Timberwolves coach and chief executive Flip Saunders gave his players Tuesday off after they played games on consecutive nights, but he went back to work hard himself instead by making two trades that reshape his team’s present and, more notably, its future.
Consummating some late-night phone work done by General Manager Milt Newton this past week, Saunders traded guards Mo Williams and Troy Daniels to Charlotte for a 2019 second-round pick and guard Gary Neal. Then he turned around and sent a protected future first-round pick to Atlanta for rookie forward Adreian Payne, a power forward Saunders coveted in last summer’s draft.
By trading Williams, the Wolves sent a veteran point guard with an expiring contract to an Eastern Conference playoff contender. In return, they received a nominal asset while they also dispensed of Daniels’ contract for the rest of this season and the next so they could open a roster spot to obtain Payne.
In essence, they traded Williams for a distant second-round pick because both he and Neal will be unrestricted free agents this summer. Williams theoretically helps keep the Hornets in the playoff hunt while injured star Kemba Walker misses the next six weeks and then gives them a veteran backup come playoff time when Walker returns.
Saunders said Neal’s presence, in addition to matching salaries, gives the Wolves a shooter with an NBA playoff experience back in return for the season’s final two months. He said he has no plans to buy out Neal’s $3.2 million salary and release him.
Only a month after he set a franchise record by scoring 52 points in a game at Indiana, Williams said goodbye to Minnesota and the Wolves on his Instagram account on Tuesday. He posted a photo of himself with his arm around Wolves owner Glen Taylor, whom he called a “great man” and conversationalist.
“I would say this, I was proud to be a wolf,” Williams wrote. “Good luck wolf pack, I’m on to my next chapter.”
The Wolves used part of a trade exception and the open roster space created with the first trade to make a bet with the second one on their talent-evaluation skills. Following their acquisitions of Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine the past two summers, they traded for Payne, a player they contemplated with the 13th overall pick in last June’s draft.
“We trusted our evaluation the last two years with the players we picked,” Saunders said. “Those guys all worked out.”
Saunders took LaVine over Payne with that 13th pick, opting for what he called at the time a “home-run” swing at an athletically gifted prospect over an older, more mature player whom he deemed more NBA ready. The Hawks took Payne — a four-year player for Saunders’ pal Tom Izzo at Michigan State — two picks later.
Now Saunders has both players after he surrendered a first-round draft pick that is protected through the top 14 picks for four drafts starting in 2017.
Buried in a frontcourt filled with veteran forwards and on a team that owns the NBA’s second-best record, Payne has played only parts of three NBA games for the 43-10 Hawks as well as 17 D-League games during his rookie season.
By trading Payne, the Hawks receive roster and financial flexibility that opens a roster spot they can use to sign Ray Allen or another veteran. By acquiring Payne, the Wolves add a late-blooming 6-10 power forward who gives them something they lack — length and athleticism, as well as a fine pick-and-roll defender — at a position currently filled by Thaddeus Young, Anthony Bennett and injured Robbie Hummel.
Even though he has prime veteran candidates Young and shooting guard Kevin Martin, Saunders said Tuesday he’s not actively looking to make more deals before the Feb. 19 trade deadline, although, of course, he’s willing to listen to offers. He said his team now has competition for minutes at all five positions and “so we’re trying to settle in what we’ve tried to do [with the roster] the last 10 months.”
Payne, 23, is a “stretch” power forward with a 7-4 wingspan who played all over the floor in college. He writes with his left hand and shoots with his right and didn’t start playing basketball until junior high school. Before last summer’s draft, Izzo called him a “freak of nature” and “almost a little guy in a big guy’s body” who improved every collegiate season and scored 41 points in a 2014 NCAA tournament game.
“I feel I have a lot of room to grow,” Payne said at his Target Center pre-draft workout last June. “I started playing basketball late. I’m just open-minded. I haven’t been playing the game that long. I don’t know everything about the game. I’m just trying to get better. I know I got better in a short period of time. Look at me now: I became a great player. Just imagine what I can do if I have more time?”
Diagnosed with learning disabilities during his freshman season, Payne became an academic All-Big Ten selection while at Michigan State. That same season, he learned he has small lungs and reduced capacity for someone his size, a condition that left him gasping for breath during workouts. He played much of his senior season with undiagnosed mononucleosis.
Saunders said Payne’s lung condition is “hereditary,” under control and not a concern.
Payne made national news because of his friendship with 8-year-old Michigan State fan and cancer patient Lacey Holsworth, who died in April 2014, only days after his collegiate career ended.
“It changed me a lot,” Payne said last June. “It helped me be able to understand people better. It helped me be able to reach out and help people when they need it …
“I feel like everything in my life, I’m more mature now, I can handle myself on and off the court. Maybe a lot of kids haven’t experienced what I’ve gone through in life. It has helped me grow as a person. I’ve been through a lot and I just take that with me where I go.”
Starting with Wednesday’s game against Golden State, that’s now with the Timberwolves and a new home at Target Center.