Both Ricky Rubio (left) and Kevin Love could become free agents next season, so the Timberwolves will have to decide what to do with their two biggest stars.
Matthew Emmons/Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
MINNEAPOLIS — Since Rick Adelman’s retirement and the subsequent wave of speculation regarding replacement candidates, chatter has gone quiet on the Timberwolves’ coaching-search front.
Part of that’s because the playoffs are in full swing, and some potential interviewees are preoccupied. Part of it’s because president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, the organization’s former and most successful coach to date, feels comfortable running the show until a new hire is made.
But Saunders, his boss and underlings have a lot more to handle than just finding a new head man.
While replacing Adelman, who retired last Monday after 23 years as an NBA head coach, ranks high among Saunders’ offseason priorities, there’s a laundry list of other tasks on the docket. There’s a star player to try and keep around. Another to decide how much of a reward and commitment he deserves from the franchise. Because of its contracts and cap situation, Minnesota’s roster shouldn’t look a whole lot different next season, but there are still a few key personnel decisions to make, especially when it comes to the draft and free agency.
A practice facility is currently going up across the street from the Target Center, which is scheduled to receive a near $100 million facelift.
It all makes Saunders’ first summer in charge — which he spent aggressively going after internal and external free agents in order to balance the roster — seem like child’s play.
"We’ve made some improvements," Saunders said. "I believe there are things we still need to change."
That starts with the perception that Kevin Love’s days in the Twin Cities are numbered. The All-Star power forward can opt out of his contract after next season, and general consensus has it he’s fed up enough with his treatment and the Timberwolves’ ineptitude to seek another berth with a winner.
A drive-through stop at the NBA rumor mill comes with helpings of Lakers, Knicks and Bulls as teams with the cap space and roster room to go after Love. Minnesota, meanwhile, has begun its campaign to convince Love to stay with the organization that traded for him in the 2008 draft — and hasn’t reached the playoffs since.
Lately, that’s meant owner Glen Taylor admitting he and former president of basketball ops David Kahn should’ve thought twice when they denied Love a maximum contract following his rookie deal. The move drew public scorn from Love when he sat down with Yahoo! Sports last season and voiced his displeasure with Taylor, Kahn and the team’s decision.
After Love became the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo in 1975-76 to average 26 points, 12 rebounds and four assists per game this season, Taylor admitted to FOXSportsNorth.com the team should’ve reconsidered Love’s worth when the time came for his extension in 2012.
"I would say that he has probably played as good or even better than I would’ve thought he could back then," Taylor said. "To me, if there was a way to know that then, we probably would’ve extended it out to the fifth year."
Because of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, the Timberwolves can offer Love one more year and $26.5 million more than any other suitor. So the ultra-unique stretch four can still get paid, Taylor said.
"We’re still in a position to get him the money one way or another that it would be the same," said Taylor, echoing Saunders’ sentiment that retaining Love tops the club’s list of offseason objectives. "It isn’t any loss to him in the long run, but it just has to do with, maybe, the commitment at that time.
"I don’t think moving to another team really helps him or probably won’t help us."
The Timberwolves also have to decide how much they think point guard Ricky Rubio is worth. This summer, they have the option to name him their "designated player" coming off a rookie contract and sign him to a five-year, max deal (the one Love wanted and didn’t receive). Rubio’s agent, Dan Fegan, likely will push for such a move when the free agent negotiation period begins July 1.
But Rubio hasn’t done enough, in the franchise’s eyes, to earn such a contract and instead will likely sign a typical, four-year extension. Or he could play out the final year of his current contract, through 2014-15, and become a restricted free agent next summer.
Either way, the Timberwolves can retain his rights for the next two seasons.
Taylor didn’t sound keen on committing to Rubio for five seasons when asked about the Spaniard’s performance this season. Rubio ranked second in the NBA in steals (2.3 per game) and fourth in assists (8.6 per game) but shot 38.1 percent from the field and averaged 9.5 points per game, ranking 37th among NBA point guards who played 58 games or more.
He did improve to 41.3 percent shooting and 14.2 points per game during nine games in April, however.
"I just don’t think we’ve had the consistency during this year that we saw at the very beginning, but the last part of the season makes you very hopeful that he’s got a lot of improvement in him," Taylor said. "I think we have to remember he’s a young person. If we give him time, I think he’ll be able to make better decisions out there. He’s a hard worker, so I think he’ll improve on his shot. But I don’t know how one would fully evaluate Ricky this year, so next year is really important for him."
The Timberwolves also must decide what to do with Dante Cunningham (arrested twice near the end of the season and becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer), Alexey Shved (one year left on his contract and could be bought out) and Robbie Hummel (signed a one-year deal before this past season).
Taylor also said the team, fairly strapped by the salary cap next season, won’t be hesitant to go after any beneficial trades that become possible. While teams — particularly the Lakers, who reportedly would offer Minnesota their first-round pick — are expected to go hard after Love, backup point guard J.J. Barea would be a more likely trade chip.
And then there’s the process of adding to the roster. Unless something batty happens in the draft lottery May 20, Minnesota will select 13th overall and have a pair of second-round picks, too.
If the Timberwolves somehow fell to 14th — there’s a 1.8 percent chance that happens — they’d forfeit their top-13 protected pick to Phoenix.
Saunders went into the offseason expecting to have little free-agent cap room at his disposal save for the team’s $5.3 million mid-level exception. But thanks to increased revenues, the league’s salary cap is projected to rise more rapidly than expected — $5 million, from $58.6 million to $63.2 million — which could give Minnesota a little more wiggle room.
"It helps anybody," Saunders said, adding that any free-agent signings need to help the team long-term, too. "The decisions you make now can usually affect what you do down the road."
That’s blatantly prevalent in the hiring of a coach. As of now, Saunders and Taylor say Saunders is out of the running, but if the search — which is expected to include conversations with Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan, George Karl, Stan Van Gundy and Lionel Hollins, among others — proves fruitless, that may change.
The organization will take its time, Saunders said, perhaps not announcing a decision until after the June 26 draft.
Saunders, who also coached the Pistons and Wizards and spent years working in the Continental Basketball Association, spoke confidently of his qualifications in selecting a new coach.
"It’s like picking a player," Saunders said. "When I was a coach, I studied other coaches. How they coach, good things they did, bad things they did, and having been a coach and really having a relationship with a huge amount of coaches at all different aspects whether it’s head coaches in the NBA, head coaches in college, assistant coaches in the NBA, (NBA Developmental League), the CBA, some Europeans, so I believe I have a pretty broad knowledge of a lot of those coaches.
"Because of that, I’m looking forward to it, because I do have a vision on how I believe a team needs to be successful, so it’s a matter of having someone who shares that same vision."