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Wolves: Getting offensive — but now defense needs SOS

Right now, aside from Dante Cunningham, there seems to be precious little help available on this roster in terms of defense on the wing.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Kevin Martin, left, fighting off a steal attempt from Grizzlies guard Jerryd Bayless during game three in the Western Conference semifinals in May. Minnesota has signed Martin to a four-year deal.
REUTERS/Lance Murphey

Less than 48 hours into the free agent signing period, the Minnesota Timberwolves have dramatically revamped their roster and signaled a philosophical change in how they propose to contend for a playoff spot in the 2013-14 season.

First, on Tuesday afternoon the Wolves reached an agreement to re-sign Chase Budinger for three years at a cost of approximately $16 million (none of these contracts can be completed until July 10 under NBA rules). It was a steep price — the average annual salary quintuples what Budinger was making last season — but reasonable given the sky-high market for three-point shooting, which has become a dominant trend throughout the league. I believe him when he says he turned down more money in order to stay with Minnesota. Budinger has good length at 6-7, a keen knowledge of coach Rick Adelman’s system, and, at least before he injured his knee, proved last year how well he can find seams in opposing defenses moving without the ball.

The Wolves’ style-changing gambit came just hours later Tuesday evening, when it was announced that Minnesota had signed Kevin Martin to a four-year deal for somewhere between $28 million and $30 million. With that move, the Wolves simultaneously enhanced their offense and crippled their defense. It’s a sugar-high transaction that depletes the fiber on the roster.

Martin is somewhat redundant with Budinger in terms of skill sets, except that, relative to Bud, his strengths and weaknesses are exaggerated. Both are 6-7 swingmen who have played both small forward and shooting guard. Both have extensive experience playing under Adelman for multiple franchises, and possess a fierce loyalty toward the coach. Both are scorers as well as shooters, meaning they can convert the long-range three-pointer but also finish on drives and feeds near the basket and can sink their free throws after drawing the foul. And both are sub-mediocre defenders who need help, lots of help, trying to contain a prolific scorer on the other team.

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Right now, aside from gritty combo forward Dante Cunningham, whose option was thankfully picked up by the Wolves at the end of the season, there seems to be precious little help available on this roster in terms of defense on the wing. That vacated the premises with the departure of Andrei Kirilenko.

K-Mart for AK

Listening to the size and length of Martin’s deal, it was hard not to think of how fast Kirilenko would have jumped to remain with the Wolves on similar terms, even knocking a year off a potential agreement. It was widely rumored that AK turned down his option of staying in Minnesota one more year at $10.2 million in order to search for the stability of a contract somewhere in the range of $21 million spread over the next three years. Sure, there are longevity dangers inherent in such a proposal: Kirilenko is 32 years old, with chronic back issues that have contributed to his averaging just 63 games (in an 82-game season) over his last four years in the NBA. He has also logged a lot of hard minutes fighting through picks and executing the kind of rugged wing defense that is his calling card.

But because the Wolves franchise seems to be suffering from temporary amnesia, let’s recall the reasons the team signed Kirilenko in the first place.

At his first press conference after the lockout in 2011, when the newly hired Adelman was finally allowed to discuss the specifics of his team, he savaged Minnesota’s lackluster defense. Specifically, the coach said that when he was in Houston the previous season, the Wolves offered so little resistance on defense that his club could score out of their first option whenever they wanted. Clearly, that blunt assessment right out of the chute was designed to set a tone and re-establish priorities that were ignored during Kurt Rambis’ disastrous two-year tenure.

But the Wolves lacked the personnel to upgrade the defense as much as Adelman preferred, barely rising from 27th to 25th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) among the 30 NBA teams during Adelman’s first season. Consequently, a year ago at this time, the coach demanded that owner Glen Taylor and then-President of Basketball Operations David Kahn find him a player who could defend multiple positions on the wing.

That’s why the Wolves ended up offering Portland swingman Nicolas Batum a whopping 4-year, $46-million contract last July. And that’s why the Wolves went out and signed Kirilenko for a 2-year, $20-million deal (with AK holding the option on the second year) after Portland matched Minnesota’s offer for Batum (who was a restricted free agent). Finally, that is largely why Minnesota took a leap forward from 25th to 13th in defensive efficiency last season.

Rarely are a team’s choices laid out in such a stark manner. The Wolves almost surely could have had Kirilenko for the money they are going to pay Martin. They probably could have made it a three-year contract, avoiding some of the maneuvering that will be necessary to stay away from the luxury tax should they match any offers for Nikola Pekovic this off-season and pay Ricky Rubio close to maximum money when his rookie deal expires in 2016.

There has been chatter that Adelman was slightly disenchanted with Kirilenko’s defensive prowess last season. I know there was a period of adjustment because AK had played more than a decade under Utah coach Jerry Sloan, who rarely if ever switched coverages, whereas Minnesota frequently switches on pick-and-rolls and other rotations. But come on, who doesn’t remember how vital Kirilenko was — and how specifically he was deployed — when an opponent with a devastating wing scorer like Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James or Kevin Durant came to town? Precious few defenders have his blend of length, sinew and smarts. And lest we forget, he was pretty good at executing Adelman’s ball movement offense as well.

