The Kevin Love era is over for the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the new regime can't be done making moves quite yet.
Flipping the disgruntled power forward for a haul that centered around Andrew Wiggins was only the first step in revamping what's become a rather youthful roster. It can't be the last move, as the Wolves are now committing to a rebuilding process with plenty of promise.
As Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley noted when discussing the topic, Minnesota's head coach and acting president Flip Saunders dealt with his own conflicting interests perfectly. The presidential personality avoided succumbing to the coaching side's win-now idealisms by sacrificing top-notch talent for potential, and now the future looks awfully bright in Minnesota.
Much brighter than what, only a few weeks ago, was a mediocre present.
That said, the future can get brighter. The current mixture of new arrivals and incumbent players isn't going to compete for a playoff berth in the tough Western Conference during the 2014-15 season, and the veterans are only getting older.
The Love trade should set off a chain reaction in Minnesota. It's the first domino in a line of many that should fall.
What's next to tip over?
Who are the Keepers?
All of a sudden, the Timberwolves are brimming with young talent. Rather than boasting a healthy mix of veterans and up-and-coming players who fall short of the playoffs each and every year, Minnesota has moved into more of a rebuilding mode, even if there's enough quality talent to remain at least moderately competitive.
Wiggins is obviously the premier keeper on the roster, as he was the centerpiece in the haul Saunders received for Love's services.
The Kansas product was the No. 1 pick in a potentially star-studded 2014 draft class, and his ceiling is immeasurable. Right off the bat, he should put in work as a wing-stopping defender, a young man who can settle into his defensive stance and make things happen on the less-glamorous end of the court. However, his vaunted athleticism and undeniable upside on offense give him large quantities of untapped potential.
However, Wiggins obviously isn't the only keeper on the roster.
Ricky Rubio hasn't panned out as many expected, but he's still a player worth holding onto and building around. The Minnesota floor general needs to develop a consistent jumper so that defenses can't sag off him and dare him to score, but he's a ball-hawking defender and one of the best distributors in the Association.
To clarify on that first point, Rubio isn't yet a standout defender, but rather a player who gambles excessively and does tend to record plenty of steals. As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale writes, "There's value in Rubio's defensive performance as well. He can take too many chances and is rarely able to catch up with those who beat him off the dribble, but he has quick hands that force steals in volume."
If Minnesota can surround him with quality stoppers, especially some capable of protecting the rim, then his failed gambles won't be as detrimental.
Joining Rubio and Wiggins in the realm of keepers are Shabazz Muhammad (who wasn't given too many chances to thrive under the tutelage of Rick Adelman), Zach LaVine (who may have nearly as much upside as Wiggins, even if he's quite raw), Gorgui Dieng (who broke out late last season), Thaddeus Young (a recent trade acquisition who will serve as a fantastic complementary piece), Glenn Robinson III (another rookie with upside) and Anthony Bennett (last year's No. 1 overall pick).
Everyone else is expendable.
The Possible Deals
On the current roster, there are eight names who weren't mentioned in the previous section—J.J. Barea, Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger, Robbie Hummel, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, Ronny Turiaf and Mo Williams.
Of those, we can immediately scratch off a few players.
Williams just signed with the team, and he's a valuable sixth man who will eventually be just another solid guard off the bench when the young players develop into quality contributors. Turiaf and Hummel don't have much trade value, and Budinger's injury history makes him too risky for any team to pay a reasonable asking price.
Now we're down to just four players.
Barea is coming off a season in which he averaged 8.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, but he also shot just 38.7 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from beyond the arc. According to Basketball-Reference.com, his player efficiency rating was 11.6, the worst mark since his rookie season with the Dallas Mavericks.
Plus, his contract makes things tricky. ShamSports.com shows that he's operating on a $4,519,500 expiring contract, which gives him more trade value but also less worth to Minnesota, as he isn't exactly a part of the future plans.
If there are no takers willing to offer a second-round pick or an intriguing prospect, he could very well be bought out, leaving the Wolves taking a cap hit but opening up more minutes for the incumbent young guns.
