MINNEAPOLIS — Dante Cunningham had to know this was coming.
As Flip Saunders crafted the Timberwolves roster this offseason, Cunningham’s name stayed in the background. The signings of Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, re-signings of Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger and return of Kevin Love from injury formed the crux of Minnesota’s perceived chances at drastic improvement.
But on Friday, June 28 — two weeks before Saunders inked deals with Brewer, Martin and Budinger, eight weeks before Pek signed his extension and three months before Love came back with a fully-healed hand — the Timberwolves exercised their option on Cunningham’s contract, keeping around for at least one more season.
The 6-foot-8, 221-pound flex forward left them little choice after Minnesota’s injury woes paved the way for his best NBA season. But with more frontline talent fusing with pieces that were already present, his opportunities have become more limited.
“I wouldn’t say my role is changing,” Cunningham said back on the team’s media day in September. “I would say I’m gonna go out and do the same thing I did last year: hustle, run, hit the floor, just give it up every night.”
The duties may not be different. But the chances to fulfill them have decreased.
As much as prolonged absences to its core players debilitated Minnesota last season, they made life simpler for Cunningham. He had a clear-cut, defined role as the Timberwolves’ No. 2 power forward and defensive stopper behind Derrick Williams, and that meant consistent expectations and guaranteed minutes.
There’s a new stopper in town now — Brewer. And Williams is still around, too, meaning Cunningham’s place in the mix will vary from night to night, depending on matchups and who’s got the hot hand.
In three outings, it already has.
“Sometimes, he’s not gonna get as many minutes as he’d like,” coach Rick Adelman said. “I know he doesn’t like it, but it’s the way it is right now.”
Working at the power forward spot in a game where Williams never left the bench, Cunningham played a key part in a season-opening victory over Orlando on Wednesday, scoring 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting and grabbing six rebounds. Friday’s blowout win against Oklahoma City brought more of a defensive wing role, as Cunningham helped spell Brewer and hold Kevin Durant to 13 points.
Adelman used him as part of yet another wrinkle Sunday. Ronny Turiaf was out against the Knicks with an elbow fracture, so Love became the Timberwolves’ No. 2 center option. When Love manned the five spot, Cunningham was usually alongside him at the four.
On defense, Cunningham took on Carmelo Anthony — and struggled. The league’s defending scoring champ burned him on a couple occasions and finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds.
Cunningham’s minutes have decreased with each outing: 20:12, 15:05 and 14:41.
Three different nights, three different sets of assignments, three different results.
Cunningham had better get used to it. Leave behind his “comfort zone,” Adelman said.
“Last year … he knew he was gonna get his 24-30 minutes, and now he’s playing behind Kevin, it’s harder,” Adelman said. “I do think I can get him in there with Kevin some and get him more minutes, but it’s just more difficult.”
That’s OK with Cunningham, he claims.
“It’s just the feel of the game and how Coach is feeling,” Cunningham said. “He goes with the flow, and he goes with what’s working. I expect to just go out and give 100 percent every night, regardless of how much time he puts me in, whether it’s five minutes or 20 minutes.”
But such on-the-job volatility does require an adjustment after last season, Cunningham’s first in Minneapolis. Then, he averaged 25.1 minutes , 8.7 points and 5.1 rebounds, all career highs.
Cunningham is used to change, though. After setting Villanova’s record for games played, the Trail Blazers second-round draft pick spent one-and-a-half seasons in Portland, half of one in Charlotte and a year in Memphis before the Grizzlies traded him to Minnesota last summer for Wayne Ellington.
Nearly the entire time, he’s bounced back and forth between small and power forward.
“Honestly, I’m out there to play ball,” he said. “Regardless of who Coach puts me on or what position he puts me in, I’m gonna do what I do day in and day out.”
Cunningham’s contributions in the wake of injuries bought him a chance to stay this year, Adelman said. Now, it’s about doing the same things within tighter windows within the rotation.
“He’s really earned his spot,” Adelman said. “That’s what happens when people get hurt like Kevin did last year; the opportunity is there, and you take it, you go after it. He went after it.”