Where Do Minnesota Timberwolves Go From Here?

Between a wild draft night and a major letdown on the first day of free agency, Gerson Rosas experienced a year’s worth of headaches within the month of June.

Newly-hired as Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations, Rosas and his slowly-building front office had an active draft night that featured trading up to the No. 6 spot while also dealing forward Dario Saric to the Phoenix Suns, subsequently trying to move back out of that spot after Darius Garland (a reported Rosas favorite) was taken earlier, then simply selecting Jarrett Culver.

Culver is a highly-touted prospect out of Texas Tech and perfectly acceptable in that range. He had long been considered a top-five talent, or better, and with the Timberwolves desperate for star power (and a strong pick-and-roll partner) next to Karl-Anthony Towns, the pick makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense, especially after the trade and subsequent selection, is the roster as it stands right now.

The Timberwolves currently house four wing players—Culver, Robert Covington, Andrew Wiggins and Josh Okogie—who will more than likely expect starter’s minutes. The only “true power forward”, Gorgui Dieng, has been the team’s backup center the past two seasons. Their starting point guard, Jeff Teague, is on the final year of his 3-year deal and isn’t likely part of the team’s long-term plans.

Their backup of the past two years, Tyus Jones, is a restricted free agent and might garner some attention from teams in need of a young, cheap-ish starting option.

So even if Rosas’ initial drafting of Culver was the right move, what is clear now is just how murky the future remains. This gives Rosas a chance to showcase the cleverness he picked up during his 16-year stint as a Daryl Morey assistant with the Rockets. And with Towns entering the first year of his five-year max deal this fall, Rosas will need to make moves that translate into immediate success while also building for a more stable, long-term future.

Initially, it looked like that plan was centered around Brooklyn Nets All-Star D’Angelo Russell. As talks progressed, reports surfaced that not only was a meeting in place, but Russell’s initial preferred destination was Minnesota.

Nov 23, 2018; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard D’Angelo Russell (1) at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

This was a big deal for the Timberwolves. It was basically unheard of that a 23-year-old free agent with “All-Star” attached to his name would be interested in making Minneapolis his home.

But the fun speculation of the scenario is all it would ever become.

After courting from friend Karl-Anthony Towns, head coach Ryan Saunders and others, the Wolves reportedly felt good about their chances. They waited for a call that, ultimately, never came, according to The Athletic. In what seemed like a matter of seconds, the newly Durant-less Warriors made their own call, got the green light and worked out a sign-and-trade with Russell’s now-former team.

Suddenly, the young stud that led the Nets to a somewhat improbable playoff run was set to join a team that has been part of the last five Finals, winning three of them. The Wolves had to re-shuffle.

What Now?

May 18, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Jordan Bell (2) dunks the basketball during the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers in game three of the Western conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. The Golden State Warriors beat the Portland Trail Blazers 110-99. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Wolves made a couple smaller moves the first few days following the Russell fallout. The first of which was, funny enough, part of the overall deal that sent Russell to Golden State.

Minnesota received wing Treveon Graham and point guard Shabazz Napier—both solid players on non-guaranteed contracts that could be re-re-flipped if the right deal comes along.

That particular deal didn’t necessarily solve any immediate issues, but the subsequent signings of Warriors center Jordan Bell—another casualty of the Russell trade—and Knicks post Noah Vonleh might have.

While neither brings strong offensive prowess, the low-minute interior defense seen in their last stops checks some boxes that absolutely needed to be addressed.

Even after trading Jimmy Butler, the regression of Andrew Wiggins’ overall game and injuries to Robert Covington, Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague, the Wolves still managed to finish the season top-half in offensive rating, according to NBA.com. As long as Karl-Anthony Towns is healthy, offense probably won’t be the problem in the grand scheme of things.

Defense is, and has been, the problem.

Even with awareness and positioning improvements to KAT’s game on the defensive end, the Wolves still finished with the seventh-worst defensive rating in the league. Losing Covington for the majority of his first season with the Wolves hurt, but Minnesota’s long-standing defensive struggles wouldn’t have been addressed with one elite-level defender.

Minnesota needs to keep stockpiling more, and at least Bell and Vonleh can be helpful in that regard.

What’s the plan?

Mar 10, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jeff Teague (0) looks on during the second half against the New York Knicks at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

While Rosas & Co. have gotten the offseason underway with a couple signings and a small-grade trade, odds are great that they aren’t even close to done. They still have a duo of non-guaranteed deals they got this summer, paired with an expiring contract in Jeff Teague, that  they might want to unload. They still have too many wings and, arguably, are still without a starting-caliber power forward.

In the meantime, the plan seems to be simple: Build the roster with small-salary contracts that could be easily flippable or, at the very least, won’t be expensive to part with when needed.

Still, the Wolves have some wiggle room and will likely look into it at some point this offseason. They still have their full mid-level exception, but with contracts like Teague, Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng still on the books, perhaps the plan is to avoid anything other than a minimum deal until they figure out how to deal with those bigger contracts.

That is, unless a player of some sort of star caliber becomes available.

For now, Rosas has showcased a good sense of how to find talent but has run into bad luck on more than one occasion. (Welcome to being part of the Minnesota Timberwolves, right?)

Between moving up to the No. 6 pick only to see their reported target go at No. 5, to a star player having legitimate free-agency interest in them then getting snapped up by this decade’s most successful franchise, this has been a rough start for Rosas and his newly-formed staff.

The good news is that the ideas he’s had in mind had real inspiration before they backfired. Odds are that the landings begin to smooth out with time as long as the good ideas keep coming.