Trying to piece together this puzzling Timberwolves offseason.
Last summer, the lockout loomed, players fled for Europe or Asia in search of temporary employment, and Minnesota General Manager David Kahn took his sweet time before firing coach Kurt Rambis. The entire offseason was a bizarre anomaly – player movement paralyzed, front offices unsure of how to proceed in the face of the new rules to come in the collective bargaining agreement. In the foggy malaise, the Timberwolves hired veteran (borderline Hall of Fame) coach Rick Adelman, instantly bringing credibility and pedigree to an organization which had possessed neither in nearly a decade.
Any notion that Adelman would teach the talented but inconsistent Wolves roster the “right” way to play, slowly molding them into a winner, has been kicked to the curb. He wants to win, and win now… or at least, that’s the narrative being put forth. Kahn is nearing the end of his deal and needs concrete, on-court success in order to get an extension. Majority owner Glen Taylor gave an interview with Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press after the conclusion of last season, essentially saying that he wants a winning product to drive up the value of the franchise so he can cash out his interest while the going is good.
The priority of the current offseason seems to be upgrading the roster at all costs – to build around the core of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. The pressure to win, and win this season, pushes down on the franchise from all sides. Calling it a “perfect storm” probably conjures the wrong connotation – but the metaphor isn’t far off. Timberwolves fans would be justified to feel a bit uneasy, knowing Kahn is still the person calling the shots. For all of Kahn’s tomfoolery his first few years on the job, he’s purchased some political capital with the fans now that we see how brilliant the Ricky Rubio pick turned out to be.
Still, it’s fair to question whether the Wolves’ brain trust is making decisions that will hamper the future of the franchise, sacrificing assets for a shot to win this season. Here are the moves the team has made since the offseason began:
-They got rid of one eccentric scorer (Michael Beasley, who wound up in Phoenix for 3 years at $18 million) and brought in another eccentric scorer, one who hasn’t played in the NBA in over a year (Andrei Kirilenko) for more money (2 years, $20 million – though only the first is guaranteed).
-The Wolves jettisoned one inconsistent, three point shooting wing (Martell Webster) and replaced him with another – Chase Budinger, who cost the team their 1st round pick in this year’s draft.
-Since Adelman doesn’t seem to have the time or patience for “projects”, the team had no place for the disappointing Wes Johnson, who they shipped to the Phoenix Suns to clear room for Kirilenko’s contract. They replaced him with another Russian, the unknown Alexey Shved… who will undoubtedly be somewhat of a “project” in the NBA.
-Minnesota swapped shooting guard Wayne Ellington with Memphis for backup power forward Dante Cunningham and signed Greg Stiemsma to shore up the center position behind Nikola Pekovic. Stiemsma came off the bench for Boston last season, and somewhat surprisingly turned in a solid campaign.
-The team also brought in a guy with no cartilage in his knees – Brandon Roy – on the hope he can be 60 or 70 or 80% of what he once was. His contract is 2 years at about $10 million, and hopefully includes some language about knee injuries voiding the second season. It could be a bargain, considering Roy was an All-Star a few seasons ago. It could also be a non-factor, considering, uh, the fact that he has no cartilage in his knees.
-Gone are a nutcase with some upside (Anthony Randolph), a nutcase with no upside (adieu, Darko Milicic, sent packing via the “amnesty” clause), an aging big man with a big contract (Brad Miller), and coach’s favorite Anthony Tolliver. (Side note: Tolliver seems like one of the real good guys in the NBA… but he won’t be missed. The minimal on-court contributions couldn’t warrant keeping him around.
-The exploit which attracted the most attention this summer never actually came to fruition – I’m talking, of course, about the Timberwolves’ offer sheet to Portland’s Nicolas Batum, which was matched by his original club. Attempts to work out a sign-and-trade with the Blazers failed as the two franchises reportedly descended into the kind of behind-the-scenes catfight only a teenage girl could really appreciate.
-The shameless, gory details of said catfight:
1. Since the Wolves signed Brandon Roy, a former Blazer, Portland will not be able to use insurance money to cover part of the mammoth salary still owed to him when he “retired” last year.
2. The Blazers were also mad that the Wolves gave Batum an offer sheet for much more than he was worth ($45 million over 4 years) thus putting them in the awkward position of overpaying Batum to keep him or letting him walk away to a division rival.
3. Back in 2010, the Wolves traded starting forward Ryan Gomes and the team’s 16th pick in the 2010 Draft (Luke Babbit) to the Blazers for Martell Webster. Portland team doctors already knew that Webster needed back surgery that would hinder his 2010-11 campaign (turns out, it did). The Blazers organization didn’t disclose this to the Wolves before the deal was official, which is, uh, frowned upon around the league.
Throw in the fact that Kahn’s previous employer was – you guessed it – the Portland Trail Blazers, and you’ve got a good ol’ fashioned blood feud. Blazers owner Paul Allen is convinced Kahn is doing all this to try and make his life difficult, and Wolves fans are convinced Kahn is trying to make OUR lives difficult. The meerkat is doing a fantastic job on both fronts.
I digress. So where does all this movement left the roster? Does the prospective 2012 squad look that much better than the 2011 team? (Starters in bold, new arrivals in italics, departed players struck through.)
If you had to pick one word to describe the 2012 versus 2011 versions of the Wolves roster, that word would probably be… different. And I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense, but the literal one – eight faces are gone, and six new ones have arrived (so far) to take their places. Barring an unexpected blockbuster trade, the team’s notable moves are over – it appears all they have left to do is bring in a couple more backup big men, or perhaps another wing and a big, to fill out the roster.
If the Timberwolves improve this coming season – if they are an above .500 team that makes it into the playoffs – the primary reasons won’t be Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved. It will be because Ricky Rubio returned from his ACL injury in a timely fashion, Kevin Love continues to be great (and plays a little more defense) and Nikola Pekovic follows up on a solid season with a breakout season. None of those things have anything to do with Kahn’s offseason maneuvering.
Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be nice if Brandon Roy is healthy, Andrei Kirilenko fits in at small forward and Chase Budinger contributes as a sixth man. The moves are okay, even though they are littered with questions. Can Roy survive an 82 game schedule? Can Kirilenko find his groove after a year abroad?
For all the fuss about Kahn and Adelman’s offseason project of improving the roster, what it really comes down to for Wolves fans are Kevin Love, Rubio’s knee and Pek’s presence in the middle. If it all comes together, we’ll see an up-tempo, unselfish and fun brand of basketball on display in Minneapolis – whether that’s because of David Kahn or in spite of him remains to be seen.
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!