Could Timberwolves' Decision Not to Tank Cost Them Karl-Anthony Towns?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterApril 30, 2021

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

What are you doing, Minnesota Timberwolves? Stop winning.

The Houston Rockets (15-47) get it. So do the Orlando Magic (19-43), Detroit Pistons (19-43), Oklahoma City Thunder (21-41) and Cleveland Cavaliers (21-41). Meanwhile, the Timberwolves (19-44) have won three straight games after beating the league-leading Utah Jazz (45-17) and Rockets on back-to-back nights.

Minnesota head coach Chris Finch isn't leading his team into any intentional losses, but the franchise's fate may hinge on the upcoming draft lottery. If the Timberwolves drop out of the top three, they won't have a first-rounder in the 2021 NBA draft.

How long will Karl-Anthony Towns stay patient with the perpetually underperforming Timberwolves? Is he going to follow in Kevin Garnett's footsteps, who advanced out of the first round of the playoffs only once during his first 12 years with the team?

     

"'KAT Wanting To Be Elsewhere' Chatter"

Thomas Shea/Associated Press
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Half of the league is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Will Towns force his way out of Minnesota this offseason?

Several league sources have indicated their teams are looking closely at the Timberwolves' future. One noted: "The 'KAT wanting to be elsewhere' chatter increased drastically over the year."

Towns has a single playoff win on his resume (a game, not a series) in his six NBA seasons. The team is for sale and in exclusive negotiations with Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore, per Shams Charania of The Athletic. 

If Rodriguez and Lore take over in two years, Towns will be near the end of his contract. Can president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas and current team governor Glen Taylor fix the roster quickly? Wasn't that the intent of the D'Angelo Russell trade?

The Wolves acquired a young All-Star guard to pair with their All-Star big, gambling a potential lottery pick that it would work quickly. It hasn't.

"They're just not good enough," an Eastern Conference executive said. "They are talented, but they're not on par with the best duos in the league like LeBron [James] and [Anthony Davis] or even Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray [when healthy]."

The team has minimal flexibility with limited draft capital and a payroll close to the luxury tax for the 2021-22 season. Is Towns going to wait quietly until he's near the end of his contract when the new potentially ownership group takes over?

What happens if he pulls a James Harden and requests a trade?  

The Rockets could have refused to trade away their best player, but they quickly discovered how difficult a dissatisfied star can be on a team. That's a lesson the New Orleans Pelicans learned with Davis during the 2018-19 season before they ultimately traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Would a top prospect in the draft move the needle for Towns? Even the best recent prospects like Anthony Edwards, Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic and Towns himself have needed time to develop into playoff-ready alphas. 

If the Timberwolves lose their first-rounder to the Warriors, their path back to playoff contention becomes even more daunting. Without any cap room, they aren't likely to make a massive jump via a player signed with the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (roughly $9.5 million in the first season). Can they get appreciably better by trading away other players such as Malik Beasley or Ricky Rubio?

Trading Towns would be a drastic step, but say the Warriors were willing to send the No. 4 or 5 pick back to the Timberwolves along with James Wiseman, last year's No. 2 pick? Would that be enough of a starting point, provided Andrew Wiggins was rerouted to a third team for salary-matching purposes?

The New York Knicks will have substantial cap room this offseason, two first-rounders projected to be in the 20s (one from the Dallas Mavericks) and several young prospects like Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox to offer Minnesota. They could also dangle additional picks and/or a high-upside young player like RJ Barrett and/or Immanuel Quickley in return for Towns.

Would the Boston Celtics offer a more polished player like Jaylen Brown?

Trading Towns wouldn't be ideal, but if the Timberwolves remain in limbo for the next few years, the two-time All-Star may not be willing to stick around that long.

     

The Lottery Pick

Thomas Shea/Associated Press

The Timberwolves held the worst record in the league for most of the year, but they've become more competitive recently after Russell returned from a knee injury.

If they hold onto their top-three pick this year, they will send their completely unprotected 2022 first-rounder to the Warriors instead.

So, what's at stake in the draft itself? The buzz among several polled league sources: Five players stand well above what is a solid overall class. The lottery winners will be adding high-level talent.

