A Long Term View of the Wolves to Clear up the Short Term

When I disagree with the majority of Wolves fans on a subject, it typically inspires me to write. The stance on the Al Horford is one of those instances. While I love Horford as a player and  a mentor for his Dominican brother Karl-Anthony Towns, I generally don’t see him as a great fit for a couple reasons that aren’t necessarily related to his style of play. Horford is a great player and would definitely serve as a great mentor for the young pups. He is an anchor defensively and can stretch the defense with his shooting ability. He also managed to win a national championship in college dealing with Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer on the team. That is truly impressive.

The reason for being against Horford is long-winded. It took me down a path of the long-term outlook of the team. The team is young and could go in a multitude of directions over the next five years. But its important to look at the roster’s cap space and how it aligns with what the team is attempting to accomplish in that given season. What the team may be thinking about as a top priorities in a given season. Its very idealistic.

To do this, I have to assume a consistent career trajectory for the young players. I have to assume career-changing injuries don’t happen. I have to assume extremely significant moves aren’t made on a year-to-year basis. The outlook is focused on how the current players and assets play into the future. So it’s hard to do. But we will take a stab at it given what we know. First, here are the players’ salaries drawn out through 2019-2020. That is only four seasons from now. (via HoopsHype.com)

PLAYER NAME 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/21
Ricky Rubio $12,700,000 $13,400,000 $14,100,000 $14,800,000 $0 $0
Nikola Pekovic $12,100,000 $12,100,000 $11,600,000 $0 $0 $0
Kevin Garnett $8,500,000 $8,000,000 $0 $0 $0 $0
Kevin Martin $7,085,000 $3,336,000 $0 $0 $0 $0
Andrew Wiggins $5,758,680 $6,006,600 $7,574,322 $9,846,619 $0 $0
Karl-Anthony Towns $5,703,600 $5,960,160 $6,216,840 $7,839,435 $10,191,265 $0
Nemanja Bjelica $3,950,000 $3,800,000 $3,950,000 $0 $0 $0
Anthony Bennett $3,650,000 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Zach LaVine $2,148,360 $2,240,880 $3,202,217 $4,428,666 $0 $0
Shabazz Muhammad $2,056,920 $3,046,299 $4,237,401 $0 $0 $0
Adreian Payne $1,938,840 $2,022,240 $3,100,093 $4,333,931 $0 $0
Tayshaun Prince $1,499,187 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Gorgui Dieng $1,474,440 $2,348,782 $3,384,596 $0 $0 $0
Tyus Jones $1,282,080 $1,339,680 $1,397,400 $2,444,052 $3,573,204 $0
Damjan Rudez $1,149,500 $1,199,000 $0 $0 $0 $0
Andre Miller $1,093,525 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Greg Smith $197,111 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
TOTALS $72,287,243 $63,600,641 $29,650,000 $14,800,000 $0 $0
We will look at seasons in the view of what the team is trying to accomplish as of the off-season. A few things to note. This is a rough outlook. I am not taking exact figures to project anything, just a broad forecast. There will be a lot of generalizations about dollar figures that may not be completely accurate. I am also not a salary cap expert. Just throwing paint and seeing where it sticks. So here we go..

2016-17 Season

Goal: Make the Playoffs

Priorities: Development of Players.

There is no doubt that for the next season the Wolves will want to make the playoffs. The team is young but with a coach like Thibs, its possible to make it happen. The playoff experience in this season would be extremely valuable for the young guys down the road. They will get to taste what it’s like. They will get to build on it for the future. So Thibs and Scott Layden have to be thinking that adding a couple veterans to the team could help boost the Wolves into the 8th spot. Using Flip’s model of mentoring, getting guys that can contribute and teach will be a top priority in Free Agency.

Thibodeau has said the Wolves will acquire players that align with the trajectory of the current roster. So this leads me to believe that whatever player that is signed/ traded for either is young enough to grow with the Wolves or old enough to contribute for two seasons max and fall off the books before the slew of contract extensions begin. This is precisely why I don’t believe Al Horford is the guy for the job. Horford is 29 and has a history of injuries that have plagued his career. With the cap increasing, Horford will seek Max dollars for a long time. With Horford in his prime now, he will regress as his salary increases. I wouldn’t be opposed to offering a Max contract to Horford if he were willing to take one for two, maybe even three years. But if I am Horford, I can get a four-year max offer or better in many places due to the Salary Cap increase.

