MINNEAPOLIS — Flip Saunders recognized he’d be returning to a mess in the Twin Cities.
What he may not have known was how painstaking the cleanup could become.
The Timberwolves officially announced Tuesday they’ve sent Derrick Williams to Sacramento in a straight-up exchange for Luc Mbah a Moute, a deal that sends away a young, healthy No. 2 overall draft pick for a second-round, defensive role player with chronic knee problems.
Williams becomes the third of former president of basketball operations David Kahn’s four top-six draft picks to be dealt before his rookie contract expired. In return, essentially, Minnesota has inherited Mbah a Moute, Brad Miller (played in 15 games before retiring), Malcolm Lee (played in 35 games during two seasons before being traded), a handful of second-round picks and cash. Only Ricky Rubio, picked fifth overall in 2009, has proven to be a difference maker.
“It’s always painful to do that,” Saunders said of trading away highly drafted assets, “but picks are taken a lot on potential and where they’re at.”
Kahn saw potential in Williams. So did Saunders when he was hired to replace Kahn in May.
But the house that Kahn burnt is now Saunders’ to resurrect. And that wasn’t going to happen with Williams sitting on the bench while soaking up a $5 million salary, Saunders said.
“I just didn’t foresee Derrick being able to play much,” Saunders said. “And if a guy’s not playing, usually your value is not going to go up. So when we’ve got someone we thought was going to fit what we were looking for, we just thought it was right.”
That fit is Mbah a Moute, a defensive stopper Saunders said can guard just about anybody. The former coach had his eye on the 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward who spent five years in Milwaukee before the Bucks traded him this summer to clear cap space for Luke Ridnour.
Ridnour, in turn, left Minnesota as part of the sign-and-trade that brought Kevin Martin here. Saunders had tried to work Mbah a Moute into that three-team transaction and also was interested in him before the draft, he said.
Having coached against him in the Eastern Conference, the former Timberwolves, Pistons and Wizards head man grew to admire Mbah a Moute’s ability to defend almost every position.
Saturday, he matched up with Clippers point guard Chris Paul. Wednesday, he could guard Denver forwards Kenneth Faried and/or Wilson Chandler, depending if he’s available or not.
First, Mbah a Moute — who has missed 63 games the past two seasons due to knee injuries — must pass a physical Wednesday morning.
“There’s a chance” he makes his Timberwolves debut a day after the trade, Saunders said. “We’re hoping.”
He probably won’t usurp Corey Brewer’s presence in the starting lineup, at least not right away, though coach Rick Adelman liked the idea of bringing Brewer off the bench before Chase Budinger went down with a preseason knee injury.
The Wolves’ starters rank No. 1 in the NBA in scoring at 83.2 points per game. A thin reserve rotation consisting mainly of J.J. Barea, Robbie Hummel and Dante Cunningham comprises the league’s second-worst scoring bench (22.3 points per game).
“We knew all along we were going to have to get more of a defensive-oriented individual in here that could play,” Saunders said. “We need to do something where coach can get some trust into his bench and play those guys more. Coach is going to play guys that he feels he trusts that can go out there and play for him and help him win.”
Williams never merited that trust.
Kahn drafted him not for fit but for sheer reputation. Most pundits ranked Williams the 2011 crop’s second-best player behind Kyrie Irving.
The journalist-turned-executive’s first draft initially was ruled a success — FOX, CBS, Sports Illustrated and Yahoo! Sports’ websites all gave Kahn a grade of A- or better.
But the only time Williams came anywhere near meeting those expectations was last season when Kevin Love missed 64 games, allowing Williams to play power forward — his more natural position.
Saunders, like Kahn, thought Williams may be able to play the wing. In order to avoid the risk of getting nothing for him following this season, Minnesota picked up the team option for the fourth year of his rookie deal.
About a month later, he was gone, and Saunders fully admitted his idea of using Williams as a flex wasn’t a good one.
“I believe we all came to conclusion that Derrick wasn’t going to be able to play the small forward,” Saunders said. “That was the big thing. When I took over, my hope was he was going to be able to transition into that.”
In two-plus years of bouncing between positions, Williams averaged 42 percent shooting, 10.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 22.6 minutes per game for Minnesota. This season, he didn’t play in four games he dressed for and averaged 14.7 minutes, 4.9 points and 2.4 rebounds.
Saunders said Williams’ agent, Rob Pelinka, expressed concern almost immediately when his client was drafted in 2011. No way was Williams going to play a No. 2 overall pick’s kind of minutes with a healthy Love in the fold.
Turns out, he was right. And Kahn was wrong. Again.
Another Wesley Johnson (drafted fourth overall in 2010 and traded after two seasons with Minnesota). Another Jonny Flynn (sixth in 2009, also traded after two seasons).
So far, Saunders’ best efforts at rectification have come in free agency. He landed Martin, brought in Brewer and re-signed Budinger and Nikola Pekovic this offseason.
There’s a much more promising draft crop on the horizon than the one that brought novices Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng onto the payroll, but the Timberwolves would rather not be picking all that high.
There’s a nine-year playoff drought to snap. Which is why Williams is gone and Mbah a Moute will be here Wednesday.
“It’s like when you write that letter and you put it in the drawer and say ‘should I really send it or not?'” Saunders said. “With Derrick, it just came to a situation that we were ready to do it. We felt we could get someone who could give some kind of impact to our team.”
A couple other notes from Saunders’ chat with reporters Tuesday afternoon at the Target Center:
— Saunders said Budinger (left meniscus surgery) and center Ronny Turiaf (right elbow fracture) could be back “in three weeks.” Budinger has yet to play this season and recently returned from rehab in Florida, while Turiaf has missed the Timberwolves’ past 14 contests.
Saunders said he hadn’t given any thought to sending Muhammad or Hummel to the NBA Developmental League once Budinger returns. When he does, both stand to be buried deeper in Adelman’s rotations.
— Saunders said he was excited about a recent proposal by owners of downtown Minneapolis’ Block E property that includes a new Timberwolves and Lynx training facility as its centerpiece.
In addition to finalizing a $97 million Target Center renovation plan, the professional basketball folks in Minneapolis have been seeking a new practice gym and training center for some time. Both the NBA and WNBA teams are currently confined to the basement of the Target Center’s Lifetime Fitness center.
The Block E plan, pending team and city approval, would convert the mostly vacant structure on Hennepin Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets — which used to house an AMC movie theater, Applebee’s, Hard Rock Café and Hooters — into a state-of-the-art practice home for both basketball teams. Under the plan, the teams’ offices would move out of the Target Center and into the redeveloped space, too, Saunders said.