The Minnesota Timberwolves already had plenty of tough roster decisions looming. But what looks to be a lengthy delay will make things even more difficult.
The Minnesota Timberwolves made two significant trades in the span of roughly two days just prior to the trade deadline in early February.
The headliner was D'Angelo Russell, of course. He's under contract for three years after the current season and there's no mystery in the Wolves acquiring him. Russell's window matches up with incumbent superstar Karl-Anthony Towns, and the idea that the duo can form a dynamic pairing of little and big for years to come has been talked about for many months.
The Wolves gave up another two seasons of Robert Covington, plus the modest expiring deals of Noah Vonleh, Shabazz Napier and Jordan Bell to acquire the trio, plus a first-round pick. Covington clearly had value, and the initial question was whether or not this was the best use of him as an asset.
After all, Beasley and Hernangomez both saw their roles shrink on a good Nuggets team, and both will be restricted free agents this summer. The reason that Denver chose to move on was that they didn't want to be the ones ponying up market value this summer to retain two bench pieces in their rotation.
But the reason that the Wolves were interested in Beasley and Hernangomez was that they believe that one, or perhaps both of them were being underutilized in Denver and could be worth every bit of what they're offered in restricted free agency.
Remember, teams that employ restricted free agents have the option of negotiating a long-term deal before free agency, or simply extending the qualifying offer, which is a one-year deal. Typically, players will then test the market and can sign an offer sheet with another franchise. The Wolves would then have the opportunity to match.
Trading for a pair of players who are to be restricted free agents was a relatively low-risk, but ultimately high-reward move. Let's look at the current outlook related to both Beasley and Hernangomez.
Last offseason, former Wolves guard Tyus Jones saw his qualifying offer pulled and ultimately signed a three-year offer sheet with the Memphis Grizzlies that the Wolves chose not to match. A similar situation could theoretically unfold with both Beasley and Hernangomez in the upcoming offseason.
The wrench in the whole thing is the limited amount of time the Wolves have to observe both players up close and personal. The roughly two months worth of games that the Wolves were expecting to have wouldn't have been much time as it was. But now, with the NBA on a hiatus of a minimum of 30 days due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), nobody knows what is going to happen next.
Everything is on the table. Theoretically, at least based on the current 30-day timeline, the league could try and come back and play the playoffs nearly on schedule and simply forgo the final 18 or so games of the regular season. That seems somewhat unlikely, however, based on reports from a variety of medical experts related to the potential spread of the virus.
The league will probably try and pick up where they left off, rescheduling postponed games and spreading them out throughout May and June, pushing the playoffs to July and potentially into August. Perhaps playoff series will be reduced from best-of-7s to best-of-5s to try and shorten things a bit.
Or maybe, it will be a mix of scenarios, in which the league doesn't bother with the rest of the regular season, but the playoffs still don't start until June.
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No matter what happens, it certainly is a giant and completely unexpected curveball that severely hampers the ability of NBA teams to evaluate talent. And for a team in the midst of an on-the-fly rebuild like the Timberwolves with two key restricted free agents, it makes things exceedingly difficult.
So far, in 14 games in a Wolves uniform, Malik Beasley has averaged 20.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 33.1 minutes per game. All would easily be career-highs over the course of a season. His 3-point shooting percentage of 42.6 would also be a career-best, and his 47.2 percent from the field would be within two-tenths of last year's career mark with the Nuggets.
He's looked every bit the part of a third option on a playoff team, one who is dynamic in the open floor and with the ability to get piping hot from beyond the arc at a moment's notice, singlehandedly swinging the momentum of a game.
Of course, all the typically cautions related to a small sample size exist, as well as some defensive questions that are very real, and even more important for a team whose best two players also struggle on that end of the floor.
Let's talk about the Wolves' other acquisition, in light of the Wolves' quest to find the best fit next to Karl-Anthony Towns.
The Wolves desperately wanted to evaluate a natural stretch-4 next to Towns, and they targeted Juancho Hernangomez as a potential fit.
At power forward, the team had previously employed the likes of Gorgui Dieng, a natural center, and Taj Gibson, a defense-first, limited-offense option. Both worked to varying extents, but the belief all along has been that the best fit next to Towns is a low-usage player with deadly 3-point range while also playing solid defense and holding his own on the glass.
