Any discussion of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ salary cap situation has to start at the top. Andrew Wiggins is slated to make $27.5 million next season and a total of $122 million over the next four years; those four years overlap with what very well could be the best years of Karl-Anthony Towns’ career as he begins his five-year max extension this summer at a projected total of $158 million, an unfortunate bit of timing for both Towns and the club. The Wiggins contract will make it immensely difficult for Gersson Rosas and his staff to put a competitive team on the floor; it’s no easy task to push the franchise forward when they have a replacement-level wing making max money.
For me, there’s very little argument to be made that Wiggins’ contract is anything but the worst value in the league. There are other contracts out there who are attached to players with injury concerns (John Wall, Russell Westbrook) and could become more detrimental to their teams as a result of injury, but the chasm between Wiggins’ on-court value and his contract is wider than any individual player’s in the league today.
There are two players in the last five years who have put up sub-50 percent true shooting on at least 20 percent usage and massive (more than 2,500) minutes: Andre Drummond in 2015-16, when he was being fouled constantly and hit 34 percent of his free throws, and Wiggins in 2018-19. Considering that the average true shooting is about 56 percent, players below 50 percent are abhorrently inefficient in today’s game. A player who puts up that level of inefficiency had better bring it on the defensive end in order to make up for his negative value offensively, but Wiggins doesn’t have that in his game either. He’s below average, at best, as a wing defender, prone to lapses in concentration and effort with little in the way of the sort of physicality that it takes to succeed on the wing. The results show in the all-in-one defensive stats – he ranked No. 88 out of 93 small forwards in ESPN’s defensive RPM and No. 87 of 88 small forwards in Jacob Goldstein’s defensive PIPM. This isn’t an isolated issue to 2018-19, either; he ranks No. 82 in the same list of 88 small forwards in multi-year defensive PIPM. All-in-one defensive metrics have their flaws, as defense is notoriously immensely difficult to quantify, but there’s no statistical or eye test argument that Wiggins is a positive defender, with his detractors viewing him as one of the more harmful players in the league on that end of the floor.
There’s some value to having Wiggins as the NBA’s version of an innings eater. He never gets hurt and can give you 2,500 minutes of replacement-level wing play every season. His value is skewed toward the offensive end of the floor, but his scoring does enough to mostly offset his defense from a replacement-level perspective. His age comes into play as well; at just 23, there’s some reason to think he can improve, though he’s already going into Year 6 in the league, so it’s not as if he’s going to overhaul his game at this point.
Outside of Wiggins, the Wolves’ books are actually quite reasonable. They have Towns on a full max, which is already a bargain contract, since he’s at least one of the best 20 players in the league and still has room to grow. Their only other non-rookie scale deal that extends out past 2021 is Robert Covington, who still has three years and $36.4 million left on the extension he signed with Philadelphia in 2017. He struggled a bit with his health in 2018-19 but was a terrifying defensive player when he was able to play and remains one of the best perimeter defenders in the league.
They have some other relatively bad money on their books in the form of Jeff Teague’s expiring $19 million deal and the two years and $33.5 million they still owe Gorgui Dieng, though both contracts pale in comparison to Wiggins’. Teague is a perfectly serviceable starting point guard, though the rumor mill has them interested in restricted free agent point guard D’Angelo Russell. Should they bring Russell into the fold via sign-and-trade, Teague may be necessary to match Russell’s salary, though it’s not as if Brooklyn is going to want Teague, assuming Kyrie Irving is signing there. If Irving changes his mind about the Nets and chooses to stay with the Celtics or go elsewhere, then the Nets will want to match on whatever offer sheet Russell gets in restricted free agency. Teague and his contract would have to be routed to a third party, should the sign-and-trade send Russell to Minnesota and Irving signs with Brooklyn, but there may be a few suitors for Teague as a starting point guard for a year, either in front of an up-and-coming young point guard or simply as a stopgap option on a contending team. Utah, who also are reportedly in the hunt for Russell, could do worse than Teague on the last year of his $57 million contract signed with Minnesota two years ago.
