Twenty games into his first year as both Wolves coach and executive decision-maker, Flip Saunders on Tuesday changed the narrative on a season that has started with only four victories and a current six-game losing streak.
Mostly mum on the subject in recent weeks, Saunders acknowledged injured center Nikola Pekovic and point guard Ricky Rubio are expected out until sometime in January. So, too, is a third starter, shooting guard Kevin Martin.
A season that started with what Saunders called a “retool” with a “blended” roster — mixed with veterans and youngsters after last summer’s Kevin Love trade — now appears headed toward what he terms a “rebuild” instead.
“Now you look at a situation where we might be going into a rebuild, which changes the dynamics of everything,” Saunders said.
That distinction could mean the auctioning of veterans such as Martin, Corey Brewer, Thaddeus Young and Mo Williams to bidding trade partners from playoff contending teams as the NBA’s Feb. 19 trade deadline approaches. The Wolves, in return, would receive either future draft picks, young players and/or payroll relief.
Such trades also would open permanent playing time for youngsters Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, all of whom have assumed expanded roles this season because of the team’s many injuries.
“When you’re doing a rebuild, it’s not pleasant for anybody,” Saunders said. “It’s not pleasant for fans, for you guys [media members], for coaches, for players. But sometimes you’re forced to do some things that maybe you didn’t plan on doing. Hopefully what you do is, I have to have patience understanding that. Fans have to have patience — and everyone has to have patience — in understanding what that does mean.”
On Tuesday, Saunders said he expects Rubio will be sidelined another four to five weeks because of a severely sprained ankle he injured Nov. 7 at Orlando.
He also said Pekovic “could be” out another four weeks: two weeks until he is cleared by medical staff to practice again because of a chronically painful ankle that still bothers him, then another two weeks until he is conditioned well enough to play games.
When Pekovic is ready to compete again, Saunders said the team might send him to the D League so he could play himself back into shape there in what would be his first live action since Nov. 15 at Dallas.
By then, the Wolves will be approaching the halfway point of a season which they started hoping to be a surprise contender for one of the Western Conference’s final playoff spots.
Martin underwent wrist surgery on Nov. 25, a procedure expected to keep him out at least six to eight weeks.
“You look at a situation where maybe you do not have all those guys for six weeks,” Saunders said. “You’re talking almost into February. You have to change your philosophy on the fly as an organization. That’s not something we want to do, but something we have to do. You don’t want to put yourself in a bad situation, too.”
That changed philosophy likely will include shopping veterans who have more value for teams aimed at contending for an NBA championship than a Wolves team that would be admitting, unlike this season’s start, that their future has nothing to do with now.
Saunders’ decision last summer to swap Miami’s 2015 first-round pick — obtained from Cleveland in the Love trade — with Philadelphia for Young was based on Saunders’ optimism that his “blended” team could contend for a playoff spot.
Rubio’s sprained ankle, Pekovic’s continued health problems and Martin’s fractured wrist have changed everything.
Pekovic is likely untradeable because of his health history and $12 million salary due for each of three more seasons beyond this one. Little-used veteran Chase Budinger has limited trade value. Next summer, Young can opt out of the final, remaining year on a contract that will pay him nearly $10 million next season.
Once he proves himself back to full health, Martin could attract interest from a serious contender — Chicago among them — in need of playoff scoring and outside shooting, even though he has two more seasons left on his contract at more than $7 million a season. Brewer’s energy and defensive disruption already is believed to have attracted the interest of contenders Cleveland and Houston, among others.
“You look at everything,” Saunders said, speaking in generalities. “You’re either looking to build your team to make it better now or you’re looking in the future. If you’re looking to make your team better now, it is teams with a playoff-type run. If you find yourself on the outside looking in, then you have to look at the future.”