Are the Timberwolves still hurting from the Joe Smith thing?

A smiling man, or a ghost that still haunts the Twin Cities? (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
A smiling man, or a ghost that still haunts the Twin Cities? (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

Here is a grimy relic from free agency in 1999, when the league was both rougher around the edges and also wobbling to its feet after an ugly lockout. The league discovered that the Minnesota Timberwolves had agreed with Joe Smith that they would pay him a small contract in free agency at first, and then sign him to a mega-deal later.

That doesn’t sound so bad but it is against the rules, and the Timberwolves were made an example of. The league immediately voided Smith’s active deal and took away three first-round picks — which doesn’t sound so bad considering the initial sentence was five first-rounders. Those picks they lost were:

  • 18th overall in 2001
  • 24th overall in 2002
  • 29th overall in 2004

Smith received a ton of inadvertent punishment, too: his $61 million career earnings are well short of the $86 million deal that Minnesota had illegally promised. Plus, Smith would eventually tie the record for most different teams played for. This all backfired on Smith so explosively that I can’t imagine that these types of deals happen anymore.

The important thing here is those lost picks. Since Minnesota pulled off the consensus heist for Jimmy Butler a few weeks ago, they are a reasonable bet to make the 2018 playoffs. That’s a huge deal for a team that has the longest active missed-playoffs streak in the league. The Timberwolves have not made it to the postseason since 2004, a drought that is half the history of the franchise.

I wanted to know if the lost picks from the ancient Smith debacle have a negative impact on the Timberwolves’ roster today, for the 2017-18 season. It’s obviously true that Minnesota would have benefitted from having these first-round picks way back when. What I want to know, though, is if there is a straight line, a direct chain of trades that goes from the early 2000’s up until now.

Believe it or not, it is true that a continuously excellent front office can keep an asset like a mid-first-round pick returning dividends for over a decade. Let’s take Danny Ainge’s infamously large chest of lottery picks for the Celtics, including the just-selected Jayson Tatum. Ainge got those picks for a trade package headlined by Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Pierce was the team’s NO. 10 overall pick in the 1998 draft. Ainge traded for Garnett in 2007, acquiring him with a trade package headlined by the Celtics’ first-round picks in 2004 and 2005: Al Jefferson (15th overall) and Gerald Green (18th). The Celtics are not as good as they are today if they don’t get reliable hits back in the middle of the 2004 and 2005 drafts.

It turns out that the Timberwolves are indeed missing out on some valuable talents for the 2017-18 season because of these lost first-rounders. Since Minnesota was still rolling out legit playoff contenders back in the early 2000’s, they had mid-to-late first-rounders taken from them. Because the draft board can get pretty fuzzy that far away from the lottery, I decided to look at the ten teams who picked behind where each Minnesota pick would have been, hypothesizing that all ten selections would have been reasonable draft picks for the team. It turns out that plenty of teams are still benefitting from the draft picks they made in these drafts — using picks that Minnesota could have had if they just played nice with Joe Smith.

A quick example of the byzantine complexities at play

Here’s a plausible hypothetical. If Minnesota still had their 2001 first-rounder, they might have taken point guard Tony Parker, who was expertly grabbed at No. 28 overall by the Spurs. With a fantastic point guard in place for the long-term, the Timberwolves do not feel the need to take point guards with both the fifth and sixth overall picks in the 2009 draft, and emerge with Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry.

That’s totally realistic. But for this post, I’m going to stick as closely as possible to moves that actually happened on the trade market. (After all: with Parker in the fold, would the Timberwolves actually be in the 2009 lottery like that?) The following three examples of players and draft picks that Minnesota could have right now are by no means a comprehensive guide — just the three sequences of trades that I felt were the cleanest. Big ups to the invaluable ProSportsTransactions, my primary source here.

The Timberwolves could have Patty Mills

June 2001: The Trail Blazers select Zach Randolph No. 18 overall.
June 2007: Portland trades Randolph to the New York Knicks in exchange for, among other things, the 2008 second-round pick that will become Omer Asik.
June 2008: On draft night, the Blazers trade Asik to the Bulls for three future second-round picks.
June 2009: Portland uses one of those second-round picks on Patty Mills.

