GASOL1The Timberwolves have been notably — and smartly — prudent with free agent spending so far during the opening week frenzy of The Risen Cap (TM). They agreed with Cole Aldrich on a relatively modest three-year, $22 million deal (relatively is the word in all of this since that is still more money than almost every one of us will make in a lifetime). They have stayed out of the fray on many other chases that could end up in expensive disaster.

All that said, there have been a couple of notable targets the Wolves have gone after and missed out on — and the two cases show what Minnesota is still up against when it comes to luring free agents to this market and team.

*The Wolves were interested in Luol Deng, a versatile veteran forward who played for new coach/POBO Tom Thibodeau in Chicago. But Deng agreed to a four-year, $72 million deal with the Lakers. That’s a lot of money and years for a 31-year-old forward — perhaps more than the Wolves would/should be willing to spend — but it’s also symbolic of the first type of team Minnesota is going up against in free agency: a glamour franchise in a big market. The Lakers are throwing big money at a lot of mediocre players, so I’m not advocating their approach. I am saying the Wolves will always have a hard time competing for players against a franchise like this, no matter how bad the Lakers are.

*The Wolves were also reportedly interested in veteran free agent forward Pau Gasol (who played a year for Thibodeau in Chicago and another last year under new coach Fred Hoiberg). Gasol, though, has agreed to a two-year, $30 million deal with the Spurs — not a ridiculous contract in the context of this year’s market, and one the Wolves certainly might have been willing to exceed.

In this case, they were bested in their pursuit of a player by a team built to win right now. The Spurs would probably beat out almost every other team in a chase like that, so there’s no shame in it. But it does provide a reminder that for all the Wolves’ improvements — winning 13 games more last year than the previous year, continuing to build their core and hiring Thibodeau to lead the group — they were just a 29-53 team a season ago. No free agent who wants to win right now is going to latch onto the Wolves — at least not yet.

Instead, if Minnesota is going to remake its roster in any more of a significant way this offseason, it’s likely going to come via a trade. With Ricky Rubio reportedly being dangled, and his contract looking better with each free agent signing, this should be possible. And even if it’s partially by default, in not being able to lure players here yet, going slow with the roster building and not over-committing money to this year’s free agents is certainly not a bad way to go.

But it does make this a sort of “prove-it” year for the Wolves. The salary cap will jump again next offseason — not as dramatically as the $24 million leap this year, but likely somewhere in the $12-15 million increase range. If the Wolves can jump into the 40-45 win range this year via a combination of internal improvement, smart free agent supplementation (like Aldrich) and a savvy trade or two, they could be in a much better position a year from now to lure a big fish into the Minnesota water — at a time when such a move might make a lot more sense, and a time when one more great player could make them a legitimate playoff team.

It stands to reason, though, that it will take that sort of improvement to make a certain type of free agent really notice Minnesota and see it as a true destination. While the Wolves finally appear to be on the right path, they are nowhere near “there” yet.

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