Speaking on the Salary Cap increase quickly. The entire league more or less has cap space. The Wolves will have a maximum of $28M available this summer. That is going to lead to many players getting overpaid. The value of money is less when everyone has it, right? Save the cap space for someone worth it. KD would definitely be worth it. Other than that though, stick to the plan and focus on making the playoffs.

So who fits into helping the Wolves making the playoffs without burning a hole in our pockets? If I am the Wolves, I am looking at Luol Deng and Jamal Crawford. Deng has been impressive playing the stretch four and has a history with Thibs. His defense is great and a very good 3-point shooter. Outside of Crawford being LaVine’s mentor with their connection to Seattle, Thibs has historically been a fan of Jamal Crawford. Crawford could help the Wolves scoring off the bench and step into the 1 or 2 as needed. A combination of these two guys fill some gaps for the Wolves. They also compliment the team if they decide to trade the 5th pick and Shabazz, as I suggest in my piece for last week.
What to do with Shabazz Muhammad is going to be something figured out over the course of the coming summer and/ or the 16-17 season. Where does he fit on the bench and in his role. Can he defend to be a net-positive player? Can the Wolves maximize his trade value? To me, he seems most valuable packaged alongside a draft pick if being traded. But I also think his ability to score off the bench will be necessary going forward, at least in the short-run.
2017-18 Season
Goal: Make the Playoffs, maybe advance
Priorities: Compete, Development, Retain Dieng
Summer after year 1 with Thibodeau. Fans expectations will likely become a little more realistic. We will also have a better idea of what this team is actually capable of. It will likely be the end of KG’s career, which financially means $8M will open up in cap space. If the Wolves follow the formula of getting cheap, formidable veterans in 16-17, they could potentially make a big splash in free agency this summer to make a push in 17-18. Things to note: LaVine and Wiggins will be 22 prior to the season and Towns will be 21.
A big decision will be what happens with Gorgui Dieng. How does he fit as a piece of the puzzle. Dieng will be 27 prior to the season and will likely look for a contract extension during the 16-17 season or will enter restricted free agency. Seeing a decent amount of cap space in the summer before 17-18, the Wolves could offer a contract similar to what Ricky Rubio received. Dieng will likely be a starter or at least an important part of the Wolves’ rotation. I can see him getting overpaid here, but offers enough to almost deserve it. The question will be, will he get a max contract? Again, this depends on many outcomes of the 16-17 season. But from a Wolves perspective, that may be a trap. The Wolves will need to extend LaVine, Wiggins and Towns who are 5-6 years younger.
The Wolves will likely have some trade bait. Depending on the league cap space environment and what happens between now and then, Nikola Pekovic will be on the final year of his contract for the 17-18 season. If there is a team looking for cap space then and the Wolves can benefit from taking on a contract of equal value to help them in the playoffs, it may be worth considering.

2018-19 Season
Goal: Compete for Western Conference Title
Priorities: Retain Talent
If we do the math, LaVine/ Wiggins will be 23 and Towns 22. This seems so far away but yet these guys stay so young. If you are still reading this from the top, you are awesome and this is why the Horford signing would be problematic. The Wolves will have a lot of extensions to start thinking about prior to the 18-19 summer. Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine would potentially be restricted free agents this summer if not already extended. Chances are Andrew Wiggins would receive a max contract and Zach LaVine close to that. Cap Space will be of essence to retain these guys. The only guys under contract as of now would be Towns, Tyus Jones and Ricky Rubio.
Rubio will be moving into the final year of his contract. He will be 27 going into the 18-19 season. It will be known at this point whether he is a part of the future of the franchise. Health and shooting will be big factors to deciding that by this point. If he proves he is a significant contributor to the success of this team, he will likely look for near max money. Ideally, whoever is signed in the summer of 2016 will be expired by now. Dieng could be taking in a significant amount of money and if the Wolves did replace Pekovic’s salary, there may not be enough pie to go around with LaVine and Wiggins.
Here is where the VERY rough estimates start getting thrown around: Wiggins at $20M, LaVine at $20M, Dieng at $17M, Towns at $8M, and two others accounting for, lets say, $10M (one being Tyus at $3M). That is $75M for 6 players alone. The league will likely have a salary cap of over $108M since the cap is projected to be around that for the 17-18 season once the new CBA is agreed upon.
Long story short, that leaves no less than $33M for the remaining 9 players on the Wolves roster, knowing the team will likely need to extend Towns to a max contract the next summer. This means, for Rubio to remain with the Wolves after this season, he will not be able to get a max contract. So this will be an interesting headline if and when we get to it.

