MINNEAPOLIS — For every source of excitement, a cautionary qualifier.
The Minnesota Timberwolves returners’ learned the hard way last year how easily optimism can crumble in a heap of frustration. Injury after injury after injury derailed whatever plans they had of returning the franchise to mid-2000s form and eventually helped run president of basketball operations David Kahn out of town.
Led by the new man in charge, Minnesota mainstay Flip Saunders, the organization addressed many a personnel need this offseason. It got deeper, bigger and more capable of shooting 3-pointers.
But no matter how many bodies are in the fold, they aren’t worth much if they don’t remain able.
“I really think that this team can be very good,” small forward Chase Budinger said Friday following a pre-training camp workout with several of his teammates.
Then comes the caveat: “As long as we stay healthy. That’s the biggest question mark that we’ve always had the last couple years here.”
That’s the voice of experience talking, as Budinger underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus and missed 59 games last season. He was one of four returning starters to sit out substantial time, helmed by power forward Kevin Love, who played in only 18 contests.
It puts much more emphasis on keeping players in prime playing condition, from offseason workout regimens to diets to proper rest to tailoring next month’s training camp workload for each specific player’s level of conditioning and fatigue.
Much of those duties fall into the lap of coach Rick Adelman, along with the team’s revamped training staff.
“Rick’s been in this long enough,” Saunders said earlier this week. “You have a sense. You know your players. You can see if they’re dragging a little bit and if they are you pull them back.”
But on the occasion someone does go down — and they will; it’s basketball , not bocce ball– a heightened sensitivity accompanies it.
It happened Friday near the end of a five-on-five pickup game featuring seven players slated to begin camp a week from next Tuesday. First-round draft pick Gorgui Dieng bumped legs with an opponent, crumpled to the ground, and had a bag of ice enveloping his ankle moments later.
He was walking around on it shortly afterward and said he’d be fine within “just two days,” but the scares are scarier for a franchise that endured too many to count a year ago.
“No. 1, right now, is staying healthy,” forward Dante Cunningham said Friday. “I think once we have a healthy side of the team, the result will speak for itself.”
Budinger, Cunningham, Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, Lorenzo Brown, Robbie Hummel and Ronny Turiaf convened under the watchful eyes of Saunders and a few Timberwolves assistants Friday to continue preparations for training camp.
Dieng and fellow rookies Muhammad and Brown have been in town for about three weeks training with Budinger and new player development coach Bobby Jackson.
Most of the squad’s other players are expected to trickle in over the weekend into early next week.
And with the re-signing of Budinger, center Nikola Pekovic and the free-agent additions of projected difference-makers like Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, it’s not all calculated cautiousness in Timberwolves country.
“We can be very dangerous,” said Budinger, who reportedly turned down more money from Milwaukee to stay in the Twin Cities. “We can definitely score the ball, definitely get up and down the court. We’ve got some studs on our team, and I think with everybody coming back healthy, I think we’re just gonna be more eager to play because, especially, of guys that weren’t able to play last year.”
Budinger said his knee is progressing. He returned to play in Minnesota’s final 17 games but can jump, land and run much better now than he could at that point.
He continues to rehab it between workouts and still experiences some soreness, but “it’s way better” than it was in April, he said.
Love (hand, knee), Pekovic (multiple nicks and pains) and point guard Ricky Rubio (torn ACL in 2011-12) are all expected back healthy, too, bringing with them external hopes this could be the team that breaks the NBA’s longest active playoff drought.
As long as its key players are able to, well, play.