Pre-draft activity a ‘feeding frenzy’ of offers, options for Wolves

Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders called the run-up to the NBA Draft a "feeding frenzy."

Ann Heisenfelt/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — For the sake of Glen Taylor’s pocketbook, the Timberwolves owner better have Flip Saunders on an unlimited cell phone plan.

From 8 a.m. until 2 a.m. the next day, Saunders receives calls and text messages regarding potential draft-day deals. In a span of moments Tuesday, three different teams lit up his mobile device to talk possibilities.

Saunders, Minnesota’s coach and president of basketball operations, likened the pre-NBA draft run-up to throwing a food pellet into a tank full of ravenous catfish.

"It becomes a feeding frenzy," Saunders said.

It happens in the prelude to every draft as franchises consider who to pick and which assets to swap. It becomes ramped up when a star player like Kevin Love could be on the table.

As has been his tact since taking over as coach, Saunders wouldn’t yield much on the Love front two days before the 2014 NBA Draft. But he didn’t rule out the possibility — however slim — of dealing the disgruntled All-Star power forward before or on draft night.

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"I don’t know about the prospects of us trading anybody by Thursday night," Saunders said. "I’ve been saying it for four weeks. I feel comfortable with the guys that we have. If we can get something that makes our team better, we’ll do it. If we don’t, we’ll stay pat and go forward and enter into free agency on July 1."

But making a move doesn’t necessarily predicate including Love. There are other possible trade chips on the roster — J.J. Barea and Kevin Martin among them — and a 13th overall pick and three second-round selections that could be parlayed into transitioning either up or down in the draft order.

That leaves a possibility of winding up with a name draftologists have failed to forecast — see last year’s trade of the No. 9 pick (Trey Burke) to Utah in exchange for Shabazz Muhammad (14th overall) and Gorgui Dieng (21st).

Including that transaction, Minnesota has traded a first-round pick in five of the past six drafts.

"Information is power," said Saunders, who orchestrated the two-for-one deal in last year’s draft, his first in charge of the Wolves’ front office. "The more information you have, the more power you’re going to have going into the draft to make an educated pick."

Saunders’ intel gathered from working out about 60 prospects during the past month includes high marks for small forwards Nik Stauskas, Doug McDermott, and Rodney Hood. Power forward Adreian Payne and guards Shabazz Napier and Zach LaVine could be in the mix, too.

But that’s assuming things go according to plan Thursday. Which they rarely do.

Joel Embiid’s foot injury could drop him out of the top three and precipitate a trickle-down effect throughout the first round, similar to what Cleveland’s No. 1 selection of Anthony Bennett created a year ago. Julius Randle’s own foot injury could do the same, though Saunders says that’s unlikely. Monday, it was reported Croatian swingman Dario Saric — another possible Wolves target — signed with a Turkish professional club and won’t be playing in America till 2016.

Because of the draft’s annual unpredictability, Saunders has his draft board separated into several boxes: ready-made NBA talent, project players and everyone in between. If Love is still in the picture, Minnesota’s top need is either wing help or a point guard to back up Ricky Rubio. If Love is dealt, power forwards Payne, Clint Capela or perhaps even Aaron Gordon may be options at No. 13.

There is one box, Saunders said, called the "S-Box" that features players Minnesota simply won’t draft. The more astute observer can guess what that moniker stands for.

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"We’ve got a few guys in that box," Saunders said. "As we brought the 60 guys in to work out, I told them you don’t want to get into that box, because it’ll hurt you a little bit."

It’s mostly subject to change, though — proverbially inscribed in pencil, not pen.

A presumably wild free agency period beginning July 1 only further muddles the picture. Teams are now jockeying for position to sign unrestricted free agents LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, a process that includes executing trades to dump salary.

Where does it all leave Love? Saunders wouldn’t say much, other than to downplay the notion of a draft-day trade involving Love.

"I’ll say this: There aren’t a lot of great players who get traded at the draft deadline," Saunders said. "The draft is an artificial deadline for trades."

Indeed, Minnesota technically has until next January’s in-season trade deadline to export Love for something in return. But once this year’s stacked draft class is selected, a high-end pick obtained by the Wolves couldn’t be used until next year or later.

And Saunders wouldn’t say what kind of communication, if any, he’s had with Love during recent weeks.

"I talk to all of our players," Saunders said flatly.

And the rest of the league’s general managers, too. Which means plenty of potential drama during the next 48 hours or so.

Mitchell’s return: Having played for the Timberwolves twice during his 13-year playing career, Sam Mitchell has a great deal of familiarity with the Target Center.

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But he wouldn’t have taken another assistant position if he didn’t think it’d lead him back to the top of the profession, he said Tuesday.

"I wouldn’t come back and coach if at some point an opportunity (wouldn’t) present itself," said Mitchell, whom Saunders hired onto his staff last week. "But at this point my focus is on helping Flip, getting the Timberwolves back to where we want them to be."

After playing under Saunders from 1995-2002, Mitchell jumped into the coaching ranks and served as Toronto’s head man from 2004-08. During that time, he compiled a 156-189 record that included two playoff appearances. In 2006-07, he was named the NBA’s coach of the year.

Most recently an NBA radio and TV analyst, Mitchell had been rumored as a candidate to replace retired Rick Adelman. But Saunders eventually gave that job to himself and quickly hired Mitchell onto his staff.

Mitchell said he and Saunders hadn’t yet discussed his specific role. In any case, he and fellow former Timberwolves player/NBA head coach Sidney Lowe will be counted on to assist Saunders as he balances coaching with management and part-ownership of the organization.

It’s helpful when the men doing that have overseen an entire operation before, Saunders said.

Even if their ultimate goal is to get back to head coaching.

"I think they’ve been there. They’ve been head coaches," Saunders said. "Sam has always been one to hold players accountable. When he was a player, he did in that in the locker room. When he was a coach, he did that."

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