The Minnesota Timberwolves need to make the playoffs next year. Attendance at the Target Center is declining, the Wild and Vikings are expected to make postseason runs and Minnesota has not been in the NBA playoffs since 2003-04.
In order to qualify for the postseason, the Wolves must build around their two star players: Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. This means re-signing Chase Budinger and Nikola Pekovic, hoping that Andrei Kirilenko picks up his player option and adding a starting shooting guard.
In order to break down Minnesota’s cap situation, I will address which players the team has to keep, who they should let go and who they should add.
All contract numbers courtesy of HoopsWorld.com.
Kevin Love, Power Forward ($14.7 million)
Love is the team’s only franchise player. Rubio is on his way, but Love was around during the Kevin McHale years, grinded it out with Randy Wittman and Kurt Rambis as his head coaches and had to play with guys like Johnny Flynn, Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson throughout his career.
While his recent complaints to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports about the David Kahn era may have rubbed some fans the wrong way, they were honest, pretty spot on, and a result of being a great player on a poor team.
Love is under contract for two more years, with a player option in 2015-16. There are people that feel he is as good as gone, but with Kahn gone, Flip Saunders in (a man he gets along with) and the retention of Rick Adelman as head coach means that Love should be content to play in Minnesota—at least in the short term.
The key is keeping him around once Adelman eventually retires. Building a contending team around him is a start, and it begins with moves made during this offseason.
Andrei Kirilenko, Small Forward ($10.2 million)
Timberwolves management has little say in the matter; Kirilenko will either pick up his player option or he will not.
Odds are he does as long as Saunders and Co. put a team around him that is capable of winning. At 32, he is not part of Minnesota’s long-term plans, but, for right now, he is a veteran leader that is still productive on the court and should begin the year as the starting small forward.
The Wolves would love to see Derek Williams eventually take over that position, but he needs to earn it and probably would benefit from starting the year by coming off the bench.
Nikola Pekovic, Center (est. $12 million)
Pekovic has a qualifying offer for just over $6 million, but he is not going to take it—knowing he is worth double that in free agency.
Minnesota must retain Pekovic if they are serious about contending. The massive Montenegrin is in his prime (age 27), a fortress in the middle and undoubtedly the most lovable player on the team.
He easily could round out Minnesota’s “Big Three,” if you’re into those things, and, at worst, is an important part of the supporting cast for Love and Rubio.
Pekovic told Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he wants to stay in Minneapolis and to let him go is sending a simple message to Timberwolves fans: We’re too cheap to seriously try to win (please purchase tickets next season!).
Derrick Williams, Forward ($5 million)
The jury is still out on Williams. Some feel that he simply overachieved last season and is going to be another Timberwolves draft bust. Others think that he can lock down a spot in the starting rotation next season.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about Williams. After all, Wolves fans have seen other top draft picks like Johnny Flynn, Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson flop in Minneapolis, but Williams is different. He is a versatile player brimming with athleticism, has the potential to be one of the most dynamic forwards in the league and is a scoring option that should free up some pressure on Love to carry the team.
At 6’8”, 240 lbs., he is small for the power forward position and a little large to be considered a true small forward. He is unlikely to start over Love at the 4, obviously, but he could earn a spot as the team’s primary 3.
Worst-case scenario, it looks like he can be a great sixth man that can change the course of the game when he comes off the bench.
At this point, there is no sense in letting him go. He needs a year to prove that Minnesota should pick up his team option next season.
J.J. Barea, Point Guard ($4.7 million)
This will be a hot debate all summer long: Should the Wolves keep Barea or Luke Ridnour?
There is no sense in retaining both. Alexey Shved is a point guard at heart, Rubio is the obvious starter and Malcolm Lee is a cheap option that can be used in a pinch.
The case for Barea is that, at age 28, he is four years younger than Ridnour, has already won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks—back in 2011—and makes about as much as Ridnour does.
Sure, in a past life Barea may have tried to save his red, ripe strawberry from a big hungry bear (Pekovic), but the generously listed 6’0”, 170-pound point guard can hold his own against the league’s giants. He showed enough last year to convince the Wolves that he is worth retaining until his contract is up ain 2014-15.
Ricky Rubio, Point Guard ($4 million)
Rubio may be the league’s biggest bargain. Off the court, his Beatles hair and unbridled smile provide a friendly face for the franchise to market. On the court, he is a selfless point guard whose dynamic passes are so deceptive even the government cannot intercept them. He also is a sound defensive player when healthy.
Assuming he can hit more than a quarter of his shots from the field this season, he will be considered a franchise player in Minnesota—if he isn’t already.
The question is who his backcourt mate will be.
Chase Budinger, Guard/Forward ($4 million)
Having played under Adelman in Houston before coming to Minnesota, Budinger made it abundantly clear that he would only return if ol’ Rick was the head coach next season, according to the Star Tribune.
