Posts Tagged ‘Flip Saunders’

Free Agency: Still No Deal For Pekovic?





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The Minnesota Timberwolves have made their position clear. They want restricted free-agent center Nikola Pekovic wearing “Wolves” across his chest for years to come. And they are willing to pay handsomely to make that happen.

It’s that price, however, that is holding up the process.

While the Timberwolves have reportedly slotted Pekovic for a deal in the four-year, $48 million range, the 7-footer’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, is reportedly looking for something in the $15 million a year range, according to 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

That’s a significant gap and one that will require some adept maneuvering from Timberwolves’ boss Flip Saunders, who not only has to work with Schwartz on a deal for Pekovic but also has to keep in mind that they’ll do this dance again when Kevin Love is in the midst of free-agent negotiations before the 2015-16 season. Love can opt out of his current deal then and become a free agent.

It’s a delicate balance for Saunders, crafting a roster capable of competing for a playoff spot now while also maintaining flexibility and fiscal responsibility for the future. It’s a balance that wasn’t managed well by his predecessor, David Kahn. In fact, these sorts of offseason hiccups were supposed to be history in Minneapolis, along with Kahn.

And make no mistake, this is a management issue. Pekovic’s camp has every right to push for the max. In a league where a talented big man always has value even if there is little production to warrant it (Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden come to mind), Schwartz knows that he’s working from high ground with a player like Pekovic.

He averaged 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds and was a consistent inside force for the team while Love was out of the mix for all but 18 games with an injury.

What the Timberwolves have to guard against is allowing this situation with Pekovic to put them in any sort of compromising position down the road with Love, who will indeed command max money of his own if and when he does opt out of his current deal. Love and Ricky Rubio are the current and future cornerstones of the playoff outfit Saunders is trying to build, and that has to be on the minds of everyone within the franchise as they move forward.

Outbidding themselves for Pekovic wouldn’t make a ton of sense at this juncture. But any damage done to the relationship with Schwartz right now could have lasting ramifications down the road, potentially producing consequences the Timberwolves absolutely cannot afford if they are serious about turning their playoff fortunes around.

Critics Aside, Wolves’ Muhammad Tackles Weaknesses

a

LAS VEGAS – Criticized on Draft night, scrutinized at Summer League, Shabazz Muhammad seems to understand that what he’s dealing with these days isn’t the norm for NBA lottery picks. But it the sort of thing that happens in the occasional disappointed league precinct when post-Draft results seem to fall short of pre-Draft expectations.

Even though no one has played a minute that matters.

Two games in, working professionally now in the city where he grew up, Muhammad isn’t so much trying to prove anyone wrong as he is trying to justify – not all at once, but eventually – the Minnesota Timberwolves’ decision to trade for the No. 14 after some Draft night audibilizing. He is aware of and even has talked about the “negativity” surrounding his selection, but he seems to be keeping it off to the side while going about the basics like any new employee learning on the job.

“I just wanted to get comfortable and familiar,” Muhammad said Monday after another challenging early lesson. “I know it’s a tough season, the regular season, and guys will be way better than this. I’m just scouting my game, seeing the stuff I need to work on and make sure I work on it this summer.”

Muhammad, who brought a reputation from UCLA as a black-hole scorer and defensive leaker, has had 15 points in two games, shooting 6-of-16 with just one assist and a cumulative minus-12 in Minnesota’s first two losses. He also got burned at the end of Monday’s two-point loss to Phoenix when his rip-through move turned into a turnover against the Suns’ Marcus Morris with 3.3 seconds left, Muhammad sprawling in vain on the floor. Moments later, that gaffe was followed by Morris’ buzzer-beating jumper to win it.

But Muhammad’s activity level has been high, his defense earnest though spotty, and he has looked as if he’s determined to pass the ball rather than hoist it. That’s not a bad point of emphasis for him, to round out an area absent from his game, though he surely won’t earn his NBA living as a facilitator.

It’s not the best way to find an early comfort zone in this league – playing to disprove negatives – but it is part of what Flip Saunders, the Wolves’ president of basketball operations, described as Muhammad’s education in “working within the offense.” Thriving in coach Rick Adelman’s offensive system demands that everyone, rookie gunners included, learns to be a conduit.

Saunders has been explaining the pick of Muhammad almost since the moment Minnesota made it in the POBO’s much-anticipated first Draft. He had a semi-apologetic news conference that night, after preferred scorers Ben McLemore and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope came off the board immediately before the Wolves’ slot at No. 9 and sent them scrambling for Nos. 14 and 21 in a trade with Utah.

Saunders reminds anyone who asks that their harvest that night was “2-for-1,” turning that ninth pick (Trey Burke) into both Muhammad and Louisville center Gorgui Dieng. Had Muhammad and Dieng been reversed in order, the heat on the UCLA kid would be dialed down, if not on Saunders and the Wolves.

