The Timberwolves’ major need for next season couldn’t be any clearer: help on the wing. While Luke Ridnour did yeoman’s work at the 2 this past season (and could still provide an interesting look there next season), the shooting guard/small forward rotation of Wes Johnson, Martell Webster and Wayne Ellington (and Malcolm Lee at the end of the season) looked awful most of the time. Depending on what happens with team options and qualifying offers for players like Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph (neither of whom I anticipate returning) and Martell Webster and the expiring deal of Anthony Tolliver and Brad Miller’s retirement, the Wolves are looking to have somewhere in the area of $12-$15 million available for signing free agents this offseason. Now that’s not a hard number, but it means that there’s enough room to make a substantial offer to some choice restricted and unrestricted free agents this offseason, so without further ado, I present a breakdown of some of those options.
ACT LIKE YOU’VE BEEN THERE BEFORE
The two best options for savvy vets are Ray Allen (unrestricted free agent) and Jason Terry (restricted free agent), but in both cases the team has to weigh the benefits of having proven veterans who have made definitive contributions to championships against age (Allen is 36, Terry is 34), injury, and the size on contract it will take to get them. Allen is making $10 million this year and Terry is making $11 million, so the Wolves would have to be prepared to commit something like that to attract them to a team that’s still working towards a playoff berth. Allen has also struggled with injuries and his shooting has been erratic at best this postseason. Neither is exactly explosive either, meaning they’re not going to create on their own from the perimeter with consistency.
But both Allen and Terry would feast on the opportunities created by Rubio’s drive-and-kick game, plus with Love presenting a strong pick-and-pop threat and Pekovic a pick-and-roll threat, the Wolves could really space the floor if they had a strong shooter at the 2. Allen has a career true shooting percentage of .579, Terry’s is .554. Wes Johnson’s is .486, plus either player basically doubles Johnson’s weak career PER of 9.0.
Personality-wise, either would be great. Allen brings a no-nonsense, get-it-done attitude that would be great for a young Wolves team while Terry brings the swagger and grit. But my gut also says neither of these deals get done. Minnesota’s not a prime destination and won’t contend for a championship next season, even if they make the playoffs, so it’s a long shot for aging players hoping to contribute to one more championship.
PUT ME IN, COACH
A player like Manu Ginobili who’s willing to come off the bench is an exceedingly rare commodity. Players want to start, and so it seems like one area ripe for the picking for the Wolves would be offering players currently coming off the bench an opportunity to start on a dynamic offense alongside Rubio and Love.
O.J. Mayo (RFA) makes perfect sense in this scenario. Memphis has already locked up a lot of cash in Marc Gasol, Rudy Gayo, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley (those four are owed $53.9 million next year alone) so it will be hard for them to match the qualifying offer for Mayo, which is $7.3 million. He’s had personal issues, but his per 36 career average of 16.7 pts and his solid .433/.375 shooting percentages would be a welcome addition as a starter for the Wolves. He can shoot, penetrate and handle the ball, including playing some point guard. He also brings playoff experience from the last two years. The downside comes on defense (where the Wolves struggled mightily without Rubio) and the very basic question of whether he can genuinely shine as a starter. I suspect that Wes Johnson may look very good for some team coming off the bench as well, but he clearly shouldn’t be starting. Will Mayo’s erratic play be brought into high relief with starter’s minutes?
Another attractive option is Rudy Fernandez (RFA), who can play the 2 and some 3. The biggest red flag on Fernandez is the back surgery he underwent late this season. Webster has had a long road back from his back surgery, and the Wolves certainly don’t want to end up with another injury plagued SG/SF, even if his qualifying offer is only $3.1 million. The contract Fernandez signed with Real Madrid during the lockout also allows him to return to Real Madrid once his NBA deal expires, and given the way Fernandez has struggled to find a consistent role for a team in the NBA, it’s entirely possible he returns to Spain if no deal looks good for him. On the plus side, he’s a creative, freewheeling player who would make a great fit alongside his countryman, Ricky Rubio. I mean, he did have this assist to a trailing Kenneth Faried this season:
Fernandez has had his ups and downs, like Mayo, but there’s reason to believe either one might be able to find a home in Adelman’s comfy offense.
