By: Jonah Sprinkel
Before I begin with the real reason for this writing, I want to give a shout out to the NBA Draft Lottery. Some consider the event to be one of the more exciting and dramatic events in sports. I fall in that camp. Regardless of what happens, viewers are left on the edge of their seats waiting for the commercials to pass them by before the NBA Commissioner takes the stand. In what feels like a blink of an eye, 14 teams find out where they stand in the NBA Draft. Even before the viewers have finished blinking, NBA GM’s, coaches, scouts, journalists and of course, arm chair GM’s, have begun dissecting the draft and what their respective teams should do with their lottery pick. I’m not here to tell you who the Wolves should draft. Rather, Tom Thibodeau needs to fix the Timberwolves draft woes and find some of the missing pieces in the draft.
To say that the Timberwolves have a solid history of drafting, developing and retaining quality NBA players would be a blatant lie. Most Wolves fans will remember the likes of Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson, and Derrick Williams. This list continues with names like Rashad McCants, Ndudi Ebi, William Avery and Paul Grant. For a multitude of reasons, these players, as well as others, did not create an NBA career with the Timberwolves.
Tom Thibodeau now has a full year under year his belt as the Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations. Just as the Wolves have done with the new logo; it is now time to reinvent and usher in a new era of drafting NBA players. As I said above, bad luck, poor decision making, and sheer dumb luck have played a role in the Timberwolves past draft success. All the negative associations need to remain in the past while simply being remembered as a dark time in Wolves lore. No longer can these “what if” stories follow the team.
Since the 2007 NBA Draft, the Timberwolves have drafted 31 players. Only four of those players are still with the team. Three of those four, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Kris Dunn have been taken in the previous three years while Rubio is the only player drafted pre-2013 who remains with the Wolves. I should note that the Wolves did find excellent by essentially drafting Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad in 2013 though league records will show those two arrived in Minnesota via trade. No matter how you cut it, the Wolves track record of poor drafting remains. Many of these players are no longer on NBA rosters.
Obviously, Rubio, LaVine and Towns are great success stories for the Wolves. Dunn seems like he will be as well but that has yet to be fully realized. In terms of draft value, Town’s was absolutely worth the #1 overall pick. His current production level is far and away above the expectations of a player drafted first. Pre-ACL tear, Zach LaVine is also a player who outperformed his 13th overall draft slot. Some may argue that Rubio failed to meet expectations but that’s not necessarily true. Rubio has been a franchise mainstay and a remarkable on-court contributor in this organization throughout multiple tumultuous eras. That alone almost makes him worth the 5th pick.
The ultimate example of draft value is Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs. Most NBA fans know his story. Leonard, an MVP finalist, was the 15th pick in the 2011 draft whose game has grown to match the size of his hands. Kawhi is a testament to the Spurs organization and culture. Coming out of San Diego State, Leonard was a bit of a project player who could hopefully contribute to an NBA team one day. Through patience, player development, and smart coaching Kawhi has vastly outperformed the expectations set on his shoulders. While I do not expect Thibodeau to draft the next robotic NBA superstar or to replicate the Spurs organization, I do expect him to find value in the draft and develop said value.
Thibodeau, and the rest of the Wolves organization, need to play close attention to every available prospect. They must look for the guy that has been overlooked by others or needs time to realize his potential. The organizations that monitor the details and invest time and money into players are the teams that end up near the top. Of course, there are other ways to build a championship team and we are seeing that play out with both Cleveland and Golden State. Realistically, the Timberwolves will never be either those teams in terms of how they were built. If the Wolves hope to one day compete for a championship a lot of this work must be done organically. Finding draft gems is not the end all, be all for a team. However, it is a symptom of successful teams.
The Timberwolves are quickly approaching a time where a huge chunk of their cap space will be eaten up by Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and hopefully Zach LaVine. And rightly so, those three have formed a “Big 3” that seems poised to take the league by storm if they can figure out how to play defense. However, the Wolves already have a hard-enough time bringing in free agent talent. When the big contracts hit the books, it will become increasingly harder to bring in quality players. This is where contract and draft value will matter the most.
Think about it this way. Per Spotrac, this past season KAT made $5.9 million in player salary. Next year, KAT will make $6.2 million while the following season he will make $7.8 million. Over the course of the 2016-17 season KAT posted 12.6 win shares, 7th most in the league. This puts him in the same class as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. KAT is currently contributing in a way that is equivalent to a player who makes over $25 million a season. Essentially, the Timberwolves are receiving $25 million worth of production for a fraction of the cost.
What Thibodeau should begin looking for in his draft picks is production. NBA level production. They’re looking for guys who can provide $12-$17 million in on court production for $4-$6 million a year. The rookie scale can be the Wolves best friend if they play their cards right.