MEMPHIS – Before the Timberwolves played the Grizzlies on Thursday, executive vice president Sachin Gupta was on the phone walking from section to section in the arena. With the Feb. 10 trade deadline less than a month away, the feeling-out process for how this market will unfold has begun.
Gupta made his reputation in the league in part on crafting trades, but for the first time in his career, he will make the call on making a trade after taking over as head of basketball operations since the September firing of Gersson Rosas. Gupta has not been named the permanent head of basketball ops, but he will be the person in charge ahead of Feb. 10, a crucial time for the Wolves.
"For me, I'm not just looking to make a trade for the sake of it or to make a splash to put my name on it," Gupta said. "I feel really good about this team, and at this point I think we're on track to achieve the goals that we set out."
After the midway point of the season, Gupta said he was happy with the Wolves (20-22) being in contention for a playoff spot or spot in the play-in tournament.
"We're two games out of the No. 5 [seed]. We're closer to five than we are to 10. That feels really good," Gupta said. "The coaching staff has done a great job. We've been a top-10 defense over the year so far, which this roster isn't one that we felt was the strongest on the defensive end."
Because of the Wolves' start and defensive ranking, Gupta said he would categorize them more as "buyers" at the deadline because there's an opportunity to secure a playoff spot and avoid the play-in tournament. But being a "buyer" doesn't mean shopping for a rental player who won't be in Minnesota beyond this season. Gupta said any deal the Wolves make will be geared toward improving now and over the next five years to maximize the "runway" Gupta said the Wolves have with center Karl-Anthony Towns and guards D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards.
"We do see an opportunity to get up to maybe the five [seed], to work our way out of the play-in to just secure a playoff spot outright, which would be great," Gupta said. "Given that opportunity, I'd say we're more buyers. But generally I would say we're buyers over the long term."
One of the biggest questions on the roster entering the season was who would the Wolves play at power forward alongside Towns. Rosas had his eye potentially on Atlanta's John Collins and Denver's Aaron Gordon for that role.
The Wolves also have had interest in Indiana's Myles Turner, but the emergence of Jarred Vanderbilt as a starter has made the Wolves rethink how they value the that position and how any potential move would affect Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt has meshed with Towns on offense with his spacing, and his offensive rebounding has helped the Wolves become a top-five team in that statistic. He's also been a good pick-and-roll partner for Russell.
"He's been really impactful. In a lot of ways [Vanderbilt] has been a good frontcourt partner for KAT," Gupta said. "That has changed a little bit how we look at things. He's gained a real starting role, playing big minutes and he's really earned that. I think we need to be cognizant of that, to look at other potential acquisitions to see how that impacts his minutes because he's really earned the minutes that he's playing right now."
Some of the issues present at the beginning of the season are still there. Gupta said the Wolves are still a "poor" defensive rebounding team and foul too much, but he said, "I do strongly believe it's drastically improved from where it's been at. I feel like we can say that."
He also envisions the offense getting better, as it has of late, mainly by players simply shooting better.
Despite the playoff push, Gupta said he did not feel like the Wolves are prepared to pay the luxury tax this season by taking on additional salaries, but that is on the table in future years.
"We're probably not at the position yet where it's going to make sense to go into it and add to the potential to be a repeater at some point," Gupta said.
But the playoffs are in sight sooner than later, and Gupta said he's ready to strike to make the Wolves better now.