simmons

mail@pastecode.io avatar
unknown
plain_text
2 years ago
16 kB
7
Indexable
Never
Power forwards were crisscrossing the NBA last week, from the Midwest out to the Pacific Northwest and back again. There was one thing the players exchanged in a three-way deal between the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers and Chicago Bulls all had in common besides their position: All three were connected at one time or another to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Derrick Jones Jr., a player the Wolves nearly landed in free agency before last season, went from Portland to Chicago. Larry Nance Jr., who the Wolves inquired about during the 2020 draft, went from Cleveland to Portland, and Lauri Markkanen, a player the Wolves had cursory discussions about targeting this summer, moved from the Bulls to the Cavaliers, who signed him to a four-year, $67 million contract as part of the sign-and-trade.

The Timberwolves, meanwhile, watched it all happen from the sideline despite not having a prototypical power forward on their roster. That they did not get involved likely says something about the prices each team paid in that three-team trade. But it can’t just be that, can it? Gersson Rosas has made it known he wants to be aggressive in the trade market to upgrade a team that is entering a crucial season. Could it be that there is still a bigger target out there? Perhaps one so big, one that would theoretically fit so well with the core players on the Timberwolves, that Rosas dares not spend any of his limited assets on a lesser player in case he needs them for a deal that could really make an impact?

As the Ben Simmons situation simmers in Philadelphia, the Timberwolves are watching and, just maybe, waiting for it to boil over. This afternoon, a report emerged that perhaps it has.

When a player of Simmons’ caliber becomes available, as those around the league believe Simmons is right now, it can swing a team’s fortunes much more significantly than your garden-variety starter. The Timberwolves may not have what it takes to pry Simmons out of Philly. But as long as there remains a sliver of hope, it could outweigh what marginal improvement they could have expected by acquiring one of the three players moved last week, or any other number of veteran power forwards.

With all of the excitement that has transpired, and the Wolves’ lack of involvement in most of it, now is a good time to look at where the team’s power forward situation stands, why they didn’t get in on the musical chairs last week and the landscape around Simmons.

Who is the 4 right now?
As the roster is currently constructed, power forward is the thinnest — literally and figuratively — position in Minnesota. Rosas traded Juancho Hernangomez, signed just last summer to give them big minutes at the 4, with Jarrett Culver to Memphis for Patrick Beverley in his signature move of this quiet summer. Hernangomez played poorly last year, injured his shoulder this summer while practicing for the Olympics with the Spanish national team, then got into a dispute with the Timberwolves when Rosas blocked him from playing in Tokyo. There was little chance Hernangomez was going to be in the Minnesota rotation during the coming season anyway, so Rosas flipped him for a player in Beverley who will give them more minutes at another position of need — point guard.

The Wolves played Jaden McDaniels at power forward a lot down the stretch, and the rookie impressed with his defensive versatility and flashes on offense. But he gives up a lot of size and bulk at the position, and the Wolves have started to discuss his long-term future at small forward. They could use McDaniels at power forward this coming season if need be, but it wouldn’t do much to address one of their biggest priorities: improving the team’s rebounding. The Wolves ranked 20th in the league with 43.5 rebounds per game, 25th in rebound percentage and 27th in defensive rebound percentage last season. While McDaniels has impressed during summer workouts and at the Las Vegas Summer League, it would still be asking a lot of the sophomore to bulk up physically in just one offseason.

Jarred Vanderbilt will factor into the mix as well. He is a restricted free agent and has been locked in a long negotiation for a new contract, but he will be back next season. He will either get a multiyear deal (things are pointing in that direction) or sign the qualifying offer and play one more season before reaching unrestricted free agency. He showed flashes of strong play, rugged and versatile defense and, maybe most importantly, is a superb rebounder. He averaged 11.6 boards per 36 minutes last season, his first fully healthy campaign in four years. He started 30 games for the Wolves last season, and it would not be a surprise to see him back in the starting lineup should the Wolves hold pat on any more roster moves before training camp begins at the end of September.

Vanderbilt doesn’t bring much in the way of shot making, less of an issue in a lineup with Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards and Malik Beasley, but he is a one-dimensional player at this point. A starting lineup of Russell, Edwards, McDaniels, Vanderbilt and Towns would be intriguing, with Beasley providing firepower as a lead scorer off the bench.

