On the last day of the 17-18 season with a win-or-go-home game against the Denver Nuggets, the Minnesota Timberwolves snapped a 13-year playoff drought. A year later, the Wolves found themselves with just 36 wins and outside the postseason picture once again. For a team that unequivocally seemed on the upswing, things got off on the wrong foot last season and never really recovered.
Jimmy Butler made a trade demand just as camp was starting, and while Butler showed up to play, the energy was off all season long. Butler was eventually traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric. Tom Thibodeau was fired at the beginning of January, and the Wolves scuffled to a below-average year.
This summer feels like a fresh start in Minnesota. While there is no Butler drama to deal with, the roster no longer looks as strong as it once did. Karl-Anthony Towns is a bonafide superstar, Covington is a nice role player on a resonable contract, Saric remains a solid young player, and Josh Okogie showed a lot as a rookie. That’s a nice base, but the rest of the roster is where the trouble lies.
Andrew Wiggins has yet to fulfill the promise of his max deal. And he’s just entering Year 2 of that five-year extension. While it’s not one of the worst deals in the league, because Wiggins does still have productive moments, it remains an albatross on the Timberwolves cap sheet.
Along with Wiggins, Minnesota is carrying $19 million and $16.2 million for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, respectively. Teague suffered a drop-off in his play as he turned in the worst season he’s had since becoming a regular starter. At age 30, the Wolves have to hope this was a blip versus the start of a downward trend. The silver-lining is that Teague only has this upcoming season left on his contract.
Dieng, on the other hand, has two years left and hardly looks worth the money he’s paid. He’s a backup-level big man and $16 million plus is simply a major overpay. He’s never been a great fit alongside Towns, so that leaves him with about 12-15 minutes a game.
The team’s approach to their own free agents will tell us a lot about how they view the upcoming season. If they let veterans like Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose and Anthony Tolliver leaves in free agent, it means that new hire Gersson Rosas has made the decision to get the cap sheet cleaned up and build around the younger players.
Towns is signed to a five-year, max deal that starts this upcoming season, so he’s not going anywhere for awhile. Wiggins is likely sticking around as well. If Minnesota wants to get back to the playoffs quickly, they’d be well-served to explore a trade for Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies. Conley would fill a need as an immediate upgrade at the point guard spot. The challenge will be finding matching salary that doesn’t force Memphis to take on money past this coming season.
Beyond that, expect Minnesota to be active on the fringes of the roster. They just don’t have the tools to do much else. Maybe Rose returns, but with Thibodeau gone, that removed his biggest fan in the front office. It seems more likely that Tyus Jones will be re-signed and handed the backup role behind Teague or an addition like Conley. Gibson and Tolliver are probably in similar positions and could have more value as bench pieces on contenders than they will to Minnesota.
That would leave the Wolves with a starting group that looks something like Teague, Wiggins, Covington, Saric and Towns. That’s not a bad group to hit camp with. You’re hoping for a bounce-back season from Teague and that Wiggins can finally find some consistency in his sixth season. Behind them would be Okogie in Year 2, Dieng, and whatever veterans the Wolves add.
Minnesota got a little unlucky at the draft as they slid down a spot from the tenth pick to the eleventh pick. In reality though, the Timberwolves are likely looking at similar players at 11 as they were at 10, and they save a little money this way too. Mock drafts consistently have them adding either wing Nassir Little or forward Brandon Clarke. Little has more upside, while Clarke might be ready to contribute immediately. Either way, Minnesota will be looking for someone who can help fill out a relatively thin bench.
Barring Rosas going with a full-scale shakeup, it’s really unlikely that Minnesota makes any major moves this summer as their cap situation restricts their available options. But if the team has another disappointing season, expect Rosas to look for ways to move Wiggins, and possibly Saric (before a new contract), to start cleaning up the books. The idea is to avoid an Anthony Davis situation with Towns and to maximize his prime with a supporting cast that allows the Wolves to become a contender.
Guaranteed Contracts (8): Keita Bates-Diop, Robert Covington, Gorgui Dieng, Josh Okogie, Dario Saric, Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (1): Cam Reynolds
Potential Free Agents (9): Jerry Bayless (UFA), Mitchell Creek (RFA), Luol Deng (UFA), Taj Gibson (UFA), Tyus Jones (RFA), Derrick Rose (UFA), Jared Terrell (RFA – Two-Way), Anthony Tolliver (UFA), C.J. Williams (RFA – Two-Way)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($685,340): Cole Aldrich
First Round Draft Pick(s): #11
Maximum Cap Space: None. $3.9 million over
Projected Cap Space: None. $60.3 million over