Sometimes you go down a rabbit hole and you don’t emerge until you’ve written 1,500 words looking at all the major personnel moves from the Timberwolves since Tom Thibodeau took over as head coach and president of basketball operations in 2016 along with general manager Scott Layden.
I’ve divided this into four sections — trades, extensions, first-round draft picks and free agent signings — and against my better judgment I’ve assigned each a grade as a way of trying to quantify what I think of the moves. Let’s get on with the business:
Jimmy Butler: C-plus. From a purely basketball standpoint, dealing Dunn, Zach LaVine and the pick that become Lauri Markkanen is a deal I would make 100 times out of 100 (and yes, I’m aware LaVine has been scoring in bunches this year, including 41 on Monday night. He also continues to be a huge defensive liability).
When Butler is shipped out — hopefully as soon as possible — the effect will largely be that of laundering those three players. The only one I imagine the Wolves might regret is Markkanen, and even that could be mitigated by acquiring Josh Richardson or some other similarly promising but still young player. There was value in making the playoffs and stopping the streak of losing. Butler is one of the 15 best players in the NBA, and the team that gets the best player wins the deal.
That said: If you are going to go all-in on Butler, you have to be ready for all contingencies. That means knowing exactly what it takes to sign him to an extension OR being ready for the eventuality that you can’t do that and need to trade him at a reasonable time. Thibodeau appears to have done neither. The trade itself was an A, the handling of everything else from the end of last season forward is a D-minus, and there’s your overall grade as a result.
Ricky Rubio: B-minus. Like a lot of other moves, this one has to be considered in tandem with other roster machinations. Would you rather have Ricky Rubio and $5 million a year to spend on someone else … or Jeff Teague (the more expensive point guard signed to replace Rubio) and Josh Okogie, the player the Wolves drafted with the pick obtained from the Jazz for Rubio? I think I’d rather have the latter. At least it’s a wash.
We can argue Teague vs. Rubio in circles all day because their strengths are so different. But Rubio, after shooting a career-best 41.8 percent for Utah last year, is back to his old ways at 35.2 percent so far this year. Rubio certainly made life easier for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns with his court vision, but the Wolves were the fourth-most efficient offense in the NBA last year. I would have loved to see how Rubio and Butler played together, but we’ll never know. The trade in and of itself yielded reasonable value.
First-round draft picks
Kris Dunn, 2016, No. 5 pick: C-minus. The Wolves could have and should have had taken Jamal Murray, who looks awfully good for the Nuggets these days (note: this was written before Murray went for 48 on Monday, by the way). Dunn has some value but was shipped out after just one year as part of the Butler trade. If Thibodeau was convinced he was the point guard of the future, he wouldn’t have done that.
Justin Patton, 2017, No. 16 pick: D. This felt like a bit of a reach even at the time, and it only looked worse as foot injuries completely derailed Patton’s first two seasons. The Wolves did not pick up the third-year option on his contract, which means the No. 16 overall pick in 2017 be a free agent next summer.
Josh Okogie, 2018, No. 20 pick: B. This one is incomplete, but so far the pick looks pretty solid. Okogie’s energy and defensive acumen are making up for any offensive clumsiness so far. He’s given Wolves fans a non-cynical reason to watch games this season.
Andrew Wiggins: C-minus. This would be graded even lower if not for the circumstances. Namely: Wiggins cashed in at the absolute right time in the summer of 2017. He was coming off his best scoring season, and the Wolves had just traded for Jimmy Butler. Had they avoided an extension and let Wiggins reach restricted free agency in the summer of 2018 — a prudent move in a vacuum considering the only thing Wiggins seemed to be getting better at for his first three years was taking more shots — they would have had to try to sign Wiggins, assuage Butler and get Towns inked to his own extension.
That the Wolves paid him a max deal is a testament to the stress of choosing otherwise, the hope that he would keep getting better, the fear of someday losing Butler and the absurdity of the NBA’s contract landscape that makes every young player want the max. It worked out great for Wiggins, though.
Karl-Anthony Towns: A. Maybe it was a no-brainer that a player KAT’s age would sign for as much money as he could possibly make, but this is the franchise player and he’s signed for the next six years. Whatever happens between now and then, he has tremendous value.
Gorgui Dieng: D-plus. This contract looks bloated right now (four years, $64 million), but it looks that way primarily because Dieng has been relegated to the bench with the signing of Taj Gibson – no fault of his own, really. Gorgui is a perfectly fine player and his per-36 minutes numbers have been similar to what he posted as a starter prior to Gibson’s arrival. His contract just doesn’t make sense in the context of Gibson’s deal. If he was still the starter — he started all 82 games in 2016-17 and was a steady performer — it would be much more reasonable.
Shabazz Muhammad: C. I’m not sure whether the Wolves should get credit for Muhammad declining a four-year, $40 million extension before the 2016-17 season, but the fact that they’re not on the hook for that is a big deal right now. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Let’s call this a draw.
This is a tough one because free agency is a two-way street. A player has to want to come here as much as a team has to want to sign them. I broke this segment down by season.
2016: Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill. That’s a combined grade of D. Even if the goal in Thibodeau’s first year was to evaluate young players, the veterans didn’t add much. Hill was a non-factor, Aldrich was viewed as a good value at the time but was seldom-used in two seasons before being bought out of the third year of his deal, and Rush was useful but not much more for a season.
2017: Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Aaron Brooks (with Derrick Rose a mid-year addition). That’s an overall grade of B-minus. Gibson has probably been the most solid of the bunch in terms of stability, but there remains a question of the wisdom of signing him to a two-year, $28 million deal less than a year after giving fellow big man Dieng a four-year, $64 million extension. That’s a lot of money tied up in non-elite big men.
Teague has been fine, and his play down the stretch last season was an underrated reason why the Wolves hung onto a playoff spot. Crawford made some big shots and was a great guy, but he also was a key contributor to the worst defensive bench unit in the league. Brooks barely played. Rose showed up big in the postseason. This group of veterans no doubt helped the Wolves make the playoffs, but collectively they weren’t much of a long-term fit (more on that in a moment, too).
2018: Rose, Anthony Tolliver, Luol Deng and James Nunnally. That’s a combined grade of C-plus. Rose was very good early, including a 50-point game, but injuries have slowed him lately. Tolliver gives the Wolves a badly needed three-point threat. Deng and Nunnally are depth guys who figure to barely play this year. That’s decent impact for not a lot of money spent, but nothing that blows you away.
It should be noted here that every significant free agent signing could be gone as soon as next year. Rush, Aldrich, Hill, Brooks and Crawford are already gone. Gibson is in the final year of a two-year deal. Teague signed a three-year deal, but the third year is a player option. Rose, Tolliver and Deng are on one-year deals. They might be down to Nunnally, who signed a two-year deal, next season — and even he only has a partial guarantee.
The plan since acquiring Butler has hinged on last year and this year. Based on how the contracts were structured, next season was always going to be a time of transition and re-evaluation.
That feels extra true right now, with the process sped up by Butler’s trade request. If Butler (and Dieng, who has been rumored as part of deals as well) are both dealt … and Tyus Jones signs elsewhere in the offseason after not getting an extension from the Wolves this year … and Teague opts out … and none of the other impending free agents re-sign … the only key rotation players currently on the roster who would be around next year are Towns, Wiggins and Okogie.
That’s not a bad place to start a reconstruction, but it would feel completely different than it does right now.