The Pros and Kahns of “Running it Back”

Audria Easterly

By now, many of you have probably read the article posted by The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski late last week, which essentially stated that the Minnesota Timberwolves are bringing back the same roster as the team that went 23-49 a season ago. There are reasons (or excuses, depending how you look at it) for why the season went so wayward, but the reality is the team finished near the bottom of the Western Conference yet again.

After the season concluded, Gersson Rosas hinted at the idea of being very aggressive this offseason to improve this roster. Either way, the fanbase absolutely expected to see upgrades to build on the final 22 games of the season, where Minnesota went 11-11 and showed some form of competency.

Instead, as you can read in Jon’s article again here, it doesn’t sound like that’s going to happen. It seems increasingly likely that the only addition the Wolves are going to make this offseason is second-year forward Nathan Knight. No disrespect to Knight, whom many in Atlanta seemed to be disappointed to lose, but that’s not exactly an inspiring offseason for a team that finished with a win-percentage below 32% last season.

It is only fair to note that we are merely looking at this at a snapshot in time. There is still plenty of time between now and the trade deadline for the roster to be upgraded, and shaking up the roster via trades has always been the most likely path to upgrades. Still, at this point in time, most would probably be at least a little disappointed in the lack of activity.

To try to make sense of it all, Mike and Jack are going to try break down the pros (there are … some?) and kahns of this strategy.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Portland Trail Blazers

Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Mike O’Hagan: This should be fun. Before I make any case for some “pros” to this report, I’d like to make one thing clear. First things first, I was pretty damn bummed to hear that the Wolves are running it back with this same squad. In the Canis Offseason Roundtable, when asked what I’d consider a successful offseason, I eventually landed on, “Basically, I don’t want this front office to simply ‘run it back.’” It felt like there was a real chance for upgrades this offseason that never materialized.

So, I’m hardly optimistic about this, but let’s just say I’m trying (read: coping) to highlight why this might not be the end of the world. With that in mind, Jack, I’ve got one big “pro” I can see from bringing this group back in its entirety, and one other pro that I’m still less optimistic about.

The big thing that is keeping me from being too disappointed about this is they didn’t pull a Pelicans with Anthony Davis, or a (possibly?) Pelicans with Zion Williamson again, where they move too quickly. Handing out bad contracts to veterans in an effort to try to get really good right away when you have a young star like Anthony Edwards almost never works. It remains to be seen if this is actually a good thing, but nobody is going to mistake this offseason for trying to get good too quickly, in a rushed manner.

I do think this is genuinely important. It’s important not to be rash, even when there is a bit of pressure. An overpay for Lauri Markkanen, for example, would’ve been damaging in my eyes. I appreciate the front office keeping the cupboard somewhat full moving forward and remaining patient, so long as when they do have a chance to upgrade the roster, they actually do so.

I don’t think it’s insane to think this team will be better simply by being healthy and playing together more often, in fact I think that’s practically a given. How much better, though? That’s the question. What do you think?

New Orleans Pelicans v Minnesota Timberwolves

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Jack Borman: It starts and ends with one person: Anthony Edwards. I am exceedingly high on Edwards, for obvious reasons. Post-All Star Game last season, Edwards averaged 24 points per game on 45/35/76 splits to go along with 5.3 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game, while turning it over just 2.6 times per contest. Only 10 players in the entire NBA matched those splits (Ant had the most minutes played of any of the 10), and the Wolves had not one, but two of the 10, which were:

  • Stephen Curry
  • Donovan Mitchell
  • Bradley Beal
  • Jayson Tatum
  • Damian Lillard
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  • Nikola Jokic
  • Kevin Durant
  • Karl-Anthony Towns
  • Anthony Edwards

Pretty elite company.

There is zero reason why he can’t keep this up next season. If Malik Beasley adds even more spacing, you could be looking at Edwards averaging damn near 27 points per game, provided there is as much enabling of his game as there was under Finch, especially once D-Lo came back.