If coach Chris Finch wants to skew more toward offense, he could roll out a starting group of Russell, Edwards, Beasley, McDaniels and Towns, then bring Vanderbilt off the bench and use him when they need big stops down the stretch.

Lauri Markkanen
Of the three players to move around last week, Markkanen was the one who has the biggest numbers and the highest upside. He averaged 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in four seasons in Chicago, with a career-best year in 2018-19 when he went for 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds. He was taken seventh overall in 2017, with the draft pick the Wolves swapped with the Bulls as part of the deal that brought Jimmy Butler to Minnesota and sent Zach LaVine to Chicago.

It has been reported here and elsewhere that if the Wolves had held on to that pick they would have selected Markkanen, seeing the 7-footer with the smooth outside jumper as an ideal stretch 4 for a shooting-starved team. But Markkanen has yet to play even close to an 82-game season because of injuries, with his career high at 68 as a rookie. Last season his numbers dipped to 13.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and it was clear the Bulls were no longer making him a priority with a new-look front office calling the shots.

The Wolves did inquire about possible sign-and-trade deals with the Bulls earlier this summer, but they quickly moved off of Markkanen, sources said. It became clear early that Markkanen was looking for a substantial contract in a sign-and-trade, and with the Wolves being snug up against the luxury tax, they did not see the value in adding a player with his injury history and shortcomings on defense for a premium price. Their read of the market was validated when Markkanen signed a four-year, $67 million contract with the Cavaliers. Only $6 million is guaranteed in the final year of his deal, but it was still large enough, especially on the front end, that it would have likely pushed the Wolves into the tax.

Also factor in that the Bulls got a lottery-protected first-round pick from Portland, a second-rounder from Denver (via Cleveland) and a super-athletic forward in Jones to part with Markkanen, and it is unlikely that the Wolves could have responsibly met a price that high while still keeping their other options open, so they stayed away.

Larry Nance Jr. 
Nance checks a lot of the boxes the Wolves are looking for in a power forward. He will turn 29 in January, so he is old enough to add a little bit of gravitas to a young locker room, but still young enough to be productive for several years while the core matures. Even though he is only 6-foot-7, he plays with a rugged quality the Wolves need in the frontcourt, averaging 9.9 rebounds per 36 minutes in his first six seasons in the league.

Nance may not be all that much of a rim protector, but he also averages 1.9 steals per 36 to create turnovers in the halfcourt and his attention to detail on defense would be a welcome addition to the Wolves. Add to it that he’s a solid passer and good screen setter, as our John Hollinger pointed out, and the fact that he is under team control for the next two years at around $20 million total, and you can see why the Blazers went after him.

But Nance has also dealt with injury issues of late, playing just 35 games last season and 56 in 2019-20. But the Blazers needed to add some depth to their frontcourt in an effort to show Damian Lillard that they are addressing roster shortcomings and building a contender around him. Swapping out Jones and a lotto-protected pick for a win-now player like Nance is at least a step in that direction.

The Wolves had several conversations with the Cavaliers, especially around draft time the last couple of years, about acquiring Nance, but each time found the asking price too high. The Cavs wound up flipping him for Markkanen, a player with some limitations but also with plenty of potential to turn into a really good player. Who could the Wolves have offered with a similar trajectory? Beasley? Perhaps, but one could argue that his shooting skills are as important to this Wolves roster as Nance’s defense and passing would be.

McDaniels clearly would be far too rich a price for the Wolves to pay in order to add a player like Nance. Culver would likely have done little to entice the Cavs. So there was no deal.

Derrick Jones Jr. 
As soon as the free agent market opened last fall, the Wolves were meeting with Beasley to retain him, while also on the phone with Jones trying to woo him away from Miami. The Wolves were dangling the mid-level exception and competing with Portland, Sacramento and Miami for his services.

As the night unfolded, Jones told the New York Times that the Timberwolves offer really impressed him, but ultimately he decided to team up with Lillard in Portland. Maybe the Wolves dodged a bullet there. Jones never really clicked with the Blazers. He averaged 6.8 points and 3.5 rebounds in 22.7 minutes per game, all numbers below his averages with Miami the previous season.

By the end of the year, Jones was out of the Blazers rotation and GM Neil Olshey was out looking for an upgrade. He ended up having to attach a lottery-protected first-round pick to get off Jones’ contract and land a superior player in Nance.

