Timberwolves could use wise veteran Tolliver

MINNEAPOLIS – Walk into the Timberwolves’ locker room after one of last April’s heartbreaking losses, and there sat Anthony Tolliver.

There sat Tolliver, ready to talk, ready to analyze, ready to break down whatever happened in that night’s particular brand of collapse.

There sat Tolliver, with intelligent responses and insight, with the proper amount of anger after a tough night and only a hint of resignation to the team’s struggles.

Got a question? Ask Tolliver. Afraid to tick off someone else? Talk to Tolliver instead. Want some insight on what’s going on with the league, something bigger-picture than just a blown lead or a missed shot? Tolliver’s your guy.

If there were a statistic that measured the ratio of minutes spent talking to the media to minutes spent on the court, Tolliver would lead the league. He’s every reporter’s guilty pleasure, a guy who might not necessarily have an impact in every game but who’s eminently quotable, disarmingly friendly and refreshingly smart. And yet despite all that the 27-year-old forward remains an unsigned free agent, with the Timberwolves hoping to sign him but currently unable.

It’s easy to like Tolliver. He’s the kind of player ever locker room needs, but in these stagnant August days of free agency, that really doesn’t matter. No matter how well-spoken, how insightful, how level-headed, how circumspect Tolliver might be, none of that means that the Timberwolves must, or even should, resign the free agent. None of it.

And that’s what’s so terrible about sports. Being a good guy really can get you nowhere. But for Tolliver, it might not hurt.

With Tolliver yet to sign a deal more than a month into free agency, the Timberwolves have repeatedly expressed their interest in resigning him, most recently on July 31 when president of basketball operations David Kahn reaffirmed that sentiment. Right now, though, the team’s salary cap situation puts a damper on that plan. It still might be able to bring Tolliver back, but the forward is testing the market, and if the Timberwolves were smart and the task were easy, they’d figure out a way to get him back on their payroll.

This isn’t a matter of life or death. If Tolliver moves on to his fifth NBA team in as many seasons, the Timberwolves’ record will likely feel little impact. They’ll go on with whatever roster they’ve settled on, and whether they become a playoff team will be largely up to forces larger than the 6-foot-8 veteran.

But not everything in sports has to be about momentous decisions, about playmakers and big names and highlight reels. The Timberwolves have their stars, and what they need is a solid supporting cast. They need players with a vested interest in the team, players who can be good teammates and who can step up when they’re needed – all things last season’s team lacked. They need guys like Tolliver, who emerge from every practice drenched in sweat, who are the last ones off the court after shooting jump shot after jump shot after jump shot until they lose count.

Tolliver wasn’t born a superstar. He might not even have been born an NBA-caliber player. But he’s become one through hard work and by knowing his role, and that’s why teams like the Wizards, Pacers and Cavaliers are reportedly – and should be – interested in him. Tolliver has gone about his NBA career in the most pragmatic of ways. He’s never made big money – $2.1 million last season – and he is looking for a contract no larger than his last, according to a report from FOX Sports Florida. Tolliver knows that there’s life beyond the NBA, and he already has several auxiliary businesses. He’ll play until it no longer makes sense, and then he’ll move on. But right now, playing is still the better option.

The “he’s a good guy; they should sign him” argument doesn’t work in sports, and it’s not the argument for Tolliver. The argument for Tolliver involves his character, yes, but it doesn’t hinge on it. If players got minutes based on character, Tolliver would be in the Timberwolves’ starting five, and that’s never going to happen.

In his four-season career, Tolliver has averaged 6.8 points and 4.6 rebounds. His career season came with the Warriors in 2010, when he averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in 44 games. Last year, his second with the Timberwolves, Tolliver’s numbers dipped from 6.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 2010-11 to 4.1 and 3.0, respectively. But those drop-offs were due in some part to diminished playing time; with the Timberwolves’ revamped roster, he averaged a full three fewer minutes per game. Of course there were other sources  that are impossible to fully identify – Kevin Love’s breakout year? The team’s inconsistent play? A new coach? – but they shouldn’t cause anyone to write off Tolliver just yet.

The Timberwolves have put together a roster this offseason that, even after trading Wayne Ellington to Memphis for Dante Cunningham, is still heavy on guards and lighter on forwards. If salary cap space is created, there should definitely be room for Tolliver on the roster, especially with Anthony Randolph gone. In fact, Tolliver would likely be able to compete with Cunningham, who’s the same height as Tolliver (6-8), about 10 pounds lighter (227) and has averaged a full point per game less over his career.

That’s not to say that Tolliver deserves a spot more than Cunningham, or even that he’ll outplay him. Cunningham has earned his statistics on largely winning teams; Tolliver has been mostly a fill-in on struggling ones. Still, though, the numbers don’t lie, and neither do the last two years, so the Timberwolves are justified in their continued hope to bring Tolliver back.

It’ll likely be a few weeks before the Tolliver decision can be made. The Olympics need to end before Kahn and the Timberwolves resume their pursuit of any roster moves, and they’re not the only piece to this puzzle. Tolliver may find a better offer before the Timberwolves are ready to sign him, and that’s his right.

None of this is ever easy, the negotiations and the signings and the constant scheming to create salary cap space. If it were, Tolliver would likely be signed to a deal in the neighborhood of his last one already, and if this can become as simple as getting a signature on a contract, the Timberwolves would be crazy not to hand Tolliver a pen and point to the X.

Not because he’s a good guy. Not because he’s smart. But because he should be able to fill a role, however minor, that the team has open.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.