The Timberwolves open training camp Tuesday in Mankato with the most talented roster they’ve possessed since Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell reached the 2004 Western Conference finals, which incidentally is the last time the team made the playoffs. ¶ They’ve reshaped that roster by adding veterans Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, rookies Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng and by bringing back Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger on new, big contracts, but already, before they ever roll out the basketballs, they face the same issue — injuries — that derailed last season. ¶ Here are five pending questions facing a franchise seemingly poised to prove this season will be different from the last nine:
1Can they stay healthy?
Good question … and good grief: A team that lost 341 games to injury last season already has lost Budinger to start this season because of complications in a left knee that sidelined him for four months a year ago.
Budinger’s absence creates more minutes for small-forward types Corey Brewer, Derrick Williams and rookie Shabazz Muhammad. Budinger missed 59 games last season, and Kevin Love missed 64 after breaking his hand not once but twice.
Budinger’s setback is problematic for a team that was last in the league in three-point shooting last season. But the Wolves’ prospects of reaching the playoffs for the first time in a decade ultimately depend upon Love returning healthy to All-Star form and the player he was two seasons ago, when he scored 51 points in a game against Oklahoma City.
By all accounts, Love is in the best shape of his career — “Phenomenal,” said president of basketball operations Flip Saunders — and now weighs less than 240 pounds. He also presumably will become more of what Saunders calls a “facilitator” in an offense coach Rick Adelman has tweaked over the summer to emphasize Love’s high-post passing and that remade roster that now includes Adelman favorite Martin at starting shooting guard, Pekovic down low as well as Brewer and eventually Budinger on the wing.
“Focused and enthusiastic,” Saunders said about Love. “Everything has been ‘We’ and not ‘I.’ He’s very enthusiastic about the team we have, the changes we’ve made, the direction we’re going.”
2Will Ricky Rubio find his shot?
The Wolves now have surrounded the precocious point guard with Love, Martin, Pekovic, J.J. Barea, Brewer, Budinger (eventually) and others, but he needs to prove to opposing defenses that he can make a shot occasionally.
He again worked on that shot all summer — which included playing for Spain in the just-concluded European championships — after he made 36 percent from the field and 29 percent from three-point distance last season. Saunders notes how point guards Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd developed iffy shots throughout their careers.
“He’s going to have to be a threat,” Saunders said. “Is it going to happen right away? No, but I know one thing: He’s going to get better because that’s his DNA, to work hard and become better. Ricky’s a competitor. He doesn’t want to be a good point guard. He wants to be the best point guard in the league, and he’s going to do whatever it takes to get there.”
3Who starts at small forward?
The list of possibilities just got smaller by one with Budinger’s season-opening injury. The other four spots — Rubio and Martin in the backcourt, Love and Pekovic up front — are locks.
Even with Budinger healthy, Brewer, brought back last summer to the team that drafted him in 2007, probably is the favorite because he’s the defender with the best chance against the opponent’s best wing player. Budinger is a legitimate option if healthy, and Williams has lost 20 pounds — down to 235 — so he’s better suited to play the position now that Love presumably is back for big minutes at power forward. Small forward also probably is Muhammad’s natural pro position.
“There was competition and now there’s even more competition,” Saunders said of the position, referring to Budinger’s injury.
4 Will the Wolves pick up Williams’ contract option?
The Wolves must decide by October’s end whether to guarantee Williams’ contract for $6.2 million in the 2014-15 season.
That usually is a no-brainer decision for a former No. 2 overall pick, but Williams’ first two uneven pro seasons and the team’s salary-cap situation will create plenty of Internet chatter between now and then over what the Wolves should — and will — do.
Williams will become an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any team next summer if the Wolves don’t exercise their option. His salary would push the Wolves close to the luxury-tax line and rob them of flexibility to add a player by free-agent signing.
The big question: Where — and how much — does he play now that Love presumably is back healthy? Budinger’s injury creates more time for him at small forward for now.
“I know what he’s done this summer, we’ll see how it translates,” Saunders said. “I’ve said all along I’ve always been a big fan of his. I feel and I believe he’s going to be here. We’ll see what all transpires.”
5Who’s the 15th and final man?
After signing Pekovic to a five-year, $60 million contract, the Wolves now have 14 players with guaranteed contracts. So it would appear they have one spot left from among training-camp invitee draft picks Robbie Hummel and Lorenzo Brown and free agents Othyus Jeffers and A.J. Price.
Not so fast.
Former basketball boss David Kahn quietly signed big man Chris Johnson to a one-year deal guaranteed for $916,000 this year before he was replaced by Saunders, who could opt to pay off Johnson’s salary so he can add another point guard in either Brown or Price AND keep Jeffers for his defense or Hummel for his shooting.
Saunders said Budinger’s season-starting absence won’t affect that decision because Brewer, Williams, Muhammad and Dante Cunningham all can play small forward until Budinger returns.
“They all bring something different,” Saunders said. “What it comes down to is, what do we value, what’s most important that last week of the preseason? If the guy at that spot can help you win a couple games, you’ll be happy.”