SAN DIEGO – One of many players convinced the NBA’s milk and honey would flow forever or for at least another year, Shabazz Muhammad is back with the Timberwolves for a fifth pro season, playing on a league minimum contract after he turned down tens of millions of dollars from them last fall.
The NBA’s new $24 billion television contract produced unrestrained free-agent spending by some teams in summer of 2016. But just one year later, the spigot dripped dry for many players, including Muhammad, who were left mulling only one-year offers from salary-cap strapped teams.
Muhammad was raised in Los Angeles, but he turned down offseason overtures from Lakers basketball bosses Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, who was his former agent, as well as bigger salary-cap exception offers from other teams. Instead, he chose to return to Minnesota — which once had seemed such a foreign place — to play for $1.6 million this season because it felt like this is where he belongs.
Teammate Gorgui Dieng signed a four-year, $64 million contract last fall that seemed reasonable at the time while Muhammad and Pelinka turned down a contract extension believed to be worth at least $40 million.
Muhammad said he has “no regret” the way things turned out, but called himself “obviously a little disappointed” that contract offers didn’t materialize for him this past summer like they did for players such as Allen Crabbe (four years, $75 million) and Tyler Johnson (four years, $50 million) in 2016.
“I like being here. This is home for me,” Muhammad said. “I just feel comfortable. The guys who are here, I know their games and they know mine. The biggest thing, Coach knows my game.”
Slimmed to a mere 218 pounds that he says he hasn’t weighed since high school, Muhammad ultimately sought opportunity rather than a modestly bigger payday after huge offers never came. He hopes his improved conditioning, familiarity with coach Tom Thibodeau and a chance to finally win big with his Wolves will result next summer in a free-agent contract.
The Wolves renounced his rights last summer so they could afford to sign free agents Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford. By re-signing him two weeks ago as an unrestricted free agent, they retained his “Bird rights,” which allow the Wolves to sign him to a long-term contract next summer even though they will be over the salary cap.
“I’m 24, I’m young,” Muhammad said. “My best basketball is ahead of me.”
Thibodeau calls his return “huge” for a team that now can play Muhammad, three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins together on the perimeter in a small-ball lineup. All three can play multiple positions and can better switch opponents when defending pick-and-roll plays.
“I like the flexibility,” Thibodeau said. “We felt fortunate we were able to get him back. He’s an important part of our bench. He’s also young. We thought he made great strides last year. We think he’ll continue to make great strides. He’s in great shape. That was important to us.”
Muhammad’s return also boosts a bench that failed the Wolves often last season. He likely will be paired with veterans Crawford and Aaron Brooks, two players whose scoring ability Muhammad believes will allow him to concentrate more on playmaking and defense.
He said an improved bench will allow him to “show my all-around game and be a two-way player,” two things he seldom was accused of during his first four seasons with the Wolves.
Being lighter and quicker won’t hurt any, either. He said he already notices the difference in the opening days of training camp, after going through it last year weighing 230.
“I think I’m still really strong,” he said. “Those extra 12 pounds are fat to me. I feel strong and more explosive. I think I still can play [power forward]. I’m faster and Coach wants us to run this year.”
Gibson praised him after the Wolves’ very first training-camp practice in San Diego, noting how hard he played, how well he moved his feet and how his play lifted teammates to a faster pace.
“That’s what we’re going to need,” Gibson said.
Thibodeau wouldn’t mind if Muhammad becomes a more consistent three-point shooter on a team that intends to use an improved-by-committee approach to keep in the NBA’s three-point arms race.
Muhammad’s teammates and coaches lobbied him throughout the summer to return to the team, even though the Wolves couldn’t offer more financially.
Crawford tweeted a message, urging Muhammad to come back home even though he grew up in both L.A. and Las Vegas.
“This is the only team he has ever played for,” Crawford said. “This was his NBA home. What better way to go through the wars with those guys not winning a lot of games to come back here and win a lot of games, be part of that turnaround. For me, I just thought, ‘More firepower off the bench, another guy who can really fill it up.’ More than anything, this being his NBA home, it just made sense.”
Muhammad turned down the Lakers even after a meeting with Johnson, Pelinka and coach Luke Walton.
“I’m looking to win,” he said. “I’m not saying the Lakers aren’t going to win. I love the Lakers organization, but it was going to be a one-year [contract] anyway, so why not come here for a one-year deal and play really well on a team that’s going to win in the playoffs and then potentially have a big summer for myself next year?
“That’s something that was smart for me.”