By Peter Schoenke
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Kevin McHale era is finally over for the Timberwolves.
While McHale brought the franchise out of the destitution of its early days with eight straight playoff appearances, the last four seasons were ugly.
The T-Wolves failed to make the playoffs and won just 33 percent of their games. The trade of Kevin Garnett
before the 2007-08 season seemed to bring few building blocks in a rebuilding project.
McHale moved to head coach and lost his GM duties after Minnesota got off to a 7-29 start. For a fleeting moment - a 10-4 record in January - it looked like McHale's rebuilding project might finally take off.
But Al Jefferson tore his ACL in early February, and the T-Wolves imploded with a 7-25 record the rest of the season. Owner Glen Taylor finally made a change and hired David Kahn, the former GM of the Pacers, as President of Basketball Operations.
McHale was fired as head coach, ending any conspiracy theories that he'd still operate as the GM from the bench.
Kahn then didn't just decide to start his own rebuilding process, he tore the roster down to the studs with only five players remaining from McHale's squad just a year ago.
He basically decided to keep Kevin Love
and Al Jefferson
and clear as much salary cap room as possible. Kahn made almost daily transactions this summer, and many trades were made simply for small future salary cap savings.
Among the trades:
Daniels, Atkins and Blount were all then waived with their contracts bought out.
Next he added young talent with draft picks and free agent signings:
- Kahn took Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio and Wayne Ellington in the 2009 draft. He wasn't able to sign Rubio, who will play in Spain for at least two more seasons.
However, his rights remain a valuable trade chip.
- He signed Ryan Hollins to a three-year, $7 million contract.
- He signed Ramon Sessions to a four-year, $16 million contract.
- He signed Sasha Pavlovic to a one-year, $1.5 million contract.
The result is a team that's very young and has few established players other than Al Jeffersion and Ryan Gomes
. Kahn has just $21.5 million on the books for 2010-11, which sets the team up to be players in the free agent market.
It remains to be seen if Kahn is a better talent evaluator than McHale, but he's doing his rebuilding projection at a fraction of McHale's cost.
They may not beat last year's win total, but that flexibility should help the Timberwolves keep promising players and add needed parts to improve the next two years.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Minnesota will have a very open competition for playing time, and it's possible Kahn could make several trades that will keep the rotation in flux.
Training camp begins with Al Jefferson
and Kevin Love
set to get playing time in the front court. Jefferson should start at center, but both players may be interchangeable between center and power forward.
figures to open the season as the starting small forward. Rookie Jonny Flynn
should open the season as the team's starting point guard, but it's possible Ramon Sessions
or a veteran (don't be surprised by a late signing in the preseason) may eat into his minutes initially as he learns on the job.
Shooting guard figures to be more of a wide open competition. Corey Brewer
could get the most playing time due to his defense. Ramon Sessions
could also get significant minutes at shooting guard if he shows he can be effective as scorer.
If Wayne Ellington
or Sasha Pavlovic
emerge as a needed outside shooter, they could get time at shooting guard as well.
New head coach Kurt Rambis plans to install an up-temp offense, which could help the fantasy value of whoever wins regular minutes.
: He was well on his way to cementing a place among elite fantasy big men last season before suffering a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee. At the time of his injury, Jefferson was averaging 23.1 ppg and 11 rpg, making him the only player besides Dwight Howard
to average at least 20 points and 11 rebounds during the 2008-09 season. On top of being a double-double machine, Jefferson set personal bests in free-throw percentage (73.8) and blocks (1.7). Jefferson underwent successful surgery to repair his torn ACL in February and has been making a speedy recovery, putting him on pace to be ready when camp opens. When he rejoins the team, Jefferson will see plenty of changes as the Timberwolves brought in Kurt Rambis to run the ship. Rambis is installing a fast-paced offense to take advantage of Minnesota's youth. In preparation for the new system, Jefferson cut his playing weight from 288 to 265. Regardless of the offense Minnesota runs, Jefferson will be the focal point. With a low-post game that relies on footwork and basketball IQ instead of athleticism or explosiveness, Jefferson is the type of player who should be able to return to form quickly from an injury as severe as a torn ACL, so don't downgrade him come draft day.
: The seven-foot center provides some height for the Wolves in a backup role to Minnesota's small front court of behind Al Jefferson
and Kevin Love
. He's an outstanding athlete, but has a low basketball IQ.
He's just 25 and showed flashes of being an impact player last season with Dallas, but the odds are long he'll develop into anything more than a backup center. However, he landed with the right team to get plenty of opportunity.
: He's only on the roster due to his $6.75 million expiring contract and could be traded at any point. He'll only get significant minutes with several injuries.
: Love entered his rookie season with a few questions about how well his game would translate at the NBA level, but his consistent play has answered them so far. Love started the season coming off the bench, but was bumped to the starting lineup after Al Jefferson
sustained a season-ending knee injury in February. Love seized the opportunity, averaging 13.1 points and 9.4 rebounds in 37 games as a starter. Jefferson is expected to be back at full strength when camp opens, but Love should stick with the starting unit, sliding over to power forward. The presence of Jefferson in the lineup should benefit Love's offensive attack, as opposing teams will be more focused on stopping Big Al on the block. While Love will be a solid source of points and rebounds, it remains to be seen how much he'll contribute on the defensive end. He plays steady defense, and he's usually in the right position due to his high basketball IQ, but he lacks the athleticism to rack up many blocks or steals. Despite his defensive limitations, Love should improve during his sophomore campaign. Minnesota is in rebuilding mode, and Love is one of the centerpieces, teaming with Jefferson as the building blocks of the frontcourt.
