A young man sat; his back stretched against the soft moonlight. A light breeze blew across his face, disrupting a disheveled mop of hair reflexive of a poised man comfortable with himself and his chilly surroundings. Andrew Wiggins had arrived in Minnesota, a man with nothing to lose, yet everything to prove.
Sorry, I had to do it because those ridiculous “scene setting” sentences in “long-form” articles always make me chuckle in their absurd melodrama. Speaking of melodrama, let’s panic about what lies ahead for the Wolves as we break before Draft Season. In order to really get a sense of how this offseason might transpire in Minnesota, we have to do our best to draw conclusions utilizing the oftentimes limited information we have available, which should help us best predict the events that will unfold. As always, assumptions made are often my own, but usually rooted in history, and I deeply hope to be wrong about any pessimistic prediction. Let’s start and end by peeling back the onion on the key stakeholders who will be making the key decisions ahead:
Understanding Glen Taylor’s Likely Approach to This Summer
Let’s just put this out there up front: Glen Taylor’s 22-year managerial performance as an NBA owner has been questionable-to-terrible at best. I won’t rehash much of his cringe-worthy history here, so I find it safe to say, as a long-time follower of the dynamics of this front office and ownership group, that Glen’s single biggest failure has been that he is very rarely willing to hire or even consider the best available candidate for a given basketball position, an unfortunate and yet important trait to etch into your mind as we enter this summer. In considering his history as an owner, I can think of a single time when I felt Glen was serious about developing a team that could truly compete: investing in Rick Adelman as a coach. Many would argue that this was a failed era, but I would counter that by saying the era was derailed only by injuries and the unfortunate illness of Rick’s wife. Adelman’s first season, Ricky Rubio’s rookie year, was perhaps the most enjoyable time for Wolves basketball since KG/Marbury in 1997 or the WCF run in 2004. The team was outperforming all expectations and likely would have made the playoffs if not for Rubio blowing out his knee against the Lakers. Hiring him remains an excellent decision in light of the ultimate context. He was also probably the best available candidate.
None of Taylor’s historical can-kicking is new information. We know this. But it is crucial to carefully consider his history in order to help anchor your expectations appropriately for what is likely to come. For those of you who follow TWolvesBlog on Twitter in order to get your daily dose of sophomoric Wolves hyperbole, and as the primary user of the handle, you know my stance on this subject: I would remain utterly shocked to this day if Taylor considers any other coaching candidate but Mitchell this summer and I have felt this way for several months now, despite the report from Marc Stein today. It just isn’t the way he operates. I welcome both a change and a buffet of crow with open arms and mouth if things go differently.
Additionally, Taylor has a very checkered history with wavering on his decisions, announcing them awkwardly on talk radio interviews much later than they should have been, and generally just going about major decisions in a highly puzzling and frustrating way. Furthermore, his non-committal, passive-aggressive nature, such as not being willing to commit to GM Milt Newton beyond the summer, quietly has been his M.O for most of his tenure. Back in the Flip and McHale era, for example, both men were on annual handshake deals for their respective tenures.
In reality, if you take a minute to emphasize with Taylor’s imminent decision, you will find it is quietly a very difficult one for several reasons, most of them being personal: 1. Mitchell has the players playing well and hard in April. This is a very foreign concept to the tens of fans still paying attention at this time of year. 2. Mitchell has changed the offense and shown a willingness to move on from the dark depths of Flip’s outdated offense, and has finally figured out correct player positions, a monumental accomplishment for the entire organization. 3. Taylor has a pre-established and long-term relationship with Mitchell, a critical Taylor attribute. In fact, Mitchell was Taylor’s first choice back in 2014 before Flip hired himself. 4. Sam is probably not a costly coach, another critical Taylor attribute. And last but not least, 5. Letting Sam go possibly results in Ryan Saunders losing his assistant coaching job as well.
I don’t envy Taylor’s position. As fans, it is easy for us to make these calls in anonymity behind our Ivory iPhone screens, and while I would celebrate an elite coach, I wouldn’t feel good at all about Sam losing his job in light of the numerous positives this season. This is a thousand times worse for Glen Taylor. But one question I would be more than comfortable asking Taylor face-to-face remains the most important of all: Is Sam Mitchell the best coach you can possibly hire for this exceptionally gifted young group of players? And the answer to that question, while difficult, is irrefutably “no.” You can’t let recency bias or a single Warriors road win cloud sound long-term judgment, which is admittedly hypocritical in the instant reaction era we live in. Imagine the elation the Bulls fan base felt when Del Negro was axed in Chicago, and Thibs was hired. Imagine again what it felt like when Kurt Rambis was fired, and Rick Adelman was hired (ignore Kahn’s ludicrous draft pick auction in 2011 to convince Taylor to move on). Imagine the possible elation of upgrading from Randy Wittman to Thibs this summer, a real possibility in Washington. I want to experience that “Adelman Feeling” again, even if Mitchell has done a lot of great and awesome things with these players and deserves credit for it. You should want that, too. Unfortunately, Glen Taylor has provided very little historical indication he is willing to make a difficult decision for the long term benefit of his franchise.
