The Timberwolves probably have four of their five starting positions filled as of right now, with only the starting power forward role left to iron-out.
Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns will be in the starting lineup for the first game of the 2016-17 NBA season. Zach LaVine, barring any difference in thinking from the Sam Mitchell-Milt Newton era to the Tom Thibodeau-Scott Layden era, also seems likely to fill a starting role for this team.
With these four presumptive starters, that leaves one position vacant: the power forward role, mostly shared between Kevin Garnett and Gorgui Dieng last season. Aside from those two big men, the Timberwolves have two other PF’s on the roster: Adreian Payne and Nemanja Bjelica, neither of whom should be starting an NBA game in the near future.
While Gorgui could be slotted into the starting role, the Timberwolves would be wise to fill this position via external acquisition; with their first round selection at #5 overall, along with room under the salary cap (the cap is projected to rise to $92 million next season, leaving the Wolves with nearly $30 million to spend in free agency), the team has multiple places to look for their future starter at the four position.
Option 1: Free Agency
With the salary cap ballooning from around $70 million to upwards of $92 million this off-season, the Timberwolves will have a huge chunk of change to dangle in front of free agents. Unfortunately, the same is true for every other team around the league. With the mid-level market status of the team along with the perception that we always have dreadful weather, the Twin Cities are not the most desirable place for free agents.
Among free agent options at the PF position, there is one star, two aging veterans, and the rest. At the top is Al Horford, followed by Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol, who are followed by role players such as Ryan Anderson and David Lee.
Nowitzki will undoubtedly return to the Mavericks. Horford stands to make an extra $39 million if he re-signs with Atlanta. Gasol, on the other hand, may be a name to watch; the native Spaniard is close friends with Ricky Rubio. The team could also look at natural small forwards that could step in and play a small-ball four.
Harrison Barnes is one name that has been linked to the team over the past season in speculation. He will likely earn a max contract from some team this off-season, and the Timberwolves could be the ones to ultimately mail Barnes his check.
Nicolas Batum is another name that has drawn speculation as an option for the Timberwolves. Fulfilling and succeeding in a swingman role in Charlotte, the 27 year-old Batum will also most-likely warrant a max (or close-to-max) deal from whichever team he lands with.
Luol Deng seems like the most likely candidate to land in a Timberwolves uniform of the noteworthy free-agents. Having played for the Chicago Bulls for his first ten seasons in the league, Deng and head coach Tom Thibodeau have built a solid relationship. A small forward for most of his career, Deng logged 73 percent of his minutes at the PF this season according to Basketball-Reference while with the Miami Heat and filled the role admirably.
Option 2: Draft
One thing that the Timberwolves could do to fill the vacancy is using their lottery selection on a PF.
Henry Ellenson is a name that has been tossed around as a potential selection for the Wolves at the number-five slot in the draft. Lacking the explosiveness and the get-out-and-run mentality that the rest of the Timberwolves starters might leave you scratching your head, but Ellenson possesses a unique scoring ability.
Ellenson led a Marquette squad filled with five double-digit scorers, leading the team with 17 points per game while shooting 28.8 percent from beyond the arc. Standing tall at 6′-10″ and wide at 245 pounds and with an expected three-point improvement as he matures, Henry Ellenson could fit well as a complement to Karl-Anthony Towns.
Despite the need for a starting PF, the #5 pick can be used on anyone. The front office may fall in love with the shooting of Buddy Hield or Jamal Murray, the play-making ability of Kris Dunn (although he’s publicized his desire to play for a team without an established PG), or the potential of Croatian big man Dragan Bender.
Option 3: Trade
With the draft pick now permanently slotted at number five after the recent lottery, the Timberwolves and other teams around the league have a little more clarity about what each teams respective draft picks are worth. If the front office of the Timberwolves don’t immediately see a prospect that could fit well with the team around the five-spot, they might be willing to include the pick as a chip in a trade that could bring in a quality starter.
A trade to obtain a starting quality veteran player would need to include more than one asset. It would also require the Timberwolves give up, in addition to the number-five pick, at least one of Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, and future draft picks.
If this seems like too big of a haul, consider the trade that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland. The Cavaliers, in order to obtain their starting PF, had to give up Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the number one overall draft picks from the previous two drafts, as well as another first round pick that ends up being 24th overall in the 2016 draft. A similar collection of assets would be expected from a trade partner for the Timberwolves.
No matter how you view these types of trades (Kevin Love has been making some big shots in this years playoffs, but wouldn’t the Cavaliers like to have Andrew Wiggins added to their roster?), this will undoubtedly be an option for the Timberwolves to consider as we near the draft.
The Timberwolves have many different options available to them as a means to fulfilling their absence at the four. This off-season should be one of excitement; the team holds the number-five pick in the draft, millions of dollars in cap space, and many interesting trade chips. We can only wait and see how the team fills the biggest position of need.