Former Wolves trying to reach playoffs with Bobcats
Wolves fans can be left to wonder what if Al Jefferson had remained in Minnesota paired with Kevin Love. But Jefferson, as well as ex-Wolves Luke Ridnour and Anthony Tolliver, is trying to carve out relevance in Charlotte.
Despite his presence on lackluster teams throughout his career, Al Jefferson remains one of the NBA's toughest outs.
Playing power forward alongside perhaps the NBA's most imposing center isn't the worst working environment in the world.
But every so often, Kevin Love allows his mind to wander, wondering what life would've been like next to one of the league's most crafty big men.
"Al, I guess, being sent away . . . opened up a lot for me and allowed my game to grow," said Love, drafted fifth overall in 2008. "It's tough to say, but of course, I would've loved to see my maturation and going through my game mixed with his.
"It just didn't happen that way."
Instead, the pair shared parts of only two seasons together. Former president of basketball operations David Kahn dealt Jefferson -- and his $13,000,000 cap hit -- to Utah in a 2010 trade, clearing some payroll space and relying on Pekovic to eventually become Love's frontcourt partner.
Via his brute strength and soft hands around the basket, Pekovic represents one of the few apt decisions Kahn made during his tenure. But, as both Timberwolves big men will see Friday night in Charlotte, Big Al can be just as difficult to stymie.
"The toughest guy to go against when it comes to the post is Al," Love said. "He still has the best post moves in the game, is still probably the hardest to stop down there. In my opinion, on the block, he's one of the best if not the best player scoring down there."
In his 10th NBA season, Jefferson leads a small pack of former Timberwolves helping the Bobcats make a playoff push. That's a rarity for one of the league's most lowly franchises -- Charlotte's one postseason appearance, in 2009-10, ended with a first-round sweep by Orlando.
The careers of Tolliver, Luke Ridnour and Anthony Tolliver have been similarly playoff-barren. Thanks in part to stints with Minnesota, the trio has a combined five postseason berths in its 24 collective seasons of experience.
Despite his presence on lackluster teams throughout his career, Jefferson remains one of the NBA's toughest outs. Playing more of a power forward role than he did in Salt Lake City and Minneapolis, Jefferson averages 21.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
The 29-year-old's scoring mark ranks fifth among active fours -- four spots behind Love.
His pretty baby hook and short jumper allow him to produce while saving his body, too; Jefferson's 212 free throws attempted are 19th among NBA power forwards this season.
"He's very patient," Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. "He's gonna wait and see what happens. The interesting thing about him is, I think, he really hasn't had to force the issue. I watch a lot of box scores, and he gets almost 30 points every games without going to the line, which means he's just kind of 'I can take this, take this jumper, I'll get my hook.'"
Adelman missed out on coaching Jefferson by a couple years. Ridnour, though, can attribute much of his late-career growth to the veteran head man's tutelage.
Ridnour started 135 games under Adelman from 2011-13, his final two of three seasons in the Twin Cities. Injuries to teammates helped forge his role, but the sleek-shooting flex guard benefited from Adelman's corner offense and shot 45.4 percent from the floor with the Timberwolves -- the best mark of any of his four stops during his 11-year career.
But current president of basketball operations Flip Saunders decided to deal Ridnour back to Milwaukee as part of the three-team, sign-and-trade deal that landed Kevin Martin. Ridnour had enjoyed his first stint with the Bucks from 2008-10 before signing with Minnesota as a free agent.
With Milwaukee claiming the league's worst record, his back flaring up and coach Larry Drew opting to play youngsters over him in hopes of building for the future, Ridnour wasn't quite as happy in Wisconsin this time around.
"You play in the league to play," Ridnour told FOXSportsWisconsin.com's Andrew Gruman in December. "The way our record is and the way it's going, it's not a fun situation. For anybody, you know?"
After averaging 5.7 points and 3.4 assists in 21.2 minutes per game, Ridnour was sent to Charlotte in a trade-deadline transaction last month. He's been even less productive since then, appearing in eight games and playing 12.4 minutes per contest.
But at least he's part of a relevant franchise again, albeit one that's currently in the watered-down Eastern Conference's seventh playoff spot with a 31-34 record.
"It's a good city, good team, good organization," Ridnour said Friday after the Bobcats' morning shootaround. "Trying to get myself acclimated to the fans and the area. It's a different feeling, being in the playoff hunt this late in the season. It's really fun."
Tolliver could say the same. Love's backup from 2010-12, the power forward inked a free-agent deal with the Bobcats this past summer and is scoring 6.2 points and pulling down 2.6 rebounds per game. His 21.3 minutes per game are the most since his second year in the league. In Charlotte's loss Jan. 10 at Minnesota, Tolliver made 5 of 5 3-pointers and scored 21 points.
Not bad for a guy who lived off minimum free-agent deals and 10-day contracts his first two years in the league.
But it's Jefferson who left the biggest mark on the Timberwolves, even though they never won more than 22 games during his time here. His legacy remains complicated one; though liked by fans, he also came to Minnesota in the trade that sent Kevin Garnett to Boston, always serving as a painful reminder of the franchise-face's departure.
The perception that he clashed with Love also existed, though Jefferson denies that now.
Either way, he's moved on -- at the moment, with Minnesota two spots out of the playoffs (albeit in a stronger conference), to bigger and better things.
"I wanted to do the unthinkable," said Tolliver, who signed a three-year, $41 million contract this past summer. "What I did, a lot of guys probably wouldn't do -- come to one of the worst teams in the league last year and try to help turn them around. That was something I wanted to do.
"I figured if I come here and things go great, that's something everybody will remember."