: Gomes has become a fan favorite in Minnesota because of his consistency (played all 82 games two straight seasons), his timely scoring (13.3 ppg) and his ability to knock down an open jumper (1.3 treys/game, 37.2% from downtown). New Timberwolves Coach Kurt Rambis recently singled out Gomes, along with Al Jefferson
and Kevin Love
, as one of the foundation pieces of the team. That said, with Jefferson and Love both healthy in the frontcourt it's uncertain whether Gomes will start at small forward or play with the second unit. G
omes is a bit of a tweener, a 6-8, 250-pound power forward that has learned to play more face up from the perimeter. G
omes may be relegated to the bench this year, which makes it unlikely he'll set new career-highs in points for the fifth consecutive year.
: After a disappointing rookie year and a sophomore campaign lost to injury, Brewer is entering his third NBA season with a lot to prove to Minnesota's new management. Brewer has fully recovered from the knee injury that plagued him last season, but his role with the team this season is still uncertain. Rambis is looking to fill his shooting guard and small forward spots with consistent outside shooting, which isn't Brewer's strong suit. If he can stay healthy, Brewer will have a chance to play a significant role with a young Timberwolves squad, but he'll have to show improvements with his shooting touch during training camp to earn a prominent role.
: The most outstanding player of the 2009 Final Four could fill Minnesota's need for an outside shooter. He'll get a chance to win minutes at shooting guard or small forward on the wide open roster, but will likely start the season as the third or fourth option off the bench. Still, he's got some sleeper potential.
: He could fight for playing time as there's plenty of opportunity for a swingman who can shoot from the outside to win minutes with the T-Wolves (he shot 41 percent from three-point range last season). Still, he'll likely begin the season in a reserve role.
: He was included as part of the Randy Foye
and Mike Miller
to Washington trade and it's not clear he's really in the team's long-range plans. He's not a strong enough perimeterr player (30 percent career three-point shooter) to fill the void of Minnesota's need for a shooter.
And his all-around game isn't strong enough to beat out similar swingmen on the roster. Still, he's on a team with plenty of opportunity, so he may get a chance to emerge. But he'll have a very limited role initially.
: Reiner will try to win a reserve spot with the T-Wolves, but likely faces long odds. He looks like a big body to fill out the training camp roster at this point.
: Rookie point guards are a lot like rookie starting pitchers, or rookie quarterbacks. Teams tend to bring them along slowly, letting them get acclimated to the pro game by logging some minutes at the two spot or bringing them off the bench behind a veteran. Jonny Flynn
will not be on that plan. It seems ironic, given the amount of flack the T-Wolves took on draft night for selecting 37 point guards, but Flynn seems like the only real one on the Minnesota roster right now. Fifth overall pick Ricky Rubio
is no closer to a buyout with his Spanish league team, and is more likely to play in Barcelona than Minneapolis this season. Sebastian Telfair
is a Clipper. Randy Foye
a Wizard. The ancient Chucky Atkins
is the only other true veteran point on Minnesota's current roster. Don't expect Flynn to be intimidated by the challenge. He's the guy who played 67 of a possible 70 minutes to lead Syracuse to a six-overtime win over Connecticut in the Big East tournament. Flynn reportedly struggled with his outside shot during Summer League play, but he was a 50-percent shooter from the floor in college.
: He was signed from Milwaukee as an unrestricted free agent. He lands on a team with more playing time opportunity, but no set role. The Minnesota back court is wide open and he should get plenty of playing time at point guard and shooting guard. He could win a job as the primary shooting guard, start the season as the point guard or get plenty of minutes at both in a backup role. Sessions isn't much of a threat from the outside, and does most of his scoring on dribble-drives. When given starter's minutes he's been a triple-double threat, but thus far has been unable to win a starting job outright.
: He could get some playing time early in the season with the T-Wolves since Minnesota plans to start a rookie at point guard. However, it's hard to see him having any long-term role and with $760,000 left on his expiring contract he could be traded at any point.
: Minnesota needs a third point guard on the roster, and Hart could fill the veteran backup role. He's unlikely to get significant minutes if he wins a spot on the roster.
: The 51st overall selection in the 2009 NBA Draft was released by the Spurs and later signed with Minnesota. He could win a spot on the roster in a reserve role and his outside shooting could help him find a niche on a team lacking three-point scoring.
: The undrafted free agent was an All-SEC Second Team player at Alabama. He's a long shot to win a reserve guard role.
: He's bounced between the NBA, D-League and overseas and faces long odds to win a spot to help fill out Minnesota's roster as a reserve guard.
: He's a long shot for a bench role as the T-Wolves need a third and possibly fourth point guard. He's played in Poland, Greece and Spain the past two years.
: Minnesota plans to give Flynn plenty of playing time in his rookie season, and there are few other point-guard options on the roster (His main competition, Ramon Sessions
, could even get playing time at shooting guard). Flynn has already looked strong against professional competition as he was named rookie of the month in July for his performance in the NBA's Las Vegas summer league after averaging 15 points and 7.4 assists.
: He was showing signs of improving his shooting in his last seven games before his season ended due to a torn ACL (he shot .457 from the field).
While he's a player known more for his defense, he can fill up the stat sheet as he averaged 5.7 rebounds, 2.9 assist, 1.8 steals and 0.4 blocks per 36 minutes last season.
He may be the leading candidate for the starting shooting guard job in training camp, although he'll get minutes at both shooting guard and small forward.
: It's really hard to have a "bust" on a team with almost no expectations. If any player is in danger of losing playing time to an emerging young player, Gomes would be the most vulnerable since he's a "tweener" between power forward and small forward.
If the T-Wolves find better outside shooting or defensive play from a forward, Gomes may be the one to sit. Still, he fought off a glut of swingmen last season and continued to be a focal point of the offense.
Article first appeared on 10/01/09