Of course, Portland then biffed the opportunity to reap the rewards of this sequence by letting then-restricted free agent Mills go to the Spurs for a piddling $261K in the middle of the 66-game 2011-12 season. Seeing as Mills has signed four different contracts with the Spurs, and would be in San Antonio for a decade if he completes his current deal, Mills clearly has uncommon loyalty for an NBA player. Since Minnesota has a history of being loyal, even to a fault, let’s pretend they wouldn’t just give away one of the game’s best backup point guards.

The Timberwolves could have Jerami Grant OR three additional draft picks

June 2001: The Sixers select Samuel Dalembert No. 26 overall.
June 2010: The Sixers trade Dalembert to the Kings in exchange for Spencer Hawes and Andres Nocioni.
February 2014: The Sixers trade Hawes to the Cavaliers for Earl Clark, Henry Sims, and two second-round picks. (For the haters: this is a little piece of Sam Hinkie magic.)
June 2014: The Sixers select Jerami Grant with one of their extra second-round picks.

Now, the Sixers could have stopped here, content with the uncommon discovery of a real NBA rotation player in the second round. But Bryan Colangelo continued with some stellar process-trusting work:

November 2016: The Sixers trade Grant to the Thunder in exchange for Ersan Ilyasova and a 2020 first-round pick.
February 2017: The Sixers trade Ilyasova to the Hawks in exchange for Tiago Splitter and two 2017 second-round picks.
June 2017: The Sixers trade one of their picks to the Milwaukee Bucks, potentially for cash (somehow, this hasn’t been totally documented), who take Sterling Brown. The Sixers use their other pick on Mathias Lessort, whose draft night was covered beautifully by The Ringer.

This sequence really shows how Hinkie made the very most out of Philadelphia’s limited resources, turning a down-trending Hawes into a whole bushel of future opportunities. Further evidence of how every last resource at a front office’s disposal has to be valued and invested wisely.

The Timberwolves could have Paul Zipser AND Jordan Bell

June 2004: On draft night, the Bulls draft Jackson Vroman No. 31 overall and immediately trade him to the Suns, along with a 2005 first-round pick, for Luol Deng.
January 2014: The Bulls trade Deng to the Cavaliers in exchange for Andrew Bynum (then a salary albatross) and three future picks, which all end up in the second round after protections.
June 2016: The Bulls use one of those picks to take Paul Zipser.
June 2017: The Bulls trade their pick to the Warriors for $3.5 million in cash. Golden State takes Jordan Bell at 38th overall, a pick that was immediately praised.

I had never heard of Vroman, who ended up playing just 87 NBA games and tragically passed away in 2015 at just 34 years old. This sequence is a perfect example, though, of how a draft asset can be swung positively for a team even if the actual player involved never pans out.

Looking at how long it took this sequence to develop, it does look funny that the Bulls decided to trade a high second-rounder just for cash — a resource that no team is low on anymore. Of course, focus has been on the Bulls’ other move on draft night, and with good reason.

Introducing the fully optimized Timberwolves

The combined salaries of Mills, Grant, Zipser, and Bell — guesstimating that Bell will earn $1 million — add up to almost exactly $15 million. With these four players already under deals, we’ll say that the Timberwolves do not extend an offer to free agent signee Taj Gibson, who will earn $13.65 million this year. Here’s what Minnesota’s alternate-universe depth chart looks like for next year:

J. TeagueJ. ButlerA. WigginsG. DiengK. Towns
P. MillsJ. GrantN. BjelicaC. Aldrich
T. JonesP. ZipserJ. Bell J. Patton

So, yep, there’s definitely a hole to be patched there — and the team has already talked about bringing aboard C.J. Miles. But this is looking a lot better than the 10-man squad that’s currently under contract, a group that includes six power forwards and centers.

Next: Darius Miller gets a rare second chance with the New Orleans Pelicans

All for just trying to woo Joe Smith in 1999. Brutal.