Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden have been on the job 21 months and have made only two trades together.
But so far when they deal, they go big.
A five-player trade on draft night last June reunited All-Star Jimmy Butler with Thibodeau and transformed the franchise. Mere days later, they traded fan favorite Ricky Rubio to Utah for a future first-round pick and signed Jeff Teague.
Now that the NBA has moved its annual trade deadline ahead of All-Star weekend to this Thursday, the Wolves will try to buy. “You think every day how you can improve your team,” Thibodeau said.
The question is, how big will they — can they — aim?
Their assets are limited: Gorgui Dieng’s big salary could make the money work on a big trade, but his $16 million per looked more attractive when he signed his deal in October 2016 than it does now. Oklahoma City’s first-round pick acquired from Utah is valued because of its cost certainty, but maybe as much to them as to another team. Cole Aldrich’s partially guaranteed contract next season could help facilitate a deal. Seldom-used Shabazz Muhammad wants to be traded or released, but he has little value. The Wolves might value Nemanja Bjelica and Justin Patton too much to trade either one.
They have kept a roster spot open all season to give them flexibility to add a player, either through a trade by Thursday or by a signing a free agent bought out of his contract.
Blake Griffin already has been traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to Detroit in a blockbuster deal few saw coming, Nikola Mirotic went from Chicago to New Orleans and the deadline is still four days away. Other traded players such as veterans Tony Allen and Jameer Nelson are expected to be bought of their contracts.
So who goes next as the clock ticks toward Thursday and what moves to improve their roster might the Wolves make by then, or beyond?
DeAndre Jordan, Clippers
As goes Griffin to Detroit, so probably goes Jordan for a Clippers team that might make a run at LeBron James this summer. Jordan is a dream get, the kind of All-Star, shot-blocking and rebounding presence who would fit perfectly next to Karl-Anthony Towns. He is also fast friends with Butler, another Houston-area guy. But Jordan makes $22.6 million and has a player option this summer, so it’s a risky move on potentially a short-term rental. But Cleveland, Milwaukee and others surely will try.
Marco Belinelli, Atlanta
The kind of low-cost move that would address their biggest need: better three-point shooting. Belinelli played a season for Thibodeau in Chicago, and the languishing Hawks probably will trade both him and veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova by Thursday. Lou Williams and Jared Dudley are other shooters who would help, but they will cost more.
Luol Deng, L.A. Lakers
Calm down, we’re not talking a trade here, not with two more seasons remaining on Deng’s ridiculous $72 million contract. Like the Knicks with Joakim Noah, the Lakers’ only way out might be to pay him to go away. He’s 32 and hasn’t put much mileage on these past two seasons. He’s also a Thibodeau favorite for his defense and team-first presence from their years together in Chicago.
Tony Allen, Chicago
Allen doesn’t address the Wolves’ shooting needs, but he is the kind of experienced defender Thibodeau loves when he is bought out by the Bulls.
Other veteran names to watch: Joe Johnson, Courtney Lee, Vince Carter, Nelson.
The simplest move is recall Patton from the G League’s Iowa Wolves, depending on the extent of the bruised foot he suffered last week. Patton won’t supply savvy for a playoff run, but he could add length and rim protection if he’s ready for the NBA.
• As goes Kris Dunn, so go the Bulls, or so it seems. The No. 5 overall pick in 2016 often looked lost his rookie season with the Timberwolves. But the trade to Chicago revived both his career and a Bulls team that was better than anyone dare dream in December, until Dunn went out because of a concussion Jan. 17. Without him, the Bulls lost seven of eight; before that, they went 14-7. Coincidence or not, fellow former Wolves guard Zach LaVine — back from last year’s knee injury — shot 22-for-67 from the field and 7-for-25 from three-point range in a five-game span in which his shot selection was the issue while Dunn was out. “We got to get better shots,” coach Fred Hoiberg told reporters before LaVine went 8-for-13 in a loss at Portland on Wednesday.
• All-Star starter Giannis Antetokounmpo made his only visit with Milwaukee to Target Center on Thursday, three days before a Super Bowl game he knows nothing about at U.S. Bank Stadium. “Last time I said something about football, I was talking about baseball,” he said. “I thought pitcher was football, so I don’t know nothing about football.”
• Fired by the Wolves in 2007, Toronto’s Dwane Casey is headed to his third All-Star Game and his first as head coach in two weeks. He will coach Team LeBron vs. his own stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both of whom will play for Team Stephen. “It’s good, more for our organization than anything else,” Casey said. “Hopefully it puts our organization in a good light. It’s fun.”
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Wednesday: 6 p.m. at Cleveland
Friday: 8:30 p.m. at Chicago
FSN and ESPN both days
Player to watch: Jimmy Butler, Wolves
OK, so a light two-game week brings both Cleveland superstar LeBron James and former Wolves guard Zach LaVine. But the thing to watch is Butler’s return to Chicago for first time since last summer’s draft-night trade with the Bulls.
“I guess it just shows you how crazy and short life can be. Love life and live it how you want to live it. You never know.”
Wolves young forward Andrew Wiggins, turning unusually introspective publicly after former teammate and retired NBA player Rasual Butler died in an automobile accident last week at age 38.