But it’s important to keep that heat in perspective. Saunders, staking a return to the playoffs after nine consecutive misses as Minnesota’s primary ambition, tried to do that Monday. “We’re not counting on rookie,” he said, “so we’ll let them develop at their own pace. If they happen to improve enough to play for us, so be it. If they don’t, we’re just going to let that situation develop.”

That’s how Muhammad is approaching things, too. He’s averaging 0.5 assists per game, the stat that will continue to grab attention (he had just 27 in 32 college games, after all). But action at the Thomas & Mack Center isn’t preseason basketball in Fargo and that isn’t the big-time stuff that will rev up by November at Target Center.

The grumbles about his drafting, the questions about his late-game mistake Monday haven’t turned him defensive or pushed him toward any urgency. C’mon, it’s summer league.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Muhammad said. “It’s more like a pick-up game, the feel, the atmosphere is. But a lot of rookies are going through this and I’m obviously one of them.”

Who Should Stay And Who Should Go

a

a
HANG TIME, Texas
— The start of free agency always has plenty of decisions. The most basic are which players should look for greener pastures and who should be smart enough to realize what they’ve already got.

Here’s a quick look at a handful of players that need to find a new address and five more who should stay at home:

FIVE WHO SHOULD GO


Dwight Howard
, C, Lakers

Let’s face it. There hasn’t been an NBA marriage this shaky that didn’t involve a Kardashian. Howard went to a team where Kobe Bryant was already firmly entrenched as the alpha dog and then found himself on a leash that included geezers Steve Nash and Metta World Peace. Toss in a coach like Mike D’Antoni who has never favored playing a low post game and it was a recipe for disaster. Another several years of playing in the harsh glare of the Lakers spotlight might be too much for Howard to bear. The overly sensitive must flee to someplace that will give him a big hug before he turns into a pillar of salt.

Josh Smith, F, Hawks

If you were building a 21st century basketball player in a lab — speed, strength, leaping ability, size — chances are you would come up with someone resembling J-Smoove. After nine NBA seasons, he’s got career numbers that rank him among the greats. After nine years in his hometown of Atlanta, he’s about worn out his welcome with all of those wild, late, long shots. In the right situation, with the right coach, he might take a team to the next level or send it over the edge. A man has got to know when it’s time to change the scenery.

Tony Allen, G, Grizzlies

He’s the guy who introduced the grind into the Grindhouse and one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. He can cut to the basket and score, but that’s about all he can do offensively and that hole in his game was badly exposed by the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. The new analytics-driven Grizzlies have Tayshaun Prince to fill the defensive role and they’re not likely to fork over the kind of money Allen wants for a one-dimensional figure. It’s time to take those defensive claws to another contender or wannabe and show the Grizzlies what they’ll be missing.

Tyreke Evans, G, Kings

Was it just three years ago when Evans was a 20-5-5 guy and winning Rookie of the Year honors with the Kings? His fall from grace was like an anvil being tossed off the edge of a cliff. Now that new management was able to reel in shooter Ben McLemore in the draft, it would seem that there’s little room left for Evans. Will the Kings even think about matching four-year, $44 million offer from the Pelicans? This is a separation that’s been that’s been coming for a while.

Monta Ellis, G, Bucks

It just wasn’t a good idea to put together two small guards that need the ball in their hands together in Milwaukee. It’s definitely isn’t a good idea to re-sign both of them as free agents. Brandon Jennings is hardly the model of efficiency, but Ellis makes him look like a Swiss knife in comparison. He needs to find a new home where he can be a designated scorer and not asked to do anything else, because he won’t.

FIVE WHO SHOULD STAY


David West, F, Pacers

He may yearn for one more big pay in another location, but at the end of the day West and the Pacers know that they’re made for each other. He’s a very efficient scorer, a hard-nosed defender and played a big role in Indiana taking the Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals. He also has great leadership skills and has always managed to fly below the radar while delivering in a big way almost every time out.

Andre Iguodala, F, Nuggets

He exercised his right to opt out early from his contract and maybe it was only about maximizing his earnings. Or maybe he needed time to digest what the change from George Karl to Brian Shaw as coach could do to the Nuggets’ style of play and how he fits into the attack. At the end of the day, the Nuggets still have plenty of players who can get up and down the floor in transition and it Shaw wants to place even more emphasis on defense, he’s most capable of delivering and thriving.

Chris Andersen, F, Heat

This is a perfect fit in so many ways. The Heat gave Andersen a place where he could continue this career and make a significant contribution. Andersen gives the Heat the kind of rugged, tough guy, free spirit personality that is a nice balance inside a locker room filled with three mega-stars. When you’ve got LeBron, Wade, Bosh and all of the hullaballoo that constantly swirls around them, almost no one even notices the Birdman. Almost. It’s a long grind from October to June and it helps to have an iconoclast like Andersen on the court and in their midst to keep the Heat fresh.

