Brian Windhorst, on Tuesday’s episode of ESPN’s TrueHoop podcast, stated, “The word on the street is that the Wolves are starting to call around and looking to trade for frontcourt help.” Although Windhorst is widely connected within NBA circles, it should be emphasized that what he said is strictly a rumor, not a report, and that there isn’t any firm indication that its foundation is built on anything other than sand. NBCSports’ Kurt Helin, in a follow-up post, included a few names that the Wolves may target (though it’s unclear if he’s speculating or reporting) including Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein of the Sacramento Kings, Greg Monroe of the Milwaukee Bucks, Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic, and Luol Deng of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Acquiring a frontcourt player would seem to make at least some sense should Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden (Henceforth known as Thiboyden. Or maybe Laydeau? I’ll get back to you.) decide to pull the trigger on a trade. The Wolves, with a defensive rating of 108.9 according to NBA.com, own the league’s 27th ranked defense with many of their struggles sprouting from their lack of rim protection. As a team, the Wolves are allowing opponents to shoot 62.4% from within six feet of the rim and 58.2% from within 10-feet, good (bad?) for 21st and 28th in the NBA, respectively.
Likewise, obtaining a veteran presence to bolster the roster while also providing some much needed leadership for the young Wolves would also make sense. The Wolves’ starting lineup is by far the youngest in the NBA, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the team needs more experienced players in the fold (that is unless humanity figures out how to time travel; then we can just abduct future Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine and bring them back to our time).
With these concepts in mind, I thought it would be prudent to organize some theoretical trade targets into tiers based on perceived likelihood of acquisition. For example: one could argue that trading for, say, DeAndre Jordan would make a lot of sense for the Wolves, but there is absolutely no chance that that would occur. Within these tiers, it can be assumed that the needed return for a player will be negatively correlated with likelihood of a trade occurring (i.e. as the likelihood for a trade increases, the needed return for that player would decrease).
But first, a comment on the names listed by Helin above. Arguments could be made for acquiring Koufos and Cauley-Stein and I’ll touch on them later. However, while adding Monroe or Vucevic may slightly improve the team’s rebounding issues, they would be about as helpful in fixing the Wolves’ defensive problems as tossing gasoline on a fire would be for extinguishing it; being able to get boards serves no purpose if you can’t stop the other team from scoring. Luol Deng has not played well at all this season and it would be wise to stay away from his contract.
I should mention that none of the players that I will list below have been solidly tied to the Wolves. This is purely speculative and should act as more of a guide to valuing players than as scripture. Without further ado, the tiers.
Tier One: The Koufos Tier
The players (in no particular order):
- Kosta Koufos, Sacramento Kings
- James Johnson, Miami Heat
This tier is reserved for players that it would makes sense for the Wolves to acquire while also having to give up the least. They definitely wouldn’t have to send off one of their budding young stars, but may have to part with Shabazz Muhammad and/or Ricky Rubio, but more likely Muhammad than Rubio.
Koufos has been a pretty reliable defensive presence throughout his career. This season he is allowing opposing players to shoot only 53.4% from within 10-feet of the rim, 2.7% better than what they shoot against other players. While Koufos may not move the needle for the average Wolves’ fan, he would be a solid addition and is under contract for at least two seasons. He may not be a vocal leader, but he would add experience and consistency to the young team. The only real question would be whether or not he would be redundant next to Cole Aldrich. However, it would make sense for Koufos to be added to the starting lineup, which would allow for Gorgui Dieng to come off the bench in a role more suitable for his skill set.
Johnson, if the numbers are to be believed, has been an absolute beast defensively for the Heat this season. In his 24.7 minutes per game off the bench, Johnson is holding opponents to shooting 33.5% from the floor and 35.2% from within 10-feet. This means that players are, respectively, shooting 10.8% and 18.5% worse from those locations when Johnson is defending them. Adding Johnson would bring a much needed increase in defensive intensity to the bench unit.
