Niesen: Injury-prone Roy still good for Wolves

MINNEAPOLIS — On Thursday night, the Timberwolves made a $10.4 million bet on a pair of knees.

These are not just any knees. These knees are the stuff of news stories and dramatic predictions. They’ve been prodded and poked, scoped and sliced. They destroyed a career, and now they’re supposed to carry Brandon Roy back to legitimacy in the NBA.

The Timberwolves believe they will, to the tune of more than $5 million a year. The Timberwolves think those knees are worth more than J.J. Barea’s, Ricky Rubio’s too. And they weren’t the only ones. As soon as Roy announced his comeback in June, a flurry of teams expressed interest, which continued into free agency. So no, this isn’t a whim. This isn’t a gut feeling, a hunch that hey, this guy was good a few years ago, so maybe he will be again.

This is a belief that Brandon Roy is the right kind of risk.

It’s is a hypothesis, an informed hope, based off of meetings and workouts and conversations. Signings like this one aren’t done lightly, not even by teams like the Timberwolves that are hoping to finally leapfrog into the playoffs next season. Especially not by those teams. Crushed hopes like those of early 2012 are unlikely to breed rash decisions. Minnesota can’t be let down again, not like that, not so soon.

Rick Adelman isn’t the kind of coach to fritter away millions on this, the team that’s his to make relevant. Maybe this would have seemed reckless in the past, but not after last season. Not with Adelman on board. Now, one has to assume this might be reasonable.

The Timberwolves have read the medical reports. They’ve obviously seen something that gives them hope, beyond just the claims that Roy has undergone a variation on platelet-rich plasma therapy or other medical procedures that would provide little more than pain relief. In David Kahn’s mind, and in Adelman’s, too, there must be goals, a realistic ceiling, a way to work Roy in.

That’s not to say Roy is a sure thing. If he were a sure thing, he’d be making three times his new contract next season, not a salary comparable to his rookie deal. If he were a sure thing, he’d be playing for the Lakers or the Celtics or some other team with a name and the ability to lure whomever it wants to its bench. Roy is too risky to be that marquee free agent. He’s too much of a question mark to be baggage on a perennial contender if he fails. But he’s just risky enough for the Timberwolves, who must be guarded, but who also must believe that they can find a way to twist Roy’s talents into a role that can improve their team.

And how could they not? The Timberwolves had issues at the wing last season, with the struggles of Wes Johnson and Martell Webster forcing the team into a downright tiny lineup that would at times feature J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour as its two guards. Even Roy in his worst season, 2010-11, would be an upgrade over the team’s scrambling last year.

Roy is as tricky a case as Rubio was, in certain ways. He’s somehow both new and at the same time an experienced pro. He’ll be paid in part for what he accomplished as a three-time All-Star in five seasons in Portland, in part for the health questions. And worst of all, he’ll put on his Timberwolves uniform to a barrage of expectations and hopes that will likely balloon out of proportion. Minnesota watched Rubio live up to every one of those standards, but Roy isn’t that fresh, healthy 21-year-old that the Spanish point guard was last winter. He’s older, and the game has had its way with him. But Roy is fighting back, and Portland is already paying his $69 million contract. This is about something more than money; Roy must believe he can contribute.

It’s not time to declare that Brandon Roy is the missing piece for the Timberwolves. Brandon Roy the All-Star, Brandon Roy the recipient of a maximum contract — he might have been. But this is $5-million-per-year Brandon Roy. This is his do-over, a chance at a new identity in the league. Roy isn’t going to average 37.2 minutes per game, like he did in 2008-09, and no one should expect him to. Right now, the question lies not in if Roy will return to the player he once was. The question is how much he can contribute, how well his talents will translate and thrive in a reduced role, with fewer minutes and less beating on those knees.

As soon as Roy agreed to sign, speculation about his role began. Twenty minutes off the bench seemed likely, perhaps to close out games. That makes sense if Roy is in the condition he’s believed to be, but even those predictions seem hasty. Roy hasn’t trained with the team yet; Adelman hasn’t tinkered with lineups to see the best way he might fit. And the long, grueling season that might shift the guard’s role at its whim is still months away from beginning.

So let’s not start with the expectations, not yet. Let’s remember that Adelman can do so much with his guards, shuffling the rotation to fit not only what he needs, but what he’s given. There’s no better coach to grow a role for Roy, to gradually see what he’s capable of rather than throw him out there and wait for him to fail. For Roy’s sake, and for the Timberwolves’, too, set the bar low. Set it lower than $5 million a year warrants, maybe, just to hedge bets. Expect a boost, but little more, and this might be a pleasant surprise.

In many ways, the Timberwolves are a team built on grand experiments like this one. They planned to anchor their franchise on a soft, tall kid with an chinstrap beard and a propensity for rebounding. That kid turned into Kevin Love, one of the best players in the league after just four seasons.

They affixed their hopes to a Spanish teenager who didn’t want to come to Minnesota, who seemed unlikely to ever appear in the U.S. He waited to emigrate, and his production dropped off. He looked to all the world like a disappointment. That disappointment became Ricky Rubio, who was poised as a solid rookie of the year candidate before his March injury.

Now, it’s Brandon Roy’s turn. Roy is the shooting guard with no knees, forced into retirement and picked up at a salary that’s discount for him but significant for a player with so many uncertainties.

Step back. Watch. Expect him to be nothing more than that, and perhaps he’ll surprise.

If he does, the Timberwolves are a force in the Western Conference. If he somehow doesn’t — well, it might not matter as much as it once would have.

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