Nikola Pekovic, C, Timberwolves

New Wolves president of basketball operation Flip Saunders is likely to let free agent Andrei Kirilenko walk out the door in order to find someone cheaper and with better shooting range. But the big man Pekovic is a must-keep asset not just for his size, strength, rebounding and scoring efficiently, but also to show Kevin Love that the team is serious about building a team that — barring injury — can jump into the rugged Western Conference playoff race and thrive. Pekovic’s numbers in points, rebounds and blocks have gone up in each of his first three seasons and at 27 he can grow more into a dominant inside force.

Tiago Splitter, F, Spurs

The difference in Splitter from his first to second playoff seasons was a quantum leap. Of course, it also helped that he had a full training camp and was healthy. He’s a quietly efficient scorer who can be trusted to hold down the middle while the Spurs continue to monitor and limit the minutes played by Tim Duncan. He is a perfect complementary part for now and his role can increase in another couple of years. There are lots of teams that would like to have the 28-year-old, but he’s at home with the franchise that patiently waited for him to arrive and there is no reason to think the Spurs would want him to walk out the door.

Kirilenko Opt-Out Leaves Void For Wolves

a

a
Andrei Kirilenko
reportedly informed the Timberwolves of his decision to opt-out of next year’s contract while vacationing in the south of France.

This is not to be confused with South France Ave., a main north-south thoroughfare in the western Minneapolis suburbs where, the locals will tell you, the nation’s first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall (Southdale, 1956) is situated.

There is a reason for the fully enclosed and climate-controlled stuff, which dovetails nicely into the Kirilenko decision.

Having the veteran Russian forward say nyet to the $10.2 million he had guaranteed for 2013-14 technically frees up some salary-cap space for new Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders as the NBA free agent market opens at 11:01 p.m. Twin Cities time. It fuels visions of this-or-that flashy signing, whether it’s O.J. Mayo to address the team’s ongoing hole at shooting guard or some other targeted player.

But there’s a careful-what-you-wish-for aspect to this, too.

After all, this is Minnesota we’re talking about, hardly a magnet market for NBA free agents. Most visiting players who come to town quickly focus on the fully enclosed, climate-controlled skyway system that allows them, if they dare venture off the fully enclosed, climate-controlled team bus, to navigate a few blocks in any direction from their road hotel.

Many players drafted by or traded to Minnesota learn about the reasons behind all that enclosing and climate-controlling and opt to play their basketball elsewhere.

It’s a terrific place to live and raise a family – I lived there for 24 years – but for one reason or another (legacy of mediocrity, coaching changes, Kevin Garnett‘s storm-cloud scowl upon departure), it’s a tough sell to players who can select their destination. Most of the Wolves’ free agent “successes” have come from overpaying (for instance, giving Mike James four years instead of three and $25 million) or doing some other favor for the player. Like paying Brandon Roy to get hurt again.

The idea of having money freed up beyond the league’s mid-level salary exception is intriguing. For Saunders, it’s a chance to wheel-and-deal and perhaps make up a little for a muddied draft night.

But the odds are against the Wolves signing a player for 2013-14 who’ll be more productive than Kirilenko was for them in 2012-13.

A year removed from the NBA after spending 2011-12 in Russia, the former Utah Jazz forward put up numbers remarkably similar to his career stats: 14.0 points on 50.7 percent shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks pro-rated to 36 minutes per game. He ranked second on the team in minutes, was third in scoring average (12.4), blocked more shots than starting center Nikola Pekovic and had more steals than J.J. Barea or Luke Ridnour. The Wolves were 26-38 in the games Kirilenko played, 5-13 when he was out.

His abilities to cut and to see cutters were vital to coach Rick Adelman’s system, especially with teammates such as Kevin Love and Chase Budinger missing significant time. Kirilenko, who turned 32 in February, was a steady influence, too, on Russian rookie Alexey Shved and in general a grown-up voice in the locker room. Kirilenko and Shved, frankly, may have been former boss David Kahn’s two shrewdest moves.

It’s possible but not likely he would re-sign with the Wolves, based on Star Tribune beat writer Jerry Zgoda‘s update Saturday:

Kirilenko is seeking a three- or four-year extension because he believes this might be the last chance to negotiate the last big contract of his career.

You can bet Flip Saunders won’t offer anything more than two years, and at a salary considerably less than $10 million.

Still, the Wolves might wind up missing Kirilenko’s versatility and production at both ends of the floor. They could do a lot worse because, well, they have.

Coaches Honor Fitch With Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award

Bill Fitch

In the 1980s, Bill Fitch led Boston to an NBA title.
(Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO – These days Bill Fitch gets a special kick out of tuning into postgame news conferences and hearing players say they won’t really know what happened in the game they just played until they look at the video.

That’s because Fitch was sometimes mockingly called “Captain Video” in the early part of his 25-year NBA coaching career for using videotape to analyze opponents and scout talent.