Now that we know that Adelman is going to be behind the bench, it’s time to reach out to Budinger. He is probably not going to start for Minnesota, but he can play either the 2 or 3—two positions where the Wolves need depth.
Most importantly, he is a sniper from beyond the arc and, last I checked, that was a department Minnesota was lacking in last season.
Like with the Pekovic situation, the Timberwolves will send the wrong message by not giving Budinger a raise this summer.
Alexey Shved, Guard ($3.2 million)
There are a lot of questions about Shved:
Is he capable of being a great NBA player? Or did he just start out really hot last year?
Can he play with Ricky Rubio? Or is it smarter to use him at the 1, his natural position?
Is he really George Hill and Adam Morrison’s clandestine love child?
It’s worth paying him the $3 million-plus he is owed this year just to find an answer to the first two questions. The third is probably better off left undiscovered.
Dante Cunningham, Forward ($2.2 million)
For just north of $2 million, Cunningham is a wise investment.
We know that he is never going to be a game-changing forward, but he provides great energy off the bench and, at 26, he is in his prime—meaning that the Wolves could keep him in Minnesota for a long time.
Picking up his team option this year is a no-brainer for the Timberwolves.
Others: Malcolm Lee, Mickael Gelabale and Chris Johnson (combined: under $3 million)
Lee and Johnson are under contract for the next season, make less than $1 million each and provide depth at the point guard and center position, respectively.
Lee proved to be a quality backup last season until he got injured. He may become expendable if Barea and Shved both fill out the depth chart behind Rubio, but that’s no problem—if push comes to shove, any of those three players can be traded at the deadline to fit another need.
Johnson had the crowd cheering “M-V-P, M-V-P” last year, according to Ray Richardson of the Pioneer Press, but did not see much playing time after that. At 6’11”, 210 lbs, he is basketball’s version of Kate Moss—essentially the anti-Pekovic. As long as he can come in and contribute every now and then, he is worth the money.
Gelabale has a team option for under $1 million and is so old that he was drafted by something called the Seattle Supersonics. After spending most of his playing career overseas, the French forward came to Minnesota and got some time at small forward last year.
Depth at that position might be filled out if Budinger re-signs, so the option might not be picked up. However, it would be nice to have some insurance in case the aging Kirilenko falls to injury and Williams needs a backup.
Totals: 12 players, est. $63 million
Luke Ridnour, Point Guard ($4.3 million)
I’ll be sad to see Ridnour go, if only because I was at the '90s night game when he rocked out to Ace of Base on the Jumbotron. If he somehow cannot land a contract with a team next season (he will), Ridnour always has his karaoke career to fall back on.
Here’s the problem with knowing Ace of Base: It means you’re old and, by NBA standards, Ridnour is. At 32, he is exiting his prime, and the Wolves have 28-year-old Barea to step in for him.
Life is demanding without understanding, my man, I’ll be sorry to see you go.
Greg Stiemsma, Center ($2.7 million)
This has nothing to do with the fact that you’re a Sconnie, Mr. Stiemsma; it’s just that Johnson is owed less money than you and both of you are backup centers.
Steamer provided some quality minutes last season, but the team can save money by releasing him and retaining Johnson.
Johnson is owed less than $1 million, and there really is no need to have three centers on the roster—especially because, if Pekovic goes down to injury again, it wouldn’t be hard to find a player of Stiemsma’s caliber in free agency.
Either J.J. Redick or O.J. Mayo (Mid-Level Exception, est. $5-6 million)
Okay, don’t freak out: I know that both of these players might want more than the MLE in order to sign with Minnesota. Here’s the deal though: The Wolves can honestly say that either of these guys are the missing piece and that they can play on a playoff team, or even a fringe contender, if they sign.
Redick would be my first pick. He is a better defensive player and a proven shooter. He also made just over $6 million with the Milwaukee Bucks last season, so it’s not like he’s taking that big of a pay cut. And, trust me, he has a better chance of winning in Minneapolis than he does in Milwaukee or by going back to Orlando.
I wouldn’t mind a little reunion with Mayo, though. Aside from the fun of making fast food jokes, a la Airplane!, with his last name, it would be nice to have a combo guard with a strong outside jumper to put beside Mr. Rubio.
The problem is that he is not a great defender.
Mayo was originally selected by the Wolves with the No. 3 overall selection back in 2008 but was traded for somebody named Kevin Love. Having Love and Mayo on one team? That will be the greatest combination since The Simpsons put nuts and gum into a jar (Together at Last!).
This scenario will put the Wolves over the salary cap, but it will be worth it to put a contender in Minneapolis. Two years ago, when Minnesota united Rubio and Love, people packed the Target Center—instantly forgiving the team for the Joe Smith scandal, Kevin Garnett trade and “three-point guard” draft.
The masses will return again if they put this team on the floor. These 13 men can win basketball games together and give 19,000 people reason to watch them every night.