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.