Why the Minnesota Timberwolves decided to trade Dario Saric

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 5: Dario Saric #36 of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 5: Dario Saric #36 of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Timberwolves made a splash just prior to last Thursday’s NBA Draft by using Dario Saric as trade bait to move up five spots. But why did they pull the trigger on that trade?

Last November, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Jerryd Bayless.

Covington and Saric were co-headliners in the return, with Covington representing the 3-and-D player the Wolves have never had while Saric was the younger player with the higher upside.

Saric began his Wolves career in an unfamiliar spot. After starting for much of his first two-plus years in the NBA, Saric found himself coming off the bench in Minnesota, playing roughly 20 minutes a night backing up veteran big man Taj Gibson. A few weeks after Ryan Saunders stepped in as interim head coach, however, he decided to pull the trigger on inserting Saric into the starting lineup, signaling what certainly seemed to be the start of a new era in Minnesota.

Saric, after all, was just 24 years old at the time of the trade and was the No. 12 overall pick in 2014. He averaged 14.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in his second full season in Philadelphia, his age-23 season, and the upside was obvious.

The immediate thought following the deal was that Covington was the “win-now” piece that would keep the team competitive in the near-term and that Saric was the power forward of the future on an affordable rookie contract.

Indeed, Covington was a huge difference maker for the Wolves in the 22 games in which he appeared before he was lost for the season due to injury. But Saric struggled in a Timberwolves uniform, with per-game averages over 68 games that would sit below each of his first two years in the NBA and the start of last year with Philadelphia.

Clearly, it would be silly to move on from a promising player based on 68 games with a new team divided between two coaches in a shifting role. And yet one would think that Saric still carries too much upside to attach him to a deal simply to move up five picks in the draft.

But that’s exactly what the Wolves did. So why did they pull the trigger on the move?

In a word, money. And it isn’t that Saricis overpaid currently, as he’s on the books for just $3.4 million next year. The issue is his next contract.

Saric is due for an extension now off of his rookie deal, and it’s an extension that has to get done by the fall if Saric’s employer wants to avoid letting the big man hit restricted free agency.

Saric is an interesting case, as it’s unclear that he’s been utilized in the best possible way over his first three years in the NBA. In Philadelphia, he was often relegated to shooting spot-up threes in an offense dominated by Joel Embiid and predicated on launching long-range jumpers. Saric is a solid 3-point shooter, but 35.8 percent for his career isn’t exactly prolific.

The Timberwolves apparently didn’t want to be the team to have to make the decision on the extension, and it’s hard to blame them. Saric’s 68 games in a Wolves uniform were underwhelming, and extending him before allowing him into restricted free agency would be pricey, not to mention compounded by entering the luxury tax.

The Wolves’ previous regime gave rookie scale extensions to Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns. As it turns out, only one of those deals is remotely palatable at this stage. With the books already sitting at negative cap space, the options of paying Saric big money or letting him walk in restricted free agency were each less appealing than shipping him to Phoenix in exchange for the opportunity to pick five spots earlier in this year’s draft.

We’ll never know exactly which prospect president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas had on his mind when he agreed to the trade. It’s plausible that the target was Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland, who was unexpectedly taken by Cleveland at No. 5.

Clearly, the difference between Garland and Jarrett Culver must not have been all too significant, and Rosas would not be coerced into ponying up another asset to get Garland from the Cavaliers. We don’t know that Cleveland took Garland with hopes that the Wolves would get desperate, but if that’s indeed the case then Rosas called their bluff.

It will be interesting to see what Phoenix’s plan is for Saric, and what other moves Rosas might make in order to free additional cap space.

Next. 3 reasons to love Wolves' 2nd-round pick Jaylen Nowell. dark

But for now, Rosas has clearly chosen cap space + Culver over Saric at a bloated cost. And it certainly appears to have been the right decision.