Thursday’s Thoughts – Jan. 23, 2020

Welcome to Thursday’s Thoughts, where I go over your need-to-know Timberwolves updates, provide some of my favorite upcoming wagers, and have a bit of fun with things I like and dislike. If you’re not a fan of sports, gambling, politics, pop culture, or fun, then still read it anyway because I do it for the love.

Timberwolves Midseason Update

The past week of Timberwolves basketball has been a busy one. Last Thursday, Jeff Teague and Treveon Graham were traded to Atlanta for Allen Crabbe, and that night Karl-Anthony Towns made his return to the lineup after missing 15 games with a knee injury. We’re just past the midpoint of the season, and there’s plenty of basketball to go over.

Towns Return

KAT has started the last 4 games, and he picked up right where he left off. He’s currently averaging 26.5 points per game on 60.9% eFG%. Of the 31 players in the NBA scoring at least 20 points per game, his eFG% is 2nd, just ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The only player ahead of him: Zion Williamson, who has played in just 1 game thus far. Towns is on pace to finish the season in the 50/40/80 club (FG%>50%; 3P%>40%; FT%>80%) while scoring at least 20 points per game for the 3rd time. If he does, he’ll join Kevin Durant and Larry Bird as the only other players to do it 3 times. He’s already the best shooting big man of all time (yes – better than Dirk) and he’s not even 25 years old yet.

Towns Shot

Current Direction

Despite Towns coming back, the Timberwolves just can’t seem to win games, going 0-4 since his return. This is in the midst of a 7 game losing streak (their 2nd such streak of the season; the first went to 11 games) and the players can’t seem to get on the same page. The good news? Minnesota is still just 5.5 games out of the playoffs, and they have the talent to make a late-season push.

Despite the last Western Conference playoff spot being potentially attainable, head coach Ryan Saunders has been clear that winning now is less important that implementing a system that will allow the Wolves to create sustained success. As Minnesota’s long-term goals include putting capable wing shooters at the 1-4 spots (with KAT as the 5), this has meant that Minnesota rarely plays with two big men, despite certain matchups (and the Timberwolves roster as a whole) being more conducive to it.

It has also meant implementing a new defensive scheme around assistant coach David Vanterpool’s vision. There has been growing pains with this system, and Towns especially has been slow to adapt. His defense isn’t bad necessarily, but he’s asked to do more than he looks comfortable with, and it’s led to the defense being terrible when he’s on the court. He pairs well with Robert Covington (who is stellar defensively), but due to the system – yet again – Covington is playing the PF role rather than the point of attack or wing defender. This hurts Towns as he’s put into the pick and roll defensively with a weaker teammate more often (Shabazz Napier, Andrew Wiggins, or Teague prior to the trade).

Injuries have also hurt consistency, but the focus and effort just doesn’t seem to be there every night, especially when the talent is. When Towns and Wiggins both play, the intensity of the surrounding players seems to wane. (There are notable exceptions: Gorgui Dieng has been excellent whenever he’s been called on, and Covington consistently looks like the defensive monster we’ve grown to expect). Okogie, Napier, Bell, and Vonleh in particular have been hit and miss depending on the night. It’s understandably difficult to prepare for a game if you don’t know how much (if any) you’ll play during a given night, and these are not the most talented players on the roster to begin with. But they are all professionals, and intensity isn’t something that should fluctuate night to night. Role players need to be ready, and it’s up to Saunders to prepare them or keep them on the bench. 

That being said, the role players aren’t the only ones disappointing over the losing streak. Starting the season, Wiggins was legitimately playing like an All-Star (stop laughing), but over the past 21 games he’s played, he’s taken a sharp and brutal return to form. After scoring 25.3 points per game on 20.7 shots in his first 15 games, he’s down to just 20.4 points on more than 18 shots per game over his past 21. He’s back to his disengaged self, and he’s a big part of why the Wolves are 3-18 over those 21 games (worst in the NBA), compared to 9-6 in his first 15. Unless a major trade happens (which is unlikely as I’ll discuss), the Timberwolves need Wiggins to play better if they want to return to any type of success this season.

