This past week was somewhat active in terms of rumors involving the Minnesota Timberwolves and potential roster moves.
KSTP and 1500ESPN’s Darren Wolfson reported on Wednesday that the Wolves have shown interest in Dallas Mavericks’ center Nerlens Noel, and that while nothing is imminent, he’s “a name to watch” as February’s trade deadline looms ever nearer. Additionally, news broke Friday afternoon that the Wolves were one of four teams – including the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and Washington Wizards – showing the most interest in trading for Los Angeles Clippers’ (who have become abruptly hapless and increasingly injured) center DeAndre Jordan.
Noel and Jordan are interesting names in that they both fit a big man archetype that is currently missing from the Wolves’ fours and fives: athletic, defense-oriented, strong defensive rebounder, and a killer in the pick-and-roll. Although the Wolves’ roster has more than its fair share of big men, the rim running, rim protector is a commodity that is arguably needed and inarguably the perfect fit next to some of the Wolves’ most prominent players.
One of Tom Thibodeau’s main reasons for bringing in point guard Jeff Teague this past offseason was his prowess in the pick-and-roll, and backup point guard Tyus Jones has also shown sign of proficiency in running the oft-used play this year with Karl-Anthony Towns. Either Jordan or Noel would figure to be a perfect match for the Wolves’ floor general duo as Jordan ranks in the 80th percentile as the roll man in pick-and-rolls (1.28 ppp) and Noel, in limited minutes, is in the 71st percentile (1.22 ppp).
In a similar fashion, both Jordan and Noel would figure to fit impeccably next to Towns on defense. Their ability to be disruptors in the paint would take some of the pressure off Towns to be the anchor that steadies the ship on defense and allow him to flow rather than think. Although Jordan’s block percentage – 1.7%, according to Cleaning the Glass – has fallen below the 85th percentile for big men for the first time since 2013-14, his sheer size and athletic ability is an instant intimidator for opponents. Noel, on the other hand, ranks in the 77th percentile for block percentage (2.6%) and the 90th for steal percentage (2.1%) for big men, making him a unique Swiss Army knife.
Although center isn’t exactly the Wolves’ most desperate need – that would be wing depth, preferably of the 3&D variety, and point guard – adding Jordan would help bolster the Wolves’ defense as well as their bench as Taj Gibson would likely return to a role that brought him much success with Thibodeau during their first go-around in Chicago. The same figures to be true if Noel were added, though Gibson would likely stay in the starting lineup.
However, what would the Wolves have to give up to acquire either player?
Jordan currently has two years, approximately $46.7 million left on his contract, though the second year is a player option making him eligible to become an unrestricted free agent this summer should he decline. The Clippers are reportedly “adamant” in obtaining at least two of Jon Henson, Malcolm Brogdon, and Khris Middleton from the Bucks in the event of a trade and the Wolves would be hard pressed to be able to match that kind of return value. The package the Wolves could muster that most resembles the asking price of the Bucks – a capable big man, talented prospect, and/or young 3&D wing – revolves around Gorgui Dieng, injured rookie Justin Patton, and Oklahoma City’s lottery protected 2018 first round pick.
It’s hard to imagine that that would be the best offer the Clippers could receive in exchange for Jordan, though, and, from the Wolves’ perspective, it’s hard to see them wanting to retain him beyond this season. Jordan will almost assuredly opt out of his contract after the season in search of a maximum contract. He turns 30 in July and handing out max-level contracts to players at that age who rely on athleticism to do their heavy lifting rarely end up being worth it.
On the other hand, there is a somewhat intriguing argument in favor of the Wolves trading for Jordan and letting him walk this summer. The Wolves are projected to be significantly above the salary cap next season, meaning they can only offer minimum-level contracts to free agents. By trading for Jordan and allowing him to walk, the Wolves would free up approximately $24 million from the books, giving them approximately $4 million to use in free agency in search of quality bench and wing depth. (Note: If the Wolves allow Nemanja Bjelica, Marcus Georges-Hunt, and Aaron Brooks to leave as well, they could have as much as approximately $10-12 million to spend; I’m by no means a salary cap expert, so these numbers may be off, but the big picture is what’s important here). Would losing Dieng, Bjelica, Patton, and a first-round pick be worth it for a shot at signing a free agent or two and/or obtaining theoretically greater short-term success?
While trading for Jordan would be difficult, acquiring Noel may be even more difficult. After reportedly turning down a four-year, $70 million deal from the Mavericks last summer, Noel signed a one-year, $4.1 million deal instead, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018. (It also means that Noel isn’t eligible to be traded until December 15th.) That small of a contract makes it difficult for teams to match salaries as well as incoming and outgoing value. The Wolves wouldn’t be able to offer much more than Shabazz Muhammad and/or a second round pick unless they were willing to part with a Dieng or Aldrich to take on another Mavs’ castaway.
Additionally, how much money would it take to resign him? Turning down a four-year, $70 million deal goes to show how much Noel values himself and what he thinks he can receive on the open market (though last offseason would seem to be an indication of how other team’s value him). Would the Wolves rather have Dieng and all he brings to the table for approximately $16 million a year, or Noel and his baggage for a similar, if not less, amount?
It’s also somewhat telling that two teams in need of young, cornerstone talent – the Mavericks and Philadelphia 76ers (though they made the correct choice in sticking with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons) – are willing to move on from him at such a young age; Noel will turn only 24 later in the season and is averaging a career-low 12.5 minutes per game for the Mavs. Are the reports about Noel’s poor work ethic true or is his bad reputation more of a byproduct from #TheProccess and Mav’s coach Rick Carlisle’s demands from his players?
All in all, its unlikely that either Jordan or Noel end the season in Minnesota. Though their skillset is one that is arguably needed within the Wolves’ rotation, it’s also possible that they already have that kind of player on the roster. Justin Patton, though injured and raw, is an athletic big who excels in transition and showed promise in the pick-and-roll during his lone year at Creighton. He may not see much playing time with the Wolves this season, but it may just be in the team’s best interests to wait and see how he develops before committing to a player such as Jordan or Noel.