Thursday’s Thoughts – Feb. 9, 2020

Welcome to Thursday’s Thoughts, where I go over your need-to-know Timberwolves update, discuss my Top 5 of the Week, 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 people.

So I was about a half hour away from finalizing this blog Thursday and the Timberwolves traded away the two longest-tenured players on the team (Gorgui Dieng and Andrew Wiggins) and obtained their point guard of the future in D’Angelo Russell. This pretty much rendered everything I written to that point fairly moot. That is why Thursday’s Thoughts is now dropping on a Saturday. Deal with it!

(Significantly Less) Quick Timberwolves Update

As you’ve probably heard, the Timberwolves had an extremely busy couple of days at the trade deadline, completing 3 trades that completely changed the roster. Not only did Minnesota finally acquire their prized point guard in D’Angelo Russell, but they got rid of the majority of the players we’ve seen play this season. Of the total minutes played by the Timberwolves this season, 60.1% have been by players no longer on the roster.

Prior to the Trades

Before I get into how the Timberwolves were playing prior to the trades, if you’d prefer a quick summary about how I feel about Minnesota’s on-court product over the past month, it could adequately be described as:

This is fine

Let’s start with the biggest concern: The Timberwolves are on a 13-game losing streak (longest in the NBA this season), including losses to the Hawks, the Bulls, and the Kings (twice). In a long history of Minnesota basketball misery, this stretch has been right near the bottom. The inability to win games has partly been due to an underwhelming roster around Karl-Anthony Towns, but when you lose 13 straight, there is plenty of blame to go around. Coaching has been suspect, and while creating a new offensive identity and implementing a new defensive system has been the main priority of head coach Ryan Saunders (reportedly at the direction of GM Gerssan Rosas and the front office) at the expense of winning in the short term, there have still been some concerning trends. Towns has always been an elite offensive force, but throughout his career his defense has ranged from mediocre to outright terrible. This season – as has been well noted – he has not played well defensively. While not as bad as his reputation would suggest, Towns has struggled in the new system, and part of that is on the coaching staff. If installing the system the Timberwolves want to play going forward is the main priority, it would stand to reason that your most important player thriving in that system should be part of that focus. Defensive development takes time and he should improve with a better fitting roster, but the early trends have not been promising. Even more important than the defensive struggles, however, has been a lack of consistent intensity and focus from most of the players – and that’s on Saunders. As much as the roster has lacked talent, a winning culture includes playing hard every night, and that’s not something we’ve seen in Minnesota.

The good news? The roster is completely different than it was 2 days ago, and Saunders has a great opportunity to motivate a new group of guys.

The Jeff Teague Trade

Timberwolves give up: Jeff Teague, Treveon Graham
Timberwolves receive: Allen Crabbe

So I wrote quite a bit about why there should be some optimism around the Jeff Teague trade a few weeks ago. You can read my full reaction here, but I’ll give you a quick synopsis of why I thought it was a good move:

As I mentioned above, the main priority of Saunders and Rosas is implementing a new system, regardless of how it affects winning in the short term. Crabbe, an off-ball shooter, fits the spacing of the system much better than Teague, who was prone to dribbling too often and failed to move the ball as quickly as Minnesota would like. The trade also opened up a roster spot and a bit of cap space that could help us maneuver for subsequent moves. I suggested the roster spot could go to Kelan Martin, but it now looks like it will instead be used to keep the players from those ensuing trades (Minnesota traded away 7 players and received 8 in return). Winning multiple small moves (good signings, positive-value trades, retaining salary cap flexibility, etc.) is what can set you up to be ready for a big move. I thought this was a good start.

Grade: B

The Robert Covington Trade

One of lone bright spots for the Timberwolves this season has been how good Robert Covington is and how great of a contract he’s on. I’ve touched on Robert Covington’s value, both to the Timberwolves and on the open market. Frankly, I don’t think the decision to trade him was a good one. I don’t necessarily mind unloading our best asset as he doesn’t smoothly fit the timeline of Towns, but the details of this trade (Covington was essentially traded for Malik Beasley and Brooklyn’s first-round pick) make it a tough pill to swallow.

You can find the full details here, but for our purposes, we will just look at the trade from the perspective of Minnesota:

Timberwolves give up: Robert Covington, Jordan Bell, Shabazz Napier, Noah Vonleh, and Keita Bates-Diop
Timberwolves receive: Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez, Evan Turner, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a 2020 first-round pick from the Brooklyn Nets

Malik Beasley

Minnesota is now more than 10 games out of the playoffs. Bell, Napier, and Vonleh are all role players on minimum 1-year contracts; they could help a team this year, but we’d be lucky to net any assets for them. Not a big loss. Bates-Diop was worth at least a second-round pick as a solid role player on a tiny rookie contract. Covington was Minnesota’s second-best player, with 2 more years after this season on his contract.

