MINNEAPOLIS — If the next 10 days are anything like Thursday, the Twin Cities are in for a week-and-a-half of hoops hysteria.
After a zany NBA Draft that left plenty of holes remaining on the roster, Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders would be just fine with a more according-to-plan free agency negotiation period, which began at 11:01 p.m. Sunday and lasts until July 10 when the league finalizes its salary cap for the upcoming season.
Retention and aggression are of equal import in the coming days.
“We still have some things we have to fill,” Saunders said after what he called the craziest draft he’s ever been a part of. “There’s a lot of ways to fill it.”
High-scoring small forward Shabazz Muhammad and shot-swatting center Gordui Dieng wound up in Minnesota via a draft-and-trade agreement with the Utah Jazz, a move precipitated by Cleveland unexpectedly taking Anthony Bennett No. 1 overall and a domino effect preventing the Timberwolves from selecting any of their top prospects.
That short list almost exclusively included shooting guards with a 3-point stroke. For about $7 million annually, Minnesota will adamantly seek one on the free agent market.
After opting to become an unrestricted free agent rather than exercise his player option with Dallas, O.J. Mayo sits at or near the top of Saunders’ realistic wish list. Though he’s had his fair share of off-the-court problems dating back to his recruitment by Southern California, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder meets the Timberwolves’ pressing need for a 3-point menace. He shot a career-best 40.7 percent from 3 in his only season with the Mavericks and also stayed healthy enough to start 82 games.
He’s affordable, too, having made about $4 million last season.
Saunders traveled to southern California over the weekend and is expected to meet face-to-face with Mayo and his agent, Rob Pelinka.
But as the draft painfully showed Minnesota’s first-year president, Plan A isn’t always an option.
For that reason, Saunders is expected to meet also with shooting guard J.J. Redick and swing man Mike Dunleavy Jr., who both played college basketball at Duke. They also share the same agency, Wasserman Media Group, which is located in Los Angeles. Redick’s reported asking price of about $10 million annually might be too steep for the Timberwolves, but 32-year-old Dunleavy could be more within range ($3,750,000 last season).
A handful of other shooting guards, including Oklahoma City star Kevin Martin, are said to be at the front of Saunders’ rolodex as well.
Saunders’ first rendezvous out west was Sunday evening with small forward Chase Budinger in hopes of keeping him in Minneapolis for a few more seasons. The 6-7, 215-pound, 25-year-old has said he wants to return if coach Rick Adelman sticks around, and there’s nothing to suggest the veteran head man’s going anywhere. But several teams, including Milwaukee and New Orleans, are reportedly interested in Budinger.
Minnesota paid Budinger — who lives in San Diego during the offseason — just $885,120 for his services last season. With room for a considerable pay raise and Bird rights that allow the team to exceed the salary cap to a certain extent, keeping him around isn’t expected to be too much of a hassle.
But the Timberwolves’ most prominent free agency objective — both in stature and in value — could be a little more tricky.
Saunders hasn’t had a chance for any face time with center Nikola Pekovic, who starting July 10 can sign another team’s offer sheet and wait for Minnesota to match it. The 6-11, 280-pound Montenegrin will likely ask for a deal that nets him at least $10 million per year.
With a current team salary of $39,850,378 owed for next season, that’s well within the Timberwolves’ space under the league’s projected $58.5 million salary cap.
Another suitor could, however, drive up that number, leaving Minnesota at the mercy of whatever other teams might be willing to pay Pekovic.
“We’re gonna have communication with Pek,” Saunders said. “We’re gonna talk to his representatives and see where they’re at. He’s a high priority.”
Presumably higher than small forward Andrei Kirilenko, who Saturday opted out of the final year of his two-season contract with the Timberwolves and became an unrestricted free agent, one Minnesota is allowed to sign if it so chooses.
But the 32-year-old Russian’s player option year was worth $10 million, and they’ll owe Muhammad roughly $3.2 million guaranteed over the next two seasons, so bringing back Kirilenko becomes a hefty commitment.
Saunders is also keeping a weathered eye on the trade market, where guards J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour are reportedly in play. Both have salaries north of $4 million coming their way next year and played big minutes — Ridnour started every game — with several of Minnesota’s cornerstone players hobbled by injuries throughout 2012-13.
The needs are clear, and the stage is set.
Now it’s show time.
“There are some guys that we like, and they will be available,” Saunders said. “We’ll see where it happens.”