When the Target Center emptied for a final time during the 2012-13 season April 17, the needs for the team sauntering off the floor were readily apparent.
Get healthy. Get bigger. Get deeper. Get shooting. Get defense.
Get better. Much, much better.
Since then, a front-office regime change has brought an aggressive roster-building approach, which culminated in the past couple days as a busy free agency period came to a head. Holes have been plugged, money’s exchanged hands, pieces have been moved, and the finished product is almost complete.
“We had people we had targeted and what we wanted to do, and we pretty much were able to fill our targets,” a triumphant-sounding Saunders told a room full of reporters Friday. “You feel good about that.”
There’s just one final indentation to chisel into the key before it fits the ignition.
You’ve read about him here, and you’ve watched him grow into one of the most effective old-school big men in the NBA. He was Saunders’ No. 1 priority when he took the job in early May, and you can bet that status hasn’t changed one iota.
There’s a very slight, seemingly negligible chance restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic ends up on another team. After inking Brewer and Muhammad on Friday, the Timberwolves are just above the salary cap, Saunders told reporters. Because of their Larry Bird rights to Pekovic, they can exceed the salary cap to retain him. Only an extremely lucrative offer sheet from somewhere else could take him away.
There haven’t been any reported yet. But the Timberwolves and Pekovic haven’t come to terms, either.
Conversations continue between both sides, Saunders said, while refusing to get into specifics. “We’re not talking about negotiations, but they’re progressing,” he said.
While Pekovic’s still technically a wild card, it’s progress that’s defined Minnesota’s offseason activity to date.
The league’s worst 3-point shooting team of a year ago now has two viable threats in Martin and Budinger, both products of coach Rick Adelman’s system. Martin’s coming off the best outside shooting season in his nine-year career, and Budinger went 40.2 percent from beyond the arc during his last fully healthy campaign.
Retaining Budinger, whom Minnesota acquired through a trade from Houston, required some deeper pocketbook digging. Another team — reportedly Milwaukee — offered him more than the Timberwolves did originally, forcing them to dish out a three-year, $16 million salary.
Budinger made a little more than $885,120 last year.
“We had to do a little more to get it done,” Saunders said. “But he was important, the way we looked at it. I know people always look at how guys are overpaid or under-paid, well everybody in our league is overpaid.”
Minnesota took care of defense across the board, too. Drafting Gorgui Dieng in the first round and signing Ronny Turiaf — the latter move isn’t official, but happening soon, Saunders said — gives the Timberwolves two solid post stoppers behind Pekovic, and space was cleared to sign Brewer primarily upon his merits as a perimeter defender.
That deal took some maneuvering, too, as Saunders worked out a sign-and-trade that sent Luke Ridnour to Milwaukee, brought in Martin from Oklahoma City and put a mid-level exception in play to sign Brewer on Friday.
“Everyone’s going to say, ‘We think you guys will be able to score; are you going to be able to defend?'” Saunders said. “That’s why getting Brewer and getting Turiaf, a perimeter defender and an inside defender, I thought was going to be very big for us.”
So was parting ways with Ridnour, even though he was an Adelman favorite. The sign-and-trade with the Thunder and Bucks relieved Minnesota of Ridnour’s $4.3 million salary for next year and helped dissipate a logjam at point guard — his primary position, though he played a lot of two last year with injuries undercutting the Timberwolves.
But improved outside shooting, better defense and a freshly-balanced roster, mean a whole lot more with one of the few true centers left in pro hoops around. If he were to somehow slip away, either a rookie (Dieng) or an eight-year, off-the-bench journeyman (Turiaf) become the next-best options at the five position.
The emphasis on keeping Pekovic rings just as clear as it did in April.
Minnesota is close, Saunders said.
“We have the ability to match anything,” Saunders said. “Right now, where we’re set . . . in our budget, we have an ability to sign Pek, so we expect he will be back.”