State of the Cap: Minnesota Timberwolves
20012/13 Payroll: $60.3million
2012/13 (Projected) NBA Salary Cap: $58 million
Roughly: $2.3 million over cap
Highlights: How much better can Kevin Love get? When he broke out during his second season, putting up 14 points and 11 rebounds a game, people said he could board but couldn’t do much on offense. Then he developed his three point shot and low post game to average more than 20 points (while leading the league in rebounding). Then people said he was good but not an elite player. Love responded by scoring 26 a game, good for fourth in the league, and making game-winning shots in crunch time, things that only elite players can do. Did you see his 40 points and 19 boards against Charlotte? How about the 51 and 14 with 7 threes against Oklahoma City? Love is, without a doubt, an elite player.
How long he stays with the Timberwolves remains to be seen. He signed a four year extension, with an opt-out after three years, for about 60.7 million, but Love has already been griping about the lack of playoff appearances in Minnesota. This could lead to a forced trade down the road if the state of the team doesn’t improve. For now, the Wolves will have to be content having the best power forward in the game on their side for at least a while longer.
Starting beside Love on the front line is the bruising Nikola Pekovic who really had a breakout year. In just his second season in the league, Pek averaged 13.9 points and 7.4 boards on 56% shooting. He showed good chemistry with Ricky Rubio and used his 6’11”, 290 pound frame quite well in the post. Unfortunately, his season was cut short due to injury, but Pek showed he could be an adequate starter at center in the NBA. His one remaining year for $4.8 million is a pretty good bargain.
One of the best deals on the Wolves belongs to Chase Budinger. He was acquired this summer for the 18th pick in the draft, one of the few good trades of the David Kahn era. Budinger will get just $885,000 this year. He shot an excellent 40% from the three point line in his most recent season and added 9.6 points and 3.7 rebounds in 22 minutes a game. Budinger will be a key rotation player for a cheap price and his awesome vertical will certainly come in handy while catching lobs from Rubio.
Minnesota got rid of some expensive excess baggage this summer when they got rid of Darko Milicic, Martell Webster, and Wesley Johnson. The bumbling Milicic was hardly “mana from heaven”, Webster was usually injured or ineffective, and Johnson was a big time draft bust. The team saved a lot of money, and improved their product on the court, by subtracting these players.
Lowlights: In an effort to win now and make a splash by adding some recognizable names, the Wolves handed out quite a bit of money to former all-stars Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy. At first glance, it seems like it could work. Because of the lock-out, Kirilenko spent last season in Europe playing for CSKA Moscow and played well enough to be named league MVP. He also led his Russian national team to a bronze medal in the Olympics. As for Brandon Roy, he underwent a procedure on his knees that was similar to one Kobe Bryant had on his own knees. Roy’s knees responded well enough to treatment that he decided to make a comeback after a brief retirement. He probably won’t return to play at his former high-level, but his veteran experience and talent could be a boon for Minnesota’s bench.
So what’s the problem? The dollar amounts. Kirilenko will receive about $10 million a year and Roy about $5 million, which means the Wolves are locked into spending $15 million a year on two players who weren’t even in the NBA last season. Yikes! At least each of the contracts are just two years in length, meaning that if they don’t pan out, Kahn and the Wolves won’t have to live with their mistakes for very long.
It's too early yet to call Derrick Williams a mistake, but the team sure isn’t doing a good job of giving him a chance to shine. With a late round draft pick or a project player that will take time to mold, you can afford to be patient. Williams is neither. As the second pick in the draft, Williams was supposed to be polished and explosive enough to start contributing relatively quickly. Yet Williams was relegated to very inconsistent minutes as guys like Martell Webster, Michael Beasley, and Anthony Tolliver took away some of his chances. Once those guys were gone, it seemed that Williams would get his shot next season. Then they signed Kirilenko and threw a wrench in that plan. Of course, Williams needs to play well to earn his minutes, so it is partially on him. But after committing to him this summer by not packaging him in a trade and after seeing a lot of promising games from him last year, Williams deserves to be given a key role in this team’s future. At $4.8 million next year, and after being such a high-profile pick at #2, the team can’t afford to let him ride pine and become a bust.
The Rest: Besides Love, and the newly acquired Kirilenko, no one on the team will make more than $5.1 million next year, which means there aren’t many horrible contracts on this team. J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour are pretty good veteran guards to have for between $4 million and $4.5 million per year. Barea was second on the team in assists and shot well from the three point line. Ridnour was decently efficient. Both averaged double digits and will be useful with Ricky Rubio coming back slowly at the start of the season. However, with the addition of Alexi Shved from Russia, who can also play the point, one of those veteran guards will be expendable once Rubio is back in full force. I would expect one of them to be traded in the next year.
Speaking of Shved, he provided some nice games and highlights as Kirilenko’s running mate in the Olympics. An apparent attitude problem hurt his stock a while back, but he is an intriguing talent and worth taking a chance on for just $9.3 million over three years.
The Wolves also added backup center Greg Stiemsma this summer. He will be an upgrade over Darko Milicic for just half the price (about $2.5 million per year). Plus, his deal is only for two years, so it won’t affect their long-term cap situation if he is a bust.
The Future: Ricky Rubio is the key to the future of the Timberwolves over the next couple of years. His recovery from his ACL injury will be greatly scrutinized this season. If he gets back to full speed and recaptures the potential he showed last year, this Wolves team will be destined to make some noise in the playoffs. If he doesn’t, the losses will pile up and heads will roll, namely David Kahn’s. Rubio is truly that kind of special player and it would be a shame if his gift to basketball fans was taken away because of an injury.
Rubio just has “it”. The way he keeps the ball moving on offense, distributing it to teammates in a variety of ways, both mundane and clever. His teammates play better when he is in because they know they will touch the ball. The fans react more when he is on the court and cheer louder when he is part of a great play, which gives the team more juice. He is like a modern day Ken Griffey Jr., a young sports prodigy who everybody roots for because of their obvious love of the game and amazing moments they produce. If this Minnesota franchise will matter again, it will be because of Ricky Rubio.
If this franchise falls back into oblivion, it will be because of David Kahn. This is the guy who recently drafted Johnny Flynn at #5 and Wesley Johnson at #4, both picks wasted. This is the guy who signed Darko Milicic and stockpiled point guards while ignoring shooting guards. This is the guy who hired Kurt Rambis. This is the guy who drafted Ty Lawson and traded him away for nothing. His blunders are starting to pile up. Kahn’s best achievement by far was drafting Rubio and he went missing for two years and then tore up his knee before his first season was through. He has had some small successes, but the pressure is on to win now, thus the gambles he took on Kirilenko and Roy. If the Wolves don’t make the playoffs next year, Kahn should be gone. To his credit, at least he wouldn’t be leaving behind a mess of long-term, overpriced contracts. At the end of this season, Kahn will either be redeemed or unemployed. There is no in-between.