If you decided to click this link (thanks for visiting), odds are you have gotten your fill of commentary and opinion surrounding the pair of trades the Wolves made the other day and are, thus, well aware of the details. Sometimes, it is good to take a couple of days to let these things breathe so you can form a more calculated opinion of a significant event (this is code for laziness), so here we are. In the case of the Wolves’ decision to trade a first-round pick for Adreian “Pat, I’d Like to Buy a Vowel” Payne, my view and mood remains the same: unsettled, underwhelmed, but certainly not panicking. A lot of this is driven by the fact that, well, a history I’d rather forget is repeating itself yet again.
If the words “Wolves first round draft pick” give you a twinge of anxiety, then you have probably followed this team since at least the very beginning of the Garnett era, where the gulf-sized dichotomy between the Wolves and First Round Draft Picks was at its near-peak. Plainly, there is significant negative history with this franchise trading away first round draft picks for players under contract, and it has worked out a grand total of zero times throughout its history. Andy over at Punch Drunk Wolves laid out the depressing specifics well enough, so I will not rehash them. If you want to re-live at least a fraction of the pain (and Andy doesn’t even get into some of the OTHER picks Kahn and Flip have also traded away to date), go ahead and do so. And while Andy’s thoughts are largely focused on the Garnett era, it should be known that, while they have acquired a few as well, by my count the Wolves have traded away a total of eight first round picks in six years with very little to show for it. (Webster, Lawson, Mirotic/Montiejunas et. al, Thad Young, Anthony Roberson, Payne, Budinger, Kirilenko/Wes). Maybe the misuse of first rounders didn’t peak in the McHale era after all? But if you are in support of the Payne trade and have engaged in a dialogue with a Wolves fan who has pent up anxiety over moves like this, this is a significant reason why.
But there are other implications of this move beyond the history of the franchise that bear mention. After poking around a bit in an attempt to understand the various sides of the debate here, the general consensus from those in favor of this from a trade value standpoint is, “well, if the Wolves have to surrender a pick in 2017 they will have made the playoffs, so therefore that is a good thing!” This perspective is true, but it fails to address several key things that often get franchises deep into the weeds, and has played a significant negative role throughout the history of the franchise:
The first is the simple fact that, when a team becomes successful, the expectations of the fans rise faster than the team progression can usually keep up with. I assure you, if the Wolves are a playoff team, but are treading in the mud in 5 years with no resources in which to improve (unless you are a mindless homer, and bless you if you are), you are going to feel different in a negative way. Talk to a Clippers fan. Talk to a Thunder fan. Think of yourself back in 2001 when the Wolves were really good, but your angst towards the front office failing to surround Garnett with talent was stronger than it was towards anything Wolves-related today. Talk to or attempt to understand the perspective of any fan of a team that has been a contender for awhile but can’t quite get over the hump. You will quickly find that, while many are just blindly in love with their teams, there will at least be a faction of fans who are infuriated with ownership and/or GM’s cash strapped to improve their team and surround their stars with quality supporting talent. We saw it during the Garnett era, where years of bad contracts, scandal and front office apathy destroyed an era that should have resulted in a championship banner at Target Center. At the end of the day, the new-ish CBA makes it a bit more difficult to add final pieces, particularly those teams at or close to the luxury tax. Take OKC for example. Clay Bennett, their owner, is notorious for his refusal to pay the luxury tax for as much as a single season in order to add talent to the team. He, like Glen Taylor in the 2000’s, has allowed the money to get in the way of the potential success of the team. This is his right, of course, but it isn’t out of left field to assume the Wolves are headed towards a scenario not unlike we are witnessing down in OKC. The contracts the Wolves hand out certainly suggest the salary situation isn’t bound to improve much in time.
When the Wolves are (hopefully) a playoff team with home court advantage, they will likely have ongoing holes to fill on the roster, and very little money or resources to do so when it will actually matter. They might really need that pick…later! Because today, it doesn’t matter nearly as much. Think of it like drawing out of your 401k to buy a boat or some secondary vehicle that you really don’t need in the slightest today (implication also being you don’t have the discretionary cash to buy it today). It might seem great and fun now, but ultimately at retirement you might really miss that cash when you don’t have a regular paycheck coming your way anymore. This draft pick could have been very helpful in that regard should such a scenario unfold. It’s good planning. If you take a look at the moves OKC has made the last few years, other than a few small signings and trades, the draft picks have ultimately been very important to building their rotation on an ongoing basis, whether it be Jackson, Adams, Roberson, Jones and even McGary has shown some promise. They matter. And pretending they do not matter is the same school of thought that has gotten the Wolves in big trouble over their entire history.
The second is the idea that the Wolves have now spent two future first round picks on 2 power forwards today, one of which (Payne) is most likely to be a bench contributor at his peak, with another big highly likely to be coming our way in the draft. Was this necessary? Is Payne likely to give you anything more than Jeff Adrien did? In addition, was adding an additional rookie and prospect to a team with arguably far too many as it is a good idea? Between LaVine, Wiggins, Robinson, Payne, Dieng, Muhammad, Bennett, Brown and Hummel that is a total of nine first and second year players on the roster, and with the addition of a top pick and potentially Bjelica next season, that number could largely stay the same next year. Youth is great, but it is at a point where you can reasonably expect diminishing returns with a 2:1+ prospect-to-iffy-coach ratio. Not every one of these players will work out, and the Wolves need avenues in which to replace them quickly with players who are better. Or, combine them with a future pick in trade for a meaningful, good veteran starter. Now, they cannot do this until the end of the decade at the earliest unless it is post-lottery.
This has little do with Payne as much as it does this being another example of the Wolves potentially misusing a trade asset, and repeating a cycle that we have seen many times before with negative results. It bears other similarities as well. McHale, the few times he had a draft pick, was notorious for selecting players with little thought, often from the Big 10, major college programs, or Final Four teams. Flip has quietly followed a similar path in a certain regard: three of his young players are Bill Duffy clients (Duffy, an old pal of Flip’s from his Gopher days represents Wiggins, Shabazz and LaVine), one played for current assistant Sidney Lowe at NC State (Lorenzo Brown), two are Big 10 guys (Robinson and now Payne, who also played for his friend and once-rumored Wolves coach Tom Izzo), and one was a national champion (Dieng). While many of these have unfolded in a largely positive manner and should bear little criticism in hindsight, it isn’t unreasonable in my view to suggest his connection to Izzo largely influenced his evaluation of what is ultimately a 24 year old rookie with a lung condition, who his very smart and forward-thinking coaching staff in Atlanta gave up on after 3 NBA games and an ok stint in the D League. And while Atlanta might need the roster spot for a buyout signing, I don’t buy into the fact that they trade him this soon unless they really thought he wouldn’t help them out in the long run. It isn’t a great sign. I’ll bet the folks in Atlanta are pretty excited about what happened the other day.
1st round picks, aside from all-star players, are the most valuable trade asset to have. The Wolves have traded away at least a dozen first round picks in similar trades in the last 15 years and they have worked out a grand total of zero times. I sincerely wish Payne the very best and hope he is excellent, that his supporters are right on in their assessment, and he is a big part of the team’s success moving forward. Unfortunately, I would put money on this one not being viewed favorably at the end of the day.