The Minnesota Timberwolves are having a terrific season thus far, tied for No. 9 in the Western Conference with a 17-17 record. The team is looking to return to the postseason for the first time since the 2003-04 season but seems to be a piece or two away from making a serious push.
One of those pieces can be guard Gary Neal.
As ESPN.com's Marc Stein reports, "The Milwaukee Bucks are actively looking to move guard Gary Neal, according to sources familiar with Milwaukee's thinking." This is Neal's first season with the Bucks after spending the first three years of his career with the San Antonio Spurs.
The push to trade Neal comes days after an altercation with Bucks center Larry Sanders. After a 116-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns on January 4, Neal reportedly called out Sanders for his poor play. It was in a less than encouraging fashion to boot:
Neal had nine points (3-of-8 shooting) in the game, just barely edging Sanders' seven points and two rebounds for the game. Sanders is obviously expected to do more having signed a four-year, $44 million deal prior to the season, but it didn't make Neal's remark any more acceptable.
As such, the Timberwolves should look to take advantage of the situation. Minnesota currently ranks 20th (tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder) in the NBA in three-point shooting as a team, converting 34.6 percent per game.
That's a reasonably accurate percentage as a team, but it's less impressive when just three players for the Timberwolves are shooting above 35 percent from long range. Kevin Martin and Kevin Love lead the way with 40 percent and 38.8 percent respectively, with J.J. Barea coming in at third with a 36.3 percent conversion rate.
Since Minnesota's outside shooting comes primarily from only three players, acquiring Neal would improve this aspect of the offense. He's shooting just 39.4 percent from the field yet is converting on 41.9 percent from long range.
Neal has made a name for himself as an outside shooter, breaking out in such a role off the Spurs bench. He was a catalyst in San Antonio's battle with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, averaging two made threes per game and a blistering 46.7 percent from three-point range.
In the right role, Neal could replicate such performances. That isn't to say he'll shoot such an accurate percentage for the season, but he's a solid shooter and distributor who would fit in nicely for the Timberwolves.
According to Hoops Stats, Minnesota is tied with the Portland Trail Blazers at No. 29 in bench scoring. The reserves combine for 23.7 points per game, shooting just 38.9 percent and a dismal 30.3 percent from long range.
Neal has started 27 of the 227 games he's played for his career and was a very productive reserve for the Spurs in his time there. His career averages of 9.8 points, 42.9 percent from the field and 40 percent on three pointers are very much indicative of what he could provide for Minnesota.
Per Stein's report:
Sources told ESPN.com that the Bucks will do everything they can to find a new home for Neal before the Feb. 20 trade deadline, conceding that last summer's signing of the former San Antonio sharpshooter hasn't worked out as planned.
Milwaukee will surely look to receive something of value in any deal. The Timberwolves could offer a number of players, but the only two who would closely match Neal's $3.2 million contract for this season are Alexey Shved ($3 million) or Barea ($4.6 million), per hoopshype.com.
Barea has been a solid backup to Ricky Rubio this season, so moving him would seemingly negate acquiring Neal. The primary reasons behind the trade would be to improve the bench and the outside shooting, and losing Barea in the deal would hurt both. Minnesota could include a draft pick, but it's arguable that a future draft pick would be more promising.
It truly comes down to what is more important for the Timberwolves: immediate playoff contention or future prospects.
Minnesota would have to get creative to make salaries match (should the team opt for the first option), but it's a move the team should explore nonetheless. The acquisition of Neal would make the bench much stronger and give the Timberwolves an experienced veteran.
Neal might have just three previous seasons of experience on his resume, but his time with the Spurs and his age (29) are both factors that have accelerated his career arc.
The Timberwolves are on the brink of returning to the playoffs, and Neal can be that extra push to ensure the team reaches its goal.