There has been precious little action on the NBA’s trade market so far this season. The Minnesota Timberwolves have been trying to change that for a while now.
The Timberwolves (35-15) are tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for first place in the Western Conference. They have been at or near the top of the conference all season long and are tied for the best 50-game start in franchise history. All of that success hasn’t brought complacency. The front office has been aggressive in searching for trading partners to help address a few concerns and better position themselves for a deep playoff run, league sources told The Athletic.
The primary targets are no secret. The Wolves have been making calls looking to inject the second unit with another primary ballhandler and/or a shooter/scorer to help their fledgling offense. Minnesota has a championship-level defense that has ranked No. 1 in the league nearly all season long. The 108.2 rating is almost 2.5 points per 100 possessions better than second-place Cleveland, an enormous chasm.
The issue for much of the season has been their offense. Despite having Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, two dynamic scorers, in the starting lineup, the Wolves are ranked 19th in the league in offensive rating (114.1). The ranking plummets to 27th (110.2) in the fourth quarter. It is the number that keeps president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and coach Chris Finch up at night.
Last weekend Finch put the team through an uncharacteristically lengthy film session to get everyone on the same page about the issues plaguing the fourth-quarter offense. Finch has put much of the emphasis on cleaning up turnovers, so they do not lose the possession game by such a wide margin every night. But they also are focusing on better spacing to open lanes for Edwards to get to the basket without having three defenders converge on him.
There are two ways to quickly address those two elements of the offense: point guard and shooter.
If the Timberwolves are going to make a trade by the time the deadline arrives on Thursday, adding a point guard could be the position that is more easily addressed. They are so reliant on 36-year-old starter Mike Conley that when he doesn’t have it, like a 1-of-9 shooting night in a home loss to Orlando on Friday, everything starts to fall apart.
He gives the Wolves offense everything they need. He is a quiet, but respected leader who can get players to follow him. He’s a knock-down 3-point shooter, hitting a career-high 43 percent of his 3s this season and averaging a career-low 1.1 turnovers per game, essential on a team that has so many problems taking care of the ball. In his 17th season in the league, Conley is producing the highest offensive rating of his career, 132.0, according to Basketball Reference.
The Wolves have a grueling schedule the rest of the way filled with back-to-backs and few breaks. Adding someone to help take some of the burden off of Conley and allowing him to stay fresh for the playoffs would benefit a team trying to get beyond the first round for the second time in franchise history.
The highest-profile name that has been linked to the Wolves is Washington Wizards point guard Tyus Jones. The Apple Valley native started his career in Minnesota and blossomed into one of the most efficient guards in the league during his time as Ja Morant’s backup in Memphis. He is as close to a Conley clone as one could get, not big or overpowering athletically, but supremely intelligent and with a clutch gene when the ball finds him in big moments. He is hitting 39 percent of his 3s as a starter with the Wizards, a career-best mark and is always right at the top of the league in assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Wolves and Wizards have discussed Jones, league sources said. Washington is believed to be looking for a first-round pick in return for him. If the rebuilding team sticks to that asking price, the Wolves will not be able to match it unless they can construct some multiteam deals that bring a pick from another team. Minnesota does have a surplus of second-round picks, including a juicy 2024 selection from Memphis, to throw into an offer. With Jones set to be a free agent at the end of this season, it will be interesting to see if the Wizards can get a first-round pick for him.
Another possibility is Detroit’s Monte Morris, who played for Connelly in Denver. Morris just started playing for the Detroit Pistons after missing the first half of the season with a right quadriceps strain. The Wolves have had discussions on several fronts with the Pistons, league sources said. As our James Edwards III noted, Connelly tried to pry Morris from Washington last season to no avail.
Jones’ brother, Tre, could be another possibility with the San Antonio Spurs nowhere close to competing this season. Tre is not the shooter that his brother is, hitting just 28 percent from deep. But he is bigger than Tyus, a better defender and knows what an offense needs to function.
Toronto’s Dennis Schröder and Kyle Lowry, who was recently traded from Miami to Charlotte, and likely will be moving on via trade or buyout are two other names on the radar. Finch coached Lowry for half of a season in Toronto before he was hired to take over in Minnesota.
If the Wolves decide to prioritize scoring over playmaking in the trade market, they could always stick with Jordan McLaughlin as the primary backup for Conley.
McLaughlin has played very well of late in that role, injecting ball movement and opportunistic defense into the lineup when he is on the floor. Finch lamented not playing him in the second half of the Friday loss to Orlando and rectified that with more minutes in the Sunday win over Houston, managing the game so he could start the troublesome fourth quarter with both Conley and McLaughlin on the floor.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kyle Anderson have also given Finch options at point guard.
“I don’t know if I have room for a backup point guard,” Finch cracked last week. “I have everybody who wants to handle the ball all the time. But yeah, Nickeil has been great. Kyle, J-Mac, there’s a lot of options there. Whatever is done or not done, we’ll be able to survive it.”
This summer the Timberwolves believed they found a solid option to get buckets off the bench when they signed Shake Milton in free agency. Milton had the makings of a versatile scorer, able to sprinkle in 3s with drives the basket and crafty finishes in transition. After Jaylen Nowell struggled to find consistency in that role last season, Milton was ready to fill the void.
He had a strong training camp and preseason, excelling in practices and workouts to give the coaches the impression that he was ready to handle a combo guard role. Ever since the season began, Milton has never looked comfortable. He is averaging just 4.7 points per game, shooting a career-worst 26 percent from 3 and has been removed from the rotation. His struggles have put more pressure on Naz Reid to carry the scoring with a second unit that, ideally, would play faster than the starters. Without a backcourt scorer to balance the floor, the Wolves have been prone to scoring droughts when Edwards sits down to rest.
Detroit’s Alec Burks would be an ideal fit. He will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, which could depress the Pistons’ asking price into a range that Minnesota can pay. Burks is hitting 39 percent of his 3s on almost six attempts per game, the kind of volume shooting from the perimeter that the Wolves lack.
Dennis Smith Jr. in Brooklyn is another combo guard that could fit what they need, while the Nets’ Royce O’Neal would give them another wing defender who has experience playing with Rudy Gobert.
Two more affordable options could be Washington’s Delon Wright and the LA Clippers’ Bones Hyland. Neither are playing big roles for their teams right now. Connelly tried to get Hyland, who he drafted in Denver, from the Nuggets at the deadline last season, but Denver sent him to the Clippers instead.
For the first time in ages, the Timberwolves could find themselves as a viable home for players who hit the buyout market. They have minutes to offer on a team that is in contention and also have some of their midlevel exception money left to spend to sweeten the pot beyond the veteran minimum contract that many buyout candidates sign with new teams.
If Charlotte were to reach a buyout with Gordon Hayward or San Antonio did the same with Doug McDermott, I would expect the Wolves to make a run at them. How likely that is remains unclear, and it is not something the team can bet on happening. But it is an option to watch after the trade deadline hits on Thursday.
A viable scenario would be for the Wolves to address point guard via trade and then their need for shooting in the buyout market. But it does depend on the next 72 hours and what deals emerge for a team that wants to make a move.
As of right now, I do not expect Kyle Anderson to be on the move. Anderson has struggled offensively this season, particularly with a 3-point shot that has cratered at 19 percent. But he remains an enormous part of their defense, giving them versatility against smaller lineups, and is an influential voice in the locker room.
It’s never say never this time of year, but my impression is it would take an offer too good to refuse.
(Photo of Tyus Jones: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)