I can’t tell you that there was somebody the Wolves should have taken. I’m also not going to hold up the examples of Manu Ginobili being picked 57th or Steve Kerr going 50th as evidence that there are rough gems to be had in the draft.

What bothers me is the attitude that touts this as fiscal responsibility when it’s anything but.

The Timberwolves (under David Kahn, yes, but still overseen by the same ownership) sold the 38th pick in 2011 to the Houston Rockets for $1.5 million. Presumably the Wolves didn’t have anybody on their board then. That pick became Chandler Parsons. Over the last three years, the Rockets have reaped the benefit of Parsons becoming one of the most valuable players in the league in terms of return on investment. As a second round pick, Parsons has so far been paid $2.7 million TOTAL in his NBA career. It’s unlikely that Parsons is offered a max contract in free agency, but it’s not going to be surprising if he ends up making $10 to $12 million per year for the next three or four years.

If it’s Minnesota who ends up paying him this, it means that they missed out on three years of production at less than $1 million a year for $1.5 million in cash and the right to pay him something like $48 million for the next four.

And just where are the Timberwolves going to find the cash to pay him that salary? Well, obviously they would have to make moves, likely including moving Kevin Love, the star player they didn’t want to offer the five-year max to since it might be risky financially to commit that much money to a player for that long. Oh and I guess there’s the $1.5 to $2 million they made selling this year’s second round draft picks to, you know, “sign free agents or whatever.”

Again, this isn’t a slight specifically about the two picks the Wolves sold this year. In plenty of drafts there are no truly important players drafted at the 40th pick or beyond, and maybe that’s the case this year. Good players in the bottom third of the draft are the exception, not the rule.

But the Timberwolves don’t have the luxury of just following the rules. They need to find the exceptions. Minnesota is not a free agent destination. The team has nothing even resembling the kind of postseason track record that would lead to players giving them the benefit of the doubt. So long as the keep trying to save money where it doesn’t help them and then overspending where it can’t, they’re going to keep ending up with one muffin saturated with blueberries and another with hardly any.

It might take a long time and a lot of work, but the Wolves need to start putting an equal amount of blueberries in every muffin.

Steve McPherson

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10 responses to Casino, Cash, Chandler Parsons and an Equal Amount of Blueberries

  1. To be honest, a discussion like this is reactionary. The good teams were doing this 10 years ago and have moved on to other ways of emphasizing the details. It mattered when they were passing on Marcin Gortat and Amir Johnson for Bracey Wright or Paul Millsap for the Rhino (Craig Smith) or Marc Gasol for Chris Richard or selling #34 instead of keeping Mario Chalmers or drafting DeAndre Jordan/Omer Asik/Goran Dragic. Since 2010, Isaiah Thomas is the only guy outside of the top 40 to make a notable impact. The top 40 absolutely matter; maybe the rest will again, but the trends are pointing toward them being much less relevant.

    It’s also not clear that the same process that led to trading out of the 1st round in 2011 is the process in play here. They did Eurostash the 59th pick last year. They have 1 open roster spot and will likely take back more players than they give up in a Love deal, and teams who have to trade to reduce their roster or shed salary have zero leverage and usually have to include picks or get nothing in return. They would’ve had to do Eurostashes for both of the picks they sold, and that well is a lot drier in the 2nd round than people think: from the 2012 draft, Toko Shengelia and Ongjen Kuzmic are the only 2nd-round Euros who’ve played; no 2nd-round Euros from 2011 or 2010 are in the league; and only Nando De Colo and Jonas Jerebko are here from the ’09 2nd round. The Euro guys who have potential are now more frequently getting picked in the first round.

  2. Isn’t this just a selective observation argument, a la Kerr and Ginobili? And Flip had nothing to do with Love’s contract. I can’t tell if you’re trying to criticize Flip by confounding him with Glen or if you’re just criticizing Glen viz a viz the Wolves’ front office legacy.

    What I do appreciate, however, is the Casino analogy to detail. You build a team by knowing what works for you, you stay true to that and move on from mistakes. You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it (unless you’re the Wolves, right?) I have no problem with selling those picks. If there’s a 90+% likelihood of those guys failing, would you rather spend the (estimating randomly here) $3 million in salary on below average production and wasted roster spots OR get $3 million in cash to spend on a known veteran quantity, especially given your franchises’ historical ineptitude at identifying talent at any point in the draft? Dork Elvis, given that scenario, would make the safe play and sign a veteran, as that’s the best return (most likely).

    The issue as I see it as that this is a sorry way to not even build but simply maintain a team. To be successful you need confidence that you can hit on some second round guys, and almost always hit on your first round guys. You need a D League team, and a systemic organizational plan for identifying and developing talent. Sadly, I don’t believe we have that, and likely won’t until Glen passes.

  3. I’d imagine seeing the “spent it on free agents or whatever” comment is a giant red flag for any T-Wolves fan.

    The draft is where a team like Minnesota is built. It’s their only shot really. Each of those draft picks has the chance to be the one that changes the franchise – and the narrative. I think that selling a draft pick, in the NBA, for the T-Wolves, is never going to be the right move. You need to use all of those chances you get in the hopes that you hit on someone like a Manu or a Chandler Parsons, who you then control for 4 years at below market and then 3 or 4 more years at market (should you choose to keep the player around).

