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Written By Dane Moore (ZoneCoverage.com)
From 10,000 feet, trading Jeff Teague three weeks before the trade deadline without a discernably positive asset heading back to the Minnesota Timberwolves seems a bit curious. On the surface, it feels a bit rushed. Theoretically, Teague, or Treveon Graham, who was also part of the package headed to the Atlanta Hawks, could have been flipped closer to the deadline’s buzzer for some sort of positive asset.
Instead, Teague and Graham were packaged for a floor-spacing 27-year-old in Allen Crabbe, who doesn’t provide much else outside of that shooting. Carrying a one-tool skillset, Crabbe is nowhere near a positive asset at his $18.5 million salary. Worse, after being traded, Crabbe’s salary can not be aggregated in another deal. Said differently, the Wolves could have theoretically put together the foundation of a package of, say, Teague’s $19 million in salary and Robert Covington’s $11.3 million for a player that makes around $30 million. For example, D’Angelo Russell’s salary is $27.3 million this season. By league rule, those mechanics of a trade for a big-money player cannot happen with Crabbe and Covington as the aggregated salary due to those post-trade aggregation restrictions.
Because of all of that, questioning the choice to make this move now holds merit. But tucked a layer below the perplexing “when” of this trade is the “why.”
Karl-Anthony Towns, who has been sidelined since December 13th, is recovered from his left knee sprain and is now almost over a 102-degree fever that has further delayed his return. When Towns returns, the belief within the organization is that it is critical that the team begins playing within the confines of both the offensive and defensive systems. Given Teague’s preferred style of play, his presence in the lineup upon Towns’ return would have crippled the potential for growth.
“You can either fit or not fit,” said Rosas on Thursday evening. “Jeff did everything he could on his end. Ryan and his staff did everything they could on their end to make it work. But sometimes there’s not a fit. And that’s not anybody’s fault; that just is what it is.”
The lack of fit between Towns and Teague offensively is intuitive, especially this season when Saunders implemented an offensive system that relies on floor spacing, pick-and-rolls and pace.
Teague was stuck in his ways, refusing to shoot 3s at a higher volume than he did when he was previously in Indiana and Atlanta. In his final season in Atlanta (2015-16), 27.8 percent of Teague’s shot attempts were 3s. In his lone season in Indiana (2016-17), 27.7 percent of his shots were 3s. And this season in Minnesota, again, only 26.9 percent of his attempts were 3s. While every other player on the roster aggressively ratcheted up their intention for 3-point volume, Teague employed a stoned indifference for 3-point shooting.
In the pick-and-roll, Teague and Towns also never jived. Teague preferred to move to his own beat after a Towns screen, prioritizing prodding the lane rather than seeking pocket passes to Towns after switches.
Considering Towns has played nearly 60 percent of his minutes this season with Teague (more than any teammate other than Robert Covington or Andrew Wiggins), it’s almost remarkable that Teague only tallied 41 assists with Towns. That Teague often didn’t target Towns on the roll after a screen but that he also often ignored him on the perimeter was clearly a major frustration of Towns’.
As far as tempo goes, it wasn’t that Teague couldn’t play with pace; he just moved at his own. Some days fast, some slow. In a rigid system, that spin of the roulette wheel was a gamble the Wolves organization no longer wanted to risk.
“I think, big picture, it’s just a different game,” said Rosas. “And the way he plays, this system is maybe not as complimentary. We need our lead guard to be a guy who pushes tempo and is more of a creator than a scorer.”
Defensively, the fit as it pertained to Towns was just as jagged. If you look at the five players Towns played with most over the past three seasons (fifteen players in total), the only player who ever had a worse defensive rating when paired with Towns than when he played with Teague was Jamal Crawford, a notoriously atrocious defender. Part of the reason the Wolves have had a worse defense for the past three seasons with Towns on the floor compared to when he sits comes from the fact that he played with Teague for a combined 3435 minutes over those three years.
The Timberwolves defensive scheme this season almost always asks the point guard to slither over the top of screens while chasing the ball-handler. That is not a strength of Teague’s. For this reason, Saunders would often try to hide Teague on the opponent’s least threatening off-the-dribble option. But when that option wasn’t there, opponents would drool at the opportunity to put Teague and Towns in ball-screen after ball-screen.
The Wolves hemorrhaged points when Towns and Teague shared the floor this season (118.2 per 100 possessions) and saved 5.9 points per 100 possessions when Towns played without Teague, according to CleaningTheGlass.
