Flurry of free-agent action has Wolves thinking playoffs

MINNEAPOLIS — Following a hectic NBA Draft night, a spent Flip Saunders offered up a starkly honest admission that Minnesota had missed in key areas of need.
Two weeks later, the Timberwolves’ new president of basketball operations sat triumphantly in the same chair placed at the head of the Target Center media room, confidently explaining the team in his charge expects an eye-opening turnaround this season.
“We’ve accomplished a lot here in the last few days,” Saunders said Friday before heading to Las Vegas for NBA Summer League proceedings.
Indeed, since drafting Shabazz Muhammad based solely on talent and Gorgui Dieng on his niche as a shot blocker, Saunders and his staff have navigated free agency with their hands outstretched for a shake and with owner Glen Taylor’s pocketbook open.
Their aggressiveness has transformed a thin, three-pillar group into one with that same triumvirate working among plenty of interchangeable pieces — perhaps the deepest in the franchise’s woeful, 24-year history.
Saunders stopped short of billing it that but was just as juiced about inking free agents Chase Budinger, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, and Ronny Turiaf as the recent additions themselves.
“You feel better, because you had your idea what you needed to do, we had people we had targeted and what we wanted to do, and we pretty much were able to fill our targets,” said Saunders, who took over for fired David Kahn in early May. “So you feel good about that.”
So does Budinger, the incumbent small forward who turned down more money to join the Twin Cities resurgence. “All these additions added to the team are definitely gonna help us,” he said.
No arguments from Brewer, who returns to the team that drafted him in 2007: “I feel like we’re going in the right direction. They’ve had some tough games; even when I got drafted, it was tough. But now, we’ve got some pieces. Flip’s come in and done the right things and got the right guys.”
 
Having All-Star-caliber power forward Kevin Love, point guard Ricky Rubio and behemoth center Nikola Pekovic to build around is enviable for any league general manager. Yet when the draft dust settled, it was apparent those three required much more help if the NBA’s longest current playoff drought (nine years) is to come crashing down next spring.
 
It began with 3-point shooting, an area in which Minnesota struggled more than any other organization. Enter Martin, a two-time product of coach David Adelman’s system who shot a career-best 42.6 percent from 3 last season. Re-signing Budinger and bringing back a healthy Love — the pair combined to miss 123 games in 2012-13 — gives Adelman at least three dangerous 3-point threats.
 
The post scoring was already present, with Love sporting possibly the league’s best inside-outside game and Pekovic finishing around the rim consistently enough to lead an oft-injured squad in scoring with 16.3 points per contest. Minnesota hasn’t re-signed the restricted free agent yet but appears set to match any offer sheets dealt by other teams (as of late Monday night, none had been reported).
 
A starting lineup of Rubio, Martin and Budinger on opposite wings and Pekovic and Love down low looks much more formidable than what the Timberwolves trotted out onto the floor by the end of last year.
 
“When we’re healthy, we’re extremely, extremely good,” said Budinger, who’s in the advanced stages of recovering from a torn meniscus in his left knee. “We’ve added the necessary shooting for this year. With the way Rick Adelman’s system is and the people that we have, it’s gonna be tougher for teams that guard us. The biggest thing … is to really zone in on the defensive end this year.”
 
It’s for that reason Saunders was able to work a sign-and-trade for Martin that cleared Luke Ridnour’s $4.3 million salary and allowed Minnesota to sign Brewer for the $5 million mid-level exception. The swingman won’t light it up from outside nearly as much as he’ll hound opposing scorers and give Rubio a viable transition target.
 
And adding Turiaf, a veteran role player who won’t get many minutes but can clog space in the lane, further shores up the Timberwolves’ interior defense alongside Dieng.
 
“Everyone is going to say, ‘We think you guys will be able to score; are you going to be able to defend?'” Saunders said. “That’s why getting Brewer and getting Turiaf, a perimeter defender and an inside defender, I thought was going to be very big for us.”
 
When throwing in the skills of Rubio-spellers J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved and off-the-bench scorers Muhammad and Derrick Williams, it’s a group whose depth rivals that of the 2003-04 Timberwolves, whose Western Conference Finals appearance marked the club’s only trip past the playoffs’ opening round. That Saunders-coached bunch brought marquee names Wally Szczerbiak, Mark Madsen and Fred Hoiberg off the bench.
 
But Saunders said the current crop can be more versatile.
 
“We were pretty much pigeonholed about how we had to play” in 2003-04, Saunders said. “We couldn’t change our style of play, where, with this roster and the people we have, we’ll definitely be more versatile, more flexible.”
 
In a lot of Adelman’s sets, the two and the three are virtually inseparable. That makes Martin, Budinger, Muhammad, Brewer and even Shved or Barea all interchangeable at times.
 
Building then protecting leads becomes an easier task. Exchange Brewer and Turiaf for Budinger and Pekovic, for example, and a scoring machine quickly becomes a staunch defensive lineup.
 
A vast array of experienced options gives Muhammad and Dieng time to develop, too. Saunders never expected to land an immediate starter in a thin 2013 draft class, putting a further emphasis on bringing in veterans to shoulder the load while the two first-round draft picks germinate.
 
“I think both of those guys really have an opportunity to be successful, but it takes the pressure off them,” Saunders said. “I think there’s no question that with the signings that we’ve had will really help those rookies develop in the proper time they need to develop.”
 
Minnesota’s revamped roster, of course, has come with a cost. Locked into several contracts in the $5 million to $7 million range for the next few seasons, the Timberwolves are technically over the cap, Saunders said. They won’t be able to add any more assets unless it’s for a free-agent minimum contract or via a trade. 
 
But that’s the price for immediate improvement as opposed to the new regime instituting a start-from-scratch rebuilding process.
 
Egos must be checked at the Lifetime Fitness training center doors, too, Saunders said. A team with so many defined roles must operate with a selfless identity.
 
“The important part is that our players have to understand that it’s a team,” Saunders said. “Certain guys are gonna play at certain times, and everyone brings something. It’s a melting pot. We don’t have a lot of players that have the same strengths; we have players that each player has their own strength and maybe their own weakness, and what might be their strength might be one of our other player’s weakness. I think that makes for having a much stronger team.”
 
As this city learned the hard way last year, keeping that group healthy is crucial. Saunders didn’t walk into a bare cupboard — just one that required a lot of glue.
 
But avoid the abundance of injuries that plagued the Timberwolves last year, and a 51-loss record could give way to a battle for a low playoff seed.
 
Or maybe something more.
 
“We just say ‘make the playoffs’ because haven’t made them” in so long, Brewer said, “but once we get there, we want to do some damage.”

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