Turner is a solid player and veteran’s presence, but he wasn’t receiving much playing time, and his salary made it unlikely he would be able to get traded to a contender. He’s on an expiring deal, and won’t be part of future (perhaps even a buyout – though reports suggest Minnesota would like to keep him around). Vanderbilt has played 110 total minutes over the past 2 seasons. He’s a potential waiver candidate. That leaves us with the 2 young former Nuggets players – Beasley and Hernangomez. Both will be restricted free agents this summer. Hernangomez projects as a solid shooting big man to provide floor spacing and the Timberwolves will likely be able to extend him in the summer for very cheap. He’s probably worth a second-round pick. Between him and Bates-Diop, I’d probably prefer to have kept KBD, but it’s not so much of a downgrade as to call it a significant loss.

So that leaves us with:

Timberwolves trade Robert Covington for Malik Beasley and Brooklyn’s 2020 first-round pick

Brooklyn’s pick is lottery-protected (meaning if the Nets don’t make the playoffs, they keep the pick until the following year), but barring a collapse, the pick should transfer this year. If the season ended today, it would be the 16th overall pick, but is very likely to land between 15-17. It’s a good pick, and Minnesota figures to have a big draft night this year.

As for Malik Beasley – while he is a very good young player, he’s not a Covington replacement. He can handle the ball and is solid in transition, but doesn’t do the thing Covington did best: defend. The appeal of Beasley is shooting: he shot 40.2% from deep (38.2% for his career) on more than 7 attempts per game last season. You will immediately see his offensive impact. He fits the timeline of Towns perfectly, and could be a solid player going forward for the Timberwolves, but therein lies the rub: Minnesota will need to re-sign him this summer to keep any value. Because he’s a restricted free agent, they can match any offer made by another team and automatically keep him, but he can sign for as much as he can get, so his contract could potentially be very expensive. Luckily, there are only a few teams with any available cap space to sign Beasley this summer, so Minnesota might actually be able to get him on a cheaper contract.

Robert Covington

Grade: C+ 

We can’t truly grade this swap until we see what the market for Beasley (and to a lesser extent, Hernangomez) is this summer. Realistically, he could sign a long-term deal for anywhere between $7 million and $15 million per season. If Minnesota is forced to overpay him, he immediately becomes less valuable, and if they get him for cheap, he becomes more valuable (obviously). I guess we need to wait and see. If Beasley signs for a reasonably good deal (call it $38 million over 4 years) and the Brooklyn pick stays at 16, I’d say on the surface it becomes an average return for Covington, but not terrible by any means. If he signs for closer to $60 million, the Wolves lost out.

The bigger implication is what this trade would do with regard to Towns. By all accounts, he and Covington are great friends. He admitted as much just three days ago stating he considers Covington his “best friend” on the team and admitting it would be “very difficult” if his teammate was dealt. One day later, Covington was gone. Normally, I wouldn’t give much thought into to what the rest of the players want when assembling the roster, but this situation was a bit different. Towns is signed through the 2023-24 season, but rumors around his potential unhappiness had already begun during Minnesota’s early season struggles. As we’ve seen from DeMarcus Cousins to Kawhi Leonard to Anthony Davis, star players are able to force their way off teams earlier and earlier in their contracts. Keeping Towns in Minnesota (and therefore keeping him relatively content) needs to be a priority.

We still don’t know what it will cost to keep Beasley and Hernangomez, but for a trade that (best case) gets back average value for Covington, I don’t understand the rush to move him. Covington will still be nearly as valuable next season as he is now – perhaps even more valuable! I could understand Towns being frustrated. I was too.

The D’Angelo Russell Trade

Finally, the big one. There had been rumors about the Timberwolves trading Andrew Wiggins for D’Angelo Russell for months. After chasing after trade for Russell so passionately it was described by Chris Mannix as an “obsession,” Minnesota finally came away with its coveted point guard.

Timberwolves give up: Andrew Wiggins, 2021 first-round pick, 2021 second-round pick
Timberwolves receive: D’Angelo Russell, Jacob Evans, Omari Spellman

DAngelo Ice

Over the course of his first 5 seasons, I was as big of a defender of Andrew Wiggins as existed within the Timberwolves fanbase, yet over the past season and a half, I joined the consensus who are ecstatic to see him go. By every single advanced metric (and by the increasingly obvious eye test), he’s never been a positive contributor to winning basketball games. Despite his flashes (of which there were fewer and fewer) his lack of effort and generally lethargic demeanor on the court wore down on even his most ardent supporters. Minnesota fans were ready for him to be gone.