But what was once a joke became a standard and integral part of the game, making Fitch a pioneer. That, along with his 944 career wins and penchant for turning bad teams around, has earned him the 2013 Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Basketball Coaches Association. He received the award Tuesday in a presentation prior to Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

“To be honest, I never really thought being known as Capt. Video was a bad deal,” Fitch said. “Other people could laugh and tease all they wanted. The truth is I was glad to that nobody else was doing it, because I thought it always gave our teams a big advantage.

“If you could see my closet today, it’s crammed full from floor to ceiling with old tapes and now with DVDs and I’m still doing film for different people. I still love the competition and the strategy.”

Fitch ranks eighth on the all-time win list and his 2,050 games coached is third. He is a two-time Coach of the Year winner (Cleveland in 1976 and Boston in 1980), led the Celtics to the NBA championship in 1981 and, after moving to Houston, took the Rockets to The Finals in 1986. He was also named one of the NBA’s top 10 coaches of all-time in 1996-97.

The NBCA Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award commemorates the memory of the Hall of Fame coach who won a pair of championships with the Pistons in 1989 and 1990 and led the 1992 USA Dream Team to the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics.

“I’ve always said that being a coach made me able to live a life where I never, ever felt like I had a job,” Fitch said. “Honest, it wasn’t about the money. It was about the feeling that I was never working, because I was doing something that I loved. It was about the competition all those relationships that were built.

“I guess what this means is that I’m 81 and going the wrong way. But seriously, anytime you get an honor from your peers it means a lot more. I’m humbled by it. It’s always great to be recognized by the guys you worked with or against. Coaching is the biggest fraternity there is and I’ve always felt like I’ve had more brothers than I could count.

“Chuck especially was a great friend and to get an award named after him makes me immediately think of all the experiences and stories we shared, some of them that could even be printed.” (more…)

Timberwolves Expect Adelman To Return


a

a
TREVISO, Italy – Every indication points to Rick Adelman returning as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, president Flip Saunders said, apparently resolving one of the many prominent issues in front of Saunders early in his tenure as head of basketball operations.

Adelman told NBA.com in March that he twice contemplated quitting during the season to be with his wife Mary Kay as she suffered a series of seizures — and that he would again consider stepping away in the summer if doctors were unable to determine a cause or successful treatment. While the winningest active coach in the league following the George Karl-Nuggets breakup has not given Minnesota officials a definitive word, Saunders is taking conversations with Adelman as signals that he will return for 2013-14.

“We’ve talked every day, every other day,” Saunders said during a break at the adidas Eurocamp. “He talks about his staff, he talks about players. We were talking the other day about offenses that I ran, offenses that he ran. Talking just the basketball talk. The talks that we’ve had leads me to believe that he’s going to be back.

“My assumption is just like when I coached. No one really asked me if I was coming back or not. You’re under contract. You’re part of expectations…. And if something changes, then we’ll change as it does. That’s part of what the NBA is all about. Adapting to changes. But I believe he’s going to be back. Mary Kay has made some progress, so that’s the positive. I hope he’s back because I know if he’s back that means that she’s making good progress and getting back on good health. That’s what all our hopes are for.”

Meanwhile, Saunders is scouting in preparation of two first-round picks in the June 27 draft, Nos. 9 and 26, looking to add size on the front line and shooting, trying to resolve a glut of point guards, and awaiting decisions on the futures of Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko. Pekovic becomes a restricted free agent July 1 – “We plan on signing him,” Saunders said – while Kirilenko has to decide days before that whether to stay in his contract or return to free agency.

“We don’t have a gut feel,” Saunders said of Kirilenko’s plans. “It’s a lot of money, at $10 million, to say you’re going to opt out of it. But anything can happen. You know how that goes.”

Hot List: Top 10 Restricted Free Agents





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Unlike their unrestricted free agent peers, this summer won’t be the fresh start some of this summer’s most notable restricted free agents are hoping for.

Their current teams have the right to match any offers they receive, meaning that the lucrative, long-term deal some of these guys are looking for might come with strings attached. Brandon Jennings of the Milwaukee Bucks plays a marquee position in a market that doesn’t seem to fit his persona or personality.

He turned down a $40 million extension in the fall, making clear his intention to push for a bigger deal or an eventual departure — he could play the 2013-14 season on a qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014 — from Fear The Deer territory.

As always, Jennings isn’t the only restricted free agent of note this summer. The full list of them can be found on our handy-dandy Free Agent Tracker.

