It’s not often that the two worst teams in a conference combine for the most compelling deal at a trade deadline. But that was the case last season, when Golden State sent D’Angelo Russell to Minnesota in exchange for Andrew Wiggins and a future first-round pick.
For Golden State, the move was oriented toward the future. With Klay Thompson and Steph Curry hurt, 2019-20 was a lost season, so the Warriors flipped Russell—who had been a Warrior for only 33 games after signing a max contract in free agency—and hoped for Wiggins’s potential and a prized pick.
But for Minnesota, the move was focused more on the near term, pairing longtime friends Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns to take advantage of the star center’s ascension. The Timberwolves were even willing to sacrifice a potentially juicy draft choice—top-three protected in the 2021 draft and unprotected in 2022—in the process.
Fast-forward a year and that near term is in shambles: Minnesota now has the worst record in the Western Conference (6-18), the worst point differential (minus-8.0 per game) in the entire NBA, and one of the hardest remaining schedules. Russell has the worst individual plus-minus among all rotation players, through Sunday’s games; Ricky Rubio looks like a shadow of his former self; and no. 1 pick Anthony Edwards ranks 194th out of 198 qualified players in true shooting percentage.
Some of Minnesota’s struggles are circumstantial; mainly, Towns has played only four games this season due to a wrist injury and a positive COVID-19 test. He hasn’t played since January 13. Minnesota’s 28th-ranked offense would almost certainly look much better if Towns had been more readily available. Last season, the Wolves’ offensive rating was 11.5 points better with Towns on the court than off; this season, that difference is 10.9 points.
But even if Towns returns soon, the Timberwolves have dug such a deep hole in the competitive Western Conference standings that they will almost certainly be a lottery team this year. An early version of our playoff odds model—which is still waiting for the NBA to release its second-half schedule—gives the Wolves less than a 1 percent chance of reaching this postseason, accounting for the new play-in structure. (FiveThirtyEight’s odds say the same.) The pick they owe Golden State therefore grows all the more enticing.
Because teams don’t stay at the top or bottom of the league for long, it’s practically impossible to predict where a traded draft pick will land many seasons in advance. But for this season and next? The Warriors can make more accurate determinations of where their best asset might land—and they must factor this in when considering how to value this pick in potential trade talks if they decide to make a push for veteran help now.
Forecasting the Wolves’ pick slot involves three steps. First, we have to determine the range that Minnesota might finish in this year’s standings. Second, we have to use that answer and the lottery odds to predict Minnesota’s chances of ending up with each pick in the upcoming draft. And third, we have to do the same for next season in case the Wolves land a top-three pick this year, meaning the pick will convey in the 2022 draft.
The first step is simple. Our early playoff odds model simulates that 75 percent of the time, the Wolves finish with a bottom-three record—meaning they get the joint-best lottery odds (14 percent for the top pick) under the recently flattened system. This chart shows the chances of where the Wolves will place in the draft order before the lottery.
Minnesota’s Pre-Lottery Position in 2021
|Outside lottery (playoff team)||0.7%|
But remember, now that the lottery includes drawings for the top four picks, instead of only the top three, even the worst teams are likely to see their picks fall a few places. The team with the worst record, for instance, will land the no. 5 draft choice most often. Plug those above probabilities into the lottery odds, then, and we find a 63 percent chance the pick lands outside the top three and transfers this year.
That result also means a 37 percent chance the owed pick carries over to the 2022 draft, at which point it would be unprotected and Golden State could simultaneously dream on a no. 1 pick and dread a sudden Minnesota surge in the standings. The Celtics’ recent draft experience highlights this kind of uncertain duality: They landed a future no. 1 pick years in advance in the infamous Garnett-Pierce trade, but they also saw future selections from the Kings and Grizzlies plummet in value when those teams improved just before their picks transferred.
Just a year out, though, we can sketch out a reasonable approximation of the Timberwolves’ 2021-22 chances. In the 30-team era, for instance, out of 15 teams that finished with the worst record in the NBA, only two reached the playoffs the following season (the 2008-09 Heat and 2014-15 Bucks). Using this kind of pattern for every team in every spot in the standings, we can estimate Minnesota’s probability of finishing in various places next season, based on their simulated finishes in this season.
Mash all those numbers and calculations together, and we find the following pick probabilities for the selection Minnesota has to send to Golden State, either this or next season:
Where Will Golden State’s Pick From Minnesota Land?
|Pick||2021 Odds||2022 Odds||Total Odds|
|Pick||2021 Odds||2022 Odds||Total Odds|
|Outside top 10||2%||8%||10%|
On the one hand, it’s fairly unlikely that Golden State will land a pick at the very top of the draft, because they’d need Minnesota’s pick to land in the top three two drafts in a row. And since Minnesota also landed the no. 1 pick last year, this would really require three top-three picks in a row. This century, only the 2014-16 76ers and 2015-17 Lakers managed that feat.
That’s a meaningful realization because historically, the NBA draft has been very top-heavy, with the average pick value plummeting past the top one or two picks.
But on the other hand, the pick is still likely to be quite valuable, with a 53 percent chance that the Warriors get a top-five choice out of the deal and a 90 percent chance it’s in the top 10. Given the purported strength of the 2021 and 2022 draft classes, there’s every reason to think Golden State will add a significant future piece either this summer or next.
Thus we clearly see the Warriors’ predicament. Any prospect they might take with the Timberwolves’ pick will need time to develop. The difficulties they’ve experienced incorporating no. 2 pick James Wiseman—a talented but raw center—into a win-now roster demonstrate the tricky balance between long-term development and near-term competitiveness. The Warriors’ main lineup is minus-16.2 points per 100 possessions with Wiseman at the 5, versus plus-31.1 with Kevon Looney in his place; even if that discrepancy is far wider than it would be in a larger sample, there’s a reason Steve Kerr dropped Wiseman from the starting group. (Both big men are now injured, so the Warriors aren’t currently starting anyone taller than 6-foot-7.)
So if a potential blockbuster trade emerges for, say, Bradley Beal, who would better align with the Curry-led core, the Warriors might want to pounce on that possibility. They need the help now or they’re not going anywhere this season, even with Curry playing at an MVP level. They’re a middling team that ranks 21st on offense, 12th on defense, and 17th in net rating, per Cleaning the Glass, which strips away garbage time. Next season is a question mark, too, especially with unanswerable questions about Thompson’s health.
And as that chart shows, the combination of pick protection and lottery odds means the Warriors are unlikely to miss out on the no. 1 pick even if they part with the Wolves’ selection. Of course, given how valuable the pick still projects, only a star of Beal’s caliber would be a sufficient return.
The Warriors have other factors to consider beyond the math explored in this piece, like their own internal belief in Wiseman’s growth, as he’d almost definitely be part of any trade for a star. The Timberwolves might render some of these considerations moot if, for instance, a healthy Towns, Edwards, and another high pick help vault them forward next season. (The thought of pairing Towns with USC freshman Evan Mobley as a sort of modern twin towers duo offers particular intrigue.)
But as the Warriors navigate the balance between present and future contention, between maximizing Curry’s prime and preparing for his decline phase à la the Spurs with Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, they’re assuredly making similar calculations before this deadline. All they can do is play the odds and pick a side—and, naturally, enjoy every Timberwolves loss along the way.