Last week when owner Glen Taylor “shocked the world” with news that he would hire Tom Thibodeau as President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach of the Timberwolves, the majority of the conversation immediately shifted to Thibodeau’s exemplary history as a head coach and how he would soon maximize the defensive potential of the current roster. But you wouldn’t be alone if you started to feel a twinge of anxiety about what the future of the the player personnel may be under new control, particularly with a coach known to emphasize the short view over the long in terms of in-game player management. Will this carry over into the front office?
When thinking through what this summer may bring, it is important to reflect back on the last couple of seasons and understand not just what happened, but who was responsible. This team as it stands today is the product of both a vision and, to be fair, the great Draft Lottery luck of a single man, Flip Saunders, who tragically passed away last October. As Wolves loyalists, we might look at the roster and assume that Flip’s vision or “plan” will continue to proceed interrupted, and possibly take for granted that such dramatic change in leadership could result in a big shift change in thinking and approach. Categorically, and for better or worse, I think in general we are headed in this direction:
Likely OUT are the days of: selling second round picks because “no one was available,” trading into the first round to select a player because he was from Minnesota (if you think Tyus Jones would be on the Wolves roster if he was, say, a California native, you are lying to yourself), trading first rounders for Tom Izzo products, trading for and signing 40 year old Wolves legends to 2 – year $16 million contracts when they can barely take the floor, gut decisions on athletic marvels in the draft that work out great in the end, masterful tanking efforts, super fun events like Dunks After Dark, eye-test player evaluations, long 2’s because they are “open shots.”
Summary: Again for better or worse, the emotional, subjective decisions we have been used to for decades are probably OUT.
Possibly IN are the days of: process and planning, perhaps a shaky-at-times emphasis on “win-now” moves, the unheard of concept of trading into the 2nd round to take a Euro prospect, analytics, quality shot selection, a championship mindset across the organization, and last but not least: uncertainty surrounding how the new guard will view the current players that we may erroneously assume are here to start, stay and, someday, star.
Summary: objective decision-making may be IN.
It is no secret that Zach LaVine was treated as the Golden Boy of the previous regime, afforded every opportunity to start and play major minutes, an institutional advantage not granted to many of his peers going through similar struggles. This sounds negative, so let’s give Zach the credit he deserves here and applaud Flip’s decision to gamble on him. He earned it in many respects and has made quite a little career for himself thus far, but it is important to remove bias and acknowledge that his future and ultimate ceiling is still largely an unknown. He could develop into a mid-career Jamal Crawford clone (there already, arguably), or the next great wing scorer. I don’t know what will happen and neither do you.
Unfortunately, Zach’s career has been further complicated by an indecisive coaching staff that oscillated his position for the first 75% of his career (which, to be fair here, I really believe his position issues were mostly influenced by Milt Newton and the Front Office to gauge whether they could unload Rubio and stay above water afterwards, something that really made me uneasy about Milt as a long-term general manager in addition to some other matters). The big question I have at this point: how will Thibodeau and company view LaVine and his future? Will he even start? Will Thibs tolerate him and others who primarily play on one side of the ball, or will they sit in favor of the vets he is surely going to bring in? Think about it further: it could be argued that Zach’s trade value may never be higher than it is now in light of the uncertainty ahead in his career largely based on assumption and age. It is important to keep a very open mind here. Color me surprised at the amount of fans against a trade of Zach and the Wolves’ 2016 lottery pick to Chicago for Jimmy Butler. While I would certainly be uneasy about making that trade, if you are in a position to trade those two assets (hate that word) for a proven All-Star performer of any kind, it should be thought through at length and strongly considered.
Other uncertainties remain. It has been reported that Thibs is a big fan of Gorgui Deng, or at least was in favor of drafting him to Chicago. How will his role change on the floor? Will Thibs recognize the likely need for a dependable, above average, backup Point Guard, relegating Tyus to the bench for most of the season and likely submarining his future in Minnesota? Does Thibs look at Bjelica and see a Mirotic role? What about Shabazz? Does Thibs recognize he once was forming a really nice career for himself as an inside wing banger/smallball 4, which Mitchell quickly neutered in favor of long range bricks and mediocre dribble penetration? Shit, what if Bazz starts at the 4 on opening night? While I wouldn’t necessarily endorse this, the point here is that the Wolves as we knew them under Flip and Mitchell are a thing of the past. Nothing new, different, wild, or wacky should surprise us. Thibs, Layden and whoever else joins the organization will probably have completely different viewpoints than the old guard did on everything as it pertains to the organization and the roster.
