Nobody knows NBA teams better than beat writers, save for those who draw paychecks with an NBA owner’s signature on them. The reporters who are with the teams they cover every day gain an intimate knowledge of the players, coaches and executives they write about and develop sources who help them break news and stay on top of rumors.
We at Hoops Rumors will be chatting with beat writers from around the league and sharing their responses to give you a better perspective on how and why teams make some of their most significant moves. Last time, we spoke with Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer about the Sixers. Click here to see all the previous editions of this series.
Today, we gain insight on the Timberwolves from Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune. You can follow Jerry on Twitter at , and check out his stories right here.
Hoops Rumors: In what way will the absence of Flip Saunders most profoundly affect the Timberwolves?
Jerry Zgoda: In every way, probably. He’s not only head coach and president of basketball operations, but he owns a small piece of the team, too. Probably the most powerful non-majority owner in the league and the guy who put this roster together with a vision. Now it’s up to GM Milt Newton and coach Sam Mitchell to carry on. The most interesting thing to watch is the older guys – Flip went and signed Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince to mentor what he has called the Young Pups and they still have Kevin Martin, too – now that Mitchell has said again that the team’s future is two, three years down the road. Hence his decision announced already to start Zach LaVine over Martin, at least for now. Some Wolves fans understandably are tired of always waiting for three years down the road.
Hoops Rumors: Trade rumors about Ricky Rubio popped up on occasion during the offseason, though Rubio, Saunders and Newton all seemed to do their best to bat them down. Do you think that either Rubio or the team will push for a trade between now and the deadline in February?
Jerry Zgoda: And play who there? They’d trade him if they could upgrade at the position and get more of a scoring point guard, since the league has really gone that way with the likes of Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, John Wall, etc., etc. But don’t believe it if you hear they’re going to trade him because they signed Andre Miller and traded for rookie Tyus Jones on draft night. That’s nonsense. If they could swing a deal – probably would have to be a three-team trade – and get a guy like Eric Bledsoe, they’d probably do that. But something like that is unlikely at this point, at least until Rubio (injured again these first couple weeks) shows he can stay healthy.
Hoops Rumors: What are the chances we see the team’s other two mid-career veterans, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic, on the block at some point this season?
Jerry Zgoda: Pekovic is virtually untradeable. They would if they could, but who’s going to take three years left on his contract at nearly $36MM owed? Their best hope probably is to get him back on the court for games by the New Year and hope he can give them 20-25 minutes a night, off the bench. If he can stay on the court, he’s valuable or at least he becomes tradeable at some point.
One of two things will happen with Martin: Either they trade him by February before he opts out next summer on the final year of his contract, or they decide he’s good enough at what he does – efficient scorer, best three-point shooter on a team that really lacks them – to keep either as a reserve or starter. But it’d take some kind of contract extension to keep him here. Otherwise, he opts out and signs elsewhere for next season.
Hoops Rumors: What went wrong with Anthony Bennett? What made the Wolves conclude that they were better off with a buyout after he’d spent only one season in Minnesota and two in the NBA?
Jerry Zgoda: Well, for starters he never should have been the No. 1 overall pick. That created unrealistic expectations. But forget that. He couldn’t stay healthy and when he was, he wanted to stay outside and prove he could shoot and they want him to go to work inside and do more of the dirty work. No question he has major talent. I wouldn’t have traded him, but they were already so loaded at that spot: they have Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica, Adreian Payne (who they still owe Atlanta a first-round pick for) and Gorgui Dieng, Karl-Anthony Towns and Damjan Rudez all can play there, too. And that’s not even counting KG. Bennett’s agent wanted him out of there and in Toronto, so the Wolves saved $2MM-plus on the deal and it cost Bennett a little more than $1MM to get out of Minnesota and back home. It was arrangement both sides consider mutually acceptable, but will the Wolves regret the decision someday? Probably.
Hoops Rumors: Speaking of former No. 1 overall picks, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have no shortage of potential. Aside from them, which of the other young Wolves has the best chance to become a star?
Jerry Zgoda: The Wolves are hoping LaVine is that guy. No doubt he has great athleticism and an underrated shot. But he’s got a whole lot of learning to do. He struggled big time trying to learn point guard as a rookie and now has been moved to shooting guard, but there he’s going to have to learn to play without the ball in his hands all the time. Another guy you shouldn’t sleep on is Shabazz Muhammad. He got himself in great shape coming into camp and could get himself into the Most Improved Player conversation as a scorer off the bench if he can stay healthy. He might have gotten there last year if he hadn’t missed the season’s last six weeks or so.
Hoops Rumors: Do you think the Wolves have any true aspirations of contending for a playoff spot this season, or is the focus solely on player development for now?
Jerry Zgoda: No, not if they’ve already given a starting job to LaVine. That message seems to be clear: They’re in it for another high lottery pick this season and the hope their young guys progress like Kevin Durant and Westbrook did that season the Thunder started 3-29 and then started to grow into what they are today.