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Ball Don't Lie

Nobody knows who will be running, coaching, or playing center for the Timberwolves next year

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Current Wolves GM David Kahn and coach Rick Adelman (Getty Images)

Another trip to the lottery should be nothing new for Minnesota Timberwolves fans. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season, a year that saw championship dreams (and Kevin Garnett’s MVP legacy) shot to bits when Sam Cassell suffered a debilitating hamstring injury in the Western Conference finals. This year’s trip to the lottery will be the franchise’s ninth straight, all presided over by owner Glen Taylor, with the last four playoff misses coming under the personnel hand of GM David Kahn.

Kahn may have put together a lower-rung seed on paper this season, even with Ricky Rubio due to miss the season’s first few months after suffering an ACL tear in March of 2012, but the lost season from All-Star Kevin Love (18 games played, 35 percent shooting) destroyed any chance Minnesota had at making the postseason they made home at between 1997 and 2004. As a result, little is guaranteed during the upcoming offseason, with Kahn’s contract set to expire in late May (the team has an option for 2013-14), Nikola Pekovic expected to explore pricey restricted free agency, and Rick Adelman potentially walking away from the game to care for his ailing wife.

Taylor is more than aware of the potential turnover. And in an interview with the Minnesota Star-Tribune’s Sid Hartman, he shrugged the shoulders:

“David and I have been working just to try and get through this year,” Taylor said. “I want to get through the year and stuff like that. He is under contract right now to be the general manager. We’ll look at everything going ahead here in the next month.”

With that in place, regardless of who is in charge of the team by the time the free agency period hits in July, Taylor wants the burly Pekovic back:

“We have a little room [on the salary cap] for this next year, but we do have enough so that we can go and talk to Pek, even though we know that this is his chance to get a bigger salary coming up. We have the room to deal with those issues,” Taylor said. “It will sort of depend on a number of issues. I’m just saying that we have enough.”

Pekovic feels the same way, telling the Star-Tribune that he wants “100 percent” to return to the team that showed patience in easing him into the role of a borderline All-Star center. The issue with borderline All-Star centers, though, is that they’re often paid like full-on All-Stars, because so few of them exist. And in an offseason with a limited free agent market (the league’s best center and power forward will be unrestricted free agents, but both are expected to stay with the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers) and scads of team with cap space, Pekovic will be offered 100 percent of the sun, moon and stars.

And the Timberwolves should sign him anyway.

If the Wolves sign an offer sheet that begins to pay Pekovic eight figures a year starting in 2013-14, the increase in his potential qualifying offer to that number and the jettisoning of guard Brandon Roy (whose contract for next season will not be guaranteed, due to the fact that he wasn’t healthy for 65 games this season) will still leave the Timberwolves working far away from the luxury tax even after taking in the team’s two first round draft picks this summer. All while watching Andrei Kirilenko pick up his eight-figure player option for the same year.

There are still holes to be filled – namely that continually-glaring one at the shooting guard slot, and the question of what to do with improving big forward Derrick Williams upon Love’s return – but this isn’t a bad position to be put in. Even with three players making eight figures a year on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since George W. Bush’s first term.

Pekovic has done well to significantly raise his rebounding and lower his per-minute foul and turnover rates since entering the league in 2010, but Adelman points out that the development work isn’t done. Despite Nikola’s cheerful protestations that “finesse was never my better side,” his coach wants him to learn how to toss a little sweetener into that thermos full of beef broth. From the Star Tribune:

“He plays the game a certain way, and that’s the way he has always played it,” Adelman said. “But as he plays against different people, he’s got to find a way to score against length. Right now, he struggles with that at times, especially when we don’t shoot the ball well. When we don’t shoot the ball, there are three guys collapsing on him when he gets the ball.

“He has to find a way to elevate his game there. All good players, as they move up in this league, they do that. Every year they find something different, and he has to do that.”

