New-look Timberwolves preaching patience in Year 1 of another rebuilding program

By Ray Richardson, St. Paul Pioneer Press

Selling tickets is not the only bottom-line priority for the Timberwolves this season. The NBA team also hopes fans will buy into a sales pitch for patience.

With no all-stars on a remodeled roster, a new coaching staff and significant changes in management, the Wolves are offering a marginal but realistic projection for their 21st season.

In “two to three years,” president of basketball operations David Kahn believes the Wolves can be a playoff contender in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, have fun at Target Center and don’t get caught up too much with the scoreboard.

“The worst thing we could do is set expectations too high,” said Kahn, who was hired in May to help take the team into a new era. “If we try to persuade people that we’re ready to make the playoffs right now, that will blow up in our face. We’re too young at this point.”

FUTURES MARKET

The early assessment that the Wolves are not playoff material puts the organization in a challenging position of marketing a team that will struggle to win games. Besides reshaping the roster — only five players return from last season’s 24-58 team — Kahn had a busy offseason speaking to groups and organizations around Minnesota. He emphasized to fans that the franchise is committed to building a playoff contender.

Kahn, a former sportswriter who covered the NBA for the Oregonian in the 1980s, wrote a 2 1/2-page letter to fans after the draft in June to ask for patience and understanding.

The pitch has had moderate results leading up to Wednesday night’s season opener against New Jersey at Target Center. Ted Johnson, the Wolves’chief marketing officer, said the club has sold approximately 1,000 fewer season-ticket packages than at this time last year. A week before the start of last season, the Wolves had sold 7,000 season packages. Johnson said the club currently is at 6,000.

Kahn and owner Glen Taylor are counting on new coach Kurt Rambis and his Lakers legacy to help generate interest while the team rebuilds.

The critical stage of the rebuilding won’t come until next summer, when several of the NBA’s elite players will be eligible for free agency. That list includes LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady and Amare Stoudemire.

Wolves fans should forget about a quick fix this season. Kahn stressed it’s unlikely he will make a major trade that could affect the Wolves’ salary-cap position with such a quality free-agent market on the horizon.

Kahn projects the Wolves to be $15 million to $20 million under the NBA salary cap next summer after unloading Mike Miller, Randy Foye, Mark Madsen, Sebastian Telfair and Craig Smith in offseason trades. The league’s current cap is $57.7 million. Whether or not the cap stays the same for 2010-11, Kahn said the Wolves will have money to spend.

“We will be a big-time player in free agency next summer,” he said. “We have plenty of flexibility right now to be a major player. We’re among the top three or four teams in the league with cap room.”

Kahn has put himself in position to reshape the team after former head of basketball operations Kevin McHale failed to improve the Wolves after the 2003-04 season — the team’s last playoff appearance that resulted in a trip to the Western Conference finals. McHale, however, didn’t have as much wherewithal to dip into the free-agent market.

Kevin Garnett’s contract, which topped out at $26 million in 2006-07 — his final season with the club — was a key reason the Wolves could not pursue top-level free agents. Long-term deals for Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson and Trenton Hassell also limited the Wolves.

This is the first year in Taylor’s 14-year stretch as the Wolves’ majority owner that the club is committing to a major push in free agency.

A key question remains, however: Is the club attractive enough to lure a quality free agent?

The Wolves haven’t had a winning