After the Lotto: The Big-Picture Questions

photo via Getty Images, David Sherman

Okay, the draft is a month away and we now know the order. The Wolves will pick seventh, after the Celtics, Lakers, Sixers, Suns, Kings and Magic. Unless they trade the pick, of course. This post is not a deep dive into the 2017 class of prospects — that stuff will come later. For now, I just want to frame the predraft discussion by posing three general questions. How Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden answer them will help determine what they ultimately do with their lottery pick.

Question #1: How Deep is this Lottery with Bigtime Prospects?

The problem with this question is that it is impossible to know the answer with a high degree of certainty. While draft analysts try their best to gauge whether one class of prospects is better or worse than average, history has shown that it’s just really hard to know. Just because the question is difficult, however, doesn’t make it one that Thibs-Layden, LLC can just punt away. Drafting seventh is a tricky exercise when trying to decide if there is a potential star player available or whether it would make just as much sense to trade down or trade the pick entirely because there is nobody available on the board who will be able to produce like a veteran player available via trade for the pick.

In 2007, the Celtics were slotted to choose fifth in the draft headlined by Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. After those two went to Portland and Seattle (OKC), the Hawks chose Al Horford and the Grizzlies chose Mike Conley. In other words, there was star-level talent available in the first four picks of that draft. The C’s had already traded their pick away before draft night for Ray Allen, boosting their nucleus sufficiently to convince Kevin Garnett to re-sign after being acquired from the Wolves. That pick Boston gave up for Ray-Ray? Seattle used it on Jeff Green, a half-decent but endlessly frustrating role player whose career highlights can’t sniff anything accomplished by Conley, Horford or Durant. And after Green went to Seattle, the Bucks took Yi Jianlian, the Wolves took Corey Brewer, and the Warriors took Brandan Wright. While Chicago was able to pick Joakim Noah at #10, after Wright, it was clear that the “relatively certain” bigtime prospects ended with Conley at 4, and Boston did a great thing by flipping #5 for a great player like Allen. They have a championship banner in the rafters that proves it.

Of course, the ’07 Celtics is one anecdote and there are many recent examples of elite-level players being chosen in the later part of the lottery. In 2010, Gordon Hayward and Paul George went 9th and 10th, respectively. In 2011, Klay Thompson was taken 11th and Kawhi Leonard 15th. Kawhi was drafted not by the Pacers who originally held the rights to the pick, but by the Spurs who traded away veteran (and good) point guard, George Hill, in order to land Leonard. While the trade was a “win/win,” in a lot of ways, Kawhi’s MVP-candidate status obviously makes it a cautionary tale for teams thinking about trading away a first rounder for a vet. (Eds note: after acquiring Kevin Love and the rights to Ricky Rubio in 2008 and 2009, the Wolves desperately needed a wing to round out their core in the 2010 and 2011 drafts. In ’10 they took a wing — Wesley Johnson — five spots before Hayward and six before George. In ’11, they took somebody who played the same position as Love, Derrick Williams. Four of the best wings in the NBA were available to them, and they whiffed completely. Alas.) In 2012, Dame Lillard went 6th, right after Dion Waiters and Thomas Robinson. The 2013 draft was garbage, but that didn’t stop the Bucks from finding a diamond in the weeds at 15, where they selected Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 2014, ’15, and ’16 drafts are still under evaluation, but there is already evidence of some late-lotto steals. Flip Saunders might’ve hit a double or triple with his Zach LaVine homerun swing in 2014, when he took the high-flying sharpshooter at 13. Myles Turner, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker went 11 through 13 in ’15, and each seems to have high long-term upside, two years later.

The point is, star-level — sometimes super-star level — talent is often available by the time the 7th pick rolls around. The same uncertainty that makes identifying those potential stars difficult can benefit teams like this year’s Wolves who are not among the first teams on the clock, with every prospect available. If Thibs-Layden, LLC believe that this draft lottery goes 7-deep with bigtime prospects, they will almost certainly keep the pick and try to improve their long-term core.

If not, they might try to do their best 2007 Danny Ainge impression and flip the pick for their version of Ray Allen.

