Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders heads out of town on a late-night shopping spree Sunday with extra cash in his wallet after Andrei Kirilenko on Saturday turned down a $10.2 million salary for next season.
Kirilenko’s agent said his client will not exercise a player option for next season on a two-year, $20 million contract he signed with the Wolves last summer. Instead, he will become a free agent able to sign a multi-year contract with any NBA team, including the Wolves, by letting a midnight Saturday deadline pass. He is believed to be seeking at age 32 at least a new three-year deal.
That means Saunders could have $7 million or more a year to sign the legitimately sized and skilled shooting guard that Thursday’s wild draft did not deliver, in addition to re-signing his own free agents Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger.
Saunders calls those two Timberwolves — Pekovic is a restricted free agent, Budinger unrestricted — his top priorities when the NBA’s negotiating period begins at 11:01 p.m. Sunday (Central time). But he is expected to be knocking on other players’ doors at the opening bell, quite possibly on the front porch of Dallas unrestricted free agent O.J. Mayo.
Just don’t ask him where he’s going. This is supposed to be top-secret, spy stuff.
“I’m not saying where I’m going,” Saunders said. “You won’t even find out on my Twitter account anymore.”
Saunders has sworn off his Twitter habit after Thursday’s draft, a night in which all three shooting guards he sought were gone by the Wolves’ No. 9 pick so he improvised by making a 2-for-1 deal with Utah that brought UCLA swingman Shabazz Muhammad and Louisville center Gorgui Dieng to Minnesota.
Now he will turn his attention to finding that shooting guard — Mayo as well as unrestricted free agents J.J. Redick, Kevin Martin and Kyle Korver all could be on his list — through some free-agent spending while also possibly searching for a starting small forward to replace Kirilenko through a trade.
“We’re going to be very active in both free agency and trades,” Saunders said.
His most important task is re-signing Pekovic, the Wolves’ bruising center who just might be one of the top targets leaguewide when the negotiating period begins.
Teams can reach agreement with free agents any time after the clock strikes midnight in New York City, but they can’t officially sign anyone until the league moratorium ends July 10.
By then, Pekovic could have signed a very rich contract — a maximum four-year, $55 million-ish deal — with another team if the Wolves can’t reach a deal with him first. If he does sign an offer with another team, the Wolves have three days then to match the offer for a physical player who has missed 17 or more games in his each of his first three NBA seasons because of nagging injuries.
The Wolves have the final right to sign Pekovic and can offer him five years guaranteed while other teams can only offer four, a distinction that might offend teammate Kevin Love. Or they could strike a deal for a sign-and-trade with another team if the price gets too rich. They have no such rights with Budinger, but Saunders said he believes the team can sign a favorite of coach Rick Adelman who will likely see his salary bumped from $942,000 last season to more than $3 million despite a knee injury that sidelined him four months last winter.
Pekovic said repeatedly last season that he likes the Wolves organization, likes Minnesota and wants to return.
“I’ll be back,” Pekovic said in early April as the season wound down. “I like the guys, we have a lot of potential. We show we can play, but we have a problem with injuries. I’m thinking a lot about our future.”
A team such as Cleveland or Portland could offer Pekovic the maximum and force the Wolves to swallow hard and match. One important thing to remember, too: His agent, Jeff Schwartz, negotiated Al Jefferson’s five-year, $65 million contract with the Wolves in 2007 and Love’s four-year, $61 million-plus deal in 2012 that remains something of a sore spot with Love.
Asked then if his decision ultimately won’t simply come down to money, Pekovic said: “I don’t know what to say about that. My job is to play basketball. I think I did my job good. Now it’s their part. It’s really something that is their part. I did my part of the job. It’s also my decision, of course, but now it’s their part of the job, too.”
The Wolves pay Love a maximum salary and probably will have to do the same when Ricky Rubio’s rookie contract expires in 2015. You can bet the Wolves will angle for a contract that pays closer to $12 million or $11 million than $14 million, but NBA big men command a premium. Portland rushed to offer Indiana’s Roy Hibbert the maximum last year, and the Pacers matched.
“There aren’t many hometown discounts given in our league,” Saunders said. “We expect he’ll be back. We feel he’s a vital part of what we’re doing, and we’ll do what we have to do to bring him back.”
That said, Saunders suggested everything has a limit and mentioned the New England Patriots and their philosophy.
“They’ve always said for every player and every position — depending on their age and where they’re at in their career — they always have a walk-away price on everybody, and they showed that this year with [receiver Wes] Welker,” Saunders said. “So I think with everybody there is a walk-away price, but I do feel we’ll be able to get something done. It’s a high priority.”