So what team-approach should we expect this summer? Thinking further ahead, planning for possible contract extensions should be an immediate area of focus for the new front office. Currently there are four members of the core who I think belong in this conversation as of today, assuming none are traded this summer or next: Wiggins, Towns, LaVine and Dieng. All four, when the time comes, are all-but guaranteed to command wide ranging 8-figure salaries in light of the rising salary cap. While I have not studied the future of the cap enough to write confidently on the subject, there could be a time in the not-so-distant future where those four players combine for well over $60-$70 million in salary per season alone, which would exceed the salary cap of today. To put this into perspective, their future per year earnings will possibly be 4-5 TIMES what the tandem make today (about $15 million combined).
This also is an opportune time to re-emphasize the massive value of the rookie scale contract in a situation where veteran free agent salaries are ballooning in proportion to the increasing salary cap, while rookie salaries stay mostly flat in the initial year as they were defined in net dollars in the current CBA. This will surely change in the next CBA (that is hopefully signed next summer quickly without a lockout). The future salaries of the current core are no small change even as the cap continues to rise, and therefore it is important that the books can still breathe to allow for extensions so the Wolves are not hamstrung under the luxury tax line, resulting in a need to sell low on a core player a la Oklahoma City and James Harden. This should be considered in any trade discussion involving this years’ pick as well, and the value of the rookie contract in lieu of a pricier veteran.
On the other hand, there will be few windows to capitalize on free agent signings beyond the summer of 2017, therefore I would offer support for some shorter-term (2-3 years) non-max contracts to bolster the roster with mid-career experience off the bench. Some of the names that people tend to float out right now include Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, former Thibs disciples who, if healthy, could make superb additions to the rotation. Kent Bazemore, Marvin Williams, and Ryan Anderson may also be worth meeting with, among several others.
Other questions remain, such as the futures of the previous assistant coaching staff and members of the front office, names like Sidney Lowe, Ryan Saunders, David Adelman, Rob Babcock and Milt Newton himself. I find it interesting that many fans I engage with on Twitter have really concerned themselves with maintaining some semblance of status quo after so many years of bemoaning The Country Club. “We need to keep Ryan Saunders and David Adelman. Let’s bring back Sam as an assistant. Milt Newton ought to stick around.” While I never want to celebrate a person losing his or her means of employment, at this moment I have but one wish after so many years of nonsense: that Thibs and Layden surround themselves with the best possible basketball operations, coaching, training, janitorial, clerical and analytical talent they feasibly can. This is Management 101-type of stuff. This could mean wholesale change which, while difficult to stomach, is surely in the best interests of the long-term growth of the entire historically underperforming operation. We have seen for years how ineffective this franchise has been at operating like a quality basketball organization, failing to develop any sort of competitive advantage aside from the new practice facility, all but ignoring the D-League, not adapting to current on-court and front office trends, not utilizing analytics, and failing to execute a plan to develop a playoff basketball team. In their respective audits of the organization, if Milt or Thibs discover than any of the existing staff are the best available candidate, fantastic. Welcome back. But, and while this may sound harsh, after such an extended period of incompetence, I am hoping for additional changes and voices throughout the front office, and that anyone responsible for the ongoing complacency and tire-in-the-mud thinking gets replaced while the iron is hot. It is well past the time to adapt into an organization that values winning above all. I’d be hopeful the Wolves one day soon begin their own process of innovation themselves as teams in the league become more and more competitive, deep under the curtains.
For now, Thibs and Layden deserve a heavy dose of benefit of the doubt as they evaluate and plan ahead. I am confident they will make the right decisions which, after 22 years of Glen Taylor running the team, is a very unique and “comfortable” feeling.