Oh, and as far as the actual answer to the question of this draft’s depth? For a long time, it’s been viewed as deep with star-potential talent. Both Draft Express and ESPN mock drafts currently have the Wolves choosing Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac 7th, with other high-upside guys like Dennis Smith Jr. and Lauri Markkanen still on the board. Again, this post isn’t for digging into the specifics on these prospects, but it’s safe to say generally that it’s considered to be a deep class and there will be a valuable prospect available at 7.

Question #2: What Should the Timberwolves Long-Term Core Look Like?

For Thibs to maximally extract returns from this draft pick, he needs to know what his team’s long-term core looks like. Modern NBA rookies don’t contribute to winning. Sometimes they don’t help much in their second or even their third years, either. Therefore, in order to select a player that could help the team significantly, the Wolves need to know who will still be around in three or four years, and what that group would be good and bad at — what kind of pieces would be needed to properly round out a starting five?

The easy place to start is Towns because he is the innermost part of the team’s core, nucleus, or whatever you want to call it. Towns is the best player, he’s one of the youngest players, and the Wolves will pay him whatever the maximum compensation rate the league has in place to ensure that he plays out his entire prime in the Twin Cities. Towns is obviously a frontcourt player who can swing between the 4 and 5 positions. Long-term, with the direction the league continues to head with more three-point shooting and space, KAT’s highest upside probably exists at the center position. Through two seasons, however, he has not been a sufficiently able or attentive defensive player. When imagining the Wolves’ needs in 2020 and beyond, it’s reasonable to include “frontcourt defense” on the list. Even if Towns improves as a defensive player (and he almost certainly will) he carries such a scoring burden that he may never be a great or even “good” defensive big man. He might need help from his forwards.

After Towns is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has more flaws than KAT, but Wig is all but a lock to receive a five-year max contract extension before next season. Let’s review the things he brings to the table: he provides consistent scoring via dribble penetration and isolation plays; he’s improving as a three-point shooter (35.6% last season), though his points generally come from pull-up jumpers and drives to the rim that end with high-flying finishes or free throws; and he puts pressure on defenses by attacking them, not by pulling them out away from the hoop.

Zach LaVine, the final member of the Thibs-proclaimed “core,” is a wing like Wiggins, but has an inverted way of getting points. LaVine is a marksman from (really) long range but — despite his freaky athleticism — he doesn’t consistently scramble defenses with drives to the hoop. Where Wiggins has power, LaVine has finesse. Offensively, the pair makes a lot of sense — at least if each can significantly improve his basketball IQ, quickening read-and-react decisions and basic passing execution. Many times during their first three years as backcourt teammates, LaVine & Wig have seemed to “take turns” scoring, instead of playing off one another with meaningful synergy.

The bigger long-term issue with a LaVine-Wiggins wing pairing, however, is defense. Put simply, neither one is good at it, and sometimes in LaVine’s case, he is really terrible at it. (Eds note: there are some advanced metrics that suggest Wiggins is a horrific defensive player. People who watch Timberwolves games understand that, while he is by no means a good defender, he is far from the worst wing defender in the league. It’s an area for improvement more than a huge red flag.)

The elephant in this body of text about the long-term core is Ricky Rubio specifically, and the point guard position in general. If the question is whether Rubio will still be a Timberwolf in three years, I think the answer is almost certainly “no.” His contract will be up by that point in time, the team will be paying Wiggins, Towns and possibly LaVine max contracts by then, and Rubio’s been in too many trade rumors since Thibs-Layden, LLC took over for him to stick around for the long haul. Kris Dunn, the player rumored to have been selected as a Rubio Replacement, is increasingly not to be considered a long-term puzzle piece as starting point guard. He just hasn’t shown any of the key skills necessary to do the job. Crazy as it seems, considering how many point guards have been drafted by this team in the lottery since Kahn took over, they still don’t really have a long-term point on the roster, at the moment.