Realistically, it’s ping pong balls again this season.

Trade Implications

So I’ve heard from a lot of people who have scoffed at the Jeff Teague trade, and have suggested either that it was 1) a bad trade or 2) that it doesn’t matter until the Timberwolves make bigger and better moves. To the former, I just assume those people haven’t watched any Timberwolves games this season. Jeff Teague has honestly been terrible this season. I appreciated his effort and attitude with an ever-changing roster and his professionalism as his role diminished, but he was not helping Minnesota on the court. Removing Teague from the lineup would have been a net-positive regardless of getting a return. It also means continued significant minutes for Culver, who has been excellent as of late. You could argue that Teague was worth more in a different trade than the value received, but I’ll touch on that a bit later.

For now, let’s look at the value of this trade: Allen Crabbe is not a star by any means, but he is a much better fit with our roster and the style of play they are trying to implement. Teague tended to slow down the offense and hold the ball. Crabbe doesn’t need the ball to be effective and he provides 3-point shooting the Wolves desperately need. Additionally, by trading 2 players for just one, Minnesota opened up an roster spot to sign a player. Speculation is that contract will go to Kelan Martin, who is currently on a two-way contract, which expires soon. (Two-way contracts allow a player to play partially for the G-League affiliate and partially for the NBA team, moving back and forth as necessary. These contracts expire after 45 days of being with the NBA team – days in the G-League don’t count toward this 45).

Martin doesn’t move the needle, but the Timberwolves will likely structure the deal as team-friendly as possible. Naz Reid is currently on a 4-year minimum deal that is only partially guaranteed by the team – based on his play this season, (in 12 games, he’s scoring 7.8 points in 12.3 minutes per game) his contract has become an absolute steal. I’d look to that as a template for what the Wolves will offer Martin.

Naz Shooting

Also, because Teague and Graham’s outgoing salaries were higher than Crabbe’s incoming salary, even after Martin (or any other league minimum player) signs his contract, the trade gives Minnesota nearly $2 million in additional cap flexibility under the tax for potential subsequent trades. Which brings us to…

Salary Cap Hell

The latter criticism above – that this trade doesn’t matter until the Timberwolves make bigger and better moves – is a common one that echoes the complaints about Minnesota’s free agent signings this summer. My response to this has remained constant: What trade should they make? Minnesota fans seem to think that the Timberwolves can acquire whoever they want without agreement from the other team. Making the salaries work with our current cap (as well as cap situations across the league) is much more difficult than “hey let’s go get D’Angelo Russell.” First off, young stars are the most valuable asset in the league – teams don’t give them away for free! The Wolves don’t have the assets to easily obtain a player like Russell.

To trade for a player on a max deal, the Wolves had to include at least one of Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, or Gorgui Dieng to make the salaries work (other players would need to be involved as well, depending on the target). Gorgui has an albatross of a contract and nobody would take him, much less pay value for him; Wiggins has the most upside, but includes the most risk as well – his value depends on the team; Teague is the only one that is on an expiring deal, and would have seemed like the likely choice. So the idea that Teague was worth more in a different trade than the value received isn’t wholly wrong. (Crabbe can be traded again, but not in combination with any other players). Suggesting Teague was traded for less than his value is easy to say, but the issue is finding a better trade partner. To give up a young star, Teague will assuredly be a downgrade for that team. So in order to unload him, you’d need to find a team that has a young star who doesn’t match the timetable for success of the rest of the team, and is a bad enough team this season that they’d consider trading their star for future assets. Three players come to mind: Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, and of course D’Angelo Russell. It’s laughable that Teague and any combination of the rest of our roster and picks is worth giving up one of those players. So I’ll repeat: What trade should they make?

Winning on the Fringes

Timberwolves GM Gerssan Rosas has repeatedly stated he will be aggressive, but we should remember that he’s been the GM for less than a year and realize that winning each move (be it a trade, signing, or draft selection) is important. Blockbuster trades are flashy, but nearly every one that works out well is preceded by many smaller moves that go unheralded that build a foundation for the final piece(s).