Say what you want about D’Angelo Russell, but the Wolves have one of the most dynamic offensive duos in the entire league. Throw in good D-Lo and you have a powder keg that just needs a match to blow the game open. If Beasley is on the roster when the season opens, he’ll be a solid fourth option if he can adjust to not getting 18 shots a game.

The biggest kahn of running it back is obviously the lack of an upgrade defensively.

Ditching the drop as the primary defensive coverage is likely to prevent the Wolves from bottoming out defensively, like they did last year, especially with Jaden McDaniels getting stronger and having an easier time navigating screens, and having two switchy defenders in Josh Okogie and Vanderbilt back in tow to play heavier minutes against teams with multiple high-level wing scorers.

I legitimately think McDaniels could be one of the best defenders in the NBA this season. Not just because of the shades of perimeter dominance we saw in the Summer League opener last night, but also because his prospects as a 4 are still strong enough to use him there in small-ball lineups.

Minnesota was 27th in the league last season in defensive rating, but I see that improving closer to 22nd given the team’s comfortability with one another and individual maturation that comes with growing up in the league. Edwards was much better defensively off the ball in the second half, as was Russell to a lesser extent, which is big for giving yourself a chance in shootouts. I’m not expecting the Wolves to make it tough on offenses by any means, but rather that they’ll have an easier time stringing together a few stops at inflection points in comparison to last season.

With all of this taken into account, there’s no reason in my mind why the Wolves can’t be one of the eight or nine best teams in the West.

Memphis is bound to regress after their disastrous offseason; San Antonio has no star players; New Orleans is a tire fire outside of Zion Williamson; Sacramento hasn’t gotten better in a needle-moving fashion; Houston has completely abandoned the concept of defense; Portland is probably a 6 or 7 seed with Damian Lillard, so just imagine what they’d be without him; and finally, OKC is playing the longest long game since the Hinkie Sixers. That’s seven teams I think the Wolves have a good chance of being better than, which puts them at the 8 seed.

If the Nuggets struggle without Jamal Murray, or Luka Doncic or Paul George get injured (not all that unlikely), you could see the Wolves have a real opportunity to host a playoff game next season, if we include the play-in tournament.

However, the same goes for the Wolves. They didn’t make any needle-moving transactions and are an injury to KAT or Edwards away from being right back in the lottery. What the Wolves do have going for them in comparison to the team I mentioned, however, is they’ll undoubtedly be aided the most simply by having a healthier team than they did last year.

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves

Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Mike O’Hagan: Hmm, okay, I’m not quite as down on the rest of the West in relation to the Timberwolves, although it’s hard to argue against the notion that the conference isn’t wide open past the Lakers, Suns, Warriors, and Jazz.

Here’s where I struggle a little bit with that optimistic of an assessment, though. For one, we don’t know for sure yet that Vanderbilt will be back. I, too, love his fit next to KAT, and now that they’ve missed out on most of the good MLE targets at the 4, I think it’s important to bring him back. I know he isn’t quite as good as his advanced numbers suggest, but I do think he’s a net-positive next to Towns.

The other pushback I’d have is just on how much we’re expecting from Edwards and McDaniels in year two. I know they’re outstanding young players, and I am so, so excited to watch both play basketball again. Growth isn’t linear, though, and putting that much responsibility on two teenagers worries me a bit. I would be surprised if McDaniels didn’t take a leap, mostly due to the fact that he’ll have a more simplified role.

All of this is to say, I like where your head is at, but I’m tempering my expectations for now, as I’m just hesitant to put the cart before the horse, per se.

Jack Borman: I’ve got no arguments there. Betting on youth in a major way is a very risky proposition.

Given how much easier I think this upcoming season will be in comparison to last (*hopefully* no COVID cancellations, full training camp and preseason, more work with coaches, etc.), and that both showed very real growth under Finch, I think it’s realistic to entertain some positive belief in how their development curves will play out this upcoming season.