Looked at this way, the long-term core needs of the Wolves are frontcourt defense, wing defense, and point guard. If they decide to move LaVine at some point, you could add “shooting” to the list of needs, assuming Wiggins plateaus as a low-to-medium volume 35-36% three shooter who mostly attacks off the bounce. But if, instead, Wiggins develops a steady 40% standing three-shot, the team could accommodate more of a combo off-guard who doesn’t shoot quite as well as LaVine does.

Question #3: When Should the Wolves Hope to Begin Contending for Deep Playoff Runs?

This question really gets to the “trade the pick, or keep it” issue. Now, if the Wolves believe that they can begin winning 50+ games next season, trading the pick might make sense. Towns nearly made the All-NBA Team and he will make it next year and the next 10 healthy seasons he has after that. When you have an All-NBA player, you should be doing what you can to find or develop one more of them, and then rounding out your roster with a full rotation of capable vets to contend for championships. (#analysis).

The Wolves, when viewed from the lens of how dominant KAT already is (on offense), should be reasonably expected to start making some noise in the playoffs. But they obviously weren’t there last year — not particularly close, in fact, in what felt like a race to the bottom at times last season for the Western Conference eighth seed — and they might think they’re still a year away. If that’s the case, Thibs might plan to spend one more year with internal improvement taking priority over external, immediate roster upgrades. In that case, trading away a 19-year old lottery pick with long-term upside and essentially 8 years of automatic control over the player would seem pretty stupid. Well, unless Thibs doesn’t like anybody on the board at 7.

See how these questions intertwine?

If Thibs defines his unequivocal core as LaVine-Wiggins-Towns, then he’s committed to three players for the long haul, and he might not be interested in drafting a fourth. Instead, he might want to use the time before those three become expensive to pay a veteran or two to expedite the development into a playoff power; a Tom Gugliotta to the Marbury & KG Wolves of the late-90s, if you will.

Anyway, there’s plenty of time to argue about whether Isaac’s defense justifies taking him over Markkanen’s jumper, or whether Dennis Smith is going to be the steal of the draft because of how bad his NC State teammates were. As an intro to the entire #process, I thought it was worth a few hundred words to properly frame the issues. We’ll have plenty more draft stuff in the coming weeks. For Timberwolves faithful, it really is (Jim Nantz voice) a tradition unlike any other.

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5 thoughts on “After the Lotto: The Big-Picture Questions

  1. Q1: The pattern I’m noticing from the past is when the “sure things” (players considered sure things at this point) run out, it’s really a crap shoot. That said, the question is really this: if the players they have available at 7 would’ve been available last year at 5, would they have taken them ahead of Dunn? Essentially, you can’t say “they have too many youngsters” if we don’t even know whether Dunn will be more than a bench wing. Cheap talent is what sustains and replenishes franchises, especially when it seems like the “best available” is also likely to “fill needs.” Isaac or Markkanen will likely be there. Either would deserve to be picked there. Either would help fill a position and provide skills this team lacks. That confluence is extremely rare for a team with so many lottery picks on its roster.

    Q2: To me, “core” only means “generally won’t prop up in trade rumors unless it’s for a surefire All-Star.” Does LaVine stay on that list if we get to see what he looks like after his injury? Beyond that, a player is only part of the core for sure until the last 2 seasons of his contract, when the franchise soul-searching has to begin again. On the flip side, a player is essentially part of the core if they have a contract that’s hard to trade. Does Dieng fit in that category? There’s a surplus of bigs with similar ability. Going off of the way Andy seems to see this, I would pay LaVine but not consider him enough of the core to be comfortable trading #7. There’s a decent chance whoever they get there ends up being better than him and possibly Wiggins. Just because they’ll have to pay those guys doesn’t mean they should punt on picking up other youngsters who’d eventually make one of them expendable.

