SALT LAKE CITY – In the afterglow of one of the most emotionally charged losses of the Timberwolves season Friday night in Utah, interim coach Ryan Saunders was beaming about his team’s effort, given the rash of injuries they have had recently.
“I’d like to say this is who we are moving forward,” Saunders said. “This is our identity. We stay together. We don’t fracture.”
But while the Wolves may not fracture from within the locker room, the looming trade deadline on Feb. 7 could cause some kind of makeover.
With that pivotal date less than two weeks away, the Wolves find themselves in a precarious position relative to the rest of the league. Will they be sellers, buyers, or will they stand pat with what they have and try to make a run to the playoffs?
The Wolves (24-25) entered Saturday three games back of the No. 8 seed. Basketball Reference had the Wolves’ odds of making the playoff at 13.6 percent entering Saturday. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index had it at 14.4 percent.
Those odds are long in a crowded Western Conference, where just 3.5 games separate the No. 6 and No. 11 seed.
It may be easy to look at the percentages and conclude the Wolves should be sellers and try to get what they can for players on expiring contracts, such as Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose and Anthony Tolliver. But because of how this season has transpired, the situation is more complicated than that for the Wolves.
What to do?
When owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, fired coach Tom Thibodeau earlier this month, he said he hoped the move would help spark the team to a surge in the standings and make the playoffs.
“We still have hopes to getting into the playoffs and I think with half the season left, let’s see if this change will make a difference,” Taylor said on Jan. 6.
Taylor oversees a franchise that has been success-starved, and making the playoffs for a second consecutive season could benefit the Wolves’ bottom line and reignite a fan base that has weathered a harrowing season that began with the Jimmy Butler soap opera and continued through Thibodeau’s firing. So if there’s even a small chance at a playoff spot, Taylor could be inclined to go for it.
The Wolves have been treading water toward the back of the Western Conference standings since they opened 4-9 before trading Butler. They’re 20-16 since then, including 5-4 under Saunders.
Can they make a run to move into playoff position? They still have time before the deadline to find out, but not much. Only four games remain before the trade deadline — all against Western Conference foes, starting Sunday in a rematch with Utah at Target Center.
Friday’s frantic comeback but ultimate defeat in Utah underscored how much each game matters. Had the Wolves been able to pull out a win, they’d be just 1.5 games behind Utah and would have knocked the Jazz into the No. 9 spot.
“It’s one of those things where you never want to drop three or four games in a row,” Saunders said. “And you win three or four games in a row and you can make some hay.”
Also clouding a potential sell-off is the job status of the two principal people Taylor has charged with improving the team — Saunders and Scott Layden.
“As we get closer to those days, that’s something our staff and myself and Scott, we’ll speak more on,” Saunders said when asked how the Wolves are viewing the deadline.
Taylor retained Layden, who was Thibodeau’s pick for general manager, after he fired Thibodeau, but there is uncertainty whether Layden will be the general manager beyond this season. If making the playoffs would help Layden save his job, what incentive would he have to trade assets for a Wolves future that may not include him? So far, league sources said the trade market has been quiet, but that is sure to pick up as Feb. 7 nears.
As for Saunders, Taylor has said Saunders is essentially auditioning for the full-time job. Will Taylor be able to better evaluate Saunders if he has a full roster instead of one that has gone through a sell-off? Taylor hasn’t said if Saunders needs to make the playoffs to retain his job, or what benchmarks he has in place for Saunders.
Who would they trade?
The Wolves, if they decided to go into sell mode, have assets that other teams would covet, with Rose, Tolliver and Gibson all on expiring deals.
“I don’t really worry too much about it,” Tolliver said. “I’ve been traded before in this league. If I get traded, all right. If somebody else gets traded, got to move on. … I’m not worrying about whether or not I’m bolstering my trade value or any of that type of stuff or somebody else’s.”
Rose, if he can stay healthy, could command solid return given his resurgent season and the fact he’s on a minimum contract. But for now, the Wolves still have time to make a run — or they have time to falter farther out of the race. Given the rash of injuries to Jeff Teague, Robert Covington, Rose and Tyus Jones, that’s also on the table before Feb. 7.
“Once you dig yourself a hole, it’s pretty hard to get out,” Rose said.
The question is if the Wolves will keep trying to climb out or instead sink further.