Jennings is the headliner on the Top 10 Restricted Free Agents list, but hardly the only notable name …

Brandon Jennings, G, Milwaukee Bucks

Status on July 1: Restricted free agent
What he’s selling: A first-team All-Rookie pick in 2010, Jennings solidified his credentials as a starting point guard in four seasons with the Bucks. He started 289 of the 291 games he played in and helped guide the Bucks to the playoff twice in his first four seasons. A big time scorer, Jennings has the charisma and personality to help you win games and sell tickets.
What he’s not saying: He’s still barely 170 pounds soaking wet. There are still some front office types who think he’s more of a poor man’s Allen Iverson instead of the young Mike Conley they hoped he might be at this stage of his career.
What he’s worth: Jennings believes he’s worth every penny of a max deal somewhere. Remember, he famously boasted that he was better than Ricky Rubio and has gone about the business of trying to prove as much night in and night out. But a max deal is out of the question in Milwaukee and probably anywhere else. The Bucks aren’t going to bid against themselves for a player who has made it clear that he is interested in playing in a bigger market. He’s already turned down a four-year offer with $40 million, making it clear that he intends to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and let the market set his value.
Likely landing spot(s): The Bucks have the right to match any offers. Any interested teams know that all they have to do is wait this situation out and pursue Jennings in the free-agent summer of 2014.

Jeff Teague, G, Atlanta Hawks

Status on July 1: Restricted free agent
What he’s selling: Teague is coming off of his best season as a pro, having averaged career highs in points (14.6) and assists (7.2) while asserting himself as a true lead guard for a playoff team. He’s only scratched the surface of his potential and, at 24, is still young enough to project major upside in the coming years.
What he’s not saying: Teague is not a great defender at what is easily the deepest position in the league. And his assist numbers (3.0) in 29 career playoff games suggest that he might not be on track to become the elite facilitator a team needs in a point guard.
What he’s worth: The Hawks didn’t do him any favors by not even offering him an extension on his rookie contract before the Halloween deadline. Making that pill even tougher to swallow for Teague is the fact that the two point guards drafted directly ahead of him in 2009, Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday ($10 million a year) and Ty Lawson ($12 million a year), both agreed to terms on four-year deals at the deadline. If they’ve set the bar — Holiday blossomed into an All-Star this season while Lawson had an equally strong case but missed out in a deep crop of Western Conference point guards — Teague is in a tough negotiating spot with the Hawks.
Likely landing spot(s): Teague needs a team desperate for a young point guard to present an offer sheet that exceeds what the Hawks might be willing to pay (anything near $10 million a year would be a bit of a shock). Utah is still searching for a long-term answer at point guard and could poke around and see if the Hawks will let Teague walk. But the Hawks are likely to keep him on a qualifying offer and he’ll become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Tyreke Evans, G, Sacramento Kings

Status on July 1: Restricted free agent
What he’s selling: A Rookie of the Year and at one time considered the future face of the franchise in Sacramento, Evans averaged 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in his first season. A super-sized point guard, he used his size and skill to his advantage in that role with the Kings. He’s most definitely selling the Tyreke Evans we all saw his rookie season.
What he’s not saying: While he didn’t experience the steep statistical drop off in his next three seasons, Evans is fighting the perception that he bottomed out during those three seasons. The Kings certainly seem to have moved on from Evans being a franchise cornerstone during these past three seasons, hence the absence of an extension offer. Isaiah Thomas supplanted him at point guard and Evans has played out of position ever since.
What he’s worth: This is where things get tricky for Evans, because some team with cap space to work with is going to eyeball Evans and remember that he’s a 6-foot-6, 220-pound combo guard with an ability to run a team and calculate the risk of snatching him away from an uncertain situation with the Kings. If Darko Milicic got $20 million from the Minnesota Timberwolves, someone has to be willing to offer Evans a similar deal.
Likely landing spot(s): Dallas and Atlanta are both in full-blown roster-rebuild mode and could use a talent like Evans at a reasonable price to help get things rolling. He could be the steal of the summer if someone makes a play for him and waits to see if the Kings will match the offer or let him walk.

Nikola Pekovic, C, Minnesota Timberwolves

Status on July 1: Restricted free agent
What he’s selling: With the eternal premium on productive big men, Pekovic showed flashes of being an absolute nightmare in the low post for opposing teams. A 7-foot, 300-pound block of granite, Pekovic averaged 16.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg last season and held it down in the Timberwolves’ frontcourt without Kevin Love available for the majority of the season. He’s got a size/skill-set combination that makes him a rarity in a league that treasures big men who can play high impact basketball on both ends of the floor.
What he’s not saying: The only problem with Pekovic is the 174-game sample size teams have to work with in evaluating the upside of a big man who is 26 and perhaps already deeper into his physical prime than you want a third-year player to be.
What he’s worth: The Houston Rockets used a three-year, $25 million offer sheet to pry Omer Asik away from the Chicago Bulls last summer. An offer like that could work similar wonders for someone trying to slip into the Twin Cities and sneak out with a starting center.
Likely landing spot(s): Minnesota can’t afford to let him walk, not with the regime change and whatever other roster changes Flip Saunders and his new crew have in store. Plus, Pekovic has become a cult favorite in Minneapolis.

