MINNEAPOLIS — Earlier this month in Chicago, Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn pulled Rockets general manager Daryl Morey aside.
Kahn had already been receiving calls about his team’s No. 18 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, but this conversation wasn’t about that — not then, at least. Instead, Kahn told Morey that he was interested in Houston small forward Chase Budinger. He didn’t have a concrete proposal, but Kahn wanted Morey to know that if the two teams could work out a fair deal, the Timberwolves would be willing to talk.
A few weeks passed before Minnesota coach Rick Adelman visited Kahn in his office. The discussions with Houston had progressed, and based on a conversation Adelman had just finished, he told Kahn he thought the team could complete the trade before the draft.
From there, it fell into place.
On Tuesday evening, the Timberwolves confirmed they had acquired Budinger and the draft rights to Israel’s Lior Eliyahu in exchange for sending the No. 18 pick in Thursday’s draft to Houston. Budinger, the centerpiece of the deal, represents the kind of strong shooter the Timberwolves knew they needed going into this offseason, and given his age, experience and familiarity with Adelman, he’s a logical choice for Kahn and the team.
“I felt that this wasn’t a hard decision,” Kahn said at Wednesday’s news conference introducing Budinger. “Chase is a proven NBA player, and yet still young. But he’s demonstrated in our league that he’s got real capabilities, especially offensively.”
Budinger, 24, isn’t going to bring star power to the team, but that’s not what the Timberwolves need. Instead, he’s the kind of underrated player who’s been improving since entering the league. Adelman, who coached Budinger in his first two seasons with the Rockets, said the small forward was picked later in the 2009 draft than he’d anticipated. The Rockets selected Budinger 44th overall, and they quickly began to agree that he might have slipped further than was warranted. From the first day he coached Budinger, Adelman saw the kind of player he could be, and the coach was impressed.
The relationship between Budinger and Adelman might be one of the most important facets of the trade. Instead of relying only on intelligence gathered from scouting and watching Budinger play against the Timberwolves, Kahn also looked to Adelman’s opinion when making the deal. That familiarity simplified the trade, and it’ll also make Budinger’s transition to the Timberwolves that much easier.
“Because of coach Adelman and all the other people that came to us from the Rockets organization, there was a real comfort level that we knew exactly who we were obtaining in this trade,” Kahn said.
Budinger spoke highly of Adelman on Wednesday, describing his two years under the coach as “super, super fun and exciting.” But it was more than that; Budinger also said that he learned a lot from Adelman and believes he fits well into the coach’s system, where he plays at his best.
Budinger, who will enter his fourth year in the league this fall, pointed out that coaches might be able to expect more from him next season, a year and a half removed from the last time he played for Adelman.
“I feel like I’m a little more mature now,” Budinger said. “I’ve been in the league for three years. I’ve played against all these guys already. You know, I just feel a little more mature out there on the court now.”
Familiarity with a coach is one thing. Knowing teammates’ styles and being able to complement them is another, but even in that respect, Budinger has a head start. In high school, he played on a club team, the So-Cal All-Stars, with Timberwolves All-Star power forward Kevin Love. Budinger called the team’s games “a fast-break-athon” because of Love’s outlet passes to him and teammate Brandon Jennings … and years later, Budinger still considers Love as a friend.
Adelman and Kahn spoke highly of Budinger’s shooting skills. He’s a talented outside shooter, a good passer and he has great instincts for cutting and running the floor. In Kevin McHale’s system in Houston, Budinger didn’t play off pick-and-rolls as much as he might have liked, and he said he’s looking forward to improving those skills with the Timberwolves. Budinger will also complement point guard Ricky Rubio, who will give him more of an incentive on the floor, Adelman said.
“I feel playing for coach Adelman in his system really brings out the strengths in me because of my cutting ability, getting to the basket and coming off screens,” Budinger said.
In Houston, where he averaged 9.6 points and 3.7 rebounds last season, Budinger came off the bench in the majority of games. In 210 career games, he’s started just 35, but Adelman is unwilling at this point to say what kind of role the small forward will have in Minnesota. There’s definitely an opportunity for him to start, considering the competition on the Timberwolves right now, but with free agency and the draft still looming, it’s hard to say how the position will evolve.
“That’s going to play itself out,” Adelman said of Budinger’s role. “I know for sure he’s a rotation player for us and that will work itself out with the guys we have. But just knowing what I know about him is he’s going to earn his minutes.”
Budinger, who’s under contract for one more season, is set to make $942,293 in 2012-13. Compared to players he could potentially replace, like Martell Webster, that’s a steal. Webster is set to make $5.7 million next season, but the Timberwolves could buy out his contract for $600,000 and save a good deal of salary cap room now that they’ve acquired Budinger. No decisions have been made in regard to who Budinger might replace, and Kahn said that the team has not yet decided what it will do at the deadline on June 30.
In acquiring Budinger, the Timberwolves traded away the rights to draft what would most likely have been a 19- or 20-year-old player. The team already has too many young players, Adelman said, guys whose skills it needs to build and wait for. Acquiring Budinger was an acknowledgement that youth is not the answer, but he still fits well into the Timberwolves’ dynamic. He’s not yet a veteran but has enough experience to satisfy Adelman and Kahn. He’s still improving and has the potential to bring returns greater than what the Timberwolves gave up to get him.
Budinger, too, sees the advantage of his new team’s youth and its potential to grow.
“This team … feels like the new Oklahoma (City),” Budinger said. “It’s a young team, a lot of young, great, athletic-type players. And I feel that everybody on this team could really get better together and really win a championship down the road.”
That’s a long-term goal, especially for a team that won just 26 games last season. In order to achieve it, to even make the playoffs, the Timberwolves cannot stop with just Budinger. Though its first-round pick is gone, Minnesota could still make moves in Thursday’s draft, but free agency and trades will also be likely solutions. Budinger, though he’s played shooting guard, does not necessarily solve the team’s needs at that position, and Adelman said that the team needs to keep looking to add.
Regardless, Budinger represents a solid first step in a process that will likely stretch over the next month. He fits specific needs that Kahn and Adelman outlined at the end of the season, and he has the potential to grow in tandem with his new team.