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Nikola Pekovic, in his third season (Getty Images)

Luckily for the Wolves, as they mull over what could be a three or four year offer that could play Pekovic All-Star money until 2017 or so, this is a man who won’t yet hit age 28 until midway through 2013-14. This is a center who is about to be paid through his prime, and if the name won’t ring many All-Star ballots for you, averages of 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds in just over 31 minutes a contest (with just 1.6 turnovers – and remember, bull-in-china-shop offensive fouls count as turnovers) should.

The players (including unrestricted free agent Chase Budinger, still an underrated wing in this league) are the most important pieces here, and most of these same players had the Wolves at 21-19 over 13 months ago when Ricky Rubio went down with that ACL tear. That shouldn’t take away from the major decisions both Adelman and Taylor (regarding Kahn) have to figure out between now and the summer.

Kahn did well to bring Ricky Rubio over from Spain. We all fretted about Rubio’s ability to shoot well on this level, and to this point that’s a reasonable fear (despite some improvement in that area, he’s still shooting below 40 percent from the field since February, during the best overall stretch of his career), but he can start in this league if the spacing around him is right.

Kevin Love, though, and Pekovic were both drafted by former personnel chief Kevin McHale. Love was an obvious lottery pick, and though contract complications chased most teams away from drafting Pekovic as a lottery pick, McHale pounced with the first pick in the 2008 draft’s second round.

Kahn, despite the win with Rubio, is also the guy that draft Jonny Flynn and Wesley Johnson in the high lottery. Derrick Williams has turned into a good player, but not at the price of a second overall pick, and though Kahn was able to get a trade exemption and Kosta Koufos from the Utah Jazz for the high scoring Al Jefferson, the picks he received in return have yet to make an impact on this level. Though people still love to drool over Donatas Motiejunas.

The Kirilenko signing was a win, as Kahn was able to out-bid competitors. And though Alexey Shved still seems like an exciting prospect, but he looks like a fourth guard at this point, while low-risk lottery refugee pickups like Darko Milicic, Michael Beasley, and Anthony Randolph all flamed out.

The problem for Wolves fans is that there is no assurance that Kahn’s rumored possible replacement, longtime Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, will be any better. That’s not a knock on Flip, a coach whose basketball know-how we respect greatly (while wondering if the zone-ish principals and emphasis on mid-range shooting might be better served for the college level), it’s just the fear for any coach-turned-GM. Patience, cap knowledge, and (shock horror) a basic understanding of advanced statistics are necessary in 2013.

Even if all the GM’s eventual answers seem easy – welcome Kirilenko’s return, match an offer for Pekovic, find a shooting guard that can walk and chew gum at the same time, take advantage of Budinger’s slim free agent market potential after an injury-plagued year – it’s still a tough gig. We’ve never been Kahn’s biggest fans, but GM’ing ain’t easy.

Bringing Adelman back may not be easy, either. Players and coaches tend to walk away from the game directly after a season ends, so it isn’t as if a cadre of Timberwolves could visit Rick at his stately summer manor and talk the man back over a pitcher of iced tea in late July. If he has any designs on leaving the team following 2012-13, he’ll probably inform them of as much in the days following the season.

Andrei Kirilenko is shuddering at the thought. From the Star-Tribune:

“This is the key moment for me,” Kirilenko said. “He is the reason I’m here in the first place. We’ll see. Let’s wait for the summertime.”

If Adelman is leaning toward retirement – something we wouldn’t blame him for, in the wake of his wife’s continued troubles with seizures – the team may not have until summertime to wait for.

It would be nicer to consider all these options coming off of a playoff berth, but in a way this may be a blessing in disguise. After another year of Pekovic’s growth leading to a full healthy season from Rubio and Love in 2013-14, mixed in with a much-appreciated Adelman at the helm and no worrying about whether or not Brandon Roy (sadly) can make his way back, next season could be something to finally bank on. Especially if there’s certainty in the front office.

The fans will have to wait for the summertime, though. Again.

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