Offseason Grades: Timberwolves
The Point Forward will grade every team’s offseason over the next few weeks. Click here for the complete archive.
What Went Right: Perennial lottery teams in non-premier markets often face a difficult choice when they hit the summer with cap space to spend: Should they try to make do with their roster weaknesses using cheap fixes, or should they overpay to truly address the problems?
After Kahn's strange four-year tenure, which produced Kurt Rambis, Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson Darko Milicic, Brandon Roy and zero postseason appearances, Saunders didn't disguise what his approach to the "get by versus shell out" conundrum would be. Here came the contracts, one after the other: $27.8 million over four years to Martin; $15 million over three years to Budinger; $14.1 million over three years to Brewer; and, after an extended negotiation, $60 million over five years to Pekovic, a restricted free agent who averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds last season for Minnesota.
All told, that's $117 million worth of deals handed out to four players who have no All-Star appearances between them and combined to start 65 games last season (62 of those were Pekovic). That should be more than enough to make your throat "gulp" involuntarily, even if Pekovic's deal was fair (assuming he stays relatively healthy) and necessary, given the Wolves' lack of other options in the middle.
Saunders' spending appears motivated by a few factors, aside from the obvious goal of snapping a nine-year playoff drought. First, it's no secret that he wants to set a no-nonsense, confident and aggressive tone in the aftermath of Kahn's follies. That's especially important for the organization as it navigates its relationship with All-Star forward Kevin Love, who can become a free agent in July 2015. Love has publicly expressed his desire to play for a winner and his frustrations with the structure of his current contract, so there's an olive-branch aspect to Saunders' maneuverings.
Second, Saunders' new additions should should shift the discussion around the Timberwolves, which for years has focused on the team's pitiful outside shooting and its dire need for a competent shooting guard. (If Saunders could hire a few extra Red Cross nurses to make his team's horrible injury luck a thing of the past, he would surely do that without thinking twice.)
It was better to overpay Martin, Saunders seemed to reason, than endure another year like 2012-13, when the other 29 teams shot between 32.9 percent and 40.3 percent from three-point range and Minnesota managed to make only 30.5 percent. It was better to overpay Budinger, Saunders continued, and hope that the small forward, who hit 32.1 percent from beyond the arc in 23 games last season, can recover his 40.2 percent shooting stroke from 2011-12 rather than let him walk and get stuck with the huge hole created by Kirilenko's departure.
Martin, 30, shot 42.6 percent from deep as the Thunder's sixth man last season, and Saunders should enjoy at least a year or two before critics really start squawking about the size of Martin's new deal. During that time, the hope is that Martin and Budinger, who both played for Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman in Houston, will keep defenses honest and help lift Minnesota's offensive efficiency from its No. 25 ranking last season. Martin is an established commodity at this point. Budinger, however, is a bigger question, as he missed most of last season with a knee injury and has yet to post an above-average Player Efficiency Rating during his four-year career.
Brewer, meanwhile, has made a nice name for himself as a high-energy, active defender. Would a contender have paid him $14 million over three years, given his lack of offensive range and subpar shooting numbers? No way, largely because that type of expenditure for a role player is increasingly difficult to make for teams with superstar contracts eating up large portions of their cap and/or teams verging on luxury-tax territory. While Brewer is no Kirilenko replacement, he is a solid rotation player who fills a niche and puts his team first. He's a fit -- albeit a costly one -- in Minnesota.
What Went Wrong: Muhammad seems hell-bent on challenging Suns forward (and former Timberwolf) Michael Beasley for the "easiest punching bag in the NBA" title. The revelation that he misrepresented his age while in high school and at UCLA will hang over him until he finds a way to make a real mark on the league. You would have thought that Muhammad would do everything in his power to get a fresh start, if only so that he doesn't have to hear lines like "His draft profile lists his weaknesses as passing, lateral quickness and filling out HR paperwork" all day, every day. Instead, he got tossed from the Rookie Transition Program for a rules violation, prompting a round of "They threw him out because they discovered he's actually 29 and already completed the program in 2006" wisecracks from the peanut gallery.
Unfortunately for Muhammad, his play at the Las Vegas Summer League didn't win him much media support (or sympathy). He shot only 36.5 percent and committed 13 turnovers compared to just five assists in 124 minutes. He generally played defense as if wearing his own signature line of Adidas Cinder Block sneakers, and he left some in attendance questioning whether the former high school phenom still has the potential to be an impact pro. All in all, it's been a rough start, and you know what they say about first impressions.
Aside from Muhammad's (dumb but harmless) hijinks at the rookie program, the hand-wringing over Saunders' financial commitments and Kirilenko's move to Brooklyn, there wasn't a ton over which to fret. Grade: C+. Most of this rundown likely reads as a justification and, frankly, that's exactly what it was. Saunders' moves -- particularly the signings of Martin and Budinger -- are dubious in a vacuum, but slightly more understandable within the context of Minnesota's short- and long-term needs. Did all of that spent money transform Minnesota into a surefire playoff team? No, and that's a big problem, given the size of the outlays. That said, Kahn is Gahn and the Timberwolves should toss up fewer bricks as they compete for one of the West's final two playoff spots. If Love can stay healthy and put up the monster numbers everyone knows he is capable of, this all sounds like a recipe for a significantly less depressing season than last year.