The Minnesota Timberwolves did the bulk of their offseason work at the trade deadline. They committed to D'Angelo Russell as their permanent sidekick, found complementary shooters in Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez and even managed to get off of Andrew Wiggins' horrendous contract. Broadly, Minnesota has already constructed the team it plans to contend with down the line. They are going to rely on the Russell-Karl-Anthony Towns pick-and-roll and shoot thousands of 3-pointers. That's the idea, and the pieces to do so are already in place.
But championships aren't won in broad strokes. The devil is in the details, and Minnesota still has a lot of work to do around its two former All-Stars. So what does Minnesota need to do in order to construct a functioning team around Towns and Russell? Let's start with the talent in place in order to find out.
Towns is essentially a perfect offensive player. He just shot 41.2 percent on 7.9 attempts from beyond the arc per game. No other seven-footer in NBA history has ever hit that percentage on even five attempts per game, per basketball reference. Despite spending all of that time behind the arc, he still finished 24th in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate. He might be the NBA's fastest rolling big man. He grew into a high-level passer this season, dishing out a career-high 4.4 assists per game. He has no discernible weaknesses on that end of the floor. Building an elite offense around him should be relatively simple.
But he's a porous defender by virtually any metric. He is ranked 69th out of 70 centers by ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Minnesota's defense goes from quite good with Towns on the bench (107.9 points per 100 possessions allowed) to dreadful with him on the floor (115.4). His block rate hit a career-low 2.9 percent this season, and that doesn't even do his rim-protection struggles justice. Minnesota allowed the sixth-highest percentage of shots within three feet of the rim in the NBA last season and the seventh-highest percentage this season. Nobody is afraid to attack Towns, and they relish doing so in the pick-and-roll, where his instincts are fairly underdeveloped.
Most of Minnesota's worthwhile players have the same problem. Josh Okogie is the only above-average defender remaining on the roster, and Jarrett Culver is the only youngster likely to get there. Deadline additions Beasley and Hernangomez have both shot the lights out in Minnesota, but were dealt largely because of struggles defensively. Russell is one of the worst defenders in all of basketball. Synergy Sports ranks him in the eighth percentile overall.
That would be an easier pill to swallow if Russell's offensive value matched his reputation, but there is strong evidence to suggest that it doesn't. Golden State saw little improvement with him on the floor offensively (103.8 points per 100) compared to when he was on the bench (102.1). Brooklyn experienced a similar phenomenon last season, regressing by an identically small 1.7 points per 100 possessions when he sat. Russell shot a preposterous 54.9 percent on long-2's with the Warriors, boosting his stats just as similar variability on floaters (50.4 percent between 10-16 feet of the basket during his All-Star season in Brooklyn) did last season. Russell is undoubtedly a good offensive player. Minnesota is paying him to be a great one, and gave up a potentially very high draft pick for the right to do so.
Russell is not James Harden. His mere presence is not going to create great offense, even with the advantages that Minnesota's analytically-influenced system grants. The Timberwolves will need another ball-handler at some level to ease his burden, and they'll need defenders across the board to make up for him and Towns there. Gersson Rosas' track record suggests that those defenders will also have to be able to shoot.
Finances and free agency
While Minnesota lacks any crippling long-term commitments, the Timberwolves have mostly exhausted their short-term flexibility. As it stands, they should enter the offseason with around $96 million spoken for. Below is their cap sheet, with all salaries coming from Spotrac.
James Johnson (player option)
Cole Aldrich (dead money)
That table does not account for players Minnesota will need to sign or re-sign this offseason, and they have a few more potentially pricey expenditures to consider.
Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez are both restricted free agents with relatively modest cap holds. Hernangomez has a qualifying offer of $4.6 million this offseason, while Beasley's is around $3.9 million. Both will have the option of accepting one-year contracts at that price in order to earn unrestricted free agency in the 2021 offseason. That is an option both will no doubt consider in light of damage that the coronavirus is expected to do to the cap. With little space available, neither is likely to find a lucrative offer sheet on the open market. That gives Minnesota a bit of leverage in potentially low-balling them, but if they overplay their hand, both will simply take those qualifying offers.
Beasley and Hernangomez both improved significantly upon their arrival in Minnesota thanks in large part to expanded roles they couldn't earn on a crowded and contending Nuggets roster. Both turned down extensions in Denver before the season, with Beasley's offer reportedly worth $30 million over three years, according to the Denver Post. Both have improved their stock dramatically, and in spite of the market conditions, should expect better offers than what the Nuggets gave them. Conservatively, let's set the combined cost at retaining both at around $25 million in the first year. Beasley would be getting average starter money in this scenario, around $15 million in the first season, while Hernangomez would start slightly above the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception.
There is also the matter of Minnesota's draft pick. The Timberwolves had the third-worst record in the NBA, and while this could move in either direction, the projected rookie scale dictates a $6.9 million salary for the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. However, as industry standards dictate first-round picks be paid 120 percent of the scale, that selection would actually cost around $8.3 million. To solve for other potential draft pick salaries, just use RealGM's scale figures and multiply by 1.2.
Finally, Minnesota has to decide what to do with Jordan McLaughlin, arguably the best two-way player in the NBA this season. While he would fetch decent bench money on the open market, he, like Beasley and Hernangomez, is restricted this offseason. Unfortunately for him, he lacks the leverage his teammates have by virtue of his two-way status. His qualifying offer would only net him another two-way deal, so while Minnesota is likely to sign him onto its NBA roster, it is unlikely to pay him much more than the minimum to do so. Alex Caruso's Lakers contract came under somewhat similar circumstances, so let's say McLaughlin gets a two-year, $5.5 million deal.
