Saunders, Wolves taking ‘wait and see’ approach to free agency
MINNEAPOLIS — When the clock strikes 11 on Monday night in Minnesota, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony will officially begin determining the rest of the Timberwolves’ offseason plans.
No, naive pipe dreamers, neither NBA free-agent megastar is coming to the Twin Cities. But for a franchise with little to spend and a potentially departing star of its own to deal with, the top of this year’s free-agent class will shape its possible avenues.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Kevin Love wasn’t traded before Thursday’s NBA Draft. Nor was he dealt during it or immediately thereafter. Instead, Minnesota wound up with a pair of athletic wing players named Zach LaVine and Glenn Robinson III and a handful of cash in exchange for its two of its second-round picks.
So trading Love –who reportedly wants out of the Twin Cities and can force his way by opting out of 2015-16, the final year on his contract — remains the highest-profile pending move for an organization that can’t seem to keep or attract star players. And now that the draft is over, there’s no real reason for Wolves alpha dog Flip Saunders to rush in making a deal.
Instead, he can sit back and wait for teams to court James and Anthony, who along with James’ "Big 3" Heat fellows Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all opting out of their deals for next season. Teams like Chicago and Houston will make a run at James and/or Anthony before they come back to the Love discussion table.
That’s just fine with Saunders.
Only two teams (or perhaps even one lucky club) are going to land James and Anthony. It could well be the Heat and the Knicks, their incumbent employers. And once their futures are decided — within the nine-day, league-wide moratorium or after — some of the organizations that swung and missed on them will surely turn toward acquiring Love.
Chicago’s on that list. So is Houston. Even Golden State, who currently has the most lucrative package to offer that includes shooting guard Klay Thompson, wouldn’t mind a chance at adding one of this year’s big names to its arsenal.
And with little money to spend on its own in free agency, Minnesota and its front office will be doing much more entertaining than pursuing.
"I’m sure some people have my phone on speed dial, so they’ll know how to get in touch with me," Saunders said. "Initially, are we going to be very active in free agency? Probably not."
This isn’t last year, when Saunders chucked $120 million at Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf to balance the roster and try to build around Love. With LaVine and Robinson in tow, the Wolves have 14 players under guaranteed contracts for next season and will be close, if not over, the luxury tax threshold by the time they sign that pair and negotiate an extension with point guard Ricky Rubio.
Assuming they can stay within $4 million over the league’s projected salary cap of $63.2 million, they’ll have a $5.3 million mid-level exception — the same collective bargaining agreement caveat used to sign Brewer last summer — at their disposal.
A backup point guard like Brooklyn’s Shaun Livingston or Milwaukee’s Ramon Sessions could be had for that amount. Minnesota will need one if it’s able to include J.J. Barea in a deal involving Love or shed his contract in a separate trade.
Martin, Budinger and guard Alexey Shved could be on the trading block, too.
Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson and Bobcats/Hornets power forward Josh McRoberts are potential free agent targets, along with a handful of others depending on their agents’ asking prices. But Saunders won’t be knocking on any of their doors like he did with Budinger, J.J. Redick and O.J. Mayo a year ago.
"We don’t have anybody targeted right now," Saunders said. "I’m sure we’ll talk to agents and we’ll see. There might be some people that look at us to say ‘maybe that’s the right place for my guy to be there. Do you guys have interest?’ And someone might come across."
Instead, Saunders will pay close attention to the Love market while discussing a new contract with Rubio’s agent Dan Fegan. Entering his fourth year in the league, Rubio can receive a maximum five-year extension as the franchise’s one "designated player" but hasn’t done enough in the Wolves’ eyes to merit such status.
Rubio’s camp can begin negotiating once the moratorium begins Monday night. Along with the rest of the league, he can officially sign starting July 10.
It could be a much more drawn-out process, though, because Fegan’s job is to secure the most money he can for his client. If the sides don’t come to an agreement, Rubio would earn $5.2 million next season then become a restricted free agent next summer.
But that wouldn’t exactly fortify Rubio’s relationship with Saunders and the franchise that drafted him fifth overall in 2009, so chances are Rubio lands a four-year extension sometime this summer.
But whether it’s securing his starting floor general for a few more years, figuring out what to do with an aggravated Love or filling out the roster via free agency, Saunders is in no hurry.
"We’ll probably kind of wait and see," Saunders said. "I feel very comfortable where our roster is at right now."
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