Crabbe replacing Teague certainly does not fix this. But Crabbe also isn’t a one-to-one replacement for Teague. Instead, Teague’s duties defending the point-of-attack will be redirected to Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver and Shabazz Napier — all three of whom have shown competent chops defending the point of pick-and-rolls this season. Increasing the volume of minutes Towns will now play for the rest of the season surrounded by competent defenders will allow the Wolves to assess what portion of their defensive pratfalls lie directly on Towns’ shoulders. By removing Teague from the equation, they are removing noise.
While so much of what the Wolves want to do is directly connected to Towns, he’s not the only player they need to assess within this system. Crabbe’s presence fused with the removal of Teague and Graham will help Saunders and Rosas assess what Andrew Wiggins can be while playing within the confines of this style of play.
Even when Wiggins was rolling in November, the frequent presence of Graham, Okogie and Culver flanking him was disruptive. As Wiggins’ success began to sustain, teams started bringing “nail help” whenever Wiggins begin to attack from the top of the key. That help would come from the wing, where opponents began willingly ditching the non-shooting threat presences of Graham, Okogie and Culver. Watch where the player defending Graham on this play (Donovan Mitchell) positions himself when Wiggins begins his drive.
Bringing that type of help off of Crabbe is a much bigger concession. While Crabbe has only converted 32.3 percent of his 3-point attempts this season, he’s a career 38.9 percent shooter from deep — making 37.9 percent of his 3s from above-the-break, 43.0 percent from the corners and 41.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, according to Synergy’s tracking data.
Crabbe is also familiar with the system. Saunders’ system emulates so much of what Brooklyn and Portland have run in recent seasons because his top two assistants are Pablo Prigioni and David Vanterpool. Prigioni coached Crabbe in Brooklyn and Vanterpool coached him in Portland.
“It’s one of the biggest benefits,” said Rosas of the familiarity Crabbe will have. “I’d include (now-Timberwolves Assistant General Manager) Gianluca Pascucci, who was an executive with Brooklyn and had him with Brooklyn last year. They speak very fondly of Allen, his character, his work ethic and his ability to play in this system. David and Pablo, in particular, see him as a great fit not only on the court but in the locker room.”
Removing Teague and the 27.8 minutes per game he was playing at the point guard position will open a greater opportunity not only for Wiggins to initiate the offense but also Culver, another player who needs to be assessed in a more ideological setting. Neither Wiggins nor Culver are perfect creators, but the Wolves want to test that out more and develop those two in that role.
Teague’s presence drained that opportunity and killed so much of Wiggins and Culver’s production when they shared the floor with him. When Teague, Wiggins and Culver shared the floor this season, according to CleaningTheGlass, the Wolves were outscored by 14.4 points per 100 possessions (comparatively far worse than the worst team in the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have a net-rating of -9.1). When Wiggins and Culver shared the floor while Teague was on the bench, the Wolves put together a net-rating of +3.6 (by comparison, a better point differential than the 28-12 Miami Heat).
“I think for us it’s a continued development process, whether it’s Andrew or Jarrett Culver,” said Rosas of the additional ball-handling duties now made available. “Both of those guys have an opportunity to impact with their playmaking… The key area for us with Andrew, with Jarrett and getting KAT back, is that we feel like we’ve got different options to play.”
Just as it is with Towns, Teague’s removal should be statistical addition by subtraction as it pertains to Wiggins and Culver. And in terms of adding data points that can inform a plan beyond this season, Teague’s absence will allow the Wolves to more accurately assess and forecast two of their other young cornerstones in Wiggins and Culver. Potentially losing some offensive zip on the second unit sans Teague’s presence is a cost they’re willing to pay in the name of holistic development.
The “why” portion of making this move now as it connects to financial flexibility is less straight-forward. The most important part to understand is that the Wolves front office is not done making moves. At a minimum, the Wolves will address the point guard position before the February 6th deadline. They also have their sights set on additional moves, ranging in size, not limited to D’Angelo Russell, sources told Zone Coverage.
“Our understanding is they already have another move lined up,” said one league executive.
Making this move now was about locking in the flexibility it does create. Atlanta is the only team in the NBA with cap space, so jumping on making a move with them now ensured that the Hawks front office didn’t pivot to another, juicier deal that used up that space and thus their desire to make a move. By trading Teague ($19.0 million) and Graham ($1.6 million) for Crabbe ($18.5 million), Atlanta absorbed $2.1 million into their cap space. That additional outgoing money now puts Minnesota $9.6 million below the luxury tax line. This affords Minnesota the opportunity to take back up to $9.6 million in an additional deal (or deals) without exceeding the tax line. This also puts the Wolves $15.8 million below the hard cap. Minnesota is hard-capped by having made sign-and-trades this summer for Jake Layman, Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham.