Brewer should be slightly easier to deal, as he's a player with two skills that could make a contending team quite happy, enough so that it should be willing to send a draft pick back in return. And considering Minnesota has to open up more playing time for the wings and forwards—Wiggins, Muhammad, Bennett, Young and Robinson—that's a return that should see him depart.
Though this won't be so readily apparent without Love throwing him outlet passes that would make Wes Unseld swoon, Brewer is a devastating transition threat with a nose for the hoop. He's also a solid defender, one who made Minnesota slightly better on that end when he was on the court, per Basketball-Reference.com.
That said, Brewer and Barea are minor trade pieces. The big moves will revolve around Martin and Pekovic.
While the former's contract—he's making roughly $7 million per season over the next two years and has a player option for $7.4 million in 2016-17—significantly decreases his value, he's still a talented shooting guard playing in a league without too many standouts at the position. Martin's perimeter scoring and ability to space out the court are quite valuable and he should easily be able to find a home elsewhere, so long as the Wolves are willing to take pennies on the dollar in order to shed his salary.
As for Pekovic, he's coming off an injury-plagued season in which he averaged 17.5 points and 8.7 rebounds while shooting 54.1 percent from the field. A tough, physical bruiser, he undoubtedly has value at the center position as a consistently efficient big man who can provide value in plenty of areas.
Even during his introductory press conference, Young had to compliment Pekovic's strength:
If he were a great rim-protector or a player capable of carrying the offensive load, he'd be all the more valuable, but Pekovic is what he is at this point. And that's a player capable of bringing back a solid haul once he's placed on the trade block.
Now it's possible that all of these players end up leaving Minnesota before the 2014-15 trade deadline is upon us. It's not inconceivable that Martin's contract could be sent elsewhere early in the proceedings, Barea could be bought out and Brewer and Pekovic could be packaged together for a return filled with youth and upside.
But if only one move is to be made, which is most likely?
The One Move
It's either trading Martin or dealing Pekovic.
While moving Brewer and Barea is certainly possible, neither player would shift the needle as much as the two aforementioned standouts, as both can be crucial pieces on championship-contending teams.
For two reasons, the answer has to revolve around the 6'11" center from Montenegro.
First, he's the better, more valuable player. While Martin plays at a position with a dearth of elite talent, it's not as though center is bubbling over with traditional bigs who can single-handedly change the outcome of a game. There are plenty of promising athletic phenoms and undersized stretchy players at the 5, but the bruisers who can produce like Pekovic are few and far between.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, there were only seven players in the NBA who averaged at least 17 points and eight rebounds last season while shooting above 50 percent from the field: Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Al Horford, Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson, David Lee and Pekovic.
That's a pretty stellar group of big men, one filled with All-Stars, fringe All-Stars, should-have-been All-Stars and would-have-been-if-they'd-stayed-healthy All-Stars.
Does that mean he should be in one of those categories? Probably not, as his defensive shortcomings and injuries do hold him back rather significantly. But there's still no doubt he's a valuable player, one worth the $12 million he makes during the average year.
As for the second reason, it's important to look at the strength of the players behind Martin and Pekovic.
Both are blocking young prospects from gaining valuable time on the court, but Pekovic is more necessary to move. Players like Wiggins and LaVine might naturally play shooting guard, but at least they can capably line up at other positions alongside Martin.
Dieng, however, should not be playing anything other than center.
As shown by both Basketball-Reference.com and 82games.com—which don't always agree on positions, mind you—Dieng played all 818 minutes of his rookie season at the 5. And remember how much he thrived when injuries finally gave him a chance to spend extended periods of time out on the court?
During the last 18 games of the season—15 of which he started—Dieng averaged 12.0 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 52.8 percent from the field. He wasn't the scorer Pekovic was when healthy, but his rim-protection skills, versatility and slightly better passing may actually have made him the more valuable player.
He's not a power forward, and his development will only be blocked by the highly paid big man in front of him on the depth chart.
So long as the Wolves can get back a young piece or two by dealing Pekovic, he's the man to move. He opens up more for the incumbents, he'd free up more cap room than Martin would if Minnesota can bring back some expiring contracts and the talent level of the return would likely be greater.
Even in the post-Love era, Saunders has plenty of options at his disposal. Dealing the Montenegrin big man is just the route he should pursue most strongly.
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