EAT YOUR GRUEL
An important thing to remember is that the Wolves were in a strong position to make the playoffs based on Rubio, Love, and Pekovic and subpar contributions from the wing, so while landing a difference maker at the 2 or 3 may be the dream, it’s entirely possible that even an average upgrade to competence at the wing would improve the team dramatically.
I present you with Landry Fields (RFA). Now Fields was fairly terrible for the Knicks this season, and it’s entirely possible he’s no great upgrade from Johnson, but the Knicks were also a team in complete disarray for most of the season. They couldn’t even figure out how to use their stars next to each other, much less where roleplayers like Fields fit in. And Fields’ rookie year showed that he can be a solid, no-nonsense option at the 2. Unfortunately, his 3-point shot has looked mega-broken (his shooting percentage on 3-pointers dropped from .393 his rookie season to .256 this past one) plus he shot free throws at an abysmal 56% this season. Excited yet? No? Me neither. But coming off a year when he made $788,872, Fields will probably be a reasonably-priced option if other possibilities fall through.
While we’re at it, why not consider Philadelphia’s Jodie Meeks (RFA)? He pulled down $884,293 last year and managed to play his way into starting 50 games on a team with Evan Turner, Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young at the 2 and 3. His 11.9 career PER isn’t going to light anyone’s hair on fire, but again, we’re talking about players who would upgrade the wing position from abysmal to competent.
While there aren’t too many huge prizes out there amongst restricted and unrestricted free agents, Eric Gordon is a young player (just 23) with a ton of upside. Although he played in only nine games this season (and so also presents something of an injury risk), he was clearly the Hornets’ best player when he was on the floor. Unfortunately, that’s also a major obstacle to getting him. With Anthony Davis presumably going to New Orleans with the first pick in the draft and only $31 million on the books without Gordon’s contract next year, the team is likely to match any offer for Gordon, who will presumably collect a lot more than the $5.1 million qualifying offer. That said, Gordon’s ability to shoot, drive, and handle the ball would be a godsend on the Timberwolves, who have struggled with all of those things from the 2 and 3 positions.
Another more enticing option, at least to me, is Portland’s Nicolas Batum. The 23-year-old small forward (who’s also played shooting guard recently) has improved his scoring every season since coming into the NBA and had several notable games this season, including this breakout against the Nuggets where he scored a career high 33 points and made 9 three-pointers:
You think the Wolves couldn’t use that on any given night? At 6’8”, he’s also long and a solid defender on the perimeter—something the Wolves could desperately use. All in all, given his youth, upside, and current toolset, he seems like the most ideal possible fit for Minnesota. The big obstacle is that Portland’s only other big salary right now is LaMarcus Aldridge, and when they detonated the team by trading away Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby, they made noises about Batum being a building block for the future. But since then, there’s been noise from Batum’s camp that he will sign the first good offer sheet he gets. Although his qualifying offer is ~$5 million, the offers he’s likely to receive may double that, and will probably be in the $8 million range. Thus, signing him will probably eat most of the Wolves’ cap space and possibly leave them with little to fill up the bench with.
I LOVE THE UNKNOWN
You can call me crazy, but Gerald Green (UFA) is also out there. While he barely managed to find the floor with the Timberwolves in ‘07-’08, his play in New Jersey this past season revealed a player who actually developed in the D-League. He averaged 12.1 ppg and shot 48% from the floor and 39% from 3-point range in 31 games. Oh and he also threw down what is unquestionably the dunk of the year:
If Green’s tremendous athleticism is now topped with a level head and solid shooting, he can be a great option for a team looking for consistency and explosiveness on the wing.
Of course, free agency isn’t the only way for the Timberwolves to improve this offseason. With the 18th pick in the draft and some pieces that may be redundant, there’s reason to hope that the team could also improve via trade. I’ll be looking at possible trade scenarios for the Timberwolves soon.