Mike O’Hagan: Okay, Jack, the other slight positive I can drum up out of this is that they maintained a little bit of financial flexibility for once.

Believe me, it’s not my job to feel bad for billionaires or count their wallet, but I’m also trying to live within the reality of the situation we’re working with. Minnesota still has a few movable contracts if a player they desire becomes available during the season, and if not, they should have a not-insignificant amount of cap space in 2022.

Whether or not arming the Minnesota Timberwolves with real cap space should be viewed as a good thing or a scary thing is a different debate, but that kind of flexibility would be new. I’ll let you cook in a second, but it would be very Rosas to make the suggested move of Beasley for an expiring contract just to leave that cap space unused or wasted, in line with what our good friend Dane Moore has talked about on his podcast.

In a sense, I guess it’s less about the financial flexibility that keeps me alive here, and moreso that the Wolves didn’t mortgage the future for a fringe-star (again?).

Jack Borman: I completely agree on the overpay point. While I understand the rush to want to be more competitive next season (I myself am extremely antsy to see the team get into the playoffs next season), pulling a Thibs and completely pigeonholing yourself into years of mediocrity (*ducks*) by going all-in on a player, or players, who are either over the hill or could leave within 18 months.

Thankfully, I don’t think there were many of those short-sighted trade situations out there for Minnesota to get themselves into, but who knows. The Juancho Hernangomez contract was pretty bad last season, which felt like what you’re describing — spending money because you feel like you have to. That’s why they’re waiting out Jarred Vanderbilt and Jordan McLaughlin.

First, to make sure they aren’t betting against themselves and spend the least amount of money as possible to maintain maximum flexibility. And second, to see if either of the Wolves lead Summer League guards, McKinley Wright IV (two-way) and Isaiah Miller (Exhibit-10), could prove to be a better option than McLaughlin, or if a Nathan Knight emergence could make the Vanderbilt decision a less stressful one.

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves

Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The financial flexibility the Rubio trade provided was important. It affords Minnesota the optionality of running it back and staying below the luxury tax while also being able to rather easily unload another $17M in expiring contracts (Hernangomez, Jarrett Culver, and Jake Layman) if necessary to make a larger deal. I think Rosas wants to make sure that if there’s an opportunity to go get Simmons, while keeping McDaniels, that he can capitalize.

I don’t think they’ll sign anyone out there that isn’t Vanderbilt, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they try and get into a sign-and-trade for someone like Josh Hart if Knight crushes it at Summer League and the right price materializes.

The biggest kahn here for me is that the offseason just hasn’t been exciting, when Rosas seemingly promised for the second offseason in a row that there’d be some action. Maybe there still will be, but the fan and degenerate in me is wishing more happened.

To go along with that, I was pretty disappointed the Wolves didn’t get into the second round, given they have three seconds in 2022. Sharife Cooper going 48 to the Hawks, BJ Boston going 51 to the Clippers, and Minneapolis native Jericho Sims going 58 to the Knicks could prove to be three of the biggest steals of the draft regardless of draft position. We saw Rosas subscribe to the “go after talented high school guys that weren’t awesome in college” theory with Naz Reid, and it worked out beautifully. Now, that won’t happen every time, but it’s hard to fault a front office decision-maker when betting on players that talented, especially when two of them have elite NBA-ready talents (speed and playmaking for Cooper; rim-running and athleticism for Sims).

I understand the roster crunch, but we already know what J-Mac will bring and bringing in fresh new talent on Gupta Special™ contracts would’ve made a lot of sense when you consider the relative ease of sending out Hernangomez or Layman in a salary dump move. Beggars cannot be choosers in this sense, but disappointment is a very valid feeling for Wolves fans, including myself, who are wishing the team did more to move the needle, even on the margins.

With more dominos expected to fall before the regular season tips off in mid-October, there’s still time for additions and subtractions to Minnesota’s roster. But for now, it appears as if #RunItBack will be the official mantra entering the fall for the Timberwolves. Will this strategy prove to be successful? Leave your thoughts and comments below.

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