Some positives

Obviously, I really don’t like the Martin signing, especially right on the heels of re-signing Budinger. But there are some silver linings that should be conceded, and hopefully cherished during the 120-118 games we are likely to witness next season.

First of all, this pretty much cements the reality that Adelman will be back on the sidelines next season, and probably beyond. Both Budinger and Martin specifically cited the coach’s presence and system as the motivation for their signing. Landing the pair almost fits perfectly with the stated desire of new POBO Flip Saunders to bring in more three-point shooting, so the current situation is one that ratifies both Saunders and Adelman and keeps them roughly on the same page.

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Second, Kevin Martin is a proven offensive force. He flourished under Adelman’s system in both Sacramento and Houston, and after suffering a down year with the Rockets under Kevin McHale, his offense again ignited after he was traded to Oklahoma City last season. Specifically, his true shooting percentage (which factors in field goals, three pointers and free throws) was 60.8, was ranked 8th in the NBA. For that matter, his career true shooting percentage is 59.6, which is 20th all time in the NBA. And he has done all this without ever playing with a pass-first point guard like Ricky Rubio, one of the top-five ball distributors in the game.

There are some warning signs. The new “continuation” rules making it tougher for players to draw fouls and shoot free throws has had a significant impact on Martin. Over the past three seasons, his free-throw attempts per 36 minutes played has dropped from 9.3 to 5.1 to 4.1 (that third-year drop is partially mitigated by the style played by Oklahoma City). It also should be noted that Martin turns 31 in February, meaning he’ll be 35 when his contract concludes — yet another reason why three years would have been a better window. Hopefully the Wolves have written in a team option to decline or buy out the fourth year that we’ll discover when the deal becomes “official” next week.

But this is the “positives” section of the column, so let us go back to imagining a lineup of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger. It contains good size—Rubio is the shortest at 6-4—and is able to score down in the paint and out at the arc, in the half court offensive sets and out in transition, with a variety solid free-throw shooters available for end-of-game situations.

Offense matters in today’s NBA. The champion Miami Heat ranked second in offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) and their opponent in the Finals, the San Antonio Spurs, were 7th. By contrast, the Timberwolves were a dreadful 25th, bogged down by the worst three-point shooting percentage in the NBA. A full, healthy season of Martin, Love and Budinger will substantially upgrade the accuracy of the team’s long-range marksmanship.

Finding defense: SOS

But defense also matters, of course. Of the four teams left standing for the conference finals, Indiana, Memphis and San Antonio ranked first, second, and third in defensive efficiency and Miami was 9th.

Looking over the roster as it is currently constituted, it is hard to imagine the Wolves being any more than first-round fodder in the playoffs unless they can figure out a way to shore up that defense between now and opening day. And yes, even making the playoffs is a laudable step forward. But I believe that was going to happen with or without Martin on board.

So, how do the Wolves credibly defend?

In my view, the top priority for this off-season remains the same: Match any offer for restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic. For the past year and a half, the Wolves’ assistant coach in charge of the team’s defense, Bill Bayno, has proclaimed Pek the team’s best pick-and-roll defender. Granted, for an NBA center he is no rim protector, but Pek susses out and squelches emerging pick-and-roll options in expert fashion with a minimum of fouling. As it now stands, his defensive abilities are more valuable to the Wolves than the efficient low-post offense he has ably flexed the past two years.

Next up, the Wolves need to leverage their remaining bench assets to obtain a solid wing defender. In terms of value, Derrick Williams and Luke Ridnour would fetch the most talent in return, but I’d offer anyone, including first-round pick Shabazz Muhammad, J.J. Barea, or Alexey Shved (who quit on the team last season and won’t have his attitude elevated by the absence of his countryman and Olympics teammate Kirilenko). Given the salary-cap constraints caused by the Martin signing, any significant acquisition will almost certainly have to be via a trade, and probably a sign-and-trade situation with a team looking to get something in return for their departing free agent.

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Of the available crop of free agents, the best fit in terms of defensive ability, likely salary demands and inclination to come to Minnesota is probably Al Farouq Aminu, who is a wiry 6-9 and will be just 23 on opening day. He can’t shoot, but he gets after it defensively and likely won’t cost more than $2 million to $3 million per year. Other defensive-oriented options include Matt Barnes or our old friend Corey Brewer, but they are going to be asking for more than Budinger makes and aren’t inclined to choose Minnesota with a role off the bench awaiting them after they have played key roles for recent playoff contenders. As for trades, my contribution to the chatter is dealing Ridnour and backup forward-center Chris Johnson to Golden State for swingman Brandon Rush, provided he is fully recovered from a significant knee injury suffered last season.

The unsung hero of the Wolves’ 2012-13 season was assistant coach Bayno, who maximized the team’s defensive performance by emphasizing aggressive positional defense and going up straight against dribble penetration in order to avoid fouls. Considering that Minnesota played the undersized Ridnour at shooting guard and didn’t have Rubio’s ball-hawking and tough man-up coverage for much of the season, that 13th ranking in defensive efficiency was the year’s most pleasant surprise.

Can something even remotely approximating that performance happen again without Kirilenko? Or will Adelman begin the 2014 season the way he bemoaned the beginning of 2011, lamenting how Wolves’ opponents are able to get whatever they want?