Tiago Splitter, F/C, San Antonio Spurs

Status on July 1: Restricted free agent.
What he’s selling: A three-year apprenticeship under the great Tim Duncan can’t be a bad place for a big man to start when resume building. Splitter’s third NBA season turned out to be the charm, as he finally showed some signs of being the low-post factor he was billed as when the Spurs made him their top Draft pick in 2007. The Brazilian big man finally earned a regular spot in Gregg Popovich‘s rotation, another sign and seal of approval, averaging career highs in points (10.3), rebounds (6.4) and minutes (24.7). He made 58 starts this season, 52 more than he did in the two previous season combined.
What he’s not saying: Those previous two seasons mentioned were less than stellar. Splitter has ideal size for a NBA big man but didn’t leave a large footprint early on, the transition from Spanish League MVP to NBA regular being much tougher than anyone anticipated for him.
What he’s worth: Like almost every skilled big man, Splitter is going to be worth more than a man half his size with better credentials. That’s just the way things work in this league. He’s due for a significant raise from the $3.9 million he’s earning this season. In fact, he should have no trouble doubling that in a free agent market (for unrestricted and restricted free agents) that is relatively light on centers.
Likely landing spots: The Spurs have the right of first refusal and will exercise that right if the offers come in at the right number. But Dallas and Atlanta have to have him on their short lists, with several other teams focusing in on him early on in the process.

THE NEXT FIVE: Gerald Henderson, Charlotte; Darren Collison, Dallas; Timofey Mozgov, Denver; Tyler Hansbrough, Indiana; Chase Budinger, Minnesota.


Saunders Likely Back In Minny, Kahn Out

Flip Saunders is expected to take over for David Kahn in Minnesota. (by Ned Dishman/NBAE)

Flip Saunders is expected to take over for David Kahn in Minnesota. (by Ned Dishman/NBAE)

Former NBA head coach Flip Saunders is expected to return to the Minnesota Timberwolves as the team’s next president of basketball operations, NBA.com has learned.

Saunders, 58, has been negotiating a contract that, with option years, could run through the 2017-18 season and could be worth more than $9 million over the full five years, according to league sources who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the hiring.

The move, which could become official as soon as next week, would end David Kahn‘s controversial tenure after four seasons and an 89-223 record during which the Timberwolves’ failure to reach the playoffs stretched to nine consecutive seasons. Kahn’s contract includes a team option for 2013-14 that will not be exercised.

Minnesota owner Glen Taylor and Saunders had been meeting in recent weeks, with Taylor confirming a report in March that Saunders was representing a group of prospective buyers interested in purchasing the franchise. Taylor, who turned 72 last week, has been seeking a minority investor or investors who eventually could take over majority control of the club.

Saunders, contacted Thursday evening in Bristol, Conn., where he was working as an NBA studio analyst for ESPN, neither confirmed nor denied his return to the Wolves.

“That’s the same speculation that was out there last month,” he said.

Taylor did not return phone messages seeking comment. He has told associates he would not discuss the matter with the media.

Saunders is the most successful coach in Minnesota franchise history, posting a 411-326 record in 9 1/2 seasons and steering the team to eight consecutive playoff berths. His time with the Wolves coincided with forward Kevin Garnett‘s ascendancy from high school draftee to perennial All-Star, NBA Most Valuable Player in 2004 and shoo-in Hall of Famer.

The 2003-04 team reached the Western Conference finals before falling to the Lakers’ last Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant team. But the expectations that success fueled led to Saunders’ firing in February 2005 after stumbling to a 25-26 mark.

He later coached the Detroit Pistons, going 176-70 from 2005-2008 near the end of the Pistons’ dominant Eastern Conference run, and the Washington Wizards, where the Gilbert Arenas gun situation blew up a potential playoff team. The Wizards went 51-130 with Saunders before he was fired in January 2012. Last spring, Saunders served as a consultant to the Boston Celtics at the invitation of coach Doc Rivers. He joined ESPN’s NBA coverage crew this season.

A native of Cleveland and a point guard at the University of Minnesota, Saunders coached in college and then for seven seasons in the Continental Basketball Association. He was brought to the Wolves in May 1995 by former Gophers teammate Kevin McHale as Minnesota’s general manager, then added head coaching duties when Bill Blair was fired seven months later, in December of Garnett’s rookie season.

Saunders shed the GM title in the wake of Minnesota’s salary-cap violations uncovered in 2000 in its signing forward Joe Smith. A series of illegal contracts, including future seasons after Smith played for what was considered to be less than market value for two years, ultimately cost the franchise three No. 1 draft picks and a $3.5 million fine, still the largest in NBA history. Taylor was suspended for one year and McHale, the Wolves’ VP of basketball operations at the time, agreed to take a leave of absence for the 2000-01 season.

Sources close to Saunders say that, since exiting the Wizards job, he is comfortable with the prospect of a front-office job rather than a future coaching position. Despite his firing in Minnesota in 2005, Saunders and Taylor have maintained a good relationship.

