By: Jonah Sprinkel
There were 75 days between the end of the regular season and the NBA Awards Show. The 2017-18 NBA season is officially (and mercifully) over. Free agency, also known as the most wonderful time of the year, can finally begin.
President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden have spoken recently about not only wanting to re-sign key players in Nemanja Bjelica and Derrick Rose, but also about adding talent through free agency. While the former is important for the team to maintain it’s current level of success, the latter is what will determine the ceiling of this team.
The 2018-19 NBA cap is set at $101 million and the luxury tax threshold is set at $123 million. The Minnesota Timberwolves, without signing anyone, have just over $113 million committed to players on the roster. This is where the first of two issues lie. Between the already limited amount of money, and Glenn Taylor’s fondness for not spending money, the Timberwolves will be hard-pressed to sign anyone of lasting impact provided they retain Rose and Bjelica.
However, cap space is an issue that can be solved through trade. The Wolves could potentially move Gorgui Dieng’s $15 million, though they would have to give up some kind of asset in order to do so. The team could also trade Andrew Wiggins and his $25 million contract. Either one of these options immediately opens to the door to adding a high-quality rotation player or possibly a starter, if Wiggins is the one who gets moved.
The other issue could be the Timberwolves current President of Basketball Operations, Tom Thibodeau.
Everyone on this flat earth is aware of Coach Thibodeau’s starters logging too many minutes by modern NBA standards. This coaching habit might lend itself to the idea that free agents, specifically rotational players, are less likely to sign with the Wolves because they won’t receive what they consider to be fair playing time.
There may be a sliver of truth to this idea.
In 2010, Thibodeau’s first year as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, the Bulls signed Kyle Korver to a three-year, $15 million deal. Korver would go on to play 147 games (seven starts) in two seasons before being traded to the Atlanta Hawks.
Four years passed before the Bulls made another meaningful free agent signing with the addition of Pau Gasol to the tune of three years, $22.3 million. Gasol played in and started 150 games for the Bulls before leaving in free agency.
The lack of significant signings might indicate a lack of interest from free agents, but there are a couple facts that push back against this idea.
As coach in Chicago, Thibodeau did not have final say in who the team pursued and signed. In fact, the lack of power is one of the reasons why Thibodeau left Chicago. The Bulls also drafted very well during that era so the need for free agents wasn’t incredibly high.
On top of this, the Bulls were extremely close to signing Carmelo Anthony in free agency and Tom Thibodeau was a big reason why Anthony considered joining the Bulls.
The Bulls, [Anthony] thinks, are a "perfect fit" for a few reasons. Among them: Chicago seems to be one scorer away from contending for a title, and Anthony believes he can fill that void. He also likes the team's culture and its no-nonsense approach to winning, spearheaded by head coach Tom Thibodeau.” (Friedell and Bagley, 2016)
Moving past the Thibodeau-era Bulls, we arrive at Thibodeau’s time here in Minnesota.
The first offseason in 2016 did not prove very fruitful on the free agent front. Cole Aldrich at three years, $21.9 million, was the “largest” signing the Wolves made that summer. Aldrich has played incredibly sparingly though he has somehow appeared in 83 games.
Last year’s offseason was exactly the opposite. The Wolves signed Taj Gibson, who started all 82 games, to a two-year, $28 million deal. They signed Jeff Teague, 70 starts in 70 games, to a three-year, $57 million deal. Finally, they signed Jamal Crawford, 80 games off the bench, to two years at $8.9 million. Crawford has opted out of his second year and will not return to the Wolves.
To sum this up, Thibodeau was involved in five key free agent acquisitions. Two of those were role players who did not finish out their contracts with the team they signed to. The other three were starters who played large minutes for their respective squad.
This track record suggests Thibodeau has the clout to attract starting caliber players due to his success. However, the lack of role player signings is a concerning trend. Role players not producing or not being given the chance to contribute is also a concerning trend. The Wolves need to sign these quality role players this offseason if they want to move up the ranks in what looks to be a ruthless Western Conference.
Given all of this, I would temper any expectations you might have for the Wolves doing anything of significance during this free agency period. Of course, this is subject to change. The Wolves might be able to find a taker for Dieng or an agreeable deal for Wiggins. But between the issue of cap space and Thibodeau’s free agency history, it seems very unlikely that the Wolves will be able to bolster their roster this summer.