Philadelphia took Trusting the Process to an extreme, but others have done it as well. Take Brooklyn for example – if they win a title in the next few years, everyone will point to signing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in the offseason as the reason why. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s not where Brooklyn’s success started. They implemented a good culture, made a couple of good trades, built up their role players, and maintained a flexible enough cap situation to sign multiple max contracts. Similarly, the Raptors won move after move after move on the margins until they were able to use their assets to acquire Kawhi Leonard. He only stayed for one season, but banners hang forever.

Minnesota can do the same thing.

The Timberwolves are currently $23.5M over the salary cap, but for trading purposes, the line that matters is the tax line. After the trade, we now have just under $9.5M in flexibility to acquire players under the tax. This makes it a bit easier to facilitate another trade or two before the trade deadline, but it would be very unlikely to see a massive overhaul of the current roster. Rosas just needs to win one move at time.

Wolves signings

We can criticize the team as it is, but it’s hard to criticize what Rosas has done so far. It’s too early to tell for sure, but Culver looks like he’s worth every bit we paid to trade up to select him. Rosas signed or acquired 7 players (plus Culver) in free agency, and all were low-risk high-reward value moves. As mentioned above, the Naz Reid signing looks great. Jaylen Nowell hasn’t played much, but he’s on the same minimum non-guaranteed contract as Reid. The other 5 are pictured above: Jake Layman is on a 3 year deal for less than $4M per year, while the rest were signed to 1-year deals. None of those signings could be negative into next season, and a few have a chance to be impact contracts. The Jeff Teague trade, albeit a small win, was a win nonetheless. It’s easy to criticize a team that has under-performed as heavily as we’ve seen this season, but the critics who demand a trade are missing the moves the in the margins that will set this team up for future success. Hopefully we see a few more before the trade deadline.

Top 5 of the Week

As I’ve been discussing, teams can build a winning team by signing players to low-risk, team-friendly contracts. Everyone knows that having LeBron or Giannis will make your team a potential contender, but behind every superstar are a few role players that push that team to the top. My top 5 of the week is the top 5 NBA contracts in the margins. For this ranking, I will exclude all players making more than $15M per year (those aren’t in the margins), all players on rookie deals (sure, Luka Dončić makes less than $10M per year, but as soon as he’s extended, he’ll be making the max – he’s not a margin signing), and all players on one of their last two years of the deal (similar to rookies, those players will likely be making more soon). My ranking will be weighted based on the amount and length of a contract (the cheaper and longer the contract, the better it is).

Honorable Mentions: Cedi Osman, Terrance Ross, Tomáš Satoranský, Brook Lopez

5. Royce O’Neale. $37.6M over 5 seasons

O'Neale

O’Neale just got signed to a four year extension, and he undersold himself. He will be making less than $10M per season throughout the rest of his prime, and he’s already a capable starter. He’s an excellent defender, and has extended his range as a catch and shoot wing, shooting 43% from deep. To have him locked in for 4 more seasons after this year is a great value for Utah.

4. Joe Ingles. $36.8M over 3 seasons

Ingles

The Jazz made a splash bringing in Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanović to bolster their depth, but they’re making a combined $100M over this season and next, and that was only possible because Ingles is on a discount. He’s a perfect catch and shoot role player, and he’s a better defender than people realize. With two of the best contracts in the league (along with Gobert and Mitchell), the Jazz are in a great spot to compete for years to come.

3. TJ Warren. $35.25M over 3 seasons

tj warren

When he was traded from the Suns, Warren was traded into cap space, meaning the Suns got nothing but “cash considerations” in return; actually they had to pay the Pacers a second round pick to take him! With Victor Oladipo going down, Warren is actually leading Indiana in scoring at 18 per game on decent shooting. For a player who only makes $12M per season, he’s been an absolute steal at that price, and Pacers social media team didn’t hesitate to let the Suns know about their mistake as he hung 25 on them yesterday. The Pacers look great, and if they ever get Oladipo back at full strength, they will be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

2. Robert Covington. $36.4M over 3 seasons

covington

Covington is one of those players who can fit everywhere, and makes anyone playing alongside him better. There’s a reason why he’s been mentioned in trade rumors seemingly constantly since last season – he’s damn good and only makes $12M per season. Covington is the Timberwolves best trade asset, but Minnesota should demand a king’s ransom to part with him.