2019-20 Season
Goal: Championship
Priorities: Retain Towns, development
I won’t go into too much depth here but before this summer will be finding a way to keep Towns long-term. The Wolves core will be entering their very early prime years. This is no excuse to not compete nonetheless. The Wolves have to believe that prior to the 19-20 season, if all things go right, they should be competing for a championship.
Chances are the Wolves have a ton of players we can’t predict will be on the roster at this point. So the development of role players, preferably younger, will be important since the Wolves will have money tied up.

Conclusion: If all goes well, the Wolves will not have all the flexibility in the world if they look to hold on to Wiggins, LaVine, Towns, and Dieng. But if they all develop, it may make sense to keep that team together. What we do see is that free agency decisions we make this summer, do impact what the Wolves do in what should be a pivotal summer prior to the 18-19 season when the Wolves should be competing. Ideally whoever the Wolves target this summer are short term boosts that don’t have long-term salary implications.

Pekovic is Coming Back: Where Does He Fit?

Nikola Pekovic has been officially cleared for full contact practice, meaning he should be returning soon. The bruising big man wears his ‘injury-prone’ tag proudly next to his ‘overpaid’ label. But fans still love Pek. He scares opponents with his size and his tattoos. While he doesn’t play defense, when healthy he is one of the more offensively-gifted centers in the game today. He has a nice post game and before he had his ankle issues, he developed something that looked like a jump shot.

Pekovic got injured a little bit after signing a 5-year, $60 million contract extension mainly because the Wolves wanted to secure the big man to play alongside Kevin Love. Flash forward and now Kevin Love is gone, Kevin Garnett is back, and the Wolves drafted one of the most talented players at the same position in Karl-Anthony Towns. Gorgui Dieng still remains as well, who was originally drafted to back up Pekovic to balance out defensively.

Pek finds himself potentially as the 3rd-string center on the team. He has too big of a contract and is injured too often to be traded at this point. So where does Pek fit in to the Wolves rotation? To preface what we think, we must note that Sam Mitchell will probably do exactly the opposite. Sam Mitchell’s rotations have been head-scratching at best and no one knows how he feels about Pekovic and how he will manage his injury/ playing time.

While things in Minnesota look bleak for Pekovic, he may actually be in an ideal situation. He was being overplayed before which caused him to keep getting injured. The Wolves no longer lack depth in their front court so seeing Pekovic play 10-15 minutes a night may be in the best interest of both parties. Pekovic matching up against opposing benches would also be in the Wolves’ favor as he may as well eat them alive while not having to worry much defensively.

Pekovic returning would mean the Wolves could see Gorgui Dieng get more minutes at the power forward position alongside KAT. Especially on Garnett rest days, Dieng and Towns could start alongside each other and Pekovic could take minutes at the 5 while rotating between the three big men. This would reduce minutes, hopefully, for Adrien Payne and the now struggling Bjelica. Even if Payne or Bjelica get time, both fit well with Pekovic offensively as they both like to spend time behind the 3-point line, opening up the paint for Pekovic. Pekovic will also work well on pick and rolls with LaVine and the emerging Tyus Jones.

In summary we should see rotations as such:

With Garnett (Minutes in parentheses)

C – Towns (28)/ Dieng (10)/ Pekovic (10)

PF – Garnett (15) / Dieng (14) / Bjelica (5) / Payne (4)

Without Garnett

C – Towns (33)/ Pekovic (12)/ Dieng (3)

PF – Dieng (30)/ Bjelica (9)/ Payne (9)

The entire Bjelica and Payne situation seems to be still in flux. Depending on the matchups and who is playing well, one or the other or both could play. But Dieng should spend more time at the 4 with Garnett out and Pekovic still can play around 10-12 minutes a game.

But where does Pekovic fit into the Wolves long-term? The Wolves obviously have Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng as their centerpieces in the front court. Trading Pekovic could be an option. There has been talks that the Bulls would be interested in trading Noah for Pekovic since Noah will be a free agent this summer. There is also the possibility that Pekovic retires early and his contract clears off of the Wolves’ books, but it seems unlikely. 

The Wolves will we’d to utilize him until either his contract expires or until he has some sort of trade bake.  He eventually (17-18 season) will be an expiring contract, in which he will have value in that sense. Trading an expiring contract of that size ($11.6 million) could add a nice piece to the roster, especially since it’ll be a time in which the Wolves should be competitive. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. 

Let us know your thoughts on this. A healthy Pekovic regardless will be good for the Wolves. We hope he can remain healthy, even if he is never the same player again.