I was asked recently why the Minnesota Timberwolves (my hometown team) aren't expected to be more of a player in free agency this summer. I gave it some thought, and this is my (somewhat lengthy) explanation:
The Timberwolves clearly find themselves in a relatively favorable economic situation, but have some very serious gaps to fill in their 15-man roster. As nice as it would be to sign a big name free agent, it seems highly unlikely, due primarily to the unattractive nature of the Timberwolves organization, as well as the location in general.
While acquiring a lesser player seems more plausible, either via trade or free agency, there are some major hurdles hindering those outcomes as well.
Although the strategies of many NBA franchises are remarkably different right now than they have been in the past (as recently ago as 24 months), the assets that Minnesota has to offer are still not considered highly valuable. Minnesota can offer various expiring contracts, including Bobby Brown, Brian Cardinal, Mark Madsen, and Etan Thomas. However, at this point, none of those players (with the possible exception of Thomas) has any ability to help a team next season, and while teams are focusing on the future, most haven’t exhibited a willingness to completely forego short-term success for a chance at long-term success. (Memphis is an example of a team who has done this, and look at the public perception of that organization.)
Therefore, landing a quality player in a trade for an expiring contract of a useless player isn’t highly likely at this point, unless a quality young player is attached as part of the deal as well. Clearly, Minnesota is in re-building mode and would be unwilling to part with any of their young pieces (Kevin Love, Jonny Flynn, Wayne Ellington).
Minnesota’s perceived lethargy in the free agent market is an entirely different story. The Timberwolves will clearly have some money to play with, especially if Ricky Rubio fails to sign next season. (He would be due around $3.2 million.) However, the question I would raise is this- which single player in this free agent crop, aside from Kobe Bryant, would allow Minnesota to win next season? The answer is none. The Timberwolves’ franchise is in the center of a long re-building process, as witnessed by the pre-draft trade of Randy Foye and Mike Miller to Washington. It is an extremely young group with some talent, but they are entirely unprepared to make a playoff push this season. Why then would the team spend more money next year with no hope of obtaining any meaningful goals?
Shelling out money to a free agent this summer, even Mid-Level-money, would be like using your one phone call to have a pizza delivered to your jail cell. Sure it would improve things for a short time, but couldn’t it be better used on something that would help you in the long term?
If the Timberwolves are able to land a good player with solid value this summer, I say by all means, go ahead. But, keeping the bigger picture in mind, I think the better course of action is to stay under the cap, let the young players mature, and see what happens as the trade deadline approaches. Last year, the same strategy allowed the Los Angeles Clippers to acquire Marcus Camby for essentially nothing. With the summer of 2010 approaching, I expect teams to try and unload contracts even more feverishly.
While there are some quality players available this summer, I would anticipate even more quality options to be offered once the All-Star game rolls around. Sometimes patience is the best option, and just because you have the money doesn’t mean you should spend it right away.
Waiting a few months and sacrificing one more season will likely allow Minnesota to maximize their assets and improve their chances in the long run, which will likely mean things will be relatively quiet in the Land of 10,000 Lakes this summer.