NBA Off-Season Preview: Wolves' Summer Could Determine Championship Window

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Sunday May 21st, 2017

While the NBA playoffs are still going, the 2017 off–season is rapidly approaching for many teams with massive decisions to make. CBA expert Danny Leroux breaks down the major challenges and opportunities for the Minnesota Timberwolves in The Crossover's NBA Summer Preview series.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are in a fascinating, unique position. They have high-end young talent in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins coupled with a serious amount of cap space after clearing the decks for years. However, head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau must add the right pieces to maximize his franchise’s young core. The most important decision he has to make concerns the team’s timetable of contention and how some key contributors fit in.  While it has not happened yet, it appears likely that the team will be able to get out of the final year of center Nikola Pekovic’s contract by applying for the long-term injury exclusion, which they have not done yet. If that exclusion is granted, Minnesota clears his $11.6 million off the 2017-18 ledger but he still gets paid, presumably by a mix of the team and their insurance on him. Additionally, scoring swingman Shabazz Muhammad will be a restricted free agent and Minnesota must evaluate whether he will be worth the offer sheet he signs with another team. At a low $7.6 million cap hold, the Wolves can simply wait him out unless they need to clear the space because some great free agents have already agreed to come on board.

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Here are three key storylines to watch for the Timberwolves this offseason:

Ricky Rubio’s future: If Thibodeau feels Towns and Wiggins are still years away from their prime, moving on from 26-year old point guard Ricky Rubio, who has two seasons and $29.2 million left on his contract, becomes more palatable even if 2016 lottery pick Kris Dunn did not inspire confidence this season.

No. 7 pick: Minnesota has two major teambuilding pieces this off-season: more than $25 million in salary cap space (if/when the Pekovic exclusion goes through) and the seventh overall pick. After losing their final six games, the Timberwolves ended up tied with the Knicks for the sixth-best lottery odds and won the coin flip, giving them No. 7 after the lottery. Since the NBA has their draft before the start of free agency, the player Thibodeau chooses will directly impact their priorities and targets with this summer’s financial flexibility. Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac would be a fascinating long-term fit next to Towns, potentially creating a combination of two players 6’11” or taller who can switch on to perimeter players and hit three-pointers at a dangerous clip.

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Extension negotiations: While Thibodeau can wield a significant amount of cap space, he also faces some pivotal decisions with current Timberwolves that will shape the franchise’s future. Both Wiggins and Zach LaVine will be eligible for extensions this offseason and each poses a very real challenge. LaVine will still be recovering from his torn ACL but that could open the door for a lower-salary deal that he could eventually outplay. Minnesota can and should negotiate from a position of strength considering the risk involved with the former Dunk Champion who relies so much on his remarkable athleticism. Wiggins’ high cap hold as the first overall pick actually could help get an extension done because the team is not losing much flexibility (if any) by locking him up early. That said, Thibodeau should be acutely aware of the risks that come with signing a young player to an early extension after doing so with big man Gorgui Dieng (four years, $64 million) reduced their flexibility this summer.

Potential Free Agents: Shabazz Muhammad (Restricted), Omri Casspi (Unrestricted), Brandon Rush (Unrestricted), Jordan Hill (Non-Guaranteed) and Adreian Payne (Unrestricted)

Likely Summer of 2017 Cap Space: $26.1 million

Realistic Maximum Summer of 2017 Cap Space (using $101m estimate): $32.9 million

2017 Draft Assets: Own first round pick (seventh overall) and no second rounder (owed to Boston via Phoenix)

Potential Targets: Having max-level cap space opens up some truly unusual opportunities for Minnesota. They should try to get in the door with Gordon Hayward, who would be a special fit next to Wiggins and Towns. If he decides to play elsewhere, Thibodeau will have to choose between win-now options like Paul Millsap (32), JJ Redick (33), Joe Ingles (29) and Patrick Patterson (28) or a more patient approach with whoever gets shut out of big money, a group which could include Casspi, Muhammad, CJ Miles and Justin Holiday. They could also look at Thibodeau mainstay Taj Gibson but would be wise not to give him a significant contract since the 32-year old’s best role for them would be serving as both a key rotation player and mentor for their young core. Considering Minnesota’s lofty aspirations, they need to aim high and not force anything should the optimum targets turn them down.

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Pressure Scale: 7. While the Timberwolves carried surprisingly high expectations and fell short this season, young teams get more leeway. That said, with pay raises for Wiggins and likely LaVine ahead for the 2018-19 seasons and a finite amount of salary cap flexibility, the decisions Thibodeau makes now will set the likely ceiling and contention window for the franchise. The most important thing he needs to understand is that Minnesota’s significant cap space could be used either of the next two summers so waiting for the right person would be far better than forcing the issue with an imperfect fit. He can use the Lakers’ signings of Timofey Mozgov and former Thibodeau stalwart Luol Deng as an example of what can happen when a front office of a young team succumbs to win-now pressure too early.

State of the Franchise: Building. Even though Thibodeau spent too much money on big men last summer, Minnesota still has more than enough cap space to add at least one starter. That said, this would also be the time to make a bold move if he feels someone like Wiggins does not fit in with his vision for the best version of the team. 2016 served to set the table for this offseason and now the longtime coach and nascent executive has his chance to chart the course for one of the NBA’s most intriguing young teams.

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