The 2018-19 Timberwolves are living David Kahn’s best life.
Kahn, the former Wolves personnel boss known for drafting every point guard in sight — except the one he should have drafted — surely would (does?) enjoy this incarnation of the team.
Before he was fired in January, former coach/basketball president Tom Thibodeau amassed four point guards on his roster. The first three — Jeff Teague, Tyus Jones and Derrick Rose — were here when the year started, while the fourth, Jerryd Bayless, arrived 13 games in as the third wheel in the Jimmy Butler trade.
This excess has somehow not felt excessive for much of the season, owing to sporadic nagging injuries to Teague and Rose and the ability of Rose to play off the ball in tandem with another point guard when all three were healthy. It was assumed that Bayless, who was injured when he arrived via trade in November, might not play at all.
But then Bayless got healthy … and one by one, the rest of the point guards were hurt at the same time. That’s been the status quo for the last three games, with Bayless playing heavy minutes as the starter. It turned out the Wolves needed all four point guards. Kahn would be PLEASED.
With Bayless providing key minutes as the Wolves have gone 4-2 in their last six games — including 19 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds in the overtime win over Memphis on Wednesday, when Bayless played 43 minutes — it’s safe to say the Wolves have four established and competent point guards on their roster.
What’s even more unusual than that, though, is this: Any of the four could be gone within a week, and none of the four might be here next season.
Rose and Bayless are unrestricted free agents after this season. Jones is a restricted free agent — meaning the Wolves can match any offer an outside team gives him this summer if it reaches that point, but also that the Wolves can move on from him if they wish. Teague has one more year left on his three-year, $57 million deal but it’s a player option season meaning he could opt-out and test free agency. Teague would seem to be hard-pressed to get more than $19 million anywhere else next season, but if he sensed he could get a multi-year deal with more stability and/or decided he wanted a change of scenery with a team more obviously ready to contend, it isn’t far fetched to think Teague could leave.
The trade deadline is also one week away, next Thursday afternoon, and it’s conceivable any of the four could be dealt by then.
What’s more interesting, though, is what happens long-term. Here are the possibilities as I see them:
1 Status quo, minus a body or two: Teague’s decision will have a lot to do with how the Wolves proceed. Let’s say he opts into the final year of his deal. And let’s say the Wolves reach an agreement with Jones — or match an offer sheet from a competitor — on a multi-year deal that pays him, say, $7-8 million a season. And the Wolves grab a veteran for the minimum as a third point guard/insurance policy. That was basically the plan going into 2017-18, and it worked just fine. A multi-year deal for Jones would give him some security and let the Wolves know they have a potential starter on the roster once Teague’s contract is up. This would make even more sense if Ryan Saunders — who has a very good relationship with Jones — gets the permanent head coaching job. Rose and Bayless are out in this scenario.
2 One stays, everyone else goes: Let’s say Teague opts in, but the Wolves decide to part ways with the other three. In that scenario, they might use their 2019 first-round pick — likely to be in the lottery unless the Wolves rally to make the playoffs — to choose their point guard of the future. Their alignment next year is Teague/rookie/veteran third string, with the idea that the starting role is claimed the following season by the pick (with the possibility, too, of trying to sign Teague to a short-term extension if more development is needed).
Or let’s say Teague opts out. Then they could sign (or match) any offer for Jones and try to hit a home run in the draft, divvying up playing time according to merit. Or turn the keys over to Jones and give him a chance as the full-time, no-doubt starter while filling in behind him with low-cost veterans. Or try to re-sign Rose on a short-term deal while drafting a potential replacement.
3 All in on Rose: The current Wolves player with the greatest upside, at least offensively, is Rose. Before those nagging injuries started to impact his season, he was one of the team’s most important players and its most dynamic scorer. He’s a former MVP, after all. The risk, of course, is obvious: Injuries have derailed so much of his career, and trying to build around him could backfire in a big way. It’s also unclear whether he would want to sign here long-term after the firing of Thibodeau, his longtime coach and someone he credits for much of his success and for giving him a second chance. In this scenario, Teague would probably have to opt out. And the Wolves could either try to retain Jones as a backup/insurance policy, draft another point guard or sign someone else as a backup (maybe even Bayless).
4 Everyone goes: Let’s say Teague opts out or is traded, and the Wolves decide not to re-sign any of the other three. They could then either try to make a splash in free agency — Kemba Walker would be unlikely, but someone like Eric Bledsoe could be a fit — or bet big on drafting a point guard while adding a stabilizing veteran on a one-year deal as a hold-down-the-fort-starter/backup. Either option would be an admission that none of the options currently on the roster, whether for health reason or production reasons, is a core piece for a team trying to build itself into a contender.
5 Big trade: Perhaps the most intriguing deal I’ve seen floated came 10 days ago from Hardwood Paroxysm: With Memphis in free-fall and committed to starting over, the Wolves send Jones, Teague, Bayless, Andrew Wiggins and a future No. 1 pick to the Grizzlies for Mike Conley, Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green.
This deal would have to happen in the next week since some of the players being moved are impending free agents.
Memphis would get a crack at unlocking Wiggins’ potential, the chance to re-sign Jones and a future asset.
The Wolves would be giving up on the idea of Wiggins ever living up to his contract consistently and getting out from the final four years of his max deal. They’d also be giving up three of their four current point guards in addition to a future pick.
They’d be getting Conley — expensive at an average of $33 million per year over the next two seasons before his contract expires, and flirting with his decline years when he turns 32 just before the start of next season. But Conley is also one of the best pick-and-roll guards in the NBA, and if you think he and Marc Gasol are good together imagine Conley and Karl-Anthony Towns.
They Wolves would have more payroll flexibility next season (Conley makes about $10 million less than Wiggins and Teague combined), less two years from now (when only Conley and Wiggins are under contract among the players in the deal) and a ton more flexibility three and four years out (when they could move on from Conley if they wanted to, and be free from the obligations to Wiggins).
The Wolves could also revisit some form of this deal in the offseason, with Wiggins, Teague and a pick being the primary pieces moving out in exchange for Conley and some extra salary bodies.
I’m not sure exactly what I’d do if I was the Wolves, but the three ideas I’d be excited about as a fan are:
*Clear out everyone except Jones and let him run with the starters. He was No. 7 in the NBA among point guards last season in real plus-minus (and is still tops on the Wolves among point guards this season). His advanced numbers are good, and his skill set is enhanced by playing with better players. They could then try to add other key pieces in free agency and the draft.
*Take a big swing in the draft at adding a dynamic young point guard. The Butler trade didn’t trigger a rebuild, but it was a reset. The Wolves are at least one more great player away from any sort of real contention.
*Roll the dice on a trade for Conley, knowing that it would add a key piece and flexibility.