At risk of someday sounding like a guy who sold his stock portfolio in March 2009, Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders explained on Tuesday why he traded former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams to Sacramento for veteran defensive specialist Luc Mbah a Moute.
Ultimately, Saunders and coach Rick Adelman decided Williams indeed is — no matter how much weight team executives asked him to lose so he could better play small forward — just what two-time All-Star forward Kevin Love is, a “stretch” power forward.
The same issue has swirled around Williams since the team made him their highest draft choice ever in 2011. It finally reached a conclusion Tuesday, when the Wolves finalized a deal with the Kings to send away the former University of Arizona star. He couldn’t find his way into Adelman’s rotation this season because the coach deemed there was no room for him to play consistent minutes at either forward spot.
“Through our training camp, through practices and through the games, we pretty much saw what we needed to see,” Saunders said. “I really believe that we came to the conclusion that he really was a power forward. His transition to the small forward just wasn’t beneficial to him or us. Our best player being Kevin Love, it was time to move on.”
So the Wolves traded their third top-six draft lottery pick in the past three years. Williams was dealt before his rookie contract expired, this time for a 27-year-old role player who, whether he starts at small forward or not, is intended to boost the team’s bench strength and give Adelman a defender who can guard the opponent’s best wing player every night.
Saunders well knows it’s the kind of trade that could look astoundingly shortsighted three, five and 10 years from now. Williams is 22 years old.
“You always look at that, you always have to be aware of that,” said Saunders, whose team started the season 5-2 and is now 8-8. “But you have to look and see: What is the value where you’re at? What’s the value going to be in two months? What’s the value going to be at trading deadline? What’s it going to be next year? I just didn’t foresee Derrick being able to play much. And if a guy’s not playing, usually your value is not going to go up.”
Saunders’ predecessor, David Kahn, drafted Syracuse guard Jonny Flynn sixth overall in 2009 and traded him two summers later in a complicated draft-night deal in which the Wolves sent away an extra second-round pick so Houston would accept Flynn and his damaged hip.
Kahn drafted Syracuse forward Wes Johnson fourth overall in 2010 and two years later gave Phoenix a protected first-round pick next summer so the Wolves would have the salary room needed to sign Andrei Kirilenko.
On Tuesday, Saunders traded away Williams two years and five months after the team drafted him, making what seemed like the obvious choice then.
Even though he wasn’t hired until last May, Saunders was asked how an NBA franchise survives such squandering of high draft picks.
His answer: You make other moves — free-agent signings, trades — that you hope “offset” such draft history.
Saunders mentioned the signings of Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer last summer and Tuesday’s trade that brought back a player Saunders said he admired when he coached Washington and Mbah a Moute played for Milwaukee in Eastern Conference games.
The team discussed acquiring Mbah a Moute — a 2008 second-round pick who played with Wolves star Kevin Love at UCLA — from Milwaukee before last summer’s draft and then again after the Bucks dealt him to Sacramento in July for two second-round picks in a salary-cap maneuver.
Saunders said the team did “extensive” research on Mbah a Moute’s knees — he had surgery to resolve tendinitis in May 2012 and missed much of this year’s preseason because of more knee issues — and Saunders said he and Love talked about Mbah a Moute as a person and player in a casual conversation about three weeks ago.
Saunders also said he and Adelman like Williams and believe he will succeed in Sacramento and in the NBA. But he mentioned a need to strengthen the Wolves’ bench and add defensive grit for a team that has relied upon its starters so much to start the season.
He also mentioned something Williams never found playing for Adelman: trust.
“Coach is going to play guys he feels he trusts, who can go out there and play for him and help him win,” Saunders said. “We need to do something where Coach can get some trust into his bench and play those guys more.”