    Q3: Contending for deep playoff runs? It may never happen, nor should anyone expect it to. First, the Clips have made the conference semis twice with a top-5 player and a top-10/15 player, along with a championship-winning coach. (They probably would’ve made it twice more had Griffin finished either of their last 2 first-round exits.) They have the 3rd-best winning % in the league since they got Paul and are essentially thought of as pretenders/failures, even though the franchise was a laughingstock before he got there and they’d have been a consistent conference finalist in a different era. Second, look at all the quality scoring bigs and where their teams are finishing: either a low seed or not even in the playoffs. Anthony Davis is just as evolutionary as Towns and needed a Durant injury to even make it once. For the purposes of being a deep playoff contender, they have one potentially great player who is still figuring out how to win and may have a steeper curve to success because of the position he plays, supported by raw elite athleticism about to become set for life before ever finishing above .500, a coach with past success but questions about openness to change, a good but potentially fatally flawed role player who may be out the door, and nothing else that currently moves the needle when it comes to deep playoff runs. They still have tons of work to do that even a veteran starter (let alone the PatPatts and PJ Tuckers of the world) won’t fix. Even if they get good, the key to sustainability will always be through developing underdeveloped talent into rotation players.

  2. I love the article because it highlights a flaw this franchise has had for a long time. Drafting the most “nba-ready” player in the lottery. Wesley Johnson was described by ESPN analysts Jay Bilas and others as the most NBA ready wing in the draft. Derrick Williams was considered the most NBA ready player in the draft by NBA draft net and others. They are still in the league, so I guess they were NBA ready, but hardly the best players in the draft available when they selected.

    Another common flaw of this team is that they choose many players that have significant issues from the prototypical player at the position. Derrick Williams was a tweener forward. Wes had no consistent shot and couldn’t beat his man off the dribble. Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunne can’t finish at the basket and their shooting form is terrible. Zack is a tweener of sorts. Choosing in the lottery can be a problem because these players think they are the saviors and that means offensively, not defensively. Each feels they should have the ball instead of being the guy that motivates his teammates to play hard all the time.

    The need for this franchise is to surround KAT, Wiggins and possibly LaVine with talent that compliments their game. None possess great defense, but all three have the natural ability to defend. Looking for defensive only players instead of holding these three accountable to play on both ends of the court, may be a big mistake. The best teams are good defensively, but more importantly, they can score within their offense. Getting a PJ Tucker seems like a good pick up, but not if that means our core ignores playing team defense. This team needs more players that can shoot 3’s better, allowing lanes to open.

    Also, veterans could jump start this franchise to make the playoffs, but as your article suggests, many teams have had that plan backfire, so we need to use our FA money wisely. Same with the draft pick. Better to choose a player that will grow into a Paul George or Kawhi Leonard than get another player that demands the ball and won’t see the value of playing defense.

  3. The question of using the pick to draft a player or trading it is so highly dependent on what other teams are offering makes the question almost unanswerable. That being said, Jonathan Isaac is an extremely intriguing player. In terms of position and skillset, he slides right onto this roster. He’s also so young and raw, he probably won’t make a meaningful contribution to the team for at least 3 years.

    Looking forward to future articles on the draft prospects.

    1. I’m on the OG train myself. But, I’m also of the belief that Ricky Rubio is this team’s Marcus Sherels (a football player on the Vikings who is rumored to be cut every year and makes the team every year, performing as one of their best special teasers every year).

      KAT and Wiggins and Lavine together work with a point like Ricky. You get a scoring point, you likely shift Zach to sixth man, perhaps Wigs to the 2, and now you’ve got to find a 3 and a 4 – one of whom needs to be a high level facilitator, and one of whom needs to be a three point shooter. Feels a bit like one step forward, one step back.

      Basically for this to work, all of our core needs to keep developing. KAT needs to become a rim protector, or else we need to find some unicorn big who rim protects, covers fleet 4s, and shoots the three. Wigs needs to learn team defense, become a good three shooter, or really up his facilitation game. Right?

      As for OG – I just like his game. Reminds me of Charles Oakley a little. If you keep Rubio, he’s a great candidate to produce like Dean Garrett did with Marbury. Assuming Rubio can sustain his 16 ppg pace of the end of last season – which I think is reasonable- Wigs at SG would be amazing. You could trot out a starting five of Rubio, Wigs, Dunn, OG, and KAT. #Thibsdeathlineup Then you bring Zach and G off the bench, facilitated by Tyus, and put teams away with a bench unit that could be viable starters for some teams.

      Is it perfect? No, but playoffs require continued growth from everyone.

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