Every season for the past eight, the Timberwolves and those who still cared about them looked forward to the proverbial promise of next year.
This season truly, really, finally is — for bad or for good — next year.
Long gone is a once-patient plan to build almost exclusively with young players through the draft.
Long gone, too, are failed former first-round picks — their own (Wes Johnson, Jonny Flynn, Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, Wayne Ellington and Lazar Hayward) and others’ (Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph) — as well as coaches Kurt Rambis and Randy Wittman.
The plan in place is a win-now proposal still constructed around youthful Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic but now supplemented by former NBA All-Stars Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko and orchestrated not by President of Basketball Operations David Kahn so much as head coach Rick Adelman.
Not all that long ago, Kahn promised there would be no substantial makeover to a team that already had started over more than once since trading away superstar Kevin Garnett in 2007.
But when training camp opens Tuesday morning in Mankato, the Wolves will introduce eight new players to their 15-man roster.
It’s a philosophical shift created by a 71-year-old owner who intends to sell the team, by a 66-year-old coach who is working the final job in his accomplished career and by a basketball-ops president whose team very likely needs to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004 if he intends to keep his job.
Eight consecutive losing seasons and Love’s very public comments last summer probably didn’t hurt, either.
Love challenged Kahn and owner Glen Taylor to make significant personnel moves that will produce a winner long before 2015, when he can walk away — and probably send Rubio away as well — as an unrestricted free agent because of an opt-out clause granted him in a four-year contract the team insisted upon.
(Taylor is talking to a handful of interested groups from outside Minnesota, one of whom is expected to buy a minority interest now and take majority ownership from him in the coming years.)
So the Wolves signed Roy, Kirilenko, Russian guard Alexey Shved, backup center Greg Stiemsma and veteran forward Lou Amundson and traded for Chase Budinger and Dante Cunningham.
Love said he is pleased with the changes the team has made on the court and, perhaps more important, in the locker room.
“I have faith in this team, I have faith in what we’ve done in this offseason,” Love said. “It was definitely a tremendous summer for our team. We have a number of guys who are going to help us … I do think we have a great shot to make the playoffs.”
To make room, they paid center Darko Milicic — the guy Love referred to when he said the Wolves have rid their locker room of “bad blood” — $7 million to void the final two seasons of his contract and go away to Boston as a free agent.
They also replaced young, talented but immature and inconsistent Beasley and Randolph with Roy and his degenerative knees and Kirilenko, to whom they have guaranteed $20 million for the next two seasons to return to the NBA after a season away.
The Adelman factor
In doing so, they have made their 15-man roster something of a Festival of Nations, with players now from Russia, Montenegro, Spain and Puerto Rico as well as the United States.
“We speak English, though,” Rubio said, smiling. “I mean, everybody can bring their experience from where they’ve been. We can bring that Europe experience and learn from American experience and have a great team together. We’re going to play a Rick Adelman style. I love how he runs the team, how he understands the game, and I love playing pick-and-rolls. I love Rick.”
And Adelman presumably will love this team more than the one that last season played better than .500 with Love and Rubio leading the way but went 5-20 at the end after Rubio, and then Love, became injured.
“This summer Rick Adelman got a lot of the pieces he wanted, so I think this team is really going to play well together,” Budinger said. “I already feel just playing with these guys that everybody is very unselfish out there. That’s what you need to be part of Rick Adelman’s offense: You have to play unselfishly.”
Budinger is one of those pieces, a guy who played for Adelman for two seasons in Houston before the Wolves acquired him from Houston in June by trading the draft’s 18th overall pick for him.
Adelman wanted Budinger for his outside shooting and for his willingness and his ability to play within Adelman’s passing-offense system. He wanted Roy for his leadership, his ballhandling and the possibility that Roy’s knees still just might allow him to be a reasonable facsimile of the player he once was.
Adelman wanted Kirilenko because Kirilenko, at age 31, is a proven, productive NBA small forward despite his history of injuries in recent years. And remember: Adelman started Johnson at small forward all last season, with very few good offensive results.
And Kirilenko wanted to come to Minnesota because of the $10 million salary and because Adelman’s offensive philosophies are similar to the European style of play, something Kirilenko noticed when his Utah teams played those Adelman-coached Sacramento teams a decade ago that featured Vlade Divac’s passing and Peja Stojakovic’s shooting.
“Those Sacramento teams were some of my favorite teams,” Kirilenko said. “I like that style. It’s more like how we play in Europe. … In Moscow, we played with two Lithuanians, two Serbians, two Americans and six Russians. So it’s not a big deal. Right now, basketball is so international. We know each other from the different international teams and teams from playing before. It won’t be a huge problem to adjust to each other.
“I think this month is going to be very important. Last year, coach Rick Adelman didn’t have a chance to practice the team because of the lockout and short preseason. I think this year they have a very good chance to work with the guys. In asking some players, I heard a lot of talk and they all said Rick is a great coach who likes to work with the players, not a guy who likes to terrorize players but really work and build a good chemistry between the coaching staff and the players. I think we all will play very well together.”