Speaking last week after the Timberwolves completed their in-market group workouts, the first time the team was together for any length of time since March, President Gersson Rosas discussed how he viewed the concept of drafting for need on a roster.
Rosas’ words were notable because he said, essentially, there’s no such thing.
“Needs have to be addressed in free agency and trades,” Rosas said. “With draft guys it’s a development process. You want it to be right away, but the reality is it’s a two, three, four-year process. So it’s not fair for me to tell coach [Ryan Saunders], ‘Hey, we need this, we’re going to get it in the draft.’ It doesn’t organically work that way.”
Since the Wolves landed the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery, Rosas has dropped some comments that shed light into when he thinks the Wolves’ window will open to be competitive in the Western Conference on a regular basis.
For instance, he told the Star Tribune shortly after getting the pick that the Wolves still had a lot of work to do to get to that point. A No. 1 pick wasn’t going to magically vault them into contention.
“I’d be naive to say we’re playoff contending next year because that’s not how it happens, especially in the West,” Rosas said in late August. “You have to build a winning program. You have to build an identity. You have to build your DNA and that takes time. My goal is that we become a winning team next season and become a playoff team in the following couple of seasons.”
The NBA’s successful completion of its season in a bubble Sunday with the Lakers beating the Heat in six games — with Miami led by former Wolves guard Jimmy Butler — drove home how far the Wolves have to go. At the end of the 2017-18 season, the Butler-led Wolves defeated the Nuggets on the final day of the regular season to secure the final playoff spot in the West.
The Nuggets improved over that time and reached the Western Conference finals this season. The Wolves didn’t even qualify for the bubble as Rosas began his roster teardown and continued it through the February trade deadline, when he made the paradigm-shifting move of trading Andrew Wiggins to the Warriors and getting D’Angelo Russell in return.
The Nuggets showed what can happen when a team drafts well and sticks to the development of its core players. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic appear to be centerpieces of a contending core for years to come.
In the short-term, the Western Conference still is going to be brutal to navigate. The Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Rockets, Jazz, Mavericks and Blazers, assuming health, all figure to be back in the mix next season. That group doesn’t even mention Golden State, which should get Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson back healthy.
Making the playoffs in the West will be a noteworthy accomplishment again, but as it relates to the Wolves and Rosas’ timetable of success, it might be too soon to include the Wolves in that group, especially if they keep the No. 1 pick — a player the Wolves likely will have to take a few years to develop.
Most of those teams have a winning culture in place, Rosas would argue the Wolves still are trying to establish theirs.
“We knew when you’re going into the process of building a program, it’s hard,” Rosas said. “I talked about it last year when I took this job that this first season wasn’t going to be about the record. It wasn’t going to show what we were doing. It was going to be more about our ability to establish a program, to establish an identity, to change the philosophy and bring the organization into more of a modern platform.”
Rosas is also hopeful that as some of those teams’ stars age and decline, the Wolves’ young talent will just be hitting its peak, but that’s not going to happen en masse next year either.
Time is not a luxury, however, considering any rebuilding is likely to accelerate the clock on stars such as Karl-Anthony Towns and Russell getting frustrated by losing and possibly asking out of town.
Keeping the pick would indicate Rosas is preaching patience, and hoping Towns and Russell are in it for the long term. Trading the pick for a more established player might signal the Wolves would like to be in the playoffs sooner than later.
With the season finally over and the Lakers adding their 17th title, the next significant move in the NBA will come from the Wolves. They are officially on the clock.