Dario Saric didn't inspire confidence in two-thirds of a season next to Towns last season, and he was moved in the trade-up to land Jarrett Culver on draft night. He was supposed to be the versatile offensive option that could both stretch the floor and create next to Towns, providing something of a high-low dynamic.
This season, the Wolves began with Robert Covington at the 4. It mostly worked, as the plight of the Wolves this season was a lack of 3-point efficiency early in the year, which wasn't Covington's fault, and, more recently, a lack of defense -- also not the fault of RoCo, who was traded in early February.
In a perfect world, Towns' frontcourt complement would have a bit more size and rebound at a higher rate than Covington. Hence, the acquisition of Hernangomez.
Hernangomez was the No. 15 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft and was a fringe member of the Nuggets' rotation for his first two seasons in the league. Similar to Beasley, he emerged as a key part of the Nuggets' bench during their 54-win campaign in 2018-19.
While his current production with the Wolves doesn't quite match Beasley's, his improvement over his numbers with the Nuggets is easily as impressive. Hernangomez's per-game averages of 12.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 29.4 minutes would all be career-highs. His field goal percentage of 45.3 and 3-point percentage of 42.0 with the Wolves would also be career-bests for a season.
Beasley's upside appears to be much higher than Hernangomez's, meaning that he'll warrant more money on the open market. But the Wolves are in a tough spot for two primary reasons.
First, Hernangomez and Towns have only shared the court for two games. One was the blowout win over the LA Clippers in the first game following the trade. Hernangomez had 14 points, making all three of his 3-point attempts, but he only pulled down one rebound. Towns had 22 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists. However, D'Angelo Russell did not play in that game.
The other game that the duo appeared in together was on the road in Toronto against the defending champions. Hernangomez 15 points and five rebounds while Towns had 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a hard-fought loss.
Since then, Towns has been out due to injury. Hernangomez has continued to be effective, although it's fairly clear that his ceiling is as a complementary piece and fourth-option on a good team -- which is exactly what the Wolves envision him as behind Towns, Russell, and Beasley.
The second issue involves both Hernangomez and Beasley...
The second issue that the Wolves are facing is the overall lack of games that both Hernangomez and Beasley have played for the Wolves, both generally and alongside Towns. If the season were to end today, Minnesota's front office has just 14 games of film and data on both players in Wolves uniforms.
On the other hand, if the season were to pick up in a few weeks, perhaps the duo would have more time to play alongside Towns than they would have gotten under normal circumstances. This layoff is buying time to allow Towns to heal, and the new acquisitions might just get the chance to take the court with the Wolves' star big man, depending on how the balance of the regular season plays out.
That said, the Wolves were no doubt counting on the final 18 games of the season to evaluate their roster, and especially Beasley and Hernangomez. There remains a chance that the Wolves will be flying nearly-blind as they weigh the pros and cons of multi-year deals to the pair of former Nuggets.
At this point, it's fair to expect the Wolves to allow Hernangomez to hit restricted free agency, allowing the market to set his value. Because Beasley has been so impressive in his 14 games as a Timberwolves starter, don't be surprised if Minnesota tries to negotiate a multi-year deal before allowing him to hit the open market.
There are plenty of other teams looking for a dynamic 2-guard that would pony up for Beasley, and perhaps the Wolves can pitch Beasley on the security of a long-term contract before exploring free agency.
If the Wolves go into the 2020-21 campaign with a backcourt of Russell and Beasley under contract for multiple years, the offensive potential of this Wolves team will be, quite literally, unlimited. The defense, on the other hand, will leave much to be desired.
An offense keyed by Russell, Beasley, Towns and a stretch-4 such as Hernangomez can survive a fifth, more defensive-focused member such as Josh Okogie. But that would also mean that the lineup would only have one clearly above-average defender, with a pair of poor defensive players in the backcourt and an inconsistent (at best) performer in Towns at center.
Defensive coordinator and associate head coach David Vanterpool will need to pull a rabbit out of his hat in getting Russell, Beasley and Towns to lead the defensively and not simply try and outscore opponents by scores of 139-134, as they did against the New Orleans Pelicans in their most recent win.
It will be a fascinating offseason, although plenty of question marks remain. The number of games played in the current NBA season is the biggest variable, and the Wolves will almost certainly have to make a decision based on abbreviated results and a brand-new timeline.