MINNEAPOLIS – In January, Minnesota clamored for a trade, and president of basketball operations David Kahn said no.
The team was falling out of the playoff race, clinging to its grasp on the eighth spot in the West, and Kahn warned that substantial trades don’t happen until closer to the Feb. 21 deadline, even if the Timberwolves were to pursue one. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to, he inferred, but that no one else did.
Here we are now, Feb. 19, two days out from said deadline, and oh, how things have changed. (Not that you couldn’t kind of see it coming.) The eighth seed in the West, Houston, is 7.5 games better than 19-31 Minnesota, and with just 32 games remaining, reality is beginning to sink in. The Timberwolves are probably not making the playoffs, through so few faults of their own apart from the tendency for bones to snap and muscles to bruise and strain. So when it comes to that deadline, now, the one Kahn and company so eagerly awaited a month ago – well, things have changed, to say the least.
There aren’t too many names floated in the Timberwolves rumor mill these days. Guard Luke Ridnour, sometimes, and future first-round picks, but that’s about it. Ridnour is a small piece who, if dealt, would bring in yet another small piece, a competent guard or something of the like. Ridnour makes $4 million this season, hardly enough to bring back the major boost the team allowed itself to contemplate earlier in the year. Future first-round picks coupled with a player or two could get them something but still not a star, most likely. And therein lies the issue: The Timberwolves aren’t getting their big-name trade piece, not this February, and for a good reason. In effect, they’ve likely injured themselves out of the proposition.
The one major trade that did take place in advance of the February deadline was the Jan. 30 deal that sent Rudy Gay from Memphis to Toronto, which was symptomatic of the new prevailing theme at the business end of the NBA: Avoid the luxury tax at all costs. The new collective bargaining agreement, put into place before the 2011-12 season, agreed upon greater luxury tax charges and penalties beginning in Year 3 – in other words, beginning next season. Teams are starting to reshuffle, to break up, in a sense, as the penalties were designed to make them do. When the new financial reality kicks in, there will still be certain teams that don’t care – the Nets and Lakers, for example – but the majority will be on somewhat more equal footing.
Right now, there are 18 teams in the league that do not pay even one of their players $16 million or more. The Timberwolves are among that group; Kevin Love’s contract does not pay him upwards that figure until his player option year, 2015-16, and again, that’s a player option, which means he could be out the door if he so chooses. Beyond that large majority, there are then eight teams with one player making at least $16 million and another four that have multiple $16 million or more men. Obviously, there is a divide in the NBA between the haves and have-nots, and the Timberwolves, in that latter group, are the kind of team that must give up many to receive much.
Take, for example, a deal for Lakers big man Pau Gasol, an idea that’s been batted around since last season. Ignore for a second the torn plantar fascia that will keep him out at least into March and pretend that’s a trade the Timberwolves would want to explore. Gasol makes $19 million this season, which is more than Love and Ricky Rubio combined, more, in fact, than Love and any other Timberwolf combined save Andrei Kirilenko. In order to acquire a player of that ilk (and price tag), a Gasol, a Dwight Howard, a Josh Smith, even a Ben Gordon – all these players’ names have been floated as on the market – the Timberwolves would have to give up multiple pieces, even if they involved another team in the deal.
Unlike a Dallas or a Houston, Minnesota doesn’t have a slew of cheap, young and replaceable assets; the team is injured to the point that its assets, some cheap, are either undesirable, injured or necessary going forward. Think of it like this: they’re not trading Love or Kirilenko, and other than those two, no healthy player makes more than center Nikola Pekovic’s $4.8 million salary. (Shooting guard Brandon Roy’s $5.1 million contract could be thrown in, but only to a desperate team, and the Timberwolves may be more apt to want to engineer a buyout.) That means, then, that it would take three or more players to bring back one bigger piece, and the Timberwolves are hardly equipped to shoulder that burden. A smaller deal could more easily be swung, but to do something big is going to take a lot.
Just look at the roster. There are two players, Malcolm Lee and Roy, who won’t appear in another game this season, most likely. That’s 13. Then there are Love and Chase Budinger, unlikely to return until mid to late March. That’s 11. Then consider that two players, Mickael Gelabale and Chris Johnson, were just signed for the year after two 10-day contracts apiece and are hardly bona fide NBA talent. That’s nine, then. Nine players on the roster right now who were part of the team’s plans going into the season, and to lose three for one at this point would be untenable. It’s not as if the Timberwolves could just bring in some scrubs to fill the two spots they’d lose. They already have recent signees suiting up and playing.
So that is how the Timberwolves have injured themselves into something close to trade deadline oblivion and how the salary disparities around the league have compounded their plight. It’s not fair, maybe, but neither is anything about this season in Minnesota, and really, why would the team sacrifice so much to essentially rent a player for a few months or a year when the playoffs don’t seem like a realistic possibility? Right now, the Timberwolves should focus, yet again, on building for the future, not sacrificing for the near-term. The pieces were there to begin the season, and with a little work – getting Kirilenko to sign his player option, re-signing Budinger – they’ll be back again next year along with a healthy Love.
The superstars will be out there, and there will always be time to swing a deal starting in July all the way until next year’s deadline, when needs and competition are better known and the luxury tax house of cards has fallen even further. It’s not like there’s some perfect player lurking out there right now whom the Timberwolves could trade for and lock up for the future, and that would be really the only reason to move in a big way. Deal a package centered on a few future picks to get something – fine. But to sacrifice much more than that would be to ignore that the team has yet to play as designed, and when its most reasonable post-All-Star goal is to end the season on a positive note, there’s no need to take risks while doing so.
Financial and health-related realities have dictated the Timberwolves’ moves, or tied their hands – whichever way you choose to look at it. But if you can get beyond what could have been, doing little or even nothing might be for the best. It sounds a bit defeatist, but that’s the reality.
Or maybe it’s better not to make big changes when you have so little clue as to which changes will be for the best.