Today, the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Andrei Kirilenko to a two-year, $20 million dollar contract and thus achieved what many had long seen coming: one of the absolute whitest lineups in the NBA in a long, long time. Sure, last season their three best players were white guys (Ricky Rubio (who counts—come on, now), Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic), but they also had Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster, and Anthony Randolph. With signs pointing to them being more or less done dealing now, they’ve exchanged those players (plus Brad Miller, Darko Milicic, and the 18th pick in this past draft) for Chase Budinger, Greg Stiemsma, Brandon Roy, Dante Cunningham, Andrei Kirilenko, and Alexey Shved.
Now before you jump down my throat, I don’t mean they traded them straight up. There were lots of steps that brought the Timberwolves to this roster, but basically, they’ve exchanged the production of the outgoing players for the production of the incoming players. And yes, they got a whole lot whiter. But here’s the thing: they also got a whole lot better, and at each stage of this offseason, they always made the smart basketball move based on what was available.
Let’s start at the beginning. The moves a team makes can’t be considered in a vacuum, but must rather take into account what the team needs and the Wolves’ two greatest needs were on the wing and at the center position. The production from the rotation of Johnson/Ellington/Webster/Beasley at the 2 and 3 was so generally awful that when Rubio was healthy, Adelman started point guard Luke Ridnour at shooting guard. And with the emergence of Nikola Pekovic as a legitimate starting center and the consigning of Darko Milicic to the shadows, it was clear that the team was going to need more size up front.
The first move came when the 18th pick in the draft was traded to Houston for Chase Budinger. This ended up being Terrence Jones. At the time, there had been talk about Kevin Martin coming from the Rockets, and it seemed initially like Budinger was a big step down from Martin, but in hindsight, it’s a solid move. Thanks to Eric Maroun and his analysis of draft picks we can see that the average expected win shares per 48 for an 18th pick in the draft is .062. For his career, Budinger is averaging .101 WS/48. Is it possible Jones (or someone else who was available at 18) becomes a great player? Completely. But Budinger addresses the Wolves’ woeful three-point shooting on the perimeter (a career .363 3-point shooter, plus shot .402 last season) and, moreover, he’s a known quantity: a solid player off the bench who’s played for Adelman before.
The next move was signing Brandon Roy to a two-year, $10 million contract. Clearly, there are more question marks on Roy than the Riddler, but the contract is insured in case Roy’s knees really aren’t up to snuff. If they’re not, the Wolves can get out of it and if he’s simply not good, the contract is over in a short time. But if Roy can provide half of what he was capable of in his prime, that’s a value-add for the Wolves simply because of how atrocious their production was from the 2 last season.
Alexey Shved is also something of an unknown quantity, but again, his ceiling seems high while his floor seems low. His biggest problem appears to be his slight frame and the fact that he hasn’t played in the NBA yet. If he plays up to expectations, he will work fantastically well next to Rubio and if not, could he be any worse than bringing Wayne Ellington off the bench?
Speaking of Ellington, the signings of Roy and Shved made him redundant, and so he was shipped off to Memphis in exchange for power forward Dante Cunningham, who gives them another big body off the bench. And speaking of big bodies, they lured Greg Stiemsma away from the Celtics to back up Pekovic at the center position. Between him and the other option they pursued, Jordan Hill, it’s pretty much a toss-up. Hill comes off better offensively (13.2 pts per 36 versus 7.6 points per 36 for Stiemsma), but Stiemsma was much better defensively, posting a fantastic defensive rating of 90. If Milicic did anything, it was block shots, which Stiemsma is also good at (4.0 blocks per 36). Pekovic is great offensively and great on the offensive boards, so a big thing the Wolves needed was defense in the middle and Stiemsma addresses that issue.
And so we come to the Kirilenko signing. The Wolves lost out in their pursuit of Portland’s Nicolas Batum. Simply put, the Blazers had complete control over whether Batum was leaving or not and they kept him. In the meantime, the Timberwolves forced them to pay him a lot of money based on the hope that he develops into something like an All-Star. By the time Portland matched, it was a win-win for the Wolves: they either got their guy or made another team in their division shell out for him. With Courtney Lee off the table to the Celtics and Ronnie Brewer gone to the Knicks, the Timberwolves’ options were dwindling. But with Kirilenko they get a player who was once a borderline All-Star and who has been tremendously consistent throughout his career (he only once had a PER below 15—the league average—once in his career). He’s also a jack-of-all-trades player who can defend, shoot, and block on a team that has a lot of specialists—Rubio passes incredibly but shoots below average; Love shoots the three well and rebounds, but doesn’t defend very well.
The move for Kirilenko is also good because of the deal itself. Giving a two-year deal with a player option for the second year means that if things don’t work out, Kirilenko either walks or becomes a valuable trade asset as an expiring deal in the $10 million range. The alternative would have meant trying to get a younger, lesser player like Brandon Rush or Dominic McGuire for less money but perhaps more years, making the contract itself less valuable as a chip.
So in this offseason the Wolves have generally gotten not just a good player, but a player that fits well with what they need. But of course, that’s just my opinion. Let’s look at the numbers for some support.
*To explain two anomalies here, I’ll point out that I’m using Brad Miller’s career WS/48 even though his WS/48 last year was just a little more than a third of that and he’s retiring because I’m also using Brandon Roy’s career WS/48 even though his was about half that his final season. Basically, if you eliminate them both completely from this calculation it’s a bigger hit on the incoming Timberwolves than the outgoing when it’s pretty clear that Roy will contribute more on the floor this year than Miller ever will again.
So if you take the average WS/48 of the outgoing players, you get .063. Do the same for the incoming players and you get .137. In a lot of ways, that’s really all she wrote. This team wasn’t designed to be white—it was designed to be better than last year’s team, plus more capable of becoming a better team going forward. Because three years out—coincidentally the time when Love will have to make a decision about staying or going—the Wolves are only committed to Love, Rubio, Williams, and Barea. The color of the players is secondary to the fact that judging by win shares, the Wolves just made their rotation roughly twice as good.