“We want to be positioned where we can take advantage of opportunities that present themselves where we can acquire a high-level talent and give a team space if they need it,” said Rosas. “We just went through free agency this past summer where there’s always the focus of ‘Hey, use all your cap space,’ or, ‘Use all your available exceptions and sign whoever you can sign.’ That’s not our approach.
“It’s a long season, it’s a long transaction cycle. There’s always opportunities if you have the flexibility to, whether it’s take money in or make deals that are lopsided one way or the other. We’re fortunate that ownership has given us the resources to be on the lookout or take advantage of those opportunities as they present themselves. And we want to be in position for them because we don’t want to miss out on targets because, financially, we’re not in a position to provide those things.”
In addition to space below the tax and hard cap, the Wolves also have $4.8 million of their non-taxpayer midlevel exception available. This is important as it pertains to signing a player with the roster spot that was created by trading two players for one player. That $4.8 million provides serious spending power to sign a free agent in-season. If a player is bought out and becomes available, the Wolves have a lot to offer (and could potentially offer a multi-year deal). They could also sign a player who is currently playing overseas or in the G-League.
“That was a huge priority for us,” said Rosas of the flexibility a roster spot provides given the spending resources they have. “Anytime we are able to execute personnel processes like this, the ability to gain either resources or flexibility (is a priority). Whether that’s through salary, to be able to add more salary in the future, or roster spots to be able to not only add more players in future trades.
“The G-League, international as well, having that open roster spot gives us an opportunity to find players that might be better fits for our system now and moving forward.”
Timberwolves fans may have been quick to, in a vacuum, make the assumption that Kelan Martin — who has used up the majority of his available days on his two-way contract — will be the player who receives an NBA contract to fill that void. Rosas doesn’t operate in a vacuum. On Thursday night, he said that he still views Martin as a “development piece.” It could be advantageous to sign Martin to a multi-year deal at a team-friendly price, as the team did with Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell this summer, but that isn’t the only path being considered with the open roster spot.
Beyond this season, acquiring Crabbe also holds some intrigue. While his contract is expiring, the Wolves do now own his Bird Rights, which would allow them to exceed the salary cap to sign him this summer (without using the midlevel exception) if they feel the fit and price point aligns with their priorities. With Teague, who the Wolves also had Bird Rights on prior to the trade, it was known that he was not a fit and thus not returning next season, inherently nullifying the value of possessing of his Bird Rights. The Timberwolves have $101 million in salary committed for next season to just seven players, so they very likely will be operating as an above the cap team, which makes incumbent players with Bird Rights uniquely valuable.
“That’s why the ability to evaluate him over these next 41 games are going to be very important,” said Rosas of Crabbe. “He also has his Bird Rights which is very intriguing and important to us. And that if things work out, we have the flexibility there to do some things into the future. A young wing that has experience in these systems can provide us some shooting. Those are all things that we want to evaluate in our structure. That’s a big part of having him here and being able to evaluate him with future options.”
How exactly Rosas will be able to capitalize on the additional flexibility below the tax is unknown. Knowing who they could sign with the exceptions they currently possess is also unknown. But it is a fact that this deal created more flexibility to be able to make future trades and/or to be able to sign a player with that additional roster spot.
To what degree one has belief in this front office’s ability to execute on that flexibility lies in the eyes of the beholder. The question, jokes aside, is how much do you trust the process?
Those who questioned this front office’s ability to execute on Draft Night, when Darius Garland went a pick before the Wolves were slotted at number six (after trading Dario Saric to get up there), will likely question this maneuvering — not believing a truly profitable deal will come to fruition. Others who site the role Rosas played in the Houston Rockets’ ability to trade for James Harden or sign Patrick Beverley from overseas may have a larger bandwidth for trust. And those who acknowledge that Rosas’ number two in command, Sachin Gupta, was the man pulling the strings during the original “Process” in Philadelphia may believe there is something rather Hinkie about all of this.
Again, that all relies on one’s subjective belief. For Timberwolves fans especially, belief is difficult. Every process implemented in Minnesota since Kevin Garnett was first in a Timberwolves jersey has largely proven illogical, short-sighted, or some combination of both of those things. To believe in what Rosas and company are doing requires compartmentalizing that doubt. What is undeniable is that a process is happening. Wheels are in motion that will determine how this roster is constructed and how the players on that roster will play.
What’s the timeline on this process?
“I’ve got a timeline,” said Rosas with a laugh. “Unfortunately, the 29 other teams are not on the same timeline. But we’re working on that to figure it out.”