Is There Any Hope for the NBA's Most Hopeless Team?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterFebruary 22, 2021

Minnesota Timberwolves' Ricky Rubio plays in an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Jim Mone/Associated Press

What do you do when 29 NBA teams still have at least an outside shot of making the playoffs and you're the one franchise already out of the running?

Search for a quick fix? Develop your young guys? Tank?

For the Minnesota Timberwolves, it starts with the head coach.

On Sunday, the Wolves (7-24) fell in dramatic fashion to the New York Knicks, 103-99, and then promptly dismissed head coach Ryan Saunders, as first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Just minutes later, Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium reported that the team was hiring Toronto Raptors assistant Chris Finch as a permanent (non-interim) replacement. 

So a new coach is in. That's a start for the team with the league's worst record. But D'Angelo Russell is out until near the NBA's March 25 trade deadline with a knee injury. Karl-Anthony Towns has had a deeply difficult year, losing his mother and many family members to the pandemic, catching COVID-19 himself and getting hit by a drunk driver.

The Timberwolves built around their two young stars, but the duo has gotten just 90 minutes on the floor this season. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell of the 24-6 Utah Jazz, for instance, have logged close to 600.

That's not to suggest a healthy Timberwolves team would have competed against the Jazz for the NBA's best record. Even at full strength, the Timberwolves aren't very good.

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Rival executives cite significant holes at the forward positions and a general lack of defensive identity at the top.

"You're not going to win much when your two best players don't play any defense," a former Western Conference executive said. "KAT and D'Lo aren't two-way players."

The Timberwolves entered Sunday giving up 116.2 points per night, among the worst in the league. The Brooklyn Nets can get away with yielding 117.3 per game because they score 121.3. Minnesota's offense isn't close at 108.8 points per contest.

"I don't get what they're doing," an Eastern Conference executive said. "I like [president of basketball operations] Gersson [Rosas]. He comes from the [Houston] Rockets and is very analytic-driven, but their moves don't look like they're analytic-driven."

         

Better Win the Lottery

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Associated Press

Yes, it's an issue of not having enough of Russell and Towns healthy together. But Rosas doesn't have a lot of flexibility to improve upon a roster that hasn't shown much the past two seasons.

Eager to acquire Russell from the Golden State Warriors last season, the Timberwolves included their 2021 first-round pick with an expectation that they'd be competitive. That hasn't been the case.

Fortunately for the Wolves, the Warriors agreed to top-three pick protection (the pick becomes unprotected in 2022). Still, even if Minnesota finishes with the NBA's worst record, the team will only have a 40.17 percent chance to keep its pick. The more likely outcome (59.83 percent) is dropping to four or five and losing the selection in 2021 to Golden State.

"They need that pick this year," a Western Conference executive said.

Lottery luck could lead the turnaround. But the Wolves would be the first team to admit even the most heralded rookies take time, as they're seeing with Anthony Edwards, the 2020 first overall pick. Not that they've been especially lucky prior to this year. Minnesota didn't luck into the best players of recent drafts with Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Zion Williamson or Ja Morant. Perhaps that will change in 2021 if the Wolves keep their pick.

Adding a prospect such as Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs, USC's Evan Mobley, Florida State's Scottie Barnes or G League Ignite's Jonathan Kuminga or Jalen Green could help turn around the Timberwolves.

Or, an unfortunate lottery after a disaster of a 2020-21 campaign could prolong their misfortune indefinitely.

          

Where Upgrades Are Most Needed

Jim Mone/Associated Press

If Minnesota adds another expensive first-round pick to a roster with Towns, Russell and several costly role players, the team will be near the luxury-tax threshold.

"Missing KAT and D'Lo hurts obviously, but the roster doesn't have much structure," the Western Conference executive said. "They have some intriguing singular talents but nobody who really fits into the team game outside of some minor players."

This is not a bad team looking forward to contracts running out for cap space. Minnesota has invested heavily in a mediocre product.

Without cap space to add big-dollar free agents, Rosas may need to restructure the team via trade.

The Timberwolves have one of the best offensive centers in the league in Towns, surrounded by three shooting guards in Russell, Malik Beasley and Edwards. Russell is the closest player to a point guard. Ricky Rubio and two-way guard Jordan McLaughlin are pass-first guards, but neither is a reliable scorer. The T-Wolves are well-stocked at center behind Towns with Naz Reid and Juancho Hernangomez.

Where the team suffers most is on the wing. Young players Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and Jarred Vanderbilt are doing their best to contribute, and Jaden McDaniels is learning as a rookie, but none are on par with the elite bigger wings/forwards around the NBA such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Power wings are difficult to come by, and it's where the Timberwolves are weakest. If that's a player like Kuminga or Barnes in the draft, it's rare for a rookie to make a significant immediate impact.

        

What's Available in Trade?

Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

"They aren't trading Edwards," the former executive said. "Gersson would get fired."

The Timberwolves appear committed to the Towns/Russell pairing with an expectation to make the playoffs sooner than later.

The market for a non-scoring point guard in Rubio (owed $17.8 million next season) may not bring back much, but they may shop him before the deadline. Teams might have a passing interest in some of the role players such as Ed Davis, Hernangomez, Jake Layman, Culver or Okogie, but those players won't net much of a return.

That leaves Beasley as the most prominent piece the T-Wolves have to offer (he can't be dealt until March 3). Beasley, who signed a four-year, $60 million contract this past offseason (the final year is a team option), is averaging 20.7 points per game and shooting 39.6 percent from three-point range. He could be either a starter or an elite bench scorer for a playoff team.

The Orlando Magic could make sense as a trade partner, with Aaron Gordon filling the Timberwolves' need for an athletic two-way forward. Gordon is out with an ankle injury until at least March, but with Minnesota needing to protect its 2021 first-round pick, it'd be a move with next season in mind.

Another blockbuster could be for John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks, who "have shown a willingness to listen to offers for Collins," per Sam Amick of The Athletic.

Collins will be a restricted free agent this summer. If the Hawks aren't ready to meet his salary demands, he'd be an intriguing fit for the Timberwolves. He wouldn't necessarily solve the team's defensive issues, but Minnesota would have a tremendous scoring frontcourt with Towns and Collins.

"You have to add a [first-round] pick [from Minnesota], lottery-protected," the former executive suggested.

The logic is that Collins (23 years old) with his restricted rights is more costly to acquire than Gordon (25), who only has one additional year left on his contract.

Beasley could better fill the scoring guard role alongside Young that Atlanta had hoped Bogdan Bogdanovic would serve. Minnesota wouldn't get Bogdanovic in return. That's an issue for the Hawks to solve elsewhere.

The Magic or Hawks could have significant reservations about Beasley after an offseason arrest where he pleaded guilty to one felony count of threats of violence. The issue was resolved without jail time, but it's not ideal that the Timberwolves' best trade piece comes with baggage.

Smaller trade ideas could feature Larry Nance Jr. of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Dwight Powell of the Dallas Mavericks. Nance had played a significant role for the Cavaliers before fracturing a finger, though Powell may be available with his minutes down this season in Dallas.

          

Impact of Eventual Sale

The Timberwolves have been for sale since last June but have yet to sell.

Will that change the team's approach?

"No," the Eastern Conference executive said. "That's not going to impact what Gersson does."

Those asked all agreed that Rosas likely keeps his position through the eventual transition.

"Gersson can argue that he inherited a coach that wasn't his, whose style doesn't fit the roster," the former executive said. "Saunders was hired before [Rosas]."

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.