Late on the night of June 27, Flip Saunders hustled down from the Timberwolves’ offices and took a seat behind a desk in the room at Target Center the Timberwolves use for meal services and smaller news conferences.
He had entered his first draft as the Timberwolves’ basketball overlord seeking a shooting guard with the ninth pick. He wound up missing on the three players he liked, trading down and taking Shabazz Muhammad, a talented but one-dimensional and lethargic small forward whom Saunders admitted wasn’t ready to start in the NBA.
When Saunders began to speak, two unusual things happened. He didn’t obfuscate, following the time-honored tradition of lying and saying that the player he had drafted was his target all along. And he didn’t seem agitated, even while offering a verbal shrug.
Now we can surmise that Saunders either had a plan in place, or confidence that he could improvise. Whether the signing of talented shooting guard Kevin Martin was a designed play or a scramble, Saunders completed the pass.
While the NBA reels at news updates regarding teams that are trying to win a championship in July (like the Clippers) or trying to ensure a losing season to position themselves for next year’s lottery, Saunders has the Timberwolves somewhere in the middle, patching together a contender. For the woebegone local basketball franchise, this is the best kind of progress.
A few days after the draft, Saunders signed two players perfect for coach Rick Adelman’s offense, small forward Chase Budinger and Martin, providing a glimpse of how a savvy NBA team should operate: The coach makes the team desirable, the general manager finds a way to fit the pieces together.
Saunders may still secretly regret getting stuck with Muhammad, but his subsequent moves make the draft less important than it seemed at the time. Without Budinger and Martin, Muhammad would have been required to provide scoring and athletic ability to a limited roster. With Budinger and Martin, Muhammad becomes an intriguing project who will not be required to win games this season.
Assuming they are able to bring back center Nikola Pekovic, Saunders will have built the deepest roster in Timberwolves history. The 2003-2004 team that lost in the Western Conference Finals relied heavily on Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. The 2013-14 Wolves, presuming good health and Pekovic’s return, could become one of the best offensive teams in the league.
Unless Saunders can find a wing defender to start at small forward, the Wolves will be subpar defensively, but will have a clear advantage over many NBA teams this season: While the Wolves are demonstrating their desire to win immediately, many teams will be attempting to lose as much as possible to position themselves for the 2014 draft, which will feature a handful of potential franchise players.
For much of franchise history, the Wolves have, in the vernacular, “tanked’’ a season, intentionally or otherwise. This coming season, the Wolves, presuming good health, will be a playoff team.
While the Western Conference is stacked with talent, it is no longer stacked with frightening teams. The Lakers are a mess. The Spurs rely on old players. The Thunder wound up trading James Harden and replacing him with Kevin Martin, who is now with the Wolves, and have to worry about Russell Westbrook’s knee surgery.
The Nuggets and Grizzlies, two of the best stories of last season, both lost coaches who helped them overachieve. The Rockets desperately needed Dwight Howard to escape mediocrity, the Mavericks are declining.
When the best team in your conference appears to be the Los Angeles Clippers, you know the hierarchy is undergoing change.
With Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio healthy, the Wolves could become the Midwest version of the Golden State Warriors, an entertaining team that can win 45 or more games whether they play defense or not. The Wolves haven’t won that many games since 2003-2004.
If Pekovic returns, the Wolves will feature at least five players who love Adelman’s offense — Pekovic, Love, Rubio, Budinger and Martin — and Saunders will have assuaged the frustrations of his first draft.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org