The 20th player selected in Thursday night’s NBA draft is due — as set by the league’s rookie-pay scale — a starting salary approaching $2 million.
It’s a predetermined number that doesn’t begin to answer this question facing a Wolves organization that must decide whether to trade the pick or keep it:
Just what is a first-round draft pick really worth?
The quick and easy answer is more than it once was in a league changed two years ago by a new $24 billion television contract that floated a lot of boats.
That deal inflated the salary cap beyond $100 million per team and now leaves the Wolves evaluating — as the luxury-tax threshold looms by 2019 — whether they can pay maximum contracts to already-signed Andrew Wiggins as well as young star center Karl-Anthony Towns and four-time All Star Jimmy Butler and still assemble a competitive roster around them.
Once swapped rather freely, first-round picks have become prized possessions because they provide what the NBA now largely lacks: cost certainty, particularly in a league in which two or three stars can occupy much of a team’s salary space.
That is, if you’re wise enough or fortunate enough to draft and develop the correct player. Utah did so last summer, mining gold when it traded up to 13th overall and picked Donovan Mitchell.
A year ago, the Wolves traded a chunk of their future — including the seventh overall pick — to win now with a blockbuster deal that brought back Butler and the 16th pick from Chicago. Wolves coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau last season often called Butler’s presence “everything” for a team that improved its win total by 16 games and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Now do they double down and use that 20th pick to help acquire another established veteran? Someone whose presence could convince Butler to sign a max contract extension either this summer or next (more likely), after he can become a free agent? (Los Angeles Clippers center and Butler’s longtime friend DeAndre Jordan perhaps?)
Butler said late last season that the best chance to win — not money — will determine with which team he signs his next contract.
An All-NBA third-team selection this season, Towns is eligible to sign a five-year contract extension this summer richer than the one Wiggins got, and here’s a tidbit to remember: Towns’ agent also represents Thibodeau.
Dieng, Aldrich moving?
The Wolves could create some financial flexibility to sign free agents by packaging that 20th pick with backup center Gorgui Dieng’s hefty contract and make a trade with Atlanta, Brooklyn or another rebuilding team that can absorb Dieng’s remaining three years and $48 million-plus.
Teammate Cole Aldrich’s $7 million salary for next season can be bought out for $2 million if done by June 30. That makes him a likely candidate to be included in a significant trade as well.
Might the Wolves even conclude three players with maximum contracts is one too many and trade Wiggins less than a year after they signed him to a contract extension worth at least $146 million? If the Wolves sign Towns and Butler as well to max contracts, their payroll is projected to go from $116 million last season to more than $160 million by 2019-20.
After the season ended with that playoff loss to Houston, General Manager Scott Layden second-guessed himself after the Wolves had plenty of discussions but didn’t make a move at the February’s trade deadline. He called the Butler trade and free-agent signings that brought Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford the summer before “dramatic” and predicted some of the same as the draft and free-agency approach.
“That was our opportunity to get better, and I think you’ll see more of that aggressive nature,” he said then.
That 20th pick is an opportunity to improve as well. That is, if the Wolves keep it and use it wisely to draft likely a shooter and/or defender at a bargain price locked in for the next four seasons.
Among the many candidates for that 20th pick: Villanova’s versatile championship-game star Donte DiVincenzo; shooters Grayson Allen (Duke) and Kevin Huerter (Maryland); Ohio State combo forward Keita Bates-Diop; defenders Troy Brown (Oregon) and De’Anthony Melton (USC).
Thibodeau’s first two drafts as the man in charge of basketball operations brought point guard Kris Dunn, who was traded in the Butler deal after an uneven rookie season, and Justin Patton, last summer’s 16th overall pick who had two foot surgeries and played four minutes in the NBA in his rookie season.
One way or another, the Wolves must deepen a bench that Thibodeau often has been reluctant to call upon, particularly last season. Crawford is expected to opt out of a two-year contract he signed in July 2017, and reserve forward and restricted free agent Nemanja Bjelica could draw an offer from another team that will be too rich for a Wolves team hunting for bargains.
Thibodeau might find those bargains by recruiting further from those Chicago teams he once coached. With Butler and Gibson already on the roster, expect him to target Derrick Rose — signed in March for the season’s final weeks — in free agency after the league’s dominoes tumble once Le-Bron James decides where he will play and Kawhi Leonard forces a trade away from San Antonio.
And don’t forget about former Bulls Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, even if everybody else has. Both have played little since they signed four-year, $72 million deals when New York and the Los Angeles Lakers, among others, went on silly spending sprees two summers ago. One or the other — or both — are candidates to reunite cost-efficiently with Thibodeau if they are bought out of their contracts this summer.
The Wolves went 47-35 last season, but made the playoffs only by beating Denver at home on the regular season’s final night. They did so in a Western Conference where Golden State and Houston distanced themselves from the field and eight other teams battled each other for six playoff positions down the stretch.
Just how they intend to persuade Butler to stay long-term and how they intend to surround Butler, Towns and presumably Wiggins will revealed starting with this week’s draft.
“To make that next jump, we know we have to get better,” Thibodeau said. “We have to get a lot better. Those other teams, it’s not like they’re going to sit by idly. They’re going to be aggressive and try to improve also. We have to be ready for that. The competition should bring the best out of us. I’m hopeful it will.”