Settling the point guard spot will be Minnesota’s most impactful move for the upcoming season, but whether it’s Teague or Russell, they’ll have their starting lineup mostly set going into 2019-20. Teague or Russell will start at the point guard spot, with Wiggins, Covington, Dario Saric, and Towns filling out the projected starting lineup. The bench is a bit of a question mark at this point, with reserves needed at all three of the game’s primary positions (guard, wing, big).
A backup point guard will be next on the Wolves’ to-do list. Tyus Jones will be a restricted free agent this offseason and Derrick Rose may be brought back after a strong second season with the team. Jones was not particularly a favorite of ex-head coach Tom Thibodeau, but Ryan Saunders seemed to have more trust in him, giving him the chance to play with the starting unit when Teague was hurt down the end of the season. Jones responded well, averaging 11 points and seven assists per contest in those 15 games on pretty good efficiency. He wasn’t so good that he’ll be a starting option for anybody this summer, but he showed enough to the point that Minnesota, or another team who signs him to an offer sheet, can feel comfortable about him as a solid backup.
Dieng will continue to give the Wolves what he can off the bench. He didn’t take as much of a step forward as a three-point shooter as many hoped he would after the 2017-18 season saw him take a career-high 61 long-range attempts, but finishing and two-point shooting were stronger last year. He hit his shots from the corner, which bodes well for his future as a floor spacer at the 5. While Minnesota likely won’t be in the market for a pure center, either in the draft or free agency, a Stretch big man to partner with Dieng or perhaps push Saric for some starting minutes would be a smart investment.
The Wolves will have their pick of a number of interesting prospects at No. 11 in this year’s draft. While the draft is notoriously devoid of high-end talent outside of Zion Williamson, there are a wide swath of rotation-level prospects this year, ranging all the way from the top ten through about No. 45 or so. Minnesota will have a chance to pick up two of those at No. 11 and No. 43 and have the roster flexibility to go in nearly any direction, though a pure center at No. 11 would be a difficult fit with Towns as the team’s centerpiece moving forward. For that reason, Jaxson Hayes and Goga Bitadze are likely off their board in that spot, but anybody else in that range would be a good fit for the Wolves.
Brandon Clarke is perhaps the most seamless fit. Clarke was a terrific defender at Gonzaga this past season and has the sort of athleticism and defensive IQ to anchor the Wolves’ defense at the power forward spot next to Towns. His outside shooting concerns would make things tougher on Towns, but his touch on non-dunk finishes around the rim and markedly better free throw shooting in his junior year may bode well for his long-term development as a shooter.
If the Wolves want to swing for the fences, Sekou Doumbouya may be available at No. 11. He’s not my favorite prospect, in that I don’t believe in his upside as much as some others do and the risk is too high for that reward in my view, but for a team like Minnesota that is multiple pieces away from truly contending and have no real way to add those players while Wiggins is under contract, a high-risk, high-reward pick like Doumbouya is an interesting option.
It’s unlikely that a guard will fall to them at No. 11, but if Coby White gets past Chicago at No. 7, neither Atlanta (Nos. 8 and 10) nor Washington (No. 9) necessarily need the guard out of UNC. Should Minnesota be looking to stick with Teague for the final year of his contract, White would serve as a natural replacement at starting point guard in 2020-21.
The Timberwolves are going to be plagued by the Wiggins contract for the foreseeable future. Moving off of his money will cost them an arm and a leg in draft capital, which isn’t that much better than just paying off his deal and doing their best to help him improve in a few key areas. The rest of the team is set up well for the future and Towns can develop into the kind of all-encompassing star who can drag a team to the playoffs, but it’s going to be difficult for them to truly contend in the upper echelon of the Western Conference with their financial obligations as they are. Smart additions on the fringes should put them back in the playoffs next season, though with an unproven president of basketball operations and an unproven head coach, things are bit less certain at this point in time.