From Minnesota’s vantage point, it is hard to see them giving up anything of note that would have enticed Portland to land the bouncy Jones when they likely will sign Vanderbilt at a fraction of the cost.

All three of the above players, and the decision not to aggressively pursue them, lead to one more.

Ben Simmons
The Timberwolves’ pursuit of Simmons, which remains active, may have been helped on multiple fronts with the actions of last week. It is widely believed that Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey is slow-playing any decision on Simmons’ future in hopes that a big star, namely Lillard, asks out and Philly can use Simmons as a headliner in a package to go get him.

Our Derek Bodner in Philadelphia detailed the possible motives, and all the considerations, in an extensive piece during summer league. But all indications are that Lillard is not close to making any trade requests in Portland, and Olshey’s move to upgrade the roster with Nance over Jones, while certainly not earth-shattering, was another sign to Lillard that the team was committed to prioritizing the present over the future.

Will it work? Who knows. But it should at least buy the Blazers and new coach Chauncey Billups a little bit more time to show Lillard that they are on the right path. And that is not a good thing for Morey. The report Tuesday afternoon of Simmons’ desire to leave Philadelphia and his plan to skip the 76ers’ training camp further limits Morey’s leverage.

As training camps approach, one would think the Simmons-Sixers situation could reach an inflection point. Few believe that Simmons wants to be in Philadelphia. Even fewer believe that him being introduced in the starting lineup at Wells Fargo Arena when the regular season begins is a productive situation. But those around the NBA say that if there is one GM who will ignore the noise and try to push forward until he gets what he wants, it is Morey.

Two questions loom large: how far is Simmons willing to go to make things uncomfortable for Morey? And what role will Joel Embiid play in how this all gets handled? If Simmons follows through on his intent to not show up for training camp, or, even more drastically, go full Jimmy Butler and try to blow things up, how much of a stomach will Morey, Embiid and the Sixers have for it?

As of right now, the Timberwolves do not have a trade package that offers Morey the win-now assets a team in championship mode wants. They are not going to put Karl-Anthony Towns into any type of multi-team deal to try to get the wheels moving and Anthony Edwards remains untouchable as well. Even if the Wolves did include D’Angelo Russell in an offer — and they have talked all summer about building a team with Towns, Edwards and Russell around Simmons — it would not appear to be the magic bullet move that Morey needs to part ways with one of the best defensive players in the league … yet.

In conversations with teams in Las Vegas, I came away with the impression that the Timberwolves were the team that was most active in talks to try to make a Simmons deal happen. Shams Charania reported earlier this week that Toronto has also inquired, but the market seems to be relatively quiet for Simmons at the moment. He’s a fantastic player on defense and in transition, one the Wolves believe would fit beautifully with some of their more offensive-minded core. But his struggles in the playoffs, and the widely held belief that the Sixers must move him before the season opens and things get really contentious, has cooled the activity around him.

Morey has said all summer he wants a James Harden-level package for Simmons. But who is going to pay that? If this saga drags on and Simmons decides to make things really ugly, it will test the mettle of all involved. Remember, Tom Thibodeau tried to play hardball with the Butler situation, but all that ended up doing was making him settle for a package of Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and no draft picks.

Morey is a more experienced front office leader than Thibodeau was at the time Butler was raising hell in Minnesota. And maybe Simmons won’t go lighting practices on fire and sitting down for interviews with ESPN right afterward.

The sense is that teams are going to try to wait this out for a little while and see if the heat prompts Morey to come down on his asking price. The Wolves can’t, or won’t, meet it right now. Truth be told, it will be very hard for them to make it happen at all. Recruiting third teams to help is very complicated and often fruitless, there are luxury tax implications to consider and a host of other things that can get in the way. Maybe another team with a better package emerges out of nowhere when things get really hot. Maybe Morey really does stick to his guns, starts the season with Simmons, tries to convince him to play and hopes he can restore some of the value he lost last playoffs.

But the Wolves have seen first-hand how a situation can get out of control and change the parameters of what is acceptable in a deal. As long as there is even a minimal chance at landing a player like Simmons, the Wolves are going to hang around. And that is why they held on to their picks while also retaining players like Beasley who might be attractive to a team trying to add talent that can help it win immediately.

Not one of the players who moved last week, even though they all play a position the Wolves very much need to address, would move the needle like Simmons would. And so the Wolves wait … just in case.

(Photo of Ben Simmons and Anthony Edwards: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)