Spellman and Evans are both second-year players who were barely cracking the rotation on the worst team in the league. They make a combined $4 million next season, and are basically a toss-in. Evans could be waived, but despite the limited success, I’ve actually liked some of Omari Spellman’s game. He’s a good shooter, and it may just be my eternal hopefulness for this team, but I think Spellman could end up playing real minutes.

The first-round pick is top-3 protected, though if the Timberwolves are in position to get a top-3 pick in 2021, something has gone horribly wrong. 2021 is a well-regarded draft, so the pick is a good asset, but when going after a potential star, you don’t let a future pick stop you from pulling the trigger.

Grade: A

The day after losing Covington was a bad one prior to acquiring Russell. As mentioned above, Towns and Covington were close, and the trade brought back less immediate help for Towns than if they just didn’t make a trade. Towns was frustrated, the fanbase was frustrated, and I was in the midst of losing faith in the new direction of the Timberwolves. Then, with just 2 hours left before the trade deadline, everything changed. We got D’Angelo Russell, and just look how happy Towns is. I think that says it all.

The Gorgui Dieng Trade

As the final hours of the trade deadline came, Minnesota had one final move. As part of a larger 3-team trade – details here – Minnesota got rid of its worst contract for a… slightly better one?

Timberwolves give up: Gorgui Dieng
Timberwolves receive: James Johnson

As anyone who follows the Timberwolves knows, Gorgui Dieng was massively overpaid. In the summer of 2018, just 1 year after signing his contract, GMs around the league suggested you would need to give up 2 first-round picks for another team to accept Dieng’s contract in a trade. Since that point, his value has steadily improved. Mostly because there is a season and a half less left on his contract, but also because he’s played better. Dieng was solid as the starter when Towns was out with his knee injury and has made real progress extending his range. After shooting 187 threes over his first 6 seasons (making 33.2% of them), he’s taken 120 this season alone (making 38.3% of them).

Johnson, alternatively, is having one of the worst seasons of his career, falling out of the rotation entirely at one point (he’s been held out of 19 games). Similarly to Gorgui, he’s got one season left on his deal, and – based on his play this season – is also extremely overpaid. Johnson makes $1.2 million less than Dieng next season assuming he opts into his player option (spoiler alert – he will), and may not get much time in the Minnesota rotation either.

The Timberwolves are clearly wiping the slate clean, so I like the trade… But even after years of bemoaning Dieng’s lack of production, I can’t help thinking Dieng might actually have had better trade value than Johnson, as crazy as that seems. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers, and we finally got rid of him. (As an aside – while I was reflecting on his time here, I realized that while there was much more bad than good for Gorgui while on the court, Gorgui off the court was one of a kind. He’s of the most professional, kindest, and good-natured players I’ve ever met, and while the Timberwolves won’t miss the player he is, Minnesota will miss the person he is).

Johnson is a decent fit on the roster. He’s a true power forward who can play fast in the style Minnesota wants to play, he’s a bit cheaper, and he frees up playing time for Naz Reid. Overall, I’m happy with the trade.

Grade: B

Overall

As a Wolves fan, you can’t come out this trade season without at least some excitement. We went from very little hope of competing next season to having one of the most exciting young duos in the league and surrounding talent that makes sense for how the Timberwolves want to play basketball. This team has a real shot at the playoffs next year, so it’s difficult to give this trade season anything less than an A, and yet…

Grade: B+

The trade deadline was ultimately a success, but with two star players who both struggle defensively, losing Covington will hurt now even more. A few weeks ago on Dane Moore’s NBA Podcast with guest Kyle Theige, they discussed the potential of trading Covington; Theige suggested Covington is the boat in the infamous Family Guy clip: “A boat is a boat, but the mystery box could be anything. It could even be a boat!” And he’s right – Covington is the boat! Minnesota traded away an excellent 3 and D wing in the hopes that Beasley and a draft pick can fill the role of… an excellent 3 and D wing. Why not just keep one you already had? It seemed like we needed to move Covington in order to acquire Russell, but we ended up using completely separate assets for that trade. I understand Beasley is younger, but he’s worse than Covington and we don’t know how expensive he will be. With the success of the roster upgrade, Rosas has earned the benefit of the doubt from me, but until we see what contract Beasley signs, this isn’t quite a slam dunk.

Top 5 of the Week

Acquiring another young star to pair with Towns gives the Timberwolves one of the best young duos in the league. So who are the best young duos in the league? Answer: this week’s Top 5 of the week! I will be looking at the top 5 pairings of players age-25 and younger.

