NBA Trade: The Dame Game: How the Unlikely Timberwolves Can Pounce

We’ve talked in the offseason about a trade of Karl-Anthony Towns for Scoot Henderson. We’ve talked about resetting the current timeline to get more in line with a long-term core of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. We’ve talked about the new CBA necessitating the movement of a major contract in the next calendar year if the Minnesota Timberwolves can’t prove themselves as a title contender with the current core.

So what if we solve that problem not by trading a big contract for smaller, younger, cheaper assets, but by trading a big deal for a big deal and really, really turning this team into a title contender? Friends, Damian Lillard is available, and if the Wolves can add a top-three point guard in the NBA, they should.

Before we go any further, let’s address the elephant in the room. It’s basically financially impossible to make almost any Dame trade without also shipping out one of KAT or Rudy Gobert. From my point of view, there is no way to even out the gap in assets between Gobert and Lillard. So that leaves us with cities.

There’s no more controversial topic in Wolves fandom right now than the concept of trading the former Kentucky Wildcat star who has been the only consistent cornerstone of what we’ve seen over the past eight years. I wonder how many people are already scrolling down to the comments to voice their opinion. I won’t say which side is the right side. I would say that this whole hypothetical form is unlikely to bear fruit.

What I will say though is that it’s okay to want an upgrade as much as it’s okay to roll it back. The Wolves are in such a strange place with the construction of this team and the question marks they face. There may not be a star in the NBA with a more undeserved negative reputation than Karl-Anthony Towns. He also has some pretty annoying moments and quotes. This article is not a call to close the door on the KAT era. It examines what a Lillard move would mean and what it would cost. That is it. Let’s get to it.

Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The main issues with a Dame trade to Minnesota (outside of its improbability) are threefold. First, the value of his contract is large enough that it would lock the Wolves into being another frontcourt team even if Mike Conley is thrown in and doesn’t expire for cap relief. Second, his age of 32 isn’t worrisome by itself, but when combined with his propensity to miss time over the past few years, it’s certainly not encouraging. Third, and probably most crucially, Dame would enjoy being traded to a team that isn’t his preferred location in the Miami Heat, and even though he’s under contract for a few more years, trading a disgruntled aging player is a smart move choice? These are all reasonable concerns, but easily mitigated.

The concern about contract value has been a common topic in Minnesota this summer. As it stands, the Wolves are one of three teams with three full maxes on the roster. The other two are the NBA champion Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns, the current betting favorite to win the 2024 NBA title. The Wolves, despite similar financial investment, are not at that level of teams. However, there are details to look at here.

The Wolves have a 25% max that can jump to 30% in Edwards and then two 35% maxes for Towns and Gobert. This doesn’t take into account Naz Reid’s hefty three-year, $42 million dollar extension or the significantly larger offer sheet believed to be headed for McDaniels’ inbox. Minnesota’s situation isn’t as bad as the Suns, who have three 35% max and pay each member of their big three a huge amount along with DeAndre Ayton’s 25% max. Alternatively, the Wolves’ situation, while similar to the Nuggets’, is significantly worse than Denver’s. While Nuggets is to pay three max contracts, two of which are 25% max for Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, who played up to that level in the playoffs, and the final max is arguably an underpayment for Nikola Jokic at 35% of the cap.

You simply don’t have a real chance of making a deep run or a deep roster if your 35% max players aren’t MVP caliber. The Sun has two “maybes” or even “probabilities”. The Nuggets just proved that their one guy can be the best player on the planet. The Timberwolves’ top signings have both never even made an All-NBA First Team, let alone played at an MVP level. Damian Lillard has played at that level, only briefly interrupted by injury or (mostly) tanking, for seven straight years. This is how you become a contender in the fastest and most painless way possible: Get a top-10 player. Even at his age, Damian Lillard is.

The next concern is Dame’s age. I personally think this is the least valid concern. First of all, Lillard is coming off his best season in the NBA, averaging a career-best 32.2 points per game. game of 46.3/37.1/91.4 shot split. We see stars playing at a high level for longer and longer periods of time, and Dame’s injury story is more of a story of manipulation Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Joe Cronin. Even then, over the past five years, Lillard has had the least “healthy” seasons of his career and is still playing sixty games a year. Exclude his 29-game pre-tank fest in 2021-2022, and that average flies up to sixty-eight. Wolves fans have just seen a season go down the drain after injury took out a star for fifty odd games, so I understand the concern, but it’s not as bad as it seems on face value.

If we’re talking about when Dame is on the pitch, I think the fit is as good as it could get. Lillard regularly asked Portland to bring in every capable defender. If the Wolves manage to retain him, McDaniels would already be the best perimeter stopper Dame has ever played with. Gobert would be the best rim protector he’s ever shared the court with. They’d probably both be the best defensemen he’s ever seen on the same roster. On a team lacking a gravity-shifting shooter, Lillard’s high pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs would add much-needed frivolity and space in the offense. Edwards would benefit from that. So would Gobert. Honestly, there is no one who would not benefit greatly from this.

It’s not a stretch to say that a top-75 player would ever help a team. It’s especially easy to write something like this when you know it won’t happen. There’s no need to question whether Dame would embrace Minneapolis after being in “small market” Portland, because he more than likely won’t be here. He will be in Miami along with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo for a package that will involve Tyler Herro on a third team.

So let’s get back to the issue of trading KAT real quick. Staunch advocates will complain about fans wanting to send out a player who has anchored himself in Minnesota since being drafted here in 2015 and, for better or worse, became the face of a franchise that doesn’t give a good reputation and wore it crown of horns impressive. Pessimistic critics will point to his painfully self-destructive offseason interviews and lurid quotes off the field and his flailing and decision-making on the field. The truth is somewhere in between. KAT is a phenomenal player who unfortunately gets in his own way a lot. My inclination to trade him is not an indictment of Karl, but of my lack of faith in the roster construction as it stands. A Dame trade, however unlikely, makes everything more reasonable. A lineup of Lillard, Edwards, McDaniels, Kyle Anderson and Gobert makes a lot more sense to me than running it back, mostly because I don’t think you should ever stop tweaking things.

People will point to the Nuggets’ success after President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly chose to run it back all along, but I recommend taking a real look at roster turnover over the past few years. Driving it back just depends on what you think the core is. For me, the core is all Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. Anyone else can be moved. I will also mention that trading KAT to Portland would not mean throwing him to the proverbial wolves. His fit with both of their pillars in No. 3 overall pick Scoot Henderson and second-year super athlete Shaedon Sharpe is great, and the Blazers lack a truly impactful big man.

Regardless of how you feel about Karl, you can admit that a trade for Lillard could move the Wolves into a category they’ve never been in: contender. Is it worth the risk to make another big swing in as many breaks? This is something we probably already know the front office’s answer to, but it’s still fascinating to consider both sides of this. Minnesota hasn’t reached the first round since 2004. The dream of greener pastures can make you miss what you’ve already grown, but it’s also the most normal part of fandom. Nobody dreams of being an eighth seed and losing in five (exciting) games. I dream of championships, no matter how unrealistic. Here’s how to get there.

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