Tier Two: The Cauley-Stein Tier
The players (in no particular order):
- Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings
- Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers
The players in this tier are less likely and make less sense to become Timberwolves mainly for one reason: they’re young. Additionally, acquiring one of these players would almost definitely require parting ways with Rubio and potentially a future draft pick (It’s important to note that the Wolves cannot trade this season’s first round draft pick until after they have made a selection because of the Stepien Rule. They owe Atlanta a top-14 protected pick until 2020 thanks to the Adreian Payne trade.)
While both Cauley-Stein and Noel would, at least in theory, address the Wolves’ rim protection issues, they would not address the lack of a veteran problem; Cauley-Stein is 23 and Noel is 22 and have only played two and three seasons, respectively. Cauley-Stein hasn’t been able to get consistent playing time this season, logging only 12.7 minutes per game on a struggling Kings team, and Noel has struggled with injuries and questions of his maturity for his entire career. Though both boast pretty impressive per 36 numbers over their very young careers (8.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 1.6 blocks for Cauley-Stein and 9.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals, and 2.0 blocks for Noel), it’s appropriate to question whether either player’s talents would be able to make up for their youth on this Wolves’ squad.
Tier Three: The “At Least We Can Dream” Tier
The players (in no particular order):
- DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
- Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
There’s not much to say about this tier. Both Cousins and Favors would make the Wolves demonstrably better and relatively quickly. Cousins and Towns would form perhaps the league’s strongest offensive frontcourt whereas Favors and Towns would be the perfect building blocks for a stifling defense. Teams would simply not be able to stop the Boogie led Wolves from scoring, and Favors, a very solid rim protector, would immediately patch up some of the Wolves’ defensive woes. They’d both be great fits on paper, but given each’s attitude and skillset, I almost think I’d rather have Favors over Cousins, despite his injury history, for this Wolves team. Regardless, the Kings and Jazz would demand at least one of Wiggins or LaVine in return, possibly both in the case of Cousins, in addition to draft picks and perhaps other throw-in players. I’d put the odds of the Wolves acquiring either one of these guys at roughly “a snowball’s chance in hell.”
The Other Tier: The Looming Free Agents Tier
The players (in no particular order)
- Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings
- Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls
- Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
This tier is for players that didn’t fit all that well into the other tiers. All three are due to be free agents at the end of the season and make sense for the Wolves to acquire for different reasons.
Gay, though not commonly thought of as a frontcourt player, has logged 43% of his minutes this season as a four, according to Basketball Reference. In a similar fashion, despite not being considered a defensive stalwart, Gay’s defensive numbers are decent through the quarter mark of the season (he has a defensive rating of 103.9, for whatever that’s worth, and allows opponents to shoot only 50.5% from within 10-feet). Additionally, Gay’s contract ends after this season – though he does have a $14 million player option for next season – so the acquisition of Gay may improve the Wolves this season, while also providing the the team with ample cap space heading into next summer.
Gibson falls in line with the narrative of Thibodeau wanting to acquire his old players and, in this instance, doing just that would make sense. Gibson is familiar with Thibodeau’s system defensively and is a solid rebounder and defender at the four. He would be a great leader within the organization and one would think he would be willing to sign a contract extension to play for his old coach. However, I would be thoroughly shocked if Thibodeau was ever able to pull off a deal with Gar Forman and John Paxson, general manager and president of basketball operations of the Chicago Bulls, after how acrimonious their split was. It is probably more likely that the Wolves pursue him next summer in free agency than trade for him during the season.
Of all the names listed in this piece, Paul Millsap would probably be the best fit for the Wolves. He is a defensive stalwart who can score, rebound, and pass. He would be able to slip into the starting lineup at the four, which would move Karl-Anthony Towns to the five and Dieng to the bench. Essentially, this move would make the starting lineup better on both sides of the ball by taking pressure off the young guys to make all the plays, and would improve the bench play by allowing Dieng’s abilities to be highlighted and his flaws diminished. Millsap would fit perfectly into Thibodeau’s defensive system and would also be the consummate leader and veteran presence for the Wolves. Atlanta would probably ask for at least one of Zach LaVine or Andrew Wiggins in return, however, so it probably makes the most sense not to trade for Millsap, but rather to pursue him heavily in the off-season.