PHILADELPHIA – The clock ticks on the Timberwolves, both because of Friday’s approaching date for NBA teams to guarantee contracts for the rest of the season and a need to address the disparity between the burdens carried by their starters and reserves.
The Wolves have two players —veteran guard A.J. Price and rookie forward Robbie Hummel — on their 15-man roster with non-guaranteed contracts. If they are not waived by Tuesday, their contracts will be guaranteed for the rest of the season Friday.
Each has played little — Hummel much more than Price, though — in a season when the Wolves have struggled to get production from their bench. It’s an issue that has percolated in the past week: Kevin Love called for more from his team’s reserves, and backup point guard J.J. Barea, for one, bristled at the public mention.
The team’s bench contributed only five points twice in the past three games — in losses last Monday to Dallas and Saturday to Oklahoma City — and each time all of those points came from Barea.
The return of the injured Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf, probably as soon as Monday’s game at Philadelphia or Wednesday’s home game against Phoenix, eventually should significantly reshape the Wolves’ second unit.
Friday’s contract date also allows president of basketball operations Flip Saunders a window to make additional alterations if he feels the need to — and can — by trade or free-agent signing.
Wolves coach Rick Adelman didn’t want to talk about the matter after his team lost a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead and the game Saturday on a night when Thunder star Kevin Durant scored 23 of his 48 points in that fourth quarter. Love missed four free throws in the final 27 seconds of the Thunder loss, including three (the last one intentionally) with 2.2 seconds left in a two-point game.
“I don’t … we’re going to go back and forth on that?” Adelman said. “The starters played great, so we’ll just leave it at that.”
Love played 43-plus minutes Saturday, including the entire second half, and after the game he attributed his uncharacteristic missed free throws that he called “flat and short” partly to fatigue.
Every starter except for Ricky Rubio played 38 or more minutes Saturday. Barea and Dante Cunningham were the only reserves who played more than 10 minutes and each played fewer than 15 minutes. Cunningham, Hummel and Alexey Shved were a combined 0-for-5 from the field.
In Wednesday’s runaway victory over New Orleans, the team’s reserves combined to score 42 points. The Wolves bench has been outscored by the opponent’s 26 times in 33 games this season.
“It’s tough,” Love said after Saturday’s loss. “We look for consistency from the bench. I thought last game they played really well. They had 40-plus points and tonight they were in single digits. We need to find more.
‘‘It’s not me being hard on them or trying to bring them down. It’s me just telling them to take advantage of opportunities but knowing that we are doing the heavy lifting and need help from them. And I think they know that, too.
“It’s not me taking a shot at them. They also know they need to step up. It’s hard for them to find a rhythm.”
Price has been in this contract situation twice before in his five-year NBA career, waiting to see if his team includes his attractive contract in a trade or if it’ll release him to sign another player. NBA veteran Hedo Turkoglu — who played for Adelman his first four NBA seasons in Sacramento — is the latest to hit the free-agent market. Orlando waived him Friday.
The Wolves also could waive Price and/or Hummel and re-sign one or both to a 10-day contract to give themselves future roster flexibility if they clear waivers.
“I know it sounds almost impossible, but you really can’t think about it,” Price said. “You’ve just got to approach every day like it’s your last because that is what has gotten me here. You can’t really think about the date too much but if it comes and goes, I’ll definitely be happy about it.”
Cleveland is trying to trade Andrew Bynum’s contract — perhaps to the Los Angeles Lakers for Pau Gasol — before it becomes fully guaranteed this week. Other teams have been working the phones in the past week seeking to make deals before non- or partially guaranteed contracts become fully guaranteed.
“It’s probably smart to stay up with stuff like that, but you can’t consume yourself with it because you have no control over it,” Hummel said.
“I stay up with it because I enjoy the NBA and I like to know what’s going on. But at the same time, it’s not like I’m reading about it because I want to know how it affects me. It’s one of those things where you just want to get through it. It’s one of those things where you feel better when that day passes.”