David Kahn (by David Sherman/NBAE)

David Kahn (by David Sherman/NBAE)

Kahn, hired in May 2009, took over a team that had missed the playoffs for five seasons and had posted losing records in the most recent four. He began an aggressive overhaul of the roster – more than one, eventually – and drew immediate criticism for drafting point guards with both the Nos. 5 and 6 picks that spring. Ricky Rubio, a heavily scouted prospect who fell to Minnesota after a poor workout with Sacramento, spent two more years in Spain before coming to the NBA and becoming one of the league’s bright young stars. Syracuse product Jonny Flynn, however, was a disappointment from the start and most recently played in an Australian pro league.

Wesley Johnson, the No. 4 pick in 2010, and Derrick Williams, the highest pick in Wolves history at No. 2 in 2011, also have been underwhelming in their young NBA careers. Other trades have helped rival clubs more than they have Minnesota (Al Jefferson and Corey Brewer). And after four years under Kahn, two of the Wolves’ three best players – All-Star power forward Kevin Love and center Nikola Pekovic – were scouted and drafted by McHale.

Kahn — a former sportswriter who got a law degree, worked in the Indiana Pacers’ front office and served as an executive in the NBA Development League — also made a pair of dubious, expensive signings. In July 2010, he signed failed big man-turned-NBA punchline Darko Milicic to a four-year, $20 million contract (though not fully guaranteed). The Timberwolves used the amnesty clause to rid themselves of Milicic in July 2012.

Also last summer, the Wolves lured Portland guard Brandon Roy out of injury-driven retirement with a two-year, $10 million deal; Roy lasted only five games this season before knee problems shelved him again. Kahn did sign Andrei Kirilenko back into the NBA after the former Utah forward’s one-year hiatus in Europe and added backcourt help via Alexey Shved of the Russian national team.

Kahn’s first hire as head coach, Kurt Rambis, went 32-132 in two seasons before being fired. His replacement, Rick Adelman, got the Wolves to 26-40 in the post-lockout 2011-12 season, then provided roster input that led to the acquisition of players such as Chase Budinger and Dante Cunningham and the departures of Milicic, Johnson and Michael Beasley, among others.

A rash of injuries this season – from Rubio’s remaining rehab of his March 2012 knee surgery to Love’s twice-broken hand, with significant games also lost by Budinger, Roy, Kirilenko and more – thwarted what Taylor, Kahn, Adelman and Minnesota fans felt would be the pursuit of a playoff berth. Taylor said in March that the injuries made it difficult to fully assess the team’s or Kahn’s performance. But sources said Taylor also planned to evaluate Kahn’s rapport with people inside the organization and in the NBA.

Adelman’s status for 2013-14 remains uncertain while his wife Mary Kay‘s health issues continue to be addressed. The veteran coach missed 11 games while doctors in Minnesota worked to determine the cause of her seizures.

Adelman, who will turn 67 in June, returned to pick up the 1,000th victory of his coaching career and has talked optimistically about the current roster’s potential. He and Saunders reportedly have a good relationship after years of competing on NBA sidelines, and the Wolves are hopeful that Adelman decides to return.

Willard, 54, Earned Respect From Peers And ‘Adversaries’ Alike

.

More than a decade ago, Greg Willard got the sort of attention NBA referees traditionally abhor — and he wasn’t even working the game.

The Minnesota Timberwolves were on their way to getting ousted from the first round of the playoffs for the sixth time in as many years. This was back in 2002, in the best-of-five days, and the Wolves’ lone home game in the series against Dallas wasn’t half over when Minnesota coach Flip Saunders erupted. He had to be physically restrained by a pair of assistants from closing the gap on ref Bill Spooner.

Turns out, Spooner had dropped a line on Saunders that demonstrated he had Willard’s back. It wasn’t the first time, either — Steve Javie had said something similar to the Wolves’ coach in the aftermath of a snit Saunders had with Willard more than a month earlier.

Here’s the backstory: In a 112-80 blowout of Toronto on March 19, 2002, Willard made a remark as he ran past Saunders about Minnesota forward Sam Mitchell‘s 3-pointer in the final minute, possibly about the sportsmanship Mitchell showed or the trouble he could have incited. Saunders snapped back along the lines of,  “I thought referees were supposed to ref games. I didn’t know they were supposed to give opinions.”

Let Saunders pick up the story:

“Since that time,” he said after the Wolves were bounced that day 11 years ago, “I’ve had two referees that, when I asked them about something, said, ‘I thought you didn’t want referees to give opinions.’ … I told them I thought that was total bull. First of all, my problem was not with them, it was with Greg Willard. To bring something like that up in the heat of the battle, I don’t know what you’re thinkin’. … They all talk.”

They surely do. The fraternity of NBA referees is a tight one, reaffirmed constantly by the rigors of their travel, the pressures inherent in their jobs and the guff they take while working from players, coaches and fans. Then there are their shared experiences, the close quarters of the refs’ dressing rooms throughout the league and the collegial respect that comes from knowing who’s good and, well, who’s still learning in a tough profession of split-second decisions.

