The Timberwolves announced Friday morning that they’d signed both Mickael Gelabale and Chris Johnson to minimum contracts for the rest of the season, waiving Lou Amundson in the process. The team was forced to make a move after the two players’ 10-day contracts expired at the end of Thursday – it can offer only two 10-day contracts per season to a player – and with the injury exception that permitted them a 16th player good only for a short-term deal, it was a matter of cutting someone if it wanted both players to remain.
That someone was Amundson, who proved to be behind Johnson in the big man rotation once the lanky center was added to the roster. Since Gelabale and Johnson played their first games Jan. 19, Amundson had played just 32 minutes over the course of four games, scoring nine points. His $1.07 million contract was guaranteed, but it was a minimal sacrifice for a team with the Timberwolves’ injuries and need for personnel.
Johnson, a 6-foot-11 center, has averaged 8.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 15.0 minutes in seven games. The team leaned on him heavily when starter Nikola Pekovic was out with an injury, but he has played sparingly since Pekovic’s return despite shooting 75.0 percent from the field.
Gelabale, a 6-foot-7 swingman, has played in 10 games with averages of 6.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 20.6 minutes. He has played fewer than 16 minutes only once since the Timberwolves signed him and is making 54.3 percent of his shots.
Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn said both players are in consideration to remain with the team for longer than just this season, but that much remains to be seen. He spoke highly of Johnson’s ability to play above the rim, a skill the team had noticeably lacked, which likely gives him an edge over Gelabale in terms of securing a longer-term deal.
“We don’t have somebody … who plays above the rim like that,” Kahn said. “And even though it’s not something that is, as Coach has shown, necessarily maybe every night, it’s just nice to have that capability somewhere on the roster. That’s why he came to training camp this year, and that’s why he almost made the team to begin with.”
Kahn also discussed the need for continuity as weighing heavily on his decision. The Timberwolves have had 15 players in their starting five this season — only Washington, with 16, has started more — and right now, some level of stopping the change and keeping things as is seems necessary. Rather than bring in a new player or two in on 10-day deals, Kahn said, he felt that Johnson and Gelabale had done well enough to give him no reason to introduce further changes.
In addition, Kahn said the team declined to pursue another extension of its injury exception, which allowed it to keep 16 players on the roster. With the amount of talent out there and available for 10-day contracts, it hardly seems like it would have been worth it.
Going forward, it’s hard to imagine Gelabale’s and Johnson’s roles will change dramatically. The team remains short at small forward, so Gelabale should expect good minutes, especially in the game or two before Andrei Kirilenko returns from his strained right quad. Johnson will be used in situations in which the team needs an above-the-rim, high-energy player, but he won’t be stealing minutes from Greg Stiemsma, especially not when Nikola Pekovic is healthy.
After Friday’s shootaround, both players were as pleased as might be expected for a measure of stability and some guarantee of their future over the next two months. Gelabale joked that he needed to go shopping for more clothes than what he’d brought from Spain, and Johnson said he wasn’t quite ready to move out of his hotel and into more permanent lodging.
For both, the opportunity is a dream come true. Johnson has never played in more than 27 games in an NBA season, never more than 20 with one team, and now he has a chance for decent playing time and a longer-term contract. Gelabale has played in France his tearing his ACL in 2008, when he played for the SuperSonics, and it’s been his no. 1 goal to return to the NBA ever since.
Now, the goal is reality, and the level of urgency has fallen off. When Johnson sits for a full game, it’s no longer quite the worry, quite the missed opportunity to prove himself. When Gelabale’s quad aches, he can admit to it – though on this team, he’ll likely still play through it – and the whole thing just smacks a bit more of normal. Neither player is going to make or break this Minnesota season, but the season could very well make each man’s career.