Discontented Timberwolves star Kevin Love says he just wants to win.
Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders responds by saying that’s all he wants as well, as much as or more than Love does.
So if that’s truly the franchise’s foremost aim, Timberwolves fans wonder why their team sold two of its three second-round draft picks Thursday night.
The Wolves came away from Thursday’s NBA draft with 13th overall pick Zach LaVine of UCLA and 40th overall pick Glenn Robinson III for themselves after selling the 44th pick to Brooklyn for $1 million and the 53rd pick to Houston.
Saunders called it simply a matter of circumstances and pragmatics for a team that has sold picks in years past but has never in recent memory done the reverse and bought a pick.
Thursday’s draft will give the Wolves’ 14 players with guaranteed contracts after they sign both LaVine and Robinson to a roster that has a 15-man limit. Saunders intends to keep that last spot open so he has the flexibility to sign a free agent or add a player through a trade.
“If you don’t have a player who you think will be in your program, I’m not going to draft somebody just to say we drafted him,” he said.
Saunders said the team tried to trade those two remaining picks for future second-round picks but couldn’t find a trade partner.
So, instead, he sold both and raised money, he said, for team operations to pay for any number of items, such as signing free agents.
He bristled when asked if selling picks for cash meant his team — including owner Glen Taylor and Saunders himself a minority owner — is not fully committed to winning.
Indiana, Washington, Charlotte, Toronto and Philadelphia also all sold second-round picks Thursday night.
“When I look at our salary cap, we’re up in the high 60s,” he said, referring to the $60-plus million range, “and, I think, last year were the highest salary-cap team that didn’t make the playoffs. I look at the commitment that Glen has made last year and moving forward, we’re committed to winning. Those picks had nothing to do with trying to get money.”
But with a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade and still needs more talent, fans on Twitter Thursday night expressed frustration at their team not willing to take at least a chance on European prospects hoping they someday play for the Timberwolves.
In the just-completed NBA Finals, they watched guard Mario Chalmers — a second-round pick the Wolves sold for $2 million in 2008 — start for Miami. DeAndre Jordan, Omer Asik and Luc Mbah a Moute were chosen next after the Wolves took Chalmers for the Heat with the 34th pick.
In 2011, the Wolves used the 20th overall pick to trade down time and again in a dizzying series of moves that raised cash and briefly had them in possession of European prospect Nikola Mirotic and University of Florida forward Chandler Parsons.
Mirotic, one of the best players in Europe now, is ready to come to the NBA with Chicago and Parsons has become a star for Houston.
“If we had quality people there, we’d draft them,” said Saunders, who replaced David Kahn on the job in May 2013, “but don’t stereotype what we’ve done in the past. We’ve been here for a year.”
The Wolves have drafted several Europeans in recent years, but only second-round picks Nemanja Bjelica and Bojan Dubljevic are in the pipeline to play here someday. Their current roster contains two second-round picks — starter Nikola Pekovic and Robbie Hummel — they’ve drafted for themselves.
Saunders said you can “probably count on both hands and feet” the number of impactful players taken 44th and 53rd since 2008. The number is fewer than that, but NBA champion San Antonio and much-improved Phoenix wouldn’t have been where they were last season without valuable former second-round picks.
“It’s about drafting the right guy, and we didn’t see the right guy,” Saunders said. “Now maybe you can be critical we didn’t find the right guy, but that will be determined down the road. … If we’re going to be criticized because we sold 44 and 53 that should be the least of our problems.”