    But the “spend it on free agents or whatever” comment shows an underlying lack of sophistication in the front office which is going to be their undoing. The NBA has become smarter and more sophisticated over the past five years, as a whole. FO’s that don’t continue to evolve and adapt and get more sophisticated organizationally are going to get killed. Particularly organizations that can’t put band-aids over their problems by bringing in free agents.

    The T-Wolves appear, from a distance, to be operating without a single competitive advantage. Organizations that are in that situation need to turn over every stone in an effort to find ways to get better.

  4. Flip seems like a guy who is pretty happy to do things that would be considered sensible by basketball guys of his generation, and not more or less. He earns his paycheck the old-fashioned way. There is nothing wrong per se with his approach. But I agree with Steve that “not wrong per se” probably will never propel this team among the league’s elites. That’s not a knock on Flip or the team and I’m not being “pessimistic” – it’s just the most likely result of doing things in a conventionally competent way and being financially prudent, when competing in a league filled with ambitious, innovative wheeler-dealer GMs and bottomless pocket owners.

  5. The thing that I see are successful teams can build around a core and have to stash players in Europe and draft competent players with the 15th pick through the 30th pick. San Antonio can do this because for a long time they have had 3 players they can count on to be the core of the team. The Wolves do not have a core. Even when Kevin G. was here they never had that. They lose Love and once again they a building that core. You can’t stash guys and draft guys in the later rounds with a plan to develop them with out a core of top tier players. You can’t have a system without knowing who your core is. I think the Wolves should hold on to Love until the February dead line. If this team is playing for a top seed in the West by then he will be a much happier person. It’s hard to jump ship when you have a team that is winning in the West unless you are guaranteed that the other place you are going is going to do as well. The Wolves last year were a stronger bench from easily making the playoffs. Then, if Love decides to stay, the Wolves can draft and stash to fit the core of the team.

  6. Here’s what gets me: I fully understand that it is rare for guys picked after 40 to make it in the league much less become integral rotation players (heck, guys taken from 20-30 still have long odds for a successful NBA career), but the math seems to dictate that you should keep your picks even at long odds the guys even make the team.

    Now forgive me that there are a lot of assumptions here, but bear with me. Guys like Chandler Parsons, Lance Stephenson, and Isiah Thomas (based off WARP metrics developed by Hollinger and Pelton) were worth 6-8 wins more than a replacement level player this past year. Nate Silver estimated that market dictates that teams are willing on average to pay a guy $1.5 mil/year for each win a guy can potentially add. Thomas and Parsons have been paid less than $3mil total in their careers and if you you believe like I do that their total 3 year production has contributed to about 12-15 wins that means their production has garnered $15-$22 mil meaning between $12 and $19 million dollars in profit. Assuming you could sell your 2nd round pick for between $1mil and $1.5mil per year, you would only have to strike gold once per decade for this strategy to be profitable.

    For a team like MN that needs cheap draftees to make cap room for us to over-pay veterans, it seems like a silly move to sell potentially cheap assets like they have. Flip is obviously playing it safe, but that doesn’t mean he’s playing it smart.

  7. It’s hard to believe there were not a couple stash players they could have taken a shot on. I am getting pretty fed up with this team. Today’s announcement that Flip added his son as one of the coaches is just more fodder for giving up completely on this franchise.

    Let’s see Flips son who knows what about the NBA or reach out to Chauncey Billups as an assistant? I am just sick of this country club atmosphere. Sick of the nepotism so let’s see we have David Adelmans son still on the staff and now we get Flip’s kid. This is what we need to help build the two huge projects they took at the one and two this year?

    Everything that has happened since Love decided to opt out has done nothing but build his case for that decision. We’re staring straight into the face of another sub 30 win season. I don’t think we can take any more of Glen Taylor owning this team.

  8. I do think a team centered on Rubio, Pek, and some sort of high level wing scorer to stir the drink would be a pretty good foundation, a la Memphis. Gorgui might be quite awesome defensively, and the Wolves have other good complimentary players. They just need that one other player, their Shawn Marion.

  9. Nicely put, gjk. The Wolves probably will take back more players in a Love trade. And there are costs associated with adding 2nd round players to the roster. For a no-cost alternative, the Wolves could have drafted a couple of guys and brought them to camp, then let them go without adding to the roster. They did that with Lorenzo Brown last year, right?

    Adding two rookies to the roster is enough for this team. Why not make a few million off of the picks instead of drafting two Lorenzo Browns?

    In the end, Flip’s choice to sell those picks means very little compared to the big issues around this team.

  10. After Golden State signed Livingston I feel like the Kevin Love trade is going to happen. I am thinking Kevin Love, and Kevin Martin for David Lee, Thompson, Barnes, and a future #1. Then a second trade with Philadelphia David Lee and some combination of Levine and the golden state future #1 for Thaddeus Young and maybe some cap filler. Anyway one can only hope.

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