This time last year, Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders flew out to Los Angeles for separate late-night rendezvous with free agents J.J. Redick and O.J. Mayo.
It was the start of several frenetic days in which he began a $120 million summertime spending spree by first signing Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer instead.
This time around, the NBA’s annual free-agency period begins at 11 p.m. Monday and Saunders plans to stay home to work the phones while many other NBA teams woo free agents LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
This time around, Saunders predicts he’ll be relatively quiet — and certainly more frugal — than a year ago.
That’s because the Wolves soon will have 14 players under guaranteed contracts and because he believes he has better balanced a roster that once was lopsided with point guards and big men.
“I’m sure some people have my phone on speed dial, they know how to get in touch with me,” Saunders said. “Are we going to be very active in free agency? Probably not. I feel very comfortable where our roster is at right now.”
The Wolves’ payroll is well over the NBA’s salary cap and approaching the luxury-tax line while Ricky Rubio still needs a contract extension that can be negotiated starting Monday night.
That leaves Saunders at the moment with only the $5 million-plus mid-level exception salary slot to spend while he continues to discuss Kevin Love trade scenarios. He’s also believed to be seeking trades that would send away veteran guards Martin and J.J. Barea as well possibly as players such as Budinger and Alexey Shved.
Barring a Love trade that reshapes the roster, the Wolves’ biggest need, with Barea on the trading block, appears to be a veteran backup point guard. The league’s list of unrestricted free agents at that position includes Shaun Livingston, Ramon Sessions, Steve Blake, former Timberwolf Luke Ridnour and possibly Chauncey Billups if he decides to play one more season.
Saunders said he will not rush to spend that mid-level exception slot.
“That’s not a priority,” he said. “Right now, there are not a lot of guys who are out there. If there are not guys out there who are better than guys on our team, we’re not just going to spend it because we have it. If someone pops down and we think it’s worth it, we’ll do it.”
Saunders likely is waiting to see how the league landscape changes depending upon where free agents Anthony, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh land while everybody from Chicago, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers to Golden State and Phoenix pursue one or more.
If teams such as the Bulls and Rockets get shut out, they could re-emerge as contenders to acquire Love in a trade, that is if Saunders does indeed intend to trade his All-Star by the time training camps start in October.
For now, Saunders said the team will improve only if its current players get better. Rubio is working at times this summer with a new shooting coach in Los Angeles. Shved, last season’s rookies Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad and just-drafted Zach LaVine and Glenn Robinson III all report July 7 for summer-league play that will take them to Las Vegas for games.
Budinger also been asked to at least practice with the team for three days in Minneapolis so Saunders and his staff can gauge his rehabilitation for two knee surgeries.
Saunders plans to play Shved mostly at point guard rather than shooting guard in a summer audition to see if he can resolve the Wolves’ backup issue there.
“I believe that’s where he has to be to make it at our level, so we’ll have to see where he’s at,” Saunders said. “How these guys develop will decide a lot where things work out with J.J. here, too. But I’m comfortable with our position right now. I believe we’ve got it covered. We’ll see how they are when we have to run what we want to run. …
“We’ve got to get better within, and that starts with development and that starts now, working with players.”