MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Timberwolves made major strides this season in ending their 13-year absence from the NBA playoffs after a franchise-altering trade for All-Star Jimmy Butler.
With cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in their early 20s and veterans Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague coming off productive debuts in Minnesota, there is a sturdy starting lineup in place around Butler to ideally take the Timberwolves deeper in the next postseason.
Advancement is easier stated than consummated.
The Wolves, even with coach Tom Thibodeau’s preference to give his first-teamers heavy minutes, need to add depth this summer with defense and 3-point shooting atop the skill-set wish list. There is no clear way to acquire more of it, though, after making the logical first moves by drafting versatile wing players Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop last week .
Wiggins will begin playing on his maximum contract in 2018-19, with a $25 million-plus salary that will account for more than 20 percent of the team’s cap and push the Timberwolves close to the luxury tax threshold. That means they won’t be spending aggressively in free agency, with the negotiation period set to start on Sunday. They’ll have to find some candidates on the market willing to sign for less, perhaps for the veteran minimum, to fill out the bench.
“With some players they may not have the deal that they initially wanted,” Thibodeau said, “but this may be the best opportunity in terms of the playing and the winning and then that sets it up for the following year.”
With Towns and Butler beginning the final year of their deals, salary cap management is going to be a challenge, too. Butler has to be convinced, too, that the cast in place will be strong enough for him to chase a championship with in the rugged Western Conference. Thibodeau said he’s comfortable if Butler plays the upcoming season without an extension in place, as several of the league’s stars did in 2017-18.
“Every day we work at it. We know how important he is, and we feel he’s one of the best players in the league,” Thibodeau said. “I know he loves living here. The winning is important to him, I know.”
Thibodeau said the Wolves have options for extending Butler, staying under the tax level and continuing to enhance the roster, but he predictably declined to be specific. So what about another headliner deal, using Wiggins to clear cap space and bring back some valuable players in return?
“Good players, they’re always going to be talked about as a possibility, but when you look at who Andrew is and what he’s accomplished at a very young age, we think he’s critical,” Thibodeau said. “So we’ll always talk to people, but we like Andrew a lot here.”
Nemanja Bjelica (restricted), Jamal Crawford (unrestricted) and Derrick Rose (unrestricted) are set to become free agents, leaving only Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones as reserves who regularly played last season and are assured of returning unless they’re traded. Given his history with Butler and Thibodeau, Rose could be one of those veterans the Wolves would court with a team-friendly contract.
Even if there’s more money to be made elsewhere, Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden spoke confidently this week of what they’re selling: a vibrant city, a winning track and popular teammates.
“We feel we’re in good position there,” Thibodeau said, “and we’ll have some good opportunities.”