Honorable Mentions: Fred VanVleet & Pascal Siakam, Ja Morant & Jaren Jackson Jr., Nikola Jokic & Jamal Murray.

5. Trae Young & John Collins. Combined points per game: 49.4

Young Collins

Trae Young is one of the brightest young stars in the league, starting in the all-star game in just his second season. I wrote about how he’s already putting up numbers like few have ever done before. After serving a 25-game suspension, John Collins hasn’t missed a beat and is right back to being one of the premier young big men in the league. Atlanta has been very bad this season, but with these two as cornerstones, they should be a mainstay near the top of the East in a few years.

4. Ben Simmons & Joel Embiid. Combined points per game: 39.4

Simmons Embiid

Simmons and Embiid have the lowest points per game of any duo on this list, but they’re also the most accomplished. They’re both elite defenders and have led the 76ers to the second round of the playoffs in consecutive seasons, and have 5 All-Star appearances between the two of them. The Philadelphia roster is talented enough to compete for a title, but the fit has been clunky alongside Tobias Harris and Al Horford. I wouldn’t be surprised if Philadelphia makes a big move this offseason if they fall short again this postseason.

3. Jaylen Brown & Jayson Tatum. Combined points per game: 42.4

Brown Tatum

Brown and Tatum have steadily improved each year and have begun to take the reigns as the leaders of a thriving Celtics squad. While neither is the best player on the team (Kemba Walker is), Brown and Tatum are close and figure to keep Boston in the title discussion for years to come.

2. Karl-Anthony Towns & D’Angelo Russell. Combined points per game: 50.3

KAT and DLo

Finally Minnesota is relevant again. With the 5th highest points per game of any two man pairing in the NBA (James Harden & Russ Westbrook are 1st at 62.0, LeBron James & Anthony Davis are 2nd at 51.6, Damian Lillard & CJ McCollum are 3rd at 51.2, and Giannis Antetokounmpo & Khris Middleton are 4th at 50.4) Minnesota figures to be elite offensively for the foreseeable future.

1.  Luka Dončić & Kristaps Porziņģis. Combined points per game: 46.8

Doncic Porzingis

The future belongs to Luka Dončić, and the Mavericks are already reaping the rewards of trading up to draft him in 2018. Not only is he must-see television whenever he plays, but he also has the Mavericks firmly in playoff position, and just 2.5 games away from having home-court advantage in the first round. Porziņģis hasn’t returned to the peak we saw in New York, but he’s finally starting to move better. He’s still an excellent rim protector and, after a slow start, his shooting is moving back toward elite territory. The Mavericks are in a great spot to win another title in the coming years with these two at their core.

Weekly Wagers

2019-20 NBA Record: 25-19-0

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

So I ended up going 6-7 on my Super Bowl edition last week, but odds on Mahomes getting the MVP dropped to even money the day of the game and I scooped it up (shoutout Paddy Power) to keep myself in the black. Overall, I finished the NFL season with a record of 8-9. Not great, but far from a disaster. This was the first week I wasn’t above .500 in the NBA, but I’m still in strong gambling territory at 25-19 overall. This week will be interesting with the trade deadline, so don’t forget to review how soon players will make it to their new teams prior to placing bets this week! I’m not giving any picks here because the games are already starting, but they’ll continue to be posted daily on Twitter.

Things I Like and Things I Don’t Like

I like

Damian Lillard being back. He’s been incredible over the past few weeks, scoring 41.6 points per game over his last 10, shooting an insane 52% from deep. After making at least 6 triples per game in an NBA-record 6 consecutive games, he said he’s “never been in this type of rhythm in [his] life.” Its been fun to watch the Trail Blazers look good again on the back of Lillard’s heroics.

I don’t like

The West being back. After about a quarter of the season, it looked like a team below .500 could slip into the playoffs in the Western Conference for the first time since the 1996-97 season. But with the resurgence of Portland into the playoff conversation and Ja Morant helping a young Memphis team to rapidly become competitive, the Western Conference playoff race is once again back to the gauntlet we expected prior to the season. I’d expect the 8th seed in the West to have at least 45 wins, which is solid considering the 8th seed in the East is on pace for 35 wins. One of Portland or Memphis will end up missing the playoffs while we’ll need to waste 4 games on Milwaukee sweeping the Magic or whatever other garbage team ends up with the 8th seed in the East. The playoff format should be changed.

I like

Showbiz & KAT. I absolutely need this magazine cover recreated with D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns:

Slam Mag

Here’s to Showbiz & KAT being more successful than their predecessors.

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