MINNEAPOLIS — As soon as a wave of injuries turned the Timberwolves’ season askance, its latter stages became an audition of sorts.
The central core of this reconstructing club isn’t in line for any major alterations. Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Adreian Payne are rookies, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng are under contract through 2018, and Ricky Rubio just signed a four-year extension in October.
But with Rubio, fellow starters Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic and almost the entire Wolves rotation missing significant time, the door was opened for more fringe-type players to make an impact. President of basketball operations Flip Saunders spent the final weeks coaching, yes, but also looking toward the next season and beyond by evaluating who might stay and who could go this summer.
"You have guys like Lorenzo (Brown). You have guys like Justin (Hamilton)," Saunders said. "Those guys, we have options on them. Those are big for them. You have other players that are fighting for position."
In some cases, it’s up to the player. Most prominently, power forward Kevin Garnett is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
Of course, the 38-year-old could retire. But the Wolves dealt for their long-lost, yesteryear superstar at the trade deadline with the belief he’d sign a new contract to play for another year or two. That was before Garnett, battling knee soreness and an illness, appeared in just five games, though.
"Every year, I like to listen to my body," the 20-year veteran said shortly after the trade. "I’ve been taking care of myself since I left here, or since I started. I don’t want to answer anything that’s going to get me tied up in anything that I can’t commit to. But I will say that I’m going to listen to my body, I’m going to talk to my family, see what my options are and then go from there.
"The plan is to come here and not be one or two years, but to be here invested. That’s what it is."
That’s far from limited to playing, though. Garnett hopes to one day buy the team, and coming back as a player greased the wheels for him to do so.
Reserve swingman Chase Budinger also owns the most leverage regarding his future. The 26-year-old California native has a player option on his contract for next season.
Exercise it, and he’ll get $5 million guaranteed and hit the open market next offseason, when the NBA salary cap is expected to spike. Opt out, and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent.
At this point, there’s not a lot of value attached to Budinger’s name. He missed most of his first two seasons here with knee injuries and averaged 13.4 points (but just 6.8 this past season) on 41.7 percent shooting (34.9 percent from 3-point range) in 131 games for the Wolves. But after Muhammad’s season-ending finger injury afforded Budinger more minutes, he came alive, averaging 14.4 points on 49.7 percent shooting (41.5 from 3) in Minnesota’s final 18 games, of which he played in 17, sitting out the finale.
"I’ve been in this league long enough to prove I’m an NBA player," Budinger said.
If he does come back to Minnesota, Budinger will once again find himself in a wing rotation that includes Wiggins, Martin and Muhammad.
Shooting guard Gary Neal could be part of that mix, too. Acquired in the Mo Williams trade earlier this year, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Saunders has entertained the notion of signing him to retain backcourt depth, and Neal feels he benefits from playing in Saunders’ system.
After struggling in Charlotte for most of the season, Neal tallied 11.8 points per game in 11 contests with Minnesota before a pair of ankle injuries sidelined him.
"We traded for him (because) we thought he was a good player, we thought he might have a future," Saunders said.
Forward Robbie Hummel’s contract expires this summer, too. With Adreian Payne, Anthony Bennett and potentially Garnett at power forward and Minnesota’s wing rotation appearing as full as it is, Hummel would be little more than a third-tier backup if the Wolves sign him to another contract. But the Purdue product has been a solid option in that role since making his NBA debut last year.
Midseason pickups Brown and Hamilton would make interesting training camp invites. Brown might fit in behind Rubio, LaVine and whoever else Saunders can find at the point, and Hamilton looks like a solid third big man at this juncture of his career.
When it comes to the center position, Saunders will have some decisions to make. Dieng has been steady in his first two years in the league, but 2014-15 opening-night starter Nikola Pekovic — who was shut down for the season late in March and had surgery to repair his right Achilles tendon April 8 –simply can’t stay healthy.
There’s a chance Minnesota — which currently holds the NBA Draft Lottery’s top seed — lands a viable big man in the draft. Trading Pekovic might be ideal, but the $35.8 million he’s owed over the next three years wouldn’t be easy to move.
As it stands (assuming Budinger opts in), the Wolves have about $10 million in cap space, at least half of which a Garnett deal would likely consume. Minnesota’s free agency plans hinge heavily on Garnett’s situation and which direction Saunders and general manager Milt Newton lean in the draft.