This is the eighth in a 14-part series evaluating each Timberwolves player’s performance during the 2013-14 season. Find the entire series here.
Most days, he was one of the quietest characters in the Timberwolves locker room. The occasional sizable contribution merited a few spotlight moments for Dante Cunningham, which were shrugged off with little enthusiasm.
Most days, though, the backup power forward faded into the background — except when controversy arose.
Cunningham’s second — and perhaps final — season in the Twin Cities won’t be remembered for what he did on the court, providing a sturdy but unobtrusive option behind All-Star Kevin Love. Instead, Cunningham’s trouble with the law and his relationships with his significant other and teammates wound up defining an otherwise nondescript campaign.
First came a miniature tiff with Love, who blamed Cunningham and fellow reserve J.J. Barea for moping at the end of the bench during timeouts. Cunningham was admittedly frustrated with his playing time after serving in a central capacity with Love sidelined last season, and it at times got the better of him.
But that charge pales in comparison to the legal allegations levied against the 6-foot-8, 230-pound mid-range specialist acquired from Memphis in a 2012 trade. Twice near the end of the season, Cunningham was arrested — first for felony domestic assault, then for making terroristic threats. Both incidents involved a woman claiming to be his girlfriend who’s lived with him for the past several months.
Not exactly what Minnesota had planned for the fifth-year pro.
Cunningham’s minutes may have been down this season, but his assertiveness on the boards wasn’t. His 9.7 rebounds per 48 minutes matched last year’s total in the same category despite him averaging nearly 5 fewer minutes than he did in 2012-13. While he’s somewhat short and stocky for an NBA four, his muscular frame and interior feistiness allowed him to scrap for rebounds no matter which opponent contested them. His best rebounding night came in an April 11 victory over Houston in which Cunningham pulled down 13 to go with a season-high 20 points — one of two double-doubles all season.
Until rookie center Gorgui Dieng’s late-season emergence, it could be argued that Cunningham was Minnesota’s most reliable rim protector. Strong and athletic with superior leaping ability and timing, Cunningham could be counted on for a frequent blocked shot that sailed into the third row of seats and ended up on a postgame highlight reel. Of the Timberwolves’ regular rotation players, only Ronny Turiaf — who appeared in only 31 games due to injuries — had a lower opponent field-goal percentage at the rim, according to NBA player tracking stats. When Cunningham was within five feet of the basket and five feet or fewer away from an opposing shooter, adversaries missed 45.5 percent of the time.
Cunningham wasn’t asked to make many plays offensively this season. He wasn’t asked to take over games as he had to a year ago, when Love missed all but 18 games with hand and knee injuries. But what coach Rick Adelman and the Timberwolves front office did expect of Cunningham was his ability — and willingness — to adjust to a lighter workload and a less key role. In this regard, the 27-year-old from the Washington D.C. area fell considerably short. Seeing his minutes per game drop from 25.1 to 20.2 per game, he quickly grew frustrated and frequently wore a glum expression around the Target Center. His angst boiled over Jan. 8 when he was pulled from a 104-103 loss to Phoenix. He and Barea could be seen sulking at the end of the bench rather than joining their teammates and coaches in the huddle during at least one timeout, prompting a public scolding from Love. But much more consistent was the sense of disgruntlement Cunningham seemed to carry around all season — and that was before his alleged domestic misconduct made local headlines.
In short, it was a rough year for Cunningham, both personally and professionally. Away from the gym, he’s been formally charged with domestic assault — the woman claiming to be his girlfriend accuses him of trying to strangle her — and faces up to three years in prison. The league could also choose to penalize him in the form of fines and/or a suspension, thought it’ll wait until the legal process runs its course. There’s a good chance the Timberwolves won’t wait around to see how it all plays out, though; Cunningham becomes an unrestricted free agent this season and didn’t give them much reason to re-sign him.