What’s Next for the Timberwolves

So you traded for Jimmy Butler: Now what?

By: Drew King (@drewking0222)

The earthquake that was the Jimmy Butler trade sent ripples through the league, and the aftershocks of the transaction will soon follow.

In exchange for Butler and the No. 16 pick in the draft (Justin Patton), the Minnesota Timberwolves shipped Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick (Lauri Markkanen) to the Chicago Bulls.

Minnesota has been lauded in league circles for obtaining a bonafide top-15 player at such a steep discount (not to mention, extracting a mid-first rounder as well), especially considering Chicago walked away from a better proposal back in February when the Boston Celtics reportedly refused to put Jae Crowder on the table.

Butler will undoubtedly make the Timberwolves a playoff contender, but the trickier question remains: how else can they get better?

 

The spending situation

The Timberwolves have actually caught a lot of breaks this offseason salary cap-wise. In the past week, Minnesota waived oft-injured big man Nikola Pekovic and seldom-used Jordan Hill, clearing a combined $15.6 million in cap space.

They can open up another $4 million by letting Shabazz Muhammad go in free agency, which would put them right at $20 million to spend on free agents (about $5 million short from being able to offer a max deal).

Aside from that, the only other cap-clearing moves would come via a trade in which Minnesota would take little-to-no salary back.

Incumbent starting point guard Ricky Rubio is the candidate most likely to be moved. ESPN’s Marc Stein reported Minnesota remains “intent” on dealing him, despite Dunn’s departure. Rubio would be a welcomed addition for a team in search of a starting point guard that can’t necessarily afford the price tags of those on the free agent market (the Utah Jazz, for instance).

Though keeping him wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, getting Rubio’s $14 million cap hit off the books could be a major boost for the Timberwolves’ offseason plans.

 

What do they need?

Butler’s arrival eases many problems for Minnesota, but it also poses a few new ones, mainly concerning his fit with Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins struggled last season as the Timberwolves’ primary perimeter defender. Despite being a world-class athlete boasting a 6’8” frame, he averaged just one steal, 0.4 blocks and four rebounds per game (for reference, Ricky Rubio averaged 4.1 rebounds). On the other end of the court, Wiggins was a bit of a ball hog with a usage rating of 28.8 percent (23rd in the league) and only 2.3 assists per game to show for it.

Joining forces with Butler should absolve many of these issues. Butler’s shutdown abilities will allow Wiggins to draw easier matchups, switching onto lesser wings and using his size and athleticism to bully them. Butler is also a plus rebounder for his size, averaging 6.2 boards (third among shooting guards). On offense, Butler will be a much better playmaker, dropping 5.5 dimes per game and posting a tidy 2.62 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Sharing the rock will be the Timberwolves’ biggest issue. Butler also had a fairly high usage rating (26.5 percent), as did Karl-Anthony Towns (27.4 percent). Something’s got to give, and becoming a third wheel can often lead to stress that leaks out off the court.

Aside from that, Minnesota needs shooting, EVERYWHERE. Wiggins and Butler require space to drive as does Towns to post up. The trio could opt to shoot more threes as a whole, though their middle-of-the-pack percentages (.356, .367 and .367, respectively) show that may not be ideal.

If they move on from Rubio, finding a replacement should be the top priority. A point guard who can play off the ball, facilitate and hit triples would be perfect.

Gorgui Dieng is a solid contributor, yet he may be better suited as a second-unit center rather than Towns’ partner in the paint. Finding a catch-and-shoot combo forward would be a better fit alongside the Timberwolves’ three-headed monster.

There are multiple options on the market to fill both positions, but finding a way to squeeze them under the cap will be challenging.

 

Who’s available?

Rubio wouldn’t be a terrible option. He’s an above-average starting point guard who checks two of the three boxes Minnesota is looking for. However, there are more intriguing fits available.

George Hill is coming off a career season in which he shot .477 from three. Jrue Holiday actually managed to stay healthy for a majority of the year, spending 12 of his 15 missed games tending to his wife. Both would excel as a setup man who spots up along the perimeter for the Timberwolves.

Another name rumored to be on the trade block is Patrick Beverley. The Houston Rockets have been shopping him, as well as a few others, for the same reasons Minnesota is shopping Rubio. Beverley’s scrappy, physical defense and proven capability to defer ball handling duties would go lock-and-key with the Timberwolves.

If they aren’t able to bring in a point who fills their needs, Minnesota should resist from overspending on someone who doesn’t. It’s at that point that they should try their hand at stretch forwards.

Paul Millsap could push this team over the top; his inside-out game would coincide well alongside Towns. Millsap is 32 years old, though. A max deal would mean paying him upwards of $25 million until he’s 37. If Millsap’s play declines, the team would be out of options and strapped for cash, especially considering the upcoming extensions of Wiggins and Towns.

A cheaper, less risky option could be Danilo Gallinari. He’s the knockdown shooter the Timberwolves need and isn’t a total wash defensively, unlike many others at his position. It’s unclear how loyal he’ll be to the Denver Nuggets, and vice versa. But if he’s in search of a new home, Minnesota would be a great match.

 

So, what will they do?

Expect Rubio to be moved, and soon. Utah has $16 million in cap space that expires July 1. I’ll be surprised if the Timberwolves miss that window.

Rest assured, Tyus Jones will not be Minnesota’s starter heading into the season. They’ll chase hard after Hill and Holiday and do their research on Beverley.

If they get their “guy,” it’s tough to see how they’ll be able to get another free agent of Gallinari’s caliber. They’ll likely elect to sign depth pieces and roll with Dieng at the four.

Fortunately, with Butler under contract for at least the next two seasons, the Timberwolves have the rare luxury of being patient in their approach.

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