On a draft night Timberwolves General Manager Scott Layden surmises could someday prove “historic” because of its college prospects’ quality and depth, established NBA stars Paul George and Jimmy Butler just might cast the longest shadows Thursday.
One or both stars could be on their way to someplace else and maybe soon.
The question is whether they will be dealt on draft day and whether the Timberwolves — just as they attempted last year — emerge as serious contenders to acquire Butler if indeed Chicago decides to rebuild by dealing its All-Star guard.
“We’re not going to get into specific players,” Timberwolves coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau said when asked about big stars who might be on the move Thursday. “We’re always looking to improve our club, if we feel there is somebody we can add and improve in certain areas.”
Thibodeau coached Butler during his first four NBA seasons with the Bulls and he covets a bona fide veteran star whom Cleveland and Boston, to name two teams, also have pursued.
The Celtics own the third pick in a draft that will begin when Philadelphia selects Washington point guard Markelle Fultz with the first overall selection. The Celtics also have a stockpile of draft picks and players, while the Wolves own the draft’s seventh overall pick and a roster rich with young players.
Indiana will trade George long before he can leave next summer to sign with his home-state Los Angeles Lakers as an unrestricted free agent. The Lakers on Tuesday began creating room to bring him home by trading young star D’Angelo Russell to Brooklyn in a deal that creates future salary-cap space and acquired a first-round pick the Lakers could use to acquire George now.
Other teams have pursued George, hoping they can convince him this upcoming season to sign a long-term contract extension in summer 2018.
Thibodeau and Layden spoke with reporters at the team’s downtown training facility Wednesday and Thibodeau talked in generalities about teams whose times to contend come and go.
The Pacers, by circumstance, appear ready to retool. The Bulls, by choice, could decide to do so as well … or not.
“If you look back, you’ll see there’s always opportunities if teams decide maybe their window is closing and they’re going to go in a different direction,” Thibodeau said. “I think every team is looking for those opportunities that maybe fit your window. Now maybe it’s your time and adding that type of player will add a lot to your team. So you’re always going to weigh your options. You always have to have a strategy for that. Who’s looking to change direction in the league?”
Both Thibodeau and Layden said they are prepared for any outcome on draft day. Thibodeau said he knows the talent pool is strong and deep simply by how often the phones are ringing. He said the Wolves could move down “a little bit” in the draft, move up instead, remain where they are or trade the pick outright.
“We think we’re in a great position,” Thibodeau said. “Now you’re at the point where you feel like you’ve studied everything you need to study. You’ve talked with all the teams. We’re ready. We have great flexibility.”
If the Wolves keep the seventh pick, they likely will choose from a group that includes Kentucky guard Malik Monk, Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen, Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac if he is still available or one of two point guards — North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr. or Frank Ntilikina of France — expected to be left from among five playing that position who could be selected among the draft’s top 10 picks.
If they move down, it likely would be in a trade with New York, Dallas or Sacramento, the three teams picking right behind them. All of them need a point guard. The Wolves could make a deal and probably still get Markkanen, Monk or Gonzaga big man Zach Collins.
If they move up, they probably wouldn’t move more than a slot or two, but that could be enough to assure themselves of Isaac or perhaps even Duke’s Jayson Tatum.
“I think the options are many,” Layden said. “When you have a high pick, generally you take the best player available because you can miss on a great player who might be there. We’ll take whoever is the best fit for us. … If it’s a point guard, if it’s a center, whatever the position is, if we feel it’s going to make our team better, that’s what we’ll do.”
Thibodeau identified shooting and toughness as two qualities his team needs most. He also identified wing players and a shot-blocking center who complements young star Karl-Anthony Towns’ multiple skills as its biggest positional needs.
But he also reiterated his team won’t draft for need because it also could address those needs through free agency and trades beyond draft night.
Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, Cavaliers swingman Iman Shumpert and Rockets guard Patrick Beverley all could be available in trades by teams looking to clear cap space and make changes this summer.
“We’re not stuck on ‘Is it a point guard? Is it a center? Is it a wing?’ ” Thibodeau said. “We feel we have the flexibility because we have guys who can play multiple positions. A guy like Karl can play two positions. A guy like [Andrew Wiggins], he plays three positions. So we have great flexibility.”