Willard had that respect and more, not just from how he worked as a ref but how he endured his year-long battle with the pancreatic cancer that killed him Monday at age 54. He was one of the NBA’s senior officials, officiating nearly 1,500 regular-season games along and 136 more in the playoffs, two in The Finals and the 2006 All-Star Game. He achieved the best kind of status for someone in a competitive pursuit, the appreciation not only of his peers but most of those — those coaches and players — with whom he butted heads in the heat of their most intense moments.

Saunders and Willard made peace over their dispute soon after it happened and shared, in their respective roles, NBA courts for another 10 years. That sort of on-court silliness evaporated with the news last spring of Willard’s illness. It’s another example of that instant perspective, and life’s reminders, that none of us ought to need.

“Greg epitomized what it meant to be an NBA referee through dedication to his craft, hard work, and integrity both on-and-off the court,” said Lee Seham, general counsel for the National Basketball Referees Association, said in a statement Tuesday. “He was not only a great NBA Referee, but more importantly a wonderful person, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”

Some of the highest regard shown by an NBA player to a ref came back in October, after the Los Angeles Lakers faced Utah in a preseason game in Anaheim. Willard had worked that game, despite his worsening condition, and Kobe Bryant shared thoughts on the moment via ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Ramona Shelburne:

Longtime referee Greg Willard, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June, had just taken the court and officiated the game even as his body showed the ravages of the pernicious disease.

The Lakers had already sent the game ball to the referees’ locker room. Several had shook Willard’s hand after the game. Bryant stopped by for a visit on his way out.

“He’s an extremely good ref,” Bryant said of Willard. “He doesn’t hold grudges. He just makes the call in front of him.

“Honestly, tonight I wanted him to T me up for old time’s sake. I didn’t want him to have any kind of special night. I wanted it to be just like it’s always been. I wanted to drop a couple F-bombs to him.

“I wanted it to be like how it’s always been. That’s the best way. “

All NBA game officials will wear wristbands or patches with Willard’s jersey number 57 for the balance of the season to honor his memory.

Pistons Working To Save Their Season, Refill Once-Packed Palace

DALLAS – The Detroit Pistons have crashed as hard as the Michigan economy over the last few years and the combination has resulted in a lot of eerily quiet nights inside The Palace at Auburn Hills.

“It is strange for sure,” Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva said before the Pistons dropped a 10th road game in 11 tries Saturday against the Mavericks. “The fact that my first five years in the league, seeing that place sold out every game; every time we went into Detroit it was sold out. It just shows how hard the economy hit, but I think it will bounce back. It’s just a matter of time.”

For now, there are more empty seats than filled ones at Pistons games. But to pin Detroit’s turnstile problem mostly on a rotten economy is to discredit die-hard Pistons fans that have grown weary of throwing good money at bad basketball.

Entering tonight’s eighth home game of the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit’s average attendance is 12,392 and ranks last in the league — behind Sacramento, New Orleans and last season’s worst team, Charlotte. Take away the home-opener crowd of 16,646 and the average dips to 11,683. On most nights the actual attendance is much less.

FROM FIRST TO WORST
The Pistons rank last in the league in attendance this season. A look at the club’s average attendance over the last 13 seasons
Season Avg. Attendance Rank
2012-13 12,392 30th
2011-12 14,413 28th
2010-11 16,660 18th
2009-10 18,751 8th
2008-09 21,877 1st
2007-08 22,076 1st
2006-07 22,076 2nd
2005-06 22,076 1st
2004-05 22,076 1st
2003-04 22,076 1st
2002-03 20,470 1st
2001-02 18,556 11th
2000-01 14,812 22nd

“It’s not weird because it’s not a situation where it’s been drastic, where this season it was packed and the very next season it was nothing,” said Tayshaun Prince, a career Piston and last remaining member of the 2004 title team. “It didn’t just hit rock bottom at one point. When things are going so well for a long period of time and then all of a sudden when things hit, then they started to veer down, veer down, veer down.”

From 2002 through 2009, not coincidentally the last time Detroit made the playoffs, the Pistons ranked No. 1 in attendance in six of those seven seasons, routinely boasting sellout crowds of 20,000-plus. The one season they weren’t No. 1, they were No. 2. The run included the ’04 championship and a repeat Finals appearance under Larry Brown, and four other East finals appearances, one prior to Brown under Rick Carlisle, and three more after Brown under Flip Saunders.

Since Saunders won 59 games in 2007-08, but lost in the East finals for a third consecutive time, Detroit has rolled through coaches Michael Curry (39-43) and John Kuester (57-107), with Lawrence Frank now in his second season and trying to rescue a 5-13 start that opened with eight consecutive losses.

Detroit hasn’t won more than 39 games in any of the last four seasons and average attendance has steadily declined from the top spot in ’08-’09 to eighth to 18th to 28th and now to rock bottom.

“It’s not on the fans to come out. It’s on us to put together a product every night that fans can be proud of,” Frank said. “Detroit has always shown great support, not just for basketball, for all their sports teams when they