Cade Cunningham: Of the prospects, the 19-year-old point forward has elite upside. He's the early favorite to go first in the draft, after averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game at Oklahoma State. He has a capable outside shot (40 percent from three) and NBA size at 6'8".

"He's not a ball-handling guard per se, but he will play as the playmaker down the stretch," one executive said. "I see some Tatum, some Luka [Doncic]."

"Cunningham is a future All-Star. Dude is so good," a former Western Conference executive said.

Jalen Green: Green skipped college to join the NBA G League Ignite, where he averaged 17.9 points per game. At 6'5", he's more of a prototypical shooting guard with tremendous athleticism.

"I think of Zach LaVine or Jaylen Brown for comps," the current executive said.

Unfortunately, the Ignite fell in the first round of the single-elimination playoffs to the Raptors 905. Green was electric with 30 points, seven assists, five rebounds and three steals in the losing effort.

The Timberwolves may be set at that position with Edwards, Beasley and Russell, but Green is an exciting talent.

Evan Mobley: The USC 7-footer may be the best two-way player in the lottery. He projects to be an impact defender at either center or power forward. While he averaged a steady 16.4 points per game as a freshman, he was more of a traditional big-man scorer. He shot 61.5 percent on two-point field-goal attempts but only 30 percent from deep.

"He's a Chris Bosh/Anthony Davis/[Bam] Adebayo type," the current executive said. "I think Cunningham, Mobley and Green all have All-Star/superstar upside."

Mobley could complement Towns defensively if the Timberwolves are open to a bigger lineup. In the more extreme case, Mobley could replace Towns as their starting center.

Jalen Suggs: A tremendous NCAA tournament may have boosted his stock, but Suggs was already highly regarded. The 6'4" point guard's clutch three-point heave over the UCLA Bruins was spectacular, but scouts were impressed by his block moments earlier against center Cody Riley.

Was it enough to boost him to the top of the lottery?

"I think Suggs is a half-step below the top three [in the draft]. He needs to shoot it better," the current executive said. "He's a winner with a knack for big plays."

"He's a primary guard who can play off the ball," the former executive said. "He's better as a creator and playmaker."

It's worth noting that Suggs is a local kid from St. Paul. If he's the next Jrue Holiday, the Timberwolves might want to make room in an already crowded backcourt.

Jonathan Kuminga: Still only 18 years old, Kuminga spent the year in the G League with the Ignite, where he averaged 15.8 points and 7.2 rebounds a game but shot only 38.7 percent from the field and 24.6 percent from three-point range. He may develop into a Pascal Siakam-type contributor but may take a little longer than the other top prospects.

"He reminds me of Jeremi Grant or Rudy Gay," the current executive said. "He didn't have a great year."

If Cunningham is the clear No. 1, the Timberwolves might have difficult deliberations picking second or third. At 6'7", Kuminga may fit what the team needs most at forward, but he might not be the best player available over Green, Mobley or Suggs.

     

Why It (Tanking) Matters

Minnesota is in a tough spot even if it finishes with a bottom-three record. The worst three teams have only a 40.1 percent chance of landing a top-three pick. That gives the Warriors 59.9 percent odds at a pick as high as No. 4, depending on where the Timberwolves finish in the standings.

The Rockets have a similar issue, which is why their commitment to tanking should be recognized. The Thunder have the right to swap out the 2021 Heat first (acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in the Paul George trade) with Houston's first. By plummeting to the bottom in the standings, the Rockets have given themselves the best chance of triggering their top-four protection on that swap, even if the odds are only 52.1 percent in their favor.

Meanwhile, the Timberwolves are now only a half-game "behind" the Magic and Pistons. If they climb to 27th place, their odds for a top-three pick drop to only 36.6 percent, and the Cavaliers and Thunder are lurking. If the Timberwolves keep winning, the odds could drop as low as 27.6.

The league is trying to eradicate tanking. The play-in tournament may have more teams competing for a playoff spot, even if they finish 10th in their conference. But at the bottom of the standings, teams still have the incentive to be as awful as possible.

At worst, the Pistons, Magic, Thunder and Cavaliers will still pick in the top 10. For Minnesota and Houston, the stakes are more extreme, but only the Rockets seem to have a better understanding of the moment.

For the betterment of its long-term future, Minnesota needs to stop winning.

    

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.