Flip Saunders had to know he wasn’t going into a cushy front office job when he was hired as the Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations. However, he also had to know that a roster that had been handicapped by his predecessor was not an excuse for failure. Besides, there wasn’t time for that.
The doomsday clock was ticking on Kevin Love‘s opt-out clause and Saunders needed to find a way to upgrade the roster to make a playoff push. Such an objective was going to be tricky as few free-agents want to come to the frigid waters of Lake Minnetonka and the Timberwolves didn’t have many tradable assets.
As we fast forward a year later after another failed attempt at a playoff run, it’s time to look at what Saunders has done in his first season on the job.
Drafted Shabazz Muhammad with the 14th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
In a move that made it seem like Saunders didn’t have a “Plan B,” he traded down with the Utah Jazz for the 14th and 21st picks while giving up the rights to Trey Burke. While Burke hasn’t set the world on fire, he could have been a better option for scoring punch than J.J. Barea and given Minnesota a boost of their lifeless bench.
Things got worse when the Philadelphia 76ers selected probable rookie of the year award winner Michael Carter-Williams two picks later, but Saunders still had the ability to find a gem. Instead, he took Muhammad over another promising rookie, Giannis Antetokounmpo (who was selected 15th by the Milwaukee Bucks).
It can be argued that the book is still out on Muhammad, but he has the makings of a young Michael Beasley. Without an outside shot or a willingness to play defense, he’s spent most of his time riding Rick Adelman‘s bench while saving his most electrifying performances for the Iowa Energy.
Drafted Gorgui Dieng with the 21st pick in the 2013 NBA Draft
After riding shotgun with Muhammad on the Timberwolves bench most of the season, Dieng got an opportunity when Ronny Turiaf went down with a knee injury on February 19. Since then, he has shown flashes of promise including the first 20/20 game (22 points, 21 rebounds) by a Minnesota rookie on March 20 that propelled him to the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award.
Dieng’s playing time has gone up, but he’s still a project. If he continues to progress, the Timberwolves will have a decent back-up forward coming off the bench and not have to overpay with a highly-protected lottery pick for someone like Jason Thompson or Thaddeus Young.
GRADE : C
Signing Kevin Martin to a Four-Year, $27.76 Million Contract in Free-Agency
Acquiring Martin in a sign-and-trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder was supposed to reignite his career while giving the deadly shooter that the Timberwolves had been lacking since Fred Hoiberg retired. Instead, Martin hasn’t come close to the low-to-mid 20s scorer that he was prior to the James Harden trade (21.3 points per game in over two seasons with the Houston Rockets).
While the Timberwolves knew he was a liability on defense, he hasn’t found his touch from behind the arc either. His league-leading 42.6 percent clip from 2012-13 has regressed back to his career average of 38.5 percent this season and that’s made him shockingly overpaid with three years to go on his deal.
Signing Chase Budinger to a Three-Year, $15 Million Contract in Free-Agency
One of the worst moves of the Kahn Era extended to the Saunders Regime with this contract. Originally brought in as a player who knew Adelman’s system, Budinger also failed to become the sharpshooter Minnesota thought they were getting. Budinger also suffered a variety of injuries, which made him more famous for wearing a suit than contributing on the court.
This season was no different as Budinger missed the first couple months of the season while rehabbing from an October knee injury and then shooting a woeful 32.7 percent from three point range. He’s one of the key reasons why the Timberwolves’ offense goes in the tank when the starters come out.
Signing Corey Brewer to Three-Year, $14.11 Million Contract in Free-Agency
Brewer has been a nice addition to the Timberwolves and has been a great receiver on the end of Love’s outlet passes. That knack for streaking down the court has lead to a 53.8 percent shooting percentage inside the arc, but he hasn’t converted from the outside (28.5 percent from 3) despite shooting well from the corners of the court.
He’s been misused as a starter throughout the season, but if Saunders can upgrade the roster this summer, he can be a great catalyst of a revamped bench.
Re-Signing Nikola Pekovic to a Five-Year, $60 Million Contract
Pekovic is a solid player to have as your center. Offensively, he has the type of bruising skill set that most of today’s NBA centers don’t have. While he’s effective with the ball in his hands, he’s not the rim protector you want at the other end of the court, but the Timberwolves were willing to deal with it.
Today, Pekovic’s contract looks like a giant road block in revamping the roster. While his offensive skill set could lure some team into trading for him, his massive salary will make plenty of teams look the other way. This is relevant considering that Pekovic has missed extended periods of time while dealing with his balky ankles for the third consecutive season.
If Love leaves in free agency, the Timberwolves have to start over. But, they can’t rely on Pekovic to be the star that this contract insists he is.
Perhaps the biggest exclamation point on Saunders’ first season was the trade that gave up on the second overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. After being in Adelman’s
rather large doghouse for three seasons, the Timberwolves deemed they couldn’t find a way to use Williams’ skill set along with Love’s.
With Minnesota needing help at the defensive end, they swapped Williams for Mbah a Moute in hopes that they could stop the late game hemmoraging. Instead, Mbah a Moute promptly found his way into Williams’ area of the doghouse and finds himself playing the same role that Robbie Hummel did at the beginning of the year.
With Williams doing nothing in Sacramento, this has the feel of a junk swap on both sides.
So where are the Timberwolves now? Are they any better than they were a year ago? It depends on how they finish the season and how the fans want to look at things.
On the bleak side, Minnesota failed to get Love to his first playoff series. The moves that Saunders made didn’t pan out and that leaves the team in desparation mode to get the roster ready for a playoff run in 2014-15 (which could be Love’s last season in Minnesota regardless).
But there’s also good things, the Wolves will likely not lose the first-round pick to Phoenix acquired in the Wes Johnson trade and will have a chance to get a key contributor in a deep draft class. They may also be without Adelman, who has buried players who didn’t fit in his system and handicapped the team by letting Barea dribble the air out of the basketball in his pass-oriented offense.
The first year of the Saunders Regime didn’t go smoothly, but the front office needs to make sure the second year does or else it could be an uphill battle back to relevancy.