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It’s entirely possible the Timberwolves won’t be terrible this season

By signing veteran Mo Williams, the team signals a willingness to compete — no matter what happens with Kevin Love.

Mo Williams' skill set meshes well with the other players expected to log minutes in the Wolves backcourt.
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday afternoon, Mo Williams and his agents announced that the 11-year veteran combo guard had signed a one-year, $3.75 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

This is a small-potatoes transaction compared to the nonstop speculation over where and when the Wolves will eventually unload their itchy resident superstar, Kevin Love. (Right now the consensus is that Love will join Lebron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for the top pick in the last two college drafts, though 2014 pick Andrew Wiggins is the obvious prize, among other assets.)

Though a relatively minor acquisition, the Williams signing represents good news for any Timberwolves fans who wish to see a competitive brand of basketball during the 2014-15 season. Let’s look at the various ways having Williams around creates a net upgrade on the roster.

His skill set meshes well with the other players expected to log minutes in the Wolves backcourt. Specifically, his shooting accuracy and playmaking acumen will enable him to take pressure off Ricky Rubio on offense, while Rubio’s 6’4’’ size enables him to defend shooting guard as the 6’1” Williams matches up with the opposing point guard.

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Williams is an even better fit alongside top draft pick Zach LaVine, a dazzling athlete who President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders wants to groom at both guard positions. A LaVine-Williams combo creates fluid roles between the pair in terms of passer-initiator and scoring-finisher on offense. And once again, the 6’5” LaVine would allow Williams to take the less physically daunting backcourt matchup on defense.

Addition by subtraction

Last year, the Wolves tried to supplement Rubio’s playmaking in the backcourt with J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved (plus a mere 99 minutes of backup point guard A.J. Price), which became one of the most significant reasons for the team’s season-long underachievement.

Rubio’s poor shooting and flashy ball-handling grated on coach Rick Adelman, who overreacted by increasingly using Barea as his point guard in clutch situations.

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Miscast at point guard (he lacks the generous temperament for the position) and robbed of his cherished strategic contact by the new NBA rules on flopping, Barea had his worst season since his rookie year in 2006-07.  Yet Adelman—who engineered the signing of Barea as the first personnel move of his coaching tenure in Minnesota—still played him in game-deciding situations. By the end of the season, Barea had 564 fourth quarter minutes during which the Wolves were minus 144. Rubio had 434 minutes in the final stanza, during which the Wolves were minus 30.

I’ve written enough about Adelman’s folly with Barea (including sections here and here). On draft night in June, Saunders, who has replaced Adelman as coach, looked to be compounding the error with a different player, stating that Shved would be getting more point guard minutes.

Shved is a tweener: He takes too long to initiate the offense to be a credible point guard and lacks the mental and physical toughness to be an effective NBA shooting guard.

The acquisition of Williams removes the need for either Shved or Barea receiving significant playing time. Williams is a career 38.5 percent shooter from three-point territory over his long career (an accuracy Barea topped once, seven years ago) and made 40 percent in the fourth quarter last year in Portland. He has big-game experience, serving as the second-leading scorer to Lebron as Cleveland made it to the conference finals in 2008-09. Yet he also logged time in a subsidiary role at both guard positions in Portland.

There are downsides. Williams can be churlish about assuming a lesser role on a team, and can be a bit of a ballhog out of spite (like J.J. Barea, in fact). He doesn’t possess above-average court vision or ball-handling skills for an NBA playmaker. And he’s coming to a team that is likely about to get much younger and less competitive than last year’s 54-win Blazers ballclub. 

But the terms and size of the contract make this an attractive signing despite the negatives. Williams signed a bargain deal with an out-clause in Portland, then played well enough to bump his pay up more than a million from the $2.7 million guarantee in the second year. His one-year pact in Minnesota affords him similar incentive to demonstrate his worth.

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For the Wolves, the Williams signing is an anodyne, relatively risk-free placeholder for an organization on the brink of significant changes.

Hope and realism in a bittersweet future

Indeed, one of the better dividends of the Williams announcement is the attendant notion that the Wolves wouldn’t be making this sort of move unless they had a pretty clear idea of how they will ransack the roster between now and the onset of the 2014-15 season.

It would be difficult to sign Williams if the salaries of both Barea ($4.5 million) and Shved ($3.2 million) remained on the payroll. And you don’t leave salary cap issues to chance or caprice when dealing a player of Love’s caliber. Whether the trading partner is Cleveland, Chicago, Golden State or some unknown suitor, you get the blockbuster swap straight before tinkering with the backups. At least we hope Saunders and company retain that kind of common sense.

The soonest Love can be dealt to Cleveland is August 23, when Wiggins, the plum the Wolves covet, will have been signed to his rookie contract for the requisite 30 days.

Regardless of how Minnesota eventually unloads Love, the Williams signing retains flexibility for Saunders and Wolves owner Glen Taylor to either try and stay competitive or strip the roster down to the studs looking for draft picks and expiring contracts.

Both men steadfastly claim they will strive to create a playoff team in 2014-15. It is a tough situation: Having unsuccessfully gambled on achieving playoff success last season, they are now left with an unhappy superstar with a get-out-the-gulag free pass at the end of next season, plus a host of expensive multiyear contracts for Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer. Trading Love will inevitably be a huge setback, even whle the brutally competitive Western Conference has become more rugged over this off-season.

I understand the “ring or bust” mentality of many fans, but I am less of a team partisan and more of a fan of the game to endorse it here. It is now a full decade since Minnesota made the playoffs. Deciding in favor of a total teardown of the roster would likely increase the odds of creating a legitimate championship contender. But the odds of mishaps and poor judgments in the course of rebuilding are even more likely.

For a franchise with the worst lottery draft luck in NBA history and long chronicle of bone-headed decisions and wasted opportunities, the Wolves caught a break this summer when Lebron decided to return to Cleveland and let their front office know that Love would be an ideal complement for his championship aspirations. It apparently made the likes of Wiggins and other young talent and draft picks available, and compelled Cleveland’s rivals for Love’s services to upgrade their proposals. 

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Even so, the Wolves will only become, at best, on the fringe of playoff competition next season. But I’ll take the little dividends like the addition of Mo Williams and the insufficient but still better-than-expected consolation prize of a ballyhooed prospect like Wiggins alongside Pek and Rubio and see what happens.