First-round picks are priceless in the NBA. Like the Heart of the Ocean Diamond in Titanic, everyone wants to get their hands on one by any means necessary. But if Oklahoma City’s GM Sam Presti is the Billy Zane of the NBA, doing everything in his power to own every single pick in every draft for all time, unfortunately, the Minnesota Timberwolves are old Rose. They prefer carelessly tossing their picks into the ocean with an “ope” and not a second thought about how throwing away a priceless gem could affect those around them.
President of basketball operations Gersson Rosas is the most recent Timberwolves front office decision-maker caught up in the grand tradition of undervaluing valuable assets. His blockbuster trade of Andrew Wiggins for D’Angelo Russell was finalized during Tuesday night’s draft lottery when the Wolves pulled the seventh pick. Since it didn’t land in the top three, it conveys to the Golden State Warriors, leaving the Wolves without a draft pick entirely.
Finishing the season with a flurry of wins — 11-11 when Russell returned from injury — and actual competence on the court didn’t exactly destroy their chances of keeping the top-three protected pick. The Wolves entered the lottery with the sixth-worst record in the NBA and a 27.6% chance of landing in the top three. Even if they remained the worst team in the league, as they were for much of the season, the best Minnesota could muster was a 40.1% hope of retaining the pick. That 12.7% difference won’t make or break the future of this team, but they are left with limited resources and fewer ways to quickly improve before next season tips in October.
This is the first time in the 32-year franchise history that the Wolves don’t have a single pick in the draft, but not the first time they’ve missed out on the first round. Minnesota has gone into the draft without a first-round pick five times previously: in 2000 after dealing it for Chauncey Billups; 2001-2002 and 2004 thanks to the Joe Smith fiasco; and most recently in 2012 when Minnesota traded the 18th pick for Chase Budinger.
Looking back on what happened to the Wolves in the seasons immediately following these drafts could shed some light on what’s in store for 2021-22.
The 2000-01 Timberwolves finished the season 47-35, with three fewer wins than the previous season with a similar playoff result: Minnesota got bounced in four games in the first round in both years, by the San Antonio Spurs in 2000 and Portland Trail Blazers in 2001. Minnesota would have received either the 21st or 22nd pick in the 2000 NBA Draft. Kevin McHale would have had the opportunity to select shooting guard Morris Peterson, who went 21st overall to the Toronto Raptors. Fresh off of a National Championship with Michigan State, Peterson earned All-Rookie first-team honors and put up an eerily similar stat line to Billups that season.
The Wolves regained those three wins in 2001-02 to finish 50-32 but were swept in the first round by the Mavericks. Kevin Garnett led the way with an All-NBA second-team nod and was joined in the All-Star game by Wally Szczerbiak. If they hadn’t lost their pick in 2001, Minnesota would have picked 17th or 18th. Toronto ended up taking Michael Bradley with the 17th pick, while Houston nabbed Jason Collins at 18. One pick later was Zach Randolph, who could have formed a formidable frontcourt with KG if Minnesota had taken him.
Minnesota kept trending up during the 2002-03 season, finishing with 51 wins and taking the Lakers to six games in the first round. Garnett finished as the runner-up for MVP and cemented himself as one of the best players in the NBA. For the third-straight season, Minnesota was operating without a first-round pick. Had they been in the 2002 draft, Minnesota would have selected 26th, when the Spurs selected journeyman John Salmons, who averaged 2.1 points per game in his rookie season in real life.
Noted softy David Stern reinstated Minnesota’s 2003 first-rounder, allowing them to get off the schneid and select franchise-altering high schooler Ndudi Ebi with the 19th pick. Kevin Garnett finally won the MVP in 2004, and along with fellow All-Star Sam Cassell and family man Latrell Sprewell, he led the Wolves to 58 wins and the Western Conference Finals. KG and company couldn’t overcome an injury to Sam Cassell and bowed out in six games at the hands of the Lakers.
Since then, pretty much everything has gone wrong for the Timberwolves. They didn’t get their 2004 first-rounder to finish off the Joe Smith mess, which would have been 28th (Beno Udrih). The Wolves were hampered by an aging lineup devoid of the young talent that would have refreshed the roster had the team had their original picks. During the 2004-05 season, the Wolves could only muster 44 wins, 14 fewer than the previous season, and missed the playoffs by one game. Flip Saunders was fired midway through the year, thus beginning the dark times of Timberwolves basketball.
During those times, the Wolves made a first-round selection in every draft from 2005 until 2012. Unfortunately for the fans, none of the draft picks worked out particularly well. We all remember the Brandon Roy for Randy Foye mistake in 2006, David Kahn’s obsession with point guards that led him to select two point guards not named Steph Curry in 2009, and whiffs on Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams. During the 2011-12 season, the Wolves finished a much improved 26-40 during the lockout-shortened season (32-50 extrapolated over 82 games). The following season was nearly identical; at 31-51, the Wolves failed to improve with a wonky lineup behind Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. The 18th pick they traded for Budinger turned out to be Terrence Jones, who made a solid impact during the Rockets’ Western Conference Finals run in 2015.
So what does this all say about the Timberwolves’ chances to improve during the upcoming season despite not adding a first-round talent to the squad? The reality is that it likely won’t hurt the team much during the upcoming season. Aside from 2005, the Wolves only marginally improved or got worse every year following the missed first-rounder. The biggest difference is that the highest pick they previously would have garnered would have been 17th or 18th in 2001 and 18th in 2012. Most of the time, they were picking at the back of the first round. The seventh pick is by far the biggest first-round asset they’ve thrown away.
It will hurt the Wolves in the future: From 2005 to the present, the dark times are almost a direct result of not having a first-round pick in four of five seasons. Had the Wolves been able to replenish their roster with even marginal talents like Morris Peterson or John Salmons, they could have given KG some much-needed help and ultimately changed the franchise’s trajectory.
Rosas will need to learn the value of the first-round pick as he continues to tinker with a franchise that has made the playoffs just once since 2004. Giving up a future first-rounder in what is now a lopsided trade isn’t the biggest sin a front office can make, but committing the same sin over and over will be Gersson Rosas’ iceberg, dead ahead.