1. Jusuf Nurkić. $36M over 3 seasons

nurkic

Nurkić has been a bit overlooked in the past, but with the current Blazers struggling so heavily in his absence, his value should be obvious. It was insane that the Nuggets traded him for Miles Plumlee and even more insane that they had to give up a pick to do it! He’s been a legitimate force since teaming up with Damian Lillard, and despite being in 10th place in the West, I think Nurkić returning makes Portland the favorites to grab the 8th seed. He’s got the best contract in the margins in the NBA.

 

Weekly Wagers

2019-20 NBA Record: 6-3-0
2019 NFL Record: 2-2-0

Follow @blogintherough on Twitter to get my daily betting tips.

After a solid week of betting (the report was wrong about the date of Zion starting, but I still ended up going 6-3 overall last week), I’m feeling good about where I’m at. I’ll be doing a full Super Bowl gambling write-up for next week’s edition, so it’s just NBA today. Unfortunately, there’s only 3 games tonight, and I don’t like any of them enough to bet. For all you degenerates like me, do yourself a favor and take a night off.

Things I Like and Things I Don’t Like

I like

Bam Adebayo’s old man game. Adebayo is far from the flashiest player on the court, but he’s so effective at what he does. He’s always been elite defensively, but he’s developed a funky inside out game that can punish mismatches in both directions. He uses his huge frame to bully smaller defenders and has enough off the dribble chops to blow past lumbering bigs. His defenders frequently mistime jumps based on his herky-jerky movements, and it leads to easy buckets. He’s on his way to becoming a star in the league, and he’s a big reason why the Heat are in 2nd place.

I don’t like

Mitchell Robinson sitting on the bench. Someone should explain to me why the Knicks don’t play Robinson 35 minutes a game. He’s arguably their best player and he plays less than 23 minutes a game. All so that they can give minutes to… Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris, and let Julius Randle play center? I get that it’s easy to rag on the Knicks, but it’s too hard to ignore this incompetence.

I like

Running in Memphis.

grizz

Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. have become one of the most dynamic duos in the league. Jackson is on pace to become a dominant two-way wing. He reminds me a bit of a young Paul George in how he’s able to use his athleticism to get to the basket, but also has a smooth stroke. Morant is just fucking electric. Prior to the draft, I didn’t understand the hype, but he’s completely shattering expectations. Barring a herculean effort by Zion (if one guy could do it, it’s Zion), Morant has got the Rookie of the Year all locked up, and more importantly, he’s got the Grizzlies fighting for a playoff berth. They play at the 3rd fastest pace in the league, and watching these two run in the fast break, it’s not a surprise why. Memphis has become a top-tier League Pass watch.

I don’t like

Whatever the Kings are doing. After last season, I thought the Kings were primed to make another jump this season; instead, they’ve looked awful from the jump. Since De’Aaron Fox returned, he’s looked like his old self again, but there’s been little to get excited about. Marvin Bagley III has been listless, Hield’s shooting regressed without Fox, and Harrison Barnes does a lot without doing much. They’ve had some solid outings from Bogdan Bogdonavić, Richaun Holmes, and my guy Nemanja Bjelica, but it’s not exactly moving the needle. Unless the Kings can get more out of Hield and Bagley, or Fox can truly ascend to a top-tier point guard, the Kings are in rough shape.

 

That’s it for Thursday’s Thoughts, please let me know if you have any questions/topics you’d like me to go over next time!

One comment

  1. Long time reader, first time commenter! I would be interested in a blog that covers off season moves / draft analysis for the vikings.

    Like

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