Understanding Milt Newton’s Possible Approach to The Summer
Milt Newton and his situation is an entirely different banana. And more relevant to what is ahead specifically, understanding and predicting how Milt Newton “GM’s” is undoubtedly an assumptive crap-shoot. But if you look carefully you can see some patterns emerge, a few of which have me approaching the summer with caution:
- First and foremost, let’s give him positive credit for his role in this rebuild. Milt was likely a big voice in the room when Flip decided to pass on Okafor for Towns, and surely played a major role in whatever positive decisions have been made in both Minnesota and Washington. He also seems like a swell, humble and friendly dude.
- However, Milt quietly has a possible history of being involved in trading first round draft choices for minimal return: Payne for a future #1; The Miami #1 for KG via Thad Young; as a high-ranking Wizards official, he was likely involved in trading the 2009 #5 pick (later Rubio) to Minnesota for Mike Miller and Randy Foye; and most recently, a gut-wrenching rumor at the trade deadline involving the Wolves allegedly shopping Ricky Rubio and this year’s lottery selection to the Bucks for Khris Middleton. Yikes.
- What is most concerning about the latter rumor on the previous list is that I am still not convinced Milt or the organization understands the on-court value of Ricky Rubio. Lost in the shuffle of Middleton being a good (but not at the price) trade target is the simple fact that he is not a point guard. This logically means only one thing: As recently as late February, less than 2 months ago, Milt and the FO may actually still believe Zach is the PG of the future for the Wolves. This has seemingly created some pretty under-discussed disconnect between Rubio and the front office that has still yet to be resolved as of early April.
- I am again making an assumption here, but I am willing to give Mitchell the benefit of the doubt on the pre-season scrum over Zach’s NBA position. I truly believe that sudden pre-season change came from above him in the organizational totem pole, and for the same reasons they listened to trade calls for Ricky: Milt and company wanted to see if Zach had a future as a PG despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The fact Zach has played the 1 for the majority of his career until the All-Star break doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
- While this is absolutely a tall order, Newton was unable to generate even a tiny trade return for Anthony Bennett, Andre Miller or Kevin Martin this season resulting in an 8 figure combined buyout for all three players. Can he negotiate good trade return? We don’t know.
- His only other transaction was signing Greg Smith from the D-League, frustratingly leaving the 15th roster spot, along with a nice opportunity to try out a player for the bench next season for little cost, open.
- Last and probably least, a nitpick, but according to Darren Wolfson, the Wolves were among the only teams that didn’t send a representative to the Sloan Analytics Conference, a hint at Milt’s possibly dated philosophy. Given his GM tree, this is not surprising.
But there is yet another key factor at play: Milt’s employment is on the line to a much greater degree than most GM’s ever face, and the Wolves have very few trade assets aside from a handful of bench players and a potential Top 5 pick. Most future picks are accounted for. Unfortunately as the pressure mounts from fans and ownership in these situations historically in the NBA, panic trades and short-sighted moves tend to be the result, and those situations rarely work out and often result in what we see crippling the New Orleans Pelicans or the Brooklyn Nets today. After all, why else do the Wolves find themselves with minimal draft assets to work with at the moment?
The key for Milt is to not panic and sign any long-term deals that will prohibit future flexibility. Let other teams re-wreck their caps with overpriced midlevel talent, and generate a rare cap advantage for the future. Also, let’s please avoid bringing in Billy King, a name Wolfson threw out as a possible advisor based on Milt’s connection to Larry Brown.
Concluding, I think we will see a dose of short and long-term moves from Milt throughout this crucial summer. I’ll make a call on each move, in fact:
- Sam Mitchell is retained on a 1-year deal. The informal announcement comes on the later side of the next two months directly from Taylor on WCCO as if the news wasn’t anticipated in the slightest. No search of any kind is ever considered (EDIT: this prediction is already wrong. Good job Taylor!). BONUS: Randy Wittman returns to Minnesota as an assistant.
- Arnie Kander leaves the Wolves with no replacement hired.
- Milt Newton underwhelmingly trades the 5th pick (Buddy Hield) in the draft for a pair of mid-career bench vets of the Wilson Chandler/Taj Gibson mold.
- Milt Newton signs Mason Plumlee and either Jamal Crawford or Jared Dudley to 2-year $10-15 million contracts.
- Shabazz is traded into the open arms of a gifted coaching staff for a pair of 2nd round picks.
- No announcement on Milt is made and his status is not understood until at least the dawn of the 2016-2017 season, again on WCCO from Taylor. 1 year extension.
Interesting and ideally hopeful times are ahead. I’m sure Glen Taylor will keep us all on our toes for just a little bit longer than we expect.