Of Timberwolves and Timelines
This was the summer that the Minnesota Timberwolves were supposed to strike.
With Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and new face of the franchise Jimmy Butler all due to receive maximum salary contracts in the coming summers, it only made sense; Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden wouldn’t exactly have much cap space to work with beyond this July.
(Quick aside: For those who aren’t aware, max level contracts are determined based on a player’s years of service. Wiggins’ and Towns’ max contracts will be worth 25% of the salary cap, while Butler’s will be 30%. It has been reported that the Wolves are looking to sign Wiggins to a max contract by the end of this summer, which will be on the books next summer. Towns can negotiate his max contract next summer, and Butler the summer after.)
However, the Wolves haven’t exactly made the big splashes that many figured and some borderline promised. Point guard Kyle Lowry returned to Toronto on a three-year, $100 million contract; JJ Redick decided to trust the process and accept a one-year, $23 million contract in Philadelphia; Paul Millsap took a three-year, $90 million deal with the Denver Nuggets. Interest was shared between the Wolves and all the three to varying degrees, but there has been very little indication that the Wolves ever came remotely close to signing any of the three. Thibodeau and co. committed to point guard Jeff Teague right when the clock struck midnight and free agency began Saturday and Lowry never really showed any signs of truly wanting to leave Toronto, they reportedly never even offered a contract to Redick, and, due to a lack of cap space, ultimately moved on from Millsap.
After moving fan favorite and generally underrated point guard Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz for a lottery protected 2017-18 first round pick, the Wolves signed Teague, a former Eastern Conference All-Star, to a three-year, $57 million contract (the third year is a player option). A day later, the team grabbed power forward Taj Gibson, a defensive-oriented bulldog who played for Thibodeau when he was with the Chicago Bulls.
So, what gives?
Well, when it comes down to it, signing Teague and Gibson were good, though a little underwhelming, moves for the Wolves.
Teague, while being a lateral move from Rubio at best, is a better fit for Thibodeau’s offensive system for one reason and one reason only: he can shoot better. That’s not to say the former Hawk and Pacer is a marksman; his 35.5% career three-point field goal percentage is slightly below league average, but it is a full four percentage points above Rubio’s career total. Additionally, last season, Teague had an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 59.2% on all shots categorized as wide open (nearest defender 6+ feet away) and 53.0% on shots categorized as open (nearest defender 4-6 feet away) by NBA.com. Rubio had an eFG% of 47.9% and 40.9%, respectively.
Gibson is a good defender who is familiar with Thibodeau’s system and coaching style and figures to be a great veteran presence in the locker room, particularly for Towns. He’s a true power forward, making him a nice fit next to KAT in the starting lineup. Or, if Thibodeau so chooses, Taj would help bolster the bench solely through being a better player than anyone the Wolves had last year (looking at you, Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill). In short, regardless if he or Gorgui Dieng starts, the bench got stronger with this signing.
These moves signal the Wolves’ transition from a team simply trying to acquire as much young talent as possible to that of a franchise looking to win now, while keeping the focus on continuing the development of Wiggins and Towns. The Wolves aren’t ready to compete for championships; signing Lowry, and to a lesser extent Redick and Millsap, would’ve fallen in the “compete now” spectrum of signings.
Bringing in Teague and Gibson (and Butler) on short contracts allows the Wolves to be in a much better position to finish over .500 for the first time since the 2004-2005 season and, if everything goes according to plan and everyone stays healthy, make the playoffs. These moves aren’t for setting up the team to win championships, or maybe even get to the second or third round of the playoffs; they’re for getting to the playoffs while providing much-needed mentorship for Wiggins and Towns, who remain the Wolves’ core and most important players.
They’re the kind of signings that naturally progress the Wolves’ “timeline”; they don’t speed it up (like signing a Lowry or Millsap might have) and they don’t slow it down (like running back the same team from last year may have).
Of course, until the players take the court and data points can be collected, the entire argument I’ve put forth is based on projection and conjecture. It’s possible that Teague’s shooting doesn’t space the floor sufficiently and his defense becomes the weak link that hampers the defense. It’s possible that Gibson’s defense takes a step back, which, when combined with an offensive game that doesn’t provide ideal spacing, limits his overall effectiveness. It’s possible that obtaining a lower level, cheaper point guard (like, say, a Ty Lawson or Darren Collison) and matching him with Millsap would’ve made the Wolves better in the immediate future.
However, the short length of the contracts is what’s most important. If any or all of those scenarios occur, the Wolves will be able to move on in short order. All three of Teague, Gibson and Butler’s contracts expire in two years (technically, Teague and Butler’s could expire in three years if they accept their player options prior to the 2019-20 season, but I’d imagine they’d both opt out for bigger paydays). At that point, Gibson will be 34, Teague 31, and Butler 30 and either on the verge of or exiting their primes, while Wiggins (24) and Towns (23) will just be on the verge of entering. At that point, it would be prudent of the Wolves to reconfigure the roster again towards making the leap from “win now” to “compete now”.
(Another aside: I know that Redick signed a one-year deal and that the third year of Millsap’s contract is a team option (unless the Hawks-Clippers-Nuggets trade goes down, then it’ll become non-guaranteed). I understand that both contracts would have technically fit what I just stated in the paragraph prior. I’m also not necessarily saying the Wolves shouldn’t have signed Millsap. But bringing him in would’ve handicapped the Wolves, much like the Gibson signing currently has. The Wolves would have had a dominant starting five, but they would’ve been left with no bench. As the Washington Wizards showed in the playoffs last year, the lack of a bench can be the difference between being good and being great. That’s the main argument for the Wolves staying away from “compete now” signings this summer; they aren’t ready to be great and signing Teague and Gibson will make them good anyway. However, what I don’t understand is why the Wolves didn’t at least offer Redick. He would’ve been a great fit on this team and would’ve bolstered the bench and team’s shooting to a great degree. I have to think he told the Wolves that he truly wanted to be in Philadelphia; that’s the only way not offering him makes any sense.)
Obviously, the roster still needs some finagling; it is nowhere near the final iteration. The Wolves currently only have 10 of their 17 roster spots occupied with only $2.2 million in cap space remaining (they have their $4.3 million room exception, as well), so many moves will be occurring in the coming days. As it stands right now, the Wolves have added a net of 20 Wins Above Replacement through the additions of Butler, Teague, and Gibson. That’s not insignificant and virtually ensures that the Wolves will be much improved over last year. How much exactly remains to be seen, but Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden have placed the Wolves in the position to do something they haven’t been able to do for a long time: consistently win basketball games.