Things did not go exactly as planned this offseason, so Flip Saunders, the Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations, had to improvise.
This was his first true test: If things did not go his way, could he still put together a playoff-caliber roster in Minneapolis?
So far, it looks like he has passed the test.
The Wolves did not take C.J. McCollum with the No. 9 pick, meaning they probably were not targeting him in the first place (likely because he played in the inferior Patriot League). They probably wanted Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at nine, who went one spot ahead to the Detroit Pistons.
When Saunders could not move up for KCP, he called an audible. He took Trey Burke and traded him for the No. 14 and the No. 21 pick. He used first pick to take Shabazz Muhammad, a scorer with an odd backstory, and the second one to take Gorgui Dieng, a rim stopper that needs to work on his offensive game.
Similarly, in free agency, Saunders and the Wolves probably wanted J.J. Redick, who was in high demand and was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in a three-way deal.
With Redick off the board, the Timberwolves reunited Kevin Martin, a former Sacramento Kings guard, with Rick Adelman.
(O.J. Mayo, another free-agent shooting guard, is finalizing a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Wolves must have taken a pass on him, perhaps because he was expensive coming off of a good year with the Dallas Mavericks.)
It looks like things could work out in the end. Muhammad is an extremely gifted forward that can play both the 2 and the 3, addressing two team needs, and Martin should thrive under the direction of a familiar coach.
The final piece is adding Nikola Pekovic.
Three things must happen, however, for success in the offseason to translate to wins once the regular season beings: Pekovic must be re-signed, Muhammad and Derrick Williams have to be hungry for playing time and Martin needs to lock down the shooting guard position.
Pekovic must re-sign
Before discussing Pekovic, let’s give Dieng his due.
There is a lot to like about the former Louisville forward. He has nice size at 6’11”, 230 pounds, his 7’3” wingspan gives defenders a lot to deal with in the paint and he has a lot of lateral foot speed and is a great shot blocker.
Unfortunately, he does not have a lot to offer offensively.
“Lacks great post skills, scoring most of his points on open looks around the basket or face up shots,” writes Aran Smith in an NBADraft.net scouting report. “Limited offensively and likely won't ever be much of a scorer.”
Pekovic is also known more for his defense than his scoring, but the third year forward out of Montenegro has progressively scored more points per game in each season. He averaged 5.5 points in 2010-11, 13.9 in 2011-12 and 16.3 last season.
At age 27 he is in his athletic prime and could average as many as 20 points during his best years in the NBA.
Dieng is still an asset with Pekovic on the team. In fact, he actually plays a more natural role sitting behind the big man.
With Dieng on the bench, Minnesota knows that there will not be a defensive leak if Pek takes a rest and will have to go with a lineup that concentrates the scoring in the 2, 3 and 4 positions, which is not difficult to do with Martin, Budinger, Williams and Muhammad at Adelman’s disposal.
However, if the Wolves cannot bring back Pekovic, which probably will only happen if another team overspends on him (Minnesota will have to go over the cap in order to retain Pekovic, according to HoopsWorld.com), they lose another offensive threat as well as an experienced defender near the rim.
Keeping him in Minnesota is a must at this point.
Muhammad and Williams will have to be hungry
As it stands, Minnesota has their starters for every position except small forward pretty locked up. Ricky Rubio will start at the point, Martin will be his backcourt partner, Love will play the 4 and Pekovic, if he re-signs, will play center.
That means that Muhammad, who can play the 2 and 3, and Williams, who can play the 3 and 4 will both compete for time at small forward.
Last year’s starting small forward, Andrei Kirilenko, opted for free agency instead of picking up his $10 million player option, meaning there is a vacancy at the 3.
Budinger, Williams and Muhammad can all play that position, but because Budinger will probably back up Martin at the 2 and Love is going to play big minutes (assuming he’s healthy), the two youngsters will have an opportunity to nail down a starting role with the team if they prove they are a productive scorer.
Both Williams, 22, and Muhammad, 20 (right?), are incredibly athletic, versatile and were great college players, but they also carry their own question marks.
Williams has a lot to prove on the defensive end and took a while to become a 20-plus point per night scorer last season. Muhammad can put up points, but needs to rely more on smarts than physicality at the NBA level and has to prove that he will play on both ends of the court.
The hungrier of the two players will get the most playing time. Minnesota needs another scorer to take the pressure off of Love, Martin and Pekovic and will benefit from the ability to give defenses different looks if both players are competing for playing time.
With Budinger and Muhammad able to play the 2 and 3, and Williams able to play the 3 and 4, no defense in the league can rest on its laurels if both Muhammad and Williams are firing on all cylinders.
Martin needs to lock down the shooting guard position
There is no doubt in my mind that he will. Adelman was his coach back in Sacramento, the position is his to lose and at age 30 he’s been around enough to adjust to new surroundings.
If he doesn’t, however, it forces Budinger or Muhammad to play the 2, meaning that Williams has to be a reliable 3 and suddenly depth becomes a bit of an issue at shooting guard and small forward—especially if Budinger/Muhammad/Williams gets hurt/doesn’t play well/dogs it.
Suddenly, the various looks Adelman can throw at opposing defenses are gone, perimeter shooting becomes a problem again and the Wolves miss the postseason once more.
As a veteran playing an important position, Martin needs to be a rock for this team.
There is reason to be excited about the Timberwolves this year. If they re-sign Pekovic they are a deep team that can adjust to the defensive personnel on just about any team in the NBA.
Saunders may not have gotten who he wanted in the draft and may have missed out on the player he wanted in free agency, but he improvised with aplomb.
Assuming the guys on the court do what they are paid to do, the Wolves should be a playoff team in the Western Conference next season.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.