The Timberwolves need production from someone, anyone, on the wing, which explains their two recent moves: They have tossed a giant sack with a dollar sign on it at small forward Nicolas Batum and have taken the rather extraordinary step of agreeing with shooting guard Brandon Roy on a two-year, $10.4 million contract.
Even assuming the Wolves buy out swingman Martell Webster for the minimum requirement of $600,000 and wipe away center Brad Miller’s entire contract because of his retirement, executing both the Batum and Roy moves would require the use of the amnesty provision on center Darko Milicic. That would not be necessary, however, if the Trail Blazers match the four-year, $45 million offer sheet for Batum — with bonuses that could drive the value to $50 million total — and the Wolves simply wait until after that to officially sign Roy.
(Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that this Batum deal could end up paying the 23-year-old Frenchman more per season than Josh Smith, Al Horford or Rajon Rondo earned last year.)
Let’s also take a moment to appreciate how skillfully Roy navigated the amnesty waiver process. The Blazers, of course, used the amnesty provision last December to wipe away the last four seasons of Roy’s monster contract. They still have to pay the 27-year-old the full $69 million they owe him for those seasons, but the money no longer counts against their cap. Under normal amnesty rules, Roy would have been placed into a special waiver wire pool through which teams under the salary cap could then bid on him. But the three-time All-Star retired, effectively sidestepping that process so that he can now re-enter the league as a true free agent, able to pick his own team.
The Wolves have gambled on Roy because of how disastrous their wing rotation was last season. The star of that show was Wesley Johnson, the No. 4 pick in the 2010 draft and the player Minnesota hopes is the last in a line of top-10 draft-day misses. That group includes Jonny Flynn, Corey Brewer and Randy Foye, the last of whom the Wolves famously acquired on draft day 2006 for … Brandon Roy. (In Minnesota’s defense, the Kevin Love/O.J. Mayo draft-day swap has been very successful, the opposite of the Roy/Foye deal.)
Young players go through growing pains, but Johnson’s performance last season was distressing. He turns 25 this weekend, so he’s not exactly a pup anymore, and he showed essentially zero average NBA skills in his second year. He shot just 39.8 percent overall and only 31 percent from three-point range. Despite playing in 65 of 66 games, he attempted 34 free throws and dished out 59 assists all season, numbers that reflect the lack of an attacking game off the dribble. And shooting guards who can’t shoot, attack or play lockdown defense don’t offer much, even if they are tall enough to shift to small forward to accommodate the rest of the roster.
The result was a Player Efficiency Rating of 8.0, a tad above half of an average NBA player’s mark. Since the start of the 2004-05 season, when the league really cracked down on hand-checking, only 35 players have managed to put up a PER below 9.0 while averaging at least 20 minutes per game. It’s hard to do. Look at the list, and three types of players jump out: defensive specialists on the wing (Antoine Wright and Bruce Bowen both appear in multiple seasons, and the list could really be named for Bowen), defensive-minded centers (Kendrick Perkins, Jason Collins) and caretaker point guards (Derek Fisher, Eric Snow). It is not a place for top-five draft picks on the wing.
Webster shot better from deep (36.4 percent), but he still didn’t produce much. Shooting guard Wayne Ellington played fewer than 1,000 minutes total. As a result, the Wolves scrambled with super-small backcourts — units featuring two of the J.J. Barea/Luke Ridnour/Ricky Rubio trio — and with forcing bigger players, such as Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams and even Anthony Tolliver, into the small forward spot. None of it really worked, which is why Minnesota dealt its first-round pick to Houston for Chase Budinger and has now acquired Roy (and his damaged knees) for slightly more than $10 million.
Nobody knows how this will turn out, but it is something of a risk, regardless of whether it costs Minnesota its Manna From Heaven (as general manager David Kahn once famously labeled Milicic). Roy underwent the Kobe Bryant knee treatment, which is available in the United States now, not just in Germany where Kobe flew last summer for the same procedure. And it isn’t platelet-rich plasma therapy. Rather, it’s a variant on PRP (described nicely here) designed to combat inflammation around the knee joint. Fighting inflammation is generally a good thing and can reduce pain. But several medical experts told me last week that treatments like this one, including PRP, essentially have no record of providing any long-term help for someone with Roy’s injury — a lack of meniscus cartilage in both knees. The therapy cannot re-grow cartilage or mend chunks of it together for Roy, since he has no such chunks left.
The process is still unproven, and there is great skepticism that it holds any real hope for Roy. But the Wolves aren’t dumb; they’ve obviously done their best due diligence and concluded that the risk is worth the price. Roy’s production dipped significantly in 2010-11 in all the ways we’d expect for a player experiencing injury or accelerated aging: fewer foul shots, fewer assists, fewer shots near the rim and a dramatically lower shooting percentages from everywhere on the floor. But even so, Roy was still dangerous and creative enough to rank as a league-average player, and a league-average threat would be a wonderful upgrade for Minnesota on the wing.
There were lower-risk alternatives available, but none that were glaringly obvious. Ray Allen is old and not interested. The Clippers overpaid for Jamal Crawford. Nick Young? Meh. [UPDATE: Young has agreed to a one-year, $6 million deal with Philadelphia, according to reports.] Mayo would likely have held out for more money, though he’d have fit well if the Wolves could have swung it. Courtney Lee is beloved for his “three-and-D” game among NBA geeks, and he likely would have been a lower-risk signing. He also might have commanded more years and more money, though, and he entered the unrestricted free agent list relatively late in the game. Shannon Brown was perhaps a cheaper alternative with a lower ceiling.
And so the Wolves have Roy. Defense will be an issue, especially with point guard Rubio expected to miss the first part of the season while recovering from his ACL tear. Rubio’s long arms and quick feet were perhaps Minnesota’s best defensive assets; the team allowed 99.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (a top-10 mark) and fell off a cliff to a Bobcats-like 106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions when he sat, per NBA.com’s stats tool. Love improved as a defender last season, and Nikola Pekovic, a rising talent at center, is a generally scary person. But none of the Minnesota big men ranks as a true difference-maker on the defensive end. As long as that’s the case, a lineup like Barea/Roy/Budinger/Love/Pekovic is going to have to work extraordinarily hard to limit the opposition.
Still, if Rubio can return to full health, there is playoff potential for this team. Remember: The Wolves projected as a slightly above-.500 team with a positive scoring margin until the wheels fell off in late March and April amid a pile of injuries. They weren’t great on either end of the floor, but the Pekovic/Love tandem was deadly on offense. If all of the pieces are available, the goal should be to make an honest run at the No. 8 seed next season. Dallas is in flux (to put it gently) and barely qualified for the playoffs last year. Houston and Phoenix, near misses last season, are rebuilding. Portland is a little ahead of the curve in the rebuilding process — with a real tent pole in star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge — but still has to work out the kinks. The opening is there for the Wolves.
The only downside, other than the obvious medical risk, is that a fully guaranteed second year for Roy eats away a bit at Minnesota’s cap flexibility. Assuming the Wolves amnesty Milicic and miss out on Batum, something like a $5.2 million salary for Roy would give them about $45 million in committed salary for 2013-14. That means Roy’s deal would have taken them from max-level cap room to something slightly below that. That’s not a big deal, really, for a franchise with no record of nabbing top free agents. Minnesota can save nearly $5.4 million by declining a team option on Johnson for that season, and it’d be flexible enough — assuming Portland matches on Batum — to keep Milicic around as a trade chip. His deal expires in 2013-14, and it is guaranteed for only $1.755 million that season.
As for Roy: He was an electrifying player in his prime. I’d love to see that player again, even in glimpses.