Wolves doing the math to make moves work
MINNEAPOLIS – Late Tuesday evening, the announcement was in. The NBA set its salary cap at $58.044 million, the same as last season.
The news was as expected, and three hours later, the league's 10-day moratorium on signing free agents ended. Free agents could officially sign, teams could officially trade players and the bureaucratic boredom should have ended.
Should have is the key term there, though, when it comes to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who will continue to hang in some sort of contractual limbo in the near term. Anyone who was expecting a flurry of tweets, official announcements or murmurs from sources Tuesday night and Wednesday would have been sorely disappointed. What the Timberwolves emitted was radio silence but for a very good reason.
Before the Timberwolves can officially announce the terms of the contracts Brandon Roy and Alexey Shved have agreed to, they have a good deal of loose ends to tie up. After a busy 10 days during the moratorium, the team could come out of free agency with at least three new players: Roy, Shved and perhaps even Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum. But first, it needs to clear its salary cap space.
As the Timberwolves' roster stands right now, before the additions of Roy, Shved, Batum or even second-round pick Robbie Hummel, the team is paying 13 players. Those contracts range in size from the $12.9 million due Kevin Love next season to the $762,195 Malcolm Lee will earn, totaling a sum equal to the $58 million salary cap. Fortunately for the team, though, that payroll does not present an obstacle to acquiring the free agents it has come to agreement with; rather, it's just a matter of cutting and shifting at this point.
That $58 million currently includes the contracts of Darko Milicic, Martell Webster and Brad Miller. Those contracts total $16.044 million, but none of those three players is likely to be on the Timberwolves' payroll by the end of free agency. However, it isn't just a simple matter of cutting them.
Miller is retiring, and Webster won't be back, but the team extended its June 30 deadline to pick up their contract options in the hope that they might be able to be packaged in a sign-and-trade deal. If they're not, the team will simply buy out the contracts.
Milicic, who has underperformed throughout his tenure on the Timberwolves, lost his starting center job to Nikola Pekovic last season, and he's a likely candidate for the team's amnesty provision, in which he'd be released and still paid his contract, but the money wouldn't be counted toward the Timberwolves' salary cap. Teams have until next Tuesday, July 17, to exercise the amnesty clause.
In the coming hours and days, the Timberwolves will work through the best way to handle those contracts. It would be much simpler if the team were targeting only Roy and Shved; their salaries would fit easily into the space created by immediately getting rid of Milicic, Miller and Webster, with room to spare. But instead, there's the extra issue of Batum, the 23-year-old restricted free-agent small forward who spent his first four NBA seasons with Portland.
Batum, who the Timberwolves have been pursuing since early in the moratorium, has expressed a desire to leave Portland for Minnesota both through his agent and directly to NBA.com. However, the Trail Blazers can match any offer sheet Batum signs, and a contract of the size Batum necessitates would also give the Timberwolves little flexibility under the cap when combined with the new contracts of Shved and Roy.
There's also the possibility of a sign-and-trade with Portland for Batum, which is part of the reason the Timberwolves haven't made any announcements regarding Miller, Milicic and Webster. However, all sides – the Trail Blazers, the Timberwolves, Batum – don't seem to be in agreement about the feasibility of such a deal, and it seems unlikely that the Timberwolves' roster will assume any clarity until this three-way staring contest ends.
When the salary cap situation is sorted out – which it will be without major issue – the Timberwolves and president of basketball operations David Kahn will have made good on their promises going into the offseason. Kahn repeatedly stressed that the team could make cap space if necessary, which it's in the process of doing, and both he and coach Rick Adelman were adamant that adding experience would be the team's most important goal before the 2012-13 season.
If all goes to plan, the Timberwolves will have added a backup point guard (Shved), a solid small forward who could earn significant minutes (Chase Budinger), a former star who could be explosive off the bench and in clutch situations (Roy) and even a high-level small forward (Batum). They might be able to do so without losing any key pieces like Derrick Williams, whose name has been involved in too many trade talks to count. The team could even still bring back free agents Anthony Tolliver and Anthony Randolph, the latter at a salary less than the $4 million offer it did not pick up.
Right now, sorting out the salary cap is likely at the top of the Timberwolves' list of things to do. Though other teams will begin to introduce their new players on Wednesday and Thursday, Minnesota won't have that luxury – not yet. But the excitement will come in the next few days, and even once these new additions are cemented into the roster, that's not to say the team's offseason maneuvering will be over.
The Timberwolves promised changes, and here they are. Now, the team needs to ensure that changes can lead to wins, and that will be harder than working out even the most complicated deal.
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