The Minnesota Timberwolves took the first step toward relevance Wednesday, hiring Houston Rockets executive vice president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas as their new team president, according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
The Timberwolves are coming off a turbulent 2018-19 campaign, highlighted by Jimmy Butler’s early-season trade demand and the midseason firing of team president/head coach Tom Thibodeau.
While All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns reasserted himself as a deserving face of the franchise and rookie wing Josh Okogie flashed upside, 2014 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins woefully underwhelmed during the first year of his five-year, $147.7 million max extension.
It’s now on Rosas to sift through the fallout and build the Timberwolves into a perennial playoff contender. (Something they haven’t been in 15 years since the end of the Kevin Garnett era.)
Rosas’ former boss, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, has faith he’ll do so.
“Gersson has been an unbelievable person to work with,” he told Wojnarowski. “He’s been way overqualified for his job for a while here. He’s more than earned his shot, although I wish he would’ve gone East. We’re going to have an extremely tough competitor in the West. Minnesota is going to find how forward-thinking, how hard-working and how talented he is at putting together a winning team.”
Rosas has spent nearly two decades with the Rockets and logged a short stint as the Dallas Mavericks’ general manager in 2013, which suggests he’ll be up for the challenge that awaits him in Minnesota.
With Wiggins’ bloated contract clogging the Timberwolves’ salary-cap sheet and a number of notable players set to become free agents in July, he has his work cut out for him, however.
Before establishing a plan of attack, Rosas must first step back for a comprehensive look at the Timberwolves’ biggest areas of need.
They have a franchise center (Towns) locked on a five-year, $158 million max deal, so they’re set at the 5. Robert Covington, who came over in the Butler trade, just finished the first year of his affordable four-year, $46.9 million contract. Okogie is likewise tied up for three more years on his rookie-scale deal. Throw in Wiggins—who we’ll revisit later—and Minnesota is relatively set at the wing, too.
That leaves point guard and power forward as the roster’s biggest weaknesses.
Jeff Teague already exercised his $19 million player option for 2019-20, but he’ll be a free agent following next season. Meanwhile, Derrick Rose and Jerryd Bayless will be unrestricted free agents this summer, while Tyus Jones will be restricted.
Rosas must weigh whether to bring any of them back and decide how much he’s willing to pay if doing so.
At the 4, Dario Saric—who also came over in the Butler trade—is entering the final year of his rookie contract, which means he’s eligible for an extension this summer. He likely didn’t show enough during his limited time in Minnesota to merit one, as he struggled to acclimate to a bench role behind Taj Gibson early on.
When interim head coach Ryan Saunders moved him into the starting lineup during February, however, he trended upward with 11.9 points on 46.2 percent shooting, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.6 triples in only 25.5 minutes per game over his final 27 appearances.
Gibson, meanwhile, is also set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. With Thibodeau no longer in Minnesota and Saric having supplanted him as the starting 4, it’s difficult to see Gibson returning to the Timberwolves on a discount deal, which makes adding depth behind Saric a priority this summer.
Is Saunders the answer?
Upon Thibodeau’s midseason firing, assistant coach Ryan Saunders—the son of deceased longtime Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders—took over as the interim. The Timberwolves finished 17-25 in Saunders’ 42 games at the helm, although Towns particularly began to thrive under his watch.
It seems as though that may be enough to earn him the full-time gig.
“While nothing has been totally decided on Saunders, he is widely expected to be named the full-time coach, a move that would come with the approval of virtually the entire roster,” Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic reported.
Towns has been especially supportive of Saunders, who helped to steady the Timberwolves after a rocky start to the 2018-19 season.
“He is Minnesota basketball through and throughout,” he said at the end of March, per Krawczynski. “His blood’s been here his whole life. His blood before him has been here their whole lives. I think he’s a great candidate for the job.”
Rosas may not want to rock the boat more than necessary—especially with a number of other critical decisions looming this summer—which should help Saunders and general manager Scott Layden stay in place. However, their fates aren’t yet written in stone.
Fill out the roster
The Timberwolves enter this offseason with $109.4 million in guaranteed salary on their books, not counting their No. 10 overall pick, which comes with a $4.2 million cap hit. Since the cap is expected to come be right around $109 million, they’ll only be able to bolster their roster using salary-cap exceptions and draft picks, barring a trade.
Rosas will also have to be mindful of the $132 million luxury-tax threshold.
With eight players under guaranteed contract—Towns, Wiggins, Teague, Covington, Saric, Okogie, Keita Bates-Diop and Gorgui Dieng—and one first-round pick, the T-Wolves will have $116.3 million in salary-cap commitments after factoring in three incomplete roster charges ($897,158). That’d give them only around $15.7 million in breathing room before bumping into the tax.
Before turning to free agency, they must bolster their depth via the draft.
Minnesota may be able to find a solution to its point guard dilemma at No. 10, such as UNC’s Coby White or Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland—who missed much of the 2018-19 season with a torn meniscus. They could also go big at that spot, taking someone such as Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke if they aren’t sold on Saric as the long-term complement to Towns.
The Timberwolves also have the No. 43 overall pick, which they can use to add bench depth. Although second-rounders don’t have a particularly high hit rate, Minnesota did land promising forward Bates-Diop at No. 48 last year. It won’t be easy to find an instant-impact contributor in that range, but selling the pick should be a no-no for a roster needing cost-efficient infusions.
Depending on who the T-Wolves select, they’ll then have to decide whether to retain Rose, Jones, Bayless and Gibson in free agency.
They have full Bird rights on the latter three, which allows them to exceed the salary cap to re-sign them at any price, though team owner Glen Taylor likely won’t be keen on paying the luxury tax for a fringe playoff roster.
Minnesota only has Early Bird rights on Rose, so at most, they can sign him to a contract starting at 105 percent of this year’s average NBA salary (estimated at $8.8 million).
At most, the Wolves will likely retain no more than one or two of those four, as they’ll also presumably use their non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($9.8 million) to round out their depth chart. Teams in need of point guard help could perhaps steal Minnesota-native Jones away with a bloated offer sheet, as the Wolves will be limited in their ability to match while steering clear of the luxury tax.
The Andrew Wiggins conundrum
Wiggins is the elephant in the room (and has been for a while).
Minnesota’s cap situation wouldn’t be so dire if Wiggins had lived up to his promise to improve. Instead, he’s fresh off his worst season, having shot a career-low 41.2 percent on 16.6 field-goal attempts per game while posting a dismal 12.4 player efficiency rating. (The league average is 15.0.)
Rather than leveraging his quick-twitch athleticism to become a disruptive wing defender, Wiggins often floats aimlessly on both ends of the court. He’ll show promising flashes and then quickly recede into the background, failing to establish any sort of consistency.
“I feel like it was an OK season,” Wiggins told reporters late in the season. “Not the best, not the worst. It was OK.”
That quote succinctly sums up the Andrew Wiggins experience to date. It’s now on Rosas to figure out whether he can coax more out of the 6’8″ 24-year-old or cut bait.
It likely wouldn’t be easy to find a team willing to take on the remaining four years and $122.2 million of Wiggins’ contract, but this summer may provide a unique opportunity to do so.
With so many teams having carved out significant cap space and not enough marquee free agents to go around—particularly if many of them re-sign with their incumbent teams—desperation may drive franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks to take a high-risk, high-upside swing in the trade market.
According to Krawczynski, Rosas “outlined a vision for the franchise in both the short- and long-term that not only charted a course for where the Wolves wanted to go but was also fully aware of the challenges that lie ahead.”
Wiggins is one such challenge, and figuring out how to address the conundrum will likely be the biggest decision Rosas makes in the near future.