The Timberwolves officially announced or acknowledged a flurry of signings — free agents Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf as well as top draft pick Shabazz Muhammad — on Friday to bring their list of players with guaranteed contracts to 13.
But what about the biggest — both figuratively and literally — of them all, No. 14 on both his jersey and roster slot: Nikola Pekovic?
Worry not, Wolves Nation, says new President of Basketball of Operations Flip Saunders.
Saunders said Friday that contract negotiations continue to progress with arguably the best free agent left on the market, albeit slowly as the team and Pekovic’s representatives work toward middle ground on a four-year contract that is expected to pay him at least $12.5 million a season.
“I think there’s a misconception, at least when I read Twitter,” said Saunders, who has sworn off tweeting himself but still follows along. “People think he can go pretty much where he wants to go. We have the ability to sign Pek, so we expect he will be back.”
They have that ability both because of the way they have structured their other signings and because NBA rules give the Wolves the right to match any other team’s offer.
Nearly two weeks into the league’s July free-agency period, no other team has made Pekovic the kind of massive offer that would make the Wolves think twice about matching.
While negotiations linger, Saunders has remade the Wolves roster into one that he believes has addressed their needs and goals by adding size and shooters as well as thinning the number of point guards by two after trading Luke Ridnour to Milwaukee and Malcolm Lee to Golden State.
“We’ve accomplished a lot here in the last few days,” he said.
Saunders said he considers this Wolves team built around young stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio exciting, balanced and flexible and three players deep at every position now. He was asked Friday if it isn’t deeper than the 2004 team he coached to the Western Conference that had Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell at its foundation.
“You have to realize we brought Wally Szczerbiak, Mark Madsen, Fred Hoiberg, Troy Hudson off the bench,” Saunders said. “At least one of those guys was an All Star and another was one of the best three-point shooters in the league at the time. But I believe this team can be more versatile. That team was pretty pigeonholed how we had to play. With the people we have now, we’ll definitely be more versatile.
“We’ve gone from a team that was really small last year, especially in the backcourt at times, to an extremely big team. Our 2-guards now are 6-7, 6-6 and all of a sudden, we’ve become a long team where the small forwards are 6-9.”
Well, at least Brewer is 6-9. He’s also a player Saunders brought back to the franchise more than two years after he was traded for his defensive range and speed after starting small forward Andrei Kirilenko opted out of a $10.2 million contract for next season.
“Corey’s the right guy because not only could he defend, but he could get out and he could run with Ricky,” Saunders said. “Coach’s system is built to get out and run first. Get the ball in Ricky’s hands and get people who can run with him, and that’s one thing that Corey can really do.”
The Wolves now have 13 players set and will add a 14th when Pekovic signs. Saunders said they might add a young player as the 15th and final player allowed if they find one they like at a league minimum salary or they could leave the 15th spot free.
Either way, the Wolves now have a roster you look at and wonder where guys like former No. 2 Derrick Williams, second-year guard Alexey Shved and rookie draft pick Muhammad, among others, will find playing time.
“The players determine that,” Saunders said. “If they play good enough, Coach will play them. If they don’t play good enough, they won’t play, which is the type of situation you want to have.”