The cost of running it back in Minnesota: Will Timberwolves spend to keep team together?

When last the Minnesota Timberwolves made the Western Conference finals in 2004, contentious contract negotiations with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell dissolved a contender and ultimately cost them Kevin Garnett, too. A 15-year playoff drought ensued, and they did not win a round until this year.

As the Wolves stand on the precipice of elimination from their second conference finals appearance in franchise history, trailing the Dallas Mavericks, 3-0, an ownership dispute threatens to repeat history.

In 2021, billionaire entrepreneur Marc Lore and former Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez agreed to buy a majority ownership stake in the Timberwolves over three installments, the last of which was scheduled for this season. Only, existing team owner Glen Taylor announced in a statement on March 28 that Lore and Rodriguez had failed to meet a deadline for the final payment, and the deal was nullified.

Rumors raged each step of the way about Lore and Rodriguez's ability to raise the $1.2 billion necessary to purchase 80% of the team. Except, they fired back in a statement: “We have fulfilled our obligations, have all necessary funding and are fully committed to closing our purchase of the team as soon as the NBA completes its approval process. Glen Taylor’s statement is an unfortunate case of seller’s remorse that is short sighted and disruptive to the team and the fans during an historic winning season.”

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - DECEMBER 20: Anthony Edwards #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on between teammates Karl-Anthony Towns #32 and Rudy Gobert #27 during the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on December 20, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Will ownership spend to keep the Timberwolves together? (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Taylor raised concerns about a proposed budget from Lore and Rodriguez that would slash Minnesota's payroll below next season's projected luxury tax threshold, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported. Only five teams — the Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans — have paid fewer luxury taxes than Taylor's $1.5 million since 2004, according to Spotrac.

In other words, a team owner with a history of cutting costs thinks the next owner will also cut costs. Such is life in a small-market NBA city. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves hang in the balance of arbitration.

Is not the opportunity to win a championship the point of purchasing an NBA team? Why would anyone who owns a contending team operate under an edict to cut payroll and make the team worse as a result?

Most team owners do not think as fans do, especially ones who need help paying for the team. Profit is the name of their game, and that was possible when Minnesota's $164.3 million payroll came in $981,286 below this season's tax threshold. As extensions for Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels kick in this summer, Minnesota has guaranteed $190.8 million to nine players next season — well above the NBA's proposed $171.3 million tax threshold. That is $43.25 million in taxes before they fill out a 15-man roster.

We are two seasons into what Rodriguez called in 2022 "a window for four or five years." That timeline is significant. If Minnesota exceeds the tax threshold for the rest of that window, under the NBA's "repeat offenders" policy, the very same spending situation would cost them $62.75 million in taxes for the 2026-27 season. Every additional dollar spent could cost the Wolves as much as five times more in taxes.

Goodbye, profit. That is, unless the Wolves win the championship (or multiple titles) in that timespan and become a marketable brand. With Edwards as the face of the franchise, it is far from out of the question.

Or at least that is what we thought when Edwards made a superstar turn in a seven-game victory against the defending champion Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. A downshift on the verge of a sweep against Dallas has raised questions about the 22-year-old's readiness for an NBA Finals stage.

An 0-3 hole in the series has also resurfaced concerns about max-salaried bigs Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. Towns has wilted once again, shooting 27.8% from the field through three games, and Luka Dončić — among other Mavericks — has brutally laid bare Gobert's failures to defend guards in space.

On one hand, we could cite their thrilling win over the Nuggets as evidence they can contend for a title with the same roster next season, especially if Edwards and McDaniels continue to ascend. On the other hand, Lore and Rodriguez or Taylor could use this series against the Mavericks as an excuse for why the roster needs to be reconstructed, hoping we do not notice that the undertaking includes a lower payroll.

Should Minnesota fail to come back against Dallas, watch how quickly Towns becomes available and what the Timberwolves might say to sell the idea. Do they demand well-paid, win-now players in return? More likely, we start to hear about how Naz Reid can fill the void, and any draft picks they receive in return for Towns merely gives them more flexibility to continue building around Edwards. Believe it when you see it.

Every piece you remove from the Jenga tower that was this wildly successful season threatens to crumble the entire foundation. Mike Conley turns 37 years old in October. What if McDaniels plateaus as a prospect? Nickeil Alexander-Walker is due a raise in 2025. What if Edwards is years from his peak? Contenders are delicately built, and team owners are often unwilling to pay when they are teetering.

However rosy your outlook may be on Minnesota, there is a world in which Edwards looks around a year from now and wonders, Wait a second, a 33-year-old Rudy Gobert is my best teammate? Ownership will wonder that far earlier, if not already, unwilling to foot the bill for a team it believes has already peaked.

For his part, Rodriguez was non-committal when asked in 2022 if he would pay luxury taxes, telling the Star Tribune, "All those things will be examined. But I think at the moment our focus is to build a team that's in position to compete for a championship and all those options will be weighed in the future."

That future becomes the present as soon as Dallas eliminates Minnesota. Unless, of course, the billionaire owners simply decide to gift their fans what it costs to keep a conference finalist together, losses or not.