Lucky 13? Wolves appear locked into draft position

Flip Saunders now has a good idea where the Timberwolves will pick in the NBA Draft as he sorts through prospects.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — A look at the long faces in the Minnesota locker room lately suggests a group of men who wish next season was already here.

For the guys who work in the Target Center office above them, though, it already is.

With the Timberwolves sitting at 39-39 following its loss to Chicago on Wednesday, they’re almost assuredly locked into their 2014 draft position. That means president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, general manager Milt Newton and the scouting department can narrow down the list of prospects they’ve scouted all season and identify players who might be available late in the lottery, or begin shopping their pick in hopes of bringing in a more seasoned asset.

The Timberwolves are guaranteed the 13th draft lottery position no matter what happens during the final week of the regular season. They’ve locked up a 10th-place finish in the Western Conference, and the only current lottery team that could earn a playoff berth is New York.

If that happened, the Knicks — currently slotted 11th in the lottery — would essentially switch places with the Hawks, but eighth-place Atlanta (35-43) can’t finish worse than Minnesota and also miss the playoffs. The Grizzlies (46-32), currently a game behind Phoenix for the West’s final tournament spot and 14th in the lottery, already clinched a better record than the Timberwolves.

If there’s any solace in extending the NBA’s longest active postseason drought to 10 seasons, it’s that Minnesota didn’t come any closer to snapping it. Select 14th, and they’ll forfeit their top-13 protected first-round pick to Phoenix thanks to a 2012 three-team draft agreed upon by former president of basketball ops David Kahn.

The Timberwolves have a 1.8 percent chance of drawing the 14th pick in the lottery. There’s a 96 percent chance they’ll pick 13th.

For once, the odds are in the franchise’s favor.

But there are pronounced needs Minnesota must fill if it hopes to push over the playoff hump and symbiotically build a case to keep All-Star Kevin Love, who can opt out of his contract following next season. The league’s second-worst squad in opponent field-goal percentage has two gambling steals generators in Corey Brewer and Ricky Rubio and a pair of rim protectors in Ronny Turiaf and Gorgui Dieng, but a two-way, lockdown defender isn’t present.

Nor is an athlete who can create his own shot off the dribble. Instead, the Timberwolves have relied upon coach Rick Adelman’s corner offense to forge opportunities.

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But when crunch time rolls around, a Love 3 off the pick-and-roll or a Nikola Pekovic floater became their best option this season. More often than not, that didn’t cut it — Minnesota is 5-12 in games decided by four points or less and shoots 30.9 percent in the final two minutes of regulation when the game is within four points, the fifth-worst mark in the league.

There’s impending personnel turnover to consider, too.

Dante Cunningham is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season, and there’s good reason to believe the Timberwolves will part ways with him after his recent legal troubles. The power forward, acquired from the Grizzlies in a 2012 trade, has been charged with felony domestic assault and also was arrested for making terroristic threats.

Minnesota may also consider buying out the final guaranteed year of Alexey Shved’s contract, worth about $3.2 million. The Russian undrafted free agent hasn’t made many strides in his sophomore season, rarely playing meaningful minutes and averaging 3.9 points and 1.3 assists per game.

Either way, the Timberwolves’ balanced roster leaves Saunders’ positional options more wide-open than they were in 2013, his first year on the job.

Minnesota’s need for a 3-point-shooting wing was readily evident after the team shot a league-worst 30.5 percent from beyond the arc last season and entered the summer without a sure option at either shooting guard or small forward.

An early sampling of mock drafts shows the Timberwolves going after a variety of skill sets.

Michigan State shooting guard Gary Harris and power forward Adreian Payne could be in the mix, especially because they’ll be highly endorsed by Spartans coach Tom Izzo, a good friend of Saunders. Zach Harper and Matt Moore of CBSSports.com both have Minnesota taking Duke small forward Rodney Hood, Draft Express likes Swiss power forward Clint Capela, NBAdraft.net lists Syracuse forward Jerami Grant as the most likely possibility, and ESPN’s Chad Ford seems to be high on Creighton combo forward Doug McDermott.

Which direction the front office goes will depend on several factors. If Cunningham is allowed to walk, a backup power forward for Love becomes a priority. And if Adelman retires as most expect him to, a new coach will have his own systems and philosophies he’d like taken into account.

And, of course, there’s the overhanging sentiment that every personnel move represents a chance to help convince Love he should stay in the Twin Cities, something Saunders says he’s fully committed to doing.

The more immediate impact a top pick can have, the better — the Timberwolves are strapped by the salary cap for next season, with only their $5.3 million mid-level exception available to sign a difference-making free agent. They could decide to trade their top pick away for more proven talent, but with a much deeper draft than last year, that looks like a less attractive course of action.

Trading up in the first round will likely be explored, too; that might give Minnesota the chance to land a more suitable player and perhaps clear some cap space.

But all plans are tentative until draft night Thursday, June 26. Saunders was reminded of that last year when the top players on the Timberwolves’ board were all picked before they selected and he felt compelled to trade down and get Shabazz Muhammad and Dieng.

Minnesota also has the 44th overall pick in the draft at its disposal, too.

Projections, conjectures and draft stocks will rise and fall during the next three months. But the draft madness already has begun.

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