Despite breaking their 13-year playoff drought, 2017-18 has to be chalked up as the second consecutive disappointing season for the Minnesota Timberwolves under head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau. The defensive wizard has failed to significantly impact Minnesota’s success on that end of the floor; rather, it’s the offense that has propelled them forward the past two seasons, led by young superstar Karl-Anthony Towns. The Timberwolves finished fourth in offense in 2017-18, per Cleaning the Glass, paced by the incredible efficiency of Towns and Jimmy Butler, whom Minnesota acquired in a trade last summer. Butler’s injury certainly hurt them on the defensive end in a big way—when he was on the floor, they were roughly a top-10 defense; when he sat, they plummeted down well beyond worst-in-the-league levels. While Towns was voted to the All-NBA Third Team, it was his production on the offensive end that put him there. His long-term defensive ceiling has some big question marks next to it and his inability to put it together on that side of the floor severely limits the ceiling of the team, especially given that Andrew Wiggins seems to have similar problems defensively.
Minnesota begins the summer with $113.8 million in salary on the books, with just $108.9 million guaranteed. The difference there is Cole Aldrich, whose $7.0 million salary is only guaranteed for $2.1 million. After a poor season that saw him play just 49 minutes the entire year, Aldrich is almost sure to be cut in the next week or so—his salary fully guarantees on June 20. The Timberwolves still have $1.4 million of Kevin Martin on their books, though this is the final year of that particular dead money. All in all, Minnesota should begin July $12.7 million from the tax after cutting Aldrich and signing their first-round draft pick, enough to use their full mid-level exception and bi-annual exception without triggering the tax.
Minnesota’s payroll is about to get expensive, so it’s imperative that they duck the luxury tax this season to put off the repeater clock as much as possible. Their 2019-20 salary is going to be absolutely ridiculous: Towns will need a new contract after his rookie-scale deal ends and Butler will be able to opt out and get a max contract at the same time. Towns’ max should come in the form of an extension before the October deadline (in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he signs it in the first few days of July), while Butler will have to wait, but assuming both players get the full maximum they’re likely to be able to receive, the Timberwolves payroll will skyrocket to $132.7 million for 2019-20…for only SEVEN players: Butler, Towns, Wiggins, Jeff Teague, Gorgui Dieng, Justin Patton, and whomever they select with the 20th pick in this year’s draft. The luxury tax line for 2019-20 is projected at $131 million, which puts the Timberwolves into the tax with more than half the roster still empty.
Note: $132.7 million in salary assumes Towns makes another All-NBA team next season and therefore is eligible for 30 percent of the cap in 2019-20. If not, he’ll only be eligible for 25 percent and the Timberwolves would save about $5.2 million off his starting salary.
With that in mind, keeping it cheap this year might be best for the long-term health of owner Glen Taylor’s pockets, but they also have to ensure that they convince Butler that Minnesota is the best place for his future. Butler will be an unrestricted free agent in 2019 for the first time in his professional career and after missing out on the 2016 cap spike, he’ll be looking to cash in with a full max contract. Depending on what happens this summer, we should see a bit more cap space around the league in 2019, which means more potential suitors to lure Butler away from Minnesota. Toeing the line between not going into the tax this season and building out a competitive team around Butler and Towns will be an important part of the summer for Thibodeau, who has shown himself to be a much worse executive than head coach in his tenure. The head coach/president combination hasn’t worked in any situation except San Antonio and it looks like it’s already failing in Minnesota with some of the decisions on the fringes Thibodeau has made in the past two years.
Of their incumbent free agents, only Nemanja Bjelica has any real value, but it was certainly curious that Jamal Crawford opted out of $4.5 million for next season. For Crawford to do that, he either had to have hated his time in Minnesota or has a strong feeling that he’ll be able to make that money back, either from the Timberwolves or elsewhere. Money may not be the strongest motivator for Crawford after making more than $100 million in his career, but leaving $4.5 million on the table when he’s probably worth the league minimum on the open market was an interesting decision. The 30-year-old Bjelica will still be a restricted free agent this summer due to the NBA’s rules about players who come over from Europe late in their career. A strong shooter who actually graded out very well in some key defensive statistics, Minnesota will have full Bird Rights on Bjelica but it remains to be seen how much they really value what he brings to the team. Whether or not they tender him a qualifying offer will be instructive as to their viewpoint, as that one-year, fully-guaranteed contract offer would be right around where a long-term deal should start for him anyway.
Joining Towns on the extension table will be Tyus Jones, the cult hero backup point guard who just can’t seem to get any minutes in Thibodeau’s rotations. Jones played all 82 games for Minnesota this past season at about 18 minutes per game, but when the regular season drew to a close and the playoffs began, his minutes started to dwindle as Thibodeau leaned on late-season signing Derrick Rose to play those backup minutes. Jones has impressed the league at large with his play, but unless he’s willing to extend for a major discount, the two sides will come to an impasse and table the discussions for after the 2018-19 season, when Jones can be a restricted free agent.
With Towns likely in the fold for the next six seasons, the focus will turn to retaining Butler while not going into the tax until they have to. The repeater tax is no joke, as Oklahoma City may find out in 2018-19, so putting it off one extra year would do the Timberwolves a world of good. Butler is the consummate professional who just wants to win, whether it’s in Minnesota or elsewhere, and after a first-round exit in his first year with the Timberwolves, they’ll need to do better than that to keep him around going forward.