Add all of this up, and that $96 million figure comes closer to $132 million. That wouldn't have been a problem before the coronavirus, when the tax line was projected to fall at around $141 million. That would have given them the freedom to use most of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception. If that number falls? The Timberwolves would be in real danger of having to pay it before signing a single veteran free agent.
They could buy themselves an extra $10 million or so in immediate relief by using the stretch provision to waive James Johnson. With most of their core players locked in for several years, the opportunity cost of two extra years of dead money would be fairly low. But for now, like the rest of the league, they are waiting out a potential agreement between ownership and the union.
No team needs to win the 2020 NBA Draft more than Minnesota. The Timberwolves sent their 2021 first-round pick to Golden State in the Russell trade, and by 2022, Towns will be only two years away from free agency. If they are ever going to add a player capable of helping convince Towns to stay for the long haul, it probably has to be now.
Fortunately, they'll likely have two bites of the apple. Their own pick has a 14 percent chance of landing at No. 1 overall and a 51.7 percent chance of staying in the top four. Even if the worst-case scenario plays out and it falls all the way to No. 7, the Timberwolves are getting at least one shot at a high-impact player in a wide-open draft. Assuming things play out as expected at Disney, they'll have two. Minnesota owns Brooklyn's first-round pick, provided it lands outside of the top 14. The Nets would have to win three fewer games than the Washington Wizards out of the eight seeding games on the schedule in Orlando and lose to them twice in a row in a play-in to keep that pick. In all likelihood, Minnesota will have either the No. 15 or 16 pick.
With Russell, Beasley and Culver entrenched in the backcourt, frontcourt help will likely be Minnesota's priority. No matter who they take, it will require some degree of compromise. USC's Onyeka Okongwu has the highest defensive upside of any big at the top of the draft, and his less than ideal center size would even be mitigated by Towns' presence, but he doesn't project as even a willing 3-point shooter in the NBA, much less a good one. The Timberwolves played 16 different players at least 400 minutes last season, and each of them attempted at least 2.5 3-pointers per game. Okungwu attempted four 3-pointers all season at USC. James Wiseman presents similar issues, though there is a bit more hope for his shooting future, and while ace defender Isaac Okoro is more likely a candidate with Brooklyn's pick, he has the same limitations. If Minnesota drafts big, they are likely not picking a shooter, and that would contradict everything Rosas has done since taking over the team.
To find both, Minnesota would have to compromise on the talent front. Florida State's Devin Vassel profiles as an excellent 3-and-D prospect, but has questionable upside beyond that. Would the Timberwolves really spend a top-three pick on a likely role player? Iowa State's Tyrese Haliburton has a higher ceiling and checks off the supplementary playmaker box as well. But is he big enough to defend forwards? And will the Timberwolves trust his unusual shooting form?
Having that extra pick in the middle of the first round allows Minnesota a degree of flexibility most teams lack. The Timberwolves can take a big swing in one spot knowing that they can play it safe at the other. There is little separation between the top of this class and the middle. Odds are, there won't be a demonstrable difference between whoever the Timberwolves get with their own pick and who they get with Brooklyn's. What matters is the methodology behind those choices. Rosas will only get so many chances to fix his defense. This will be his best one.
What would an ideal offseason look like?
Winning isn't a necessity next season, but progress is. Minnesota is going to have a short window to contend with Towns, if they even manage to open one at all, and even if next season won't be a part of it, keeping him engaged in the team's development is critical. That's going to mean adding a bit of veteran help to a young roster, but there is an important distinction between "veteran" and "old." Minnesota needs players that can help both now and later.
If they have access to their full Mid-Level Exception, Denver's Jerami Grant stands out as the ideal free agent addition. He can defend all five positions capably and is at least willing to shoot. Tristan Thompson should get a look as well. He doesn't satisfy the shooting requirement, but big men that can defend the perimeter at his level are rare. If they are limited to the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, swings on high-upside younger free agents like Derrick Jones Jr., Chris Boucher or even the semi-rejuvenated Josh Jackson should be the goal. Ideally, Minnesota would avoid stretching Johnson, but if doing so nets them enough space below the tax line to make a major splash with their Mid-Level Exception, then they should do it.
Defense should be the only priority with their top pick. Okungwu presents the best chance in this class at protecting Towns defensively for the long haul. If he is available, he should be the pick. If not, Vassel or Haliburton are both solid consolation options. While Wiseman's upside is tantalizing, the Timberwolves are all too familiar with the concept of the toolsy big man that doesn't actually play defense as they've lived it with Towns for years. LaMelo Ball and Killian Hayes make no sense on a Russell roster.
The Brooklyn pick should be a home run swing. Without their first-round pick next season or much cap room in the immediate future, the Timberwolves won't have another chance at a potential cornerstone any time soon. If someone stands out as a possible future star, that extra pick is their chance at rolling the dice without exposing themselves to much risk.
Keeping Beasley and Hernangomez is just good business. Eventually, the Timberwolves are going to have to reckon with how heavily invested they are in all-offense players, but shooters are always tradeable. There is no sense in losing those assets for nothing.
McLaughlin has earned the opportunity to prove himself as a full-time backup point guard. He plays bigger than his 5-11 height, shot efficiently across the floor and credibly ran Minnesota's offense when other point guards weren't available. He might not be a long-term solution, but he is no mere two-way player.
Next season, like this season, is going to be about evaluating how well the players in place fit with Towns. The Timberwolves will just have to be a bit more expeditious about replacing those that aren't this time around. While Minnesota did well on the trade market this season, they now have a roster devoid of any defense that isn't even guaranteed top-five status on offense. They have to find balance within the next year, and this offseason should be their first major step in that direction.