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Minnesota Timberwolves' Top Offseason Priorities and Potential Targets

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 26, 2018

Philadelphia 76ers forward Dario Saric (9), of Croatia, guards Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)
Hannah Foslien/Associated Press

The Minnesota Timberwolves waited 14 agonizingly long years to make their NBA playoff return.

They wound up with less than a two-week sample of postseason hoops.

Thanks to some miserable regular-season losses—often the result of their 22nd-ranked defense—they drew the Association's top overall seed, the 65-win Houston Rockets, as their first-round opponent. Minnesota looked like it had moved up a weight class without adding the necessary bulk and was bounced by four losses—three by a combined 57 points—in a swift five-game series.

Still, the Timberwolves showed significant promise this season. Their 47 victories—the most of their post-Kevin Garnett era—included triumphs over the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. Minnesota won five straight games three different times, something it hadn't done once in any of the previous eight seasons.   

The additions of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson—all of whom are signed at least through next season—helped establish a foundation to build around. Virtually all of Minnesota's key contributors remain under contract, and most are either in their primes or still ascending toward them.

Unfortunately, there are clear flaws with this rosterdefense and depth chief among themand limited ways to correct them.

Still, it's easier to make finishing touches than it is to assemble something out of nothing. In that regard, the Timberwolves are well ahead of the curve and perhaps sit a productive offseason away from another leap forward.

              

Setting the Stage

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Even if Minnesota didn't fleece the Chicago Bulls in the Butler deal as much as originally thought, the acquisition of Tom Thibodeau's prized pupil was a resounding success. The four-time All-Star not only legitimized the Timberwolves' rebuild, he also emerged as their top two-way player and eased the burden on Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins (perhaps to the latter's chagrin).

The Wolves have a win-now nucleus, largely out of necessity. They already have at least $110.2 million in guaranteed salary on next season's payroll, and that's without accounting for Jamal Crawford ($4.5 million player option), Nemanja Bjelica (restricted free agent) and Derrick Rose (unrestricted free agent). That doesn't leave much room before the luxury tax, so it might take a tightrope walk to find an impact addition in free agency.

The draft, though, offers a few outlets to possible rotation additions.

While Minnesota's own first-rounder is headed to the Atlanta Hawks, the Wolves will get the Oklahoma City Thunder's selection (20th overall). Minnesota also has its second-round pick (48th).

Barring a trade, this doesn't project to be a splashy summer for the Timberwolves, but it should be a helpful one nevertheless.

           

Priority No. 1: Extending Karl-Anthony Towns

Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

Handing Towns a max offer sheet will be one of the easiest decisions made across the league this summer.

Sure, he has his issues defensively. He ranked 63rd among 83 centers in ESPN.com's defensive real plus-minus, and he allowed one of the highest shooting percentages at the rim among high-volume interior defenders (64.1).

But even with those warts, he graded out third among centers and 16th overall in ESPN.com's real plus-minus. He fared even better in win shares (tied for second), player efficiency rating (10th) and box plus/minus (tied for 12th).

In other words, there's a safety net in the investment. Should Towns never blossom as a top-tier defender, he's still providing max-money levels of scoring (20th), rebounding (fourth) and three-point shooting (he was one of four centers this season to average at least one triple while shooting 40 percent from deep).

And if he does develop as a stopper? The Timberwolves could have a top-five player and the centerpiece of a contender down the line.

He needs plenty of work to get there, but he is by no means a lost cause on defense. In fact, his predraft scouting reports billed him as both a rim protector and an agile perimeter defender.

"Defensively is where Towns separates himself as a prospect," Jonathan Givony wrote for DraftExpress in 2015. "... He has the size and strength to defend centers effectively, but also the length and mobility to contain most 4s, giving him terrific positional versatility."

                      

Priority No. 2: Re-Signing or Replacing Nemanja Bjelica

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 23: Nemanja Bjelica #8 of the Minnesota Timberwolves dribbles down the court in the first quarter against the New York Knicks during their game at Madison Square Garden on March 23, 2018 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Abbie Parr/Getty Images

It's reasonable—if optimistic—to think Towns and Wiggins have the physical tools and upsides to correct Minnesota's biggest defensive problems. Internal hopes are far dimmer for the shooting and second-team scoring woes.

Bjelica was one of the team's few reliable options on both fronts.

The 29-year-old posted personal bests in minutes (20.5), points (6.8) and threes (1.1) while bettering his previous accuracy rates from the perimeter (41.5) and at the stripe (80.0). When he received 30-plus minutes, he provided 12.8 points on 49.4 percent shooting (45.9 from deep) and 2.1 triples per game.

Consider the emergence well-timed, since restricted free agency awaits. Players with his size, stroke and versatility have never generated more interest, and Bjelica's breakthrough has registered interest outside the Gopher State.

"Scouts from two teams that will have money to spend this summer asked questions about Bjelica's background, attitude and talent while attending recent Wolves' games," the Star Tribune's Jerry Zgoda reported.

Minnesota has the option to match any offer sheet Bjelica receives. But if a rival team offers him a deal that would push the Timberwolves up against or into the luxury tax, is this franchise ready to foot the bill?

If not, it needs a contingency plan in place. Most anyone with size and a jump shot would have some appeal; the trick is finding that type of player in the clearance section.

          

Draft Targets

PHILADELPHIA PA- FEBRUARY 01:  Khyri Thomas #2 of the Creighton Bluejays is introduced before a college basketball game against the Villanova Wildcats at the Wells Fargo Arena on February 1, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The Wildcats won 98-78.  (P
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

While the Timberwolves could conceivably target any position with their two upcoming draft picks, point guard and center seem like the lowest priorities. They're at least two-deep at each spot and will stay that way through next season, barring any trades.

The draft board has a decent chance of breaking Minnesota's way. The most recent big board from Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman has point guards and centers accounting for nine of the 14 lottery picks, so the Wolves should be looking at some of this crop's better wings and forwards.

Considering the club's coach and defensive struggles this season, players like Zhaire Smith (Texas Tech) and Khyri Thomas (Creighton) would be logical targets.

While both players do their best work on defense, they're different types of prospects. Thomas seems like more of a safer, lower-ceiling option, as he'll turn 22 before the draft. What you lose in upside, though, you gain in instant impact. He's a plug-and-play defender (two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year) and a steady outside shooter (40.6 percent over three seasons).

Smith is more of a wild card. He forced his way onto the draft radar with effortless athleticism and active defense (1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes). He needs to add muscle and develop his offensive skills, but a forward-thinking selection like that might yield major dividends down the line.

"Still 18 years old, Smith is raw and needs time before the Wolves can rely on him for scoring production," Wasserman wrote earlier this month. "But in a limited role playing to his strengths, he has the chance to add value just off his athleticism and effort alone."

Keita Bates-Diop (Ohio State), Jacob Evans (Cincinnati) and Chandler Hutchison (Boise State) should also be in consideration at No. 20. As for the second-round flier at No. 48, Malik Newman (Kansas), P.J. Washington (Kentucky), Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Kansas) and Rawle Alkins (Arizona) all look like reasonable targets.

                              

Free-Agency and Trade Targets

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 6:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs handles the ball against Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during a game on December 6, 2016 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User express
David Sherman/Getty Images

The Timberwolves might laugh off the notion of a trade. Their most important players are all on the right side of 30, with Towns and Wiggins perhaps being years away from approaching their ceilings.

But if Minnesota kicks the tires on this option, it would almost certainly be eyeing a blockbuster exchange. Butler and Towns are clearly going nowhere, but is there a chance Wiggins could be had? If he's truly interested in escaping from his third-wheel role, as KSTP's Darren Wolfson reported in mid-March (via 1500 ESPN's Derek James), it may be worth taking the league's temperature on the former No. 1 pick.

It'd take something massive for the Timberwolves to pull the trigger. Wiggins isn't a perfect player by any means, but he's averaged 20.7 points over the last three seasons and won't turn 24 until February 2019. He should be a better defender, but he possesses the raw talent to develop into that one day.

How high should Minnesota aim? Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal laid out a potential Wiggins-for-Kawhi Leonard swap, where the Timberwolves would package Tyus Jones, Justin Patton and their 2018 first-rounder with Wiggins. Who knows if that's enough for the San Antonio Spurs to bite, but that's the caliber of what the Timberwolves should chase.

If players of that ilk are unobtainable—other teams can cobble together better potential packages for Leonard if so desired—then Minnesota must shop on a budget.

"The odds are that the Timberwolves will have only the $8.6 million full mid-level exceptionor part of it based on the taxand a $3.4 million biannual exception to work with ahead of the 2018-19 season," ESPN.com's Nick Friedell wrote in January.

Keeping Bjelica is an option, but it isn't the only one.

Ersan Ilyasova, Luke Babbitt and former Timberwolf Anthony Tolliver offer similar size and spacing. Luc Mbah a Moute, Dante Cunningham, Jerami Grant and Kevon Looney would increase the frontcourt's defensive versatility.

On the wing, Patrick McCaw (restricted), David Nwaba (restricted) and Thabo Sefolosha (non-guaranteed) can defend multiple positions. Wayne Ellington, Joe Harris, Tyreke Evans, Marco Belinelli and Mario Hezonja would check boxes for reserve scoring and perimeter shooting.

None of those players would be a splashy signing. But Minnesota has made enough major moves in recent seasons to think an unheralded-but-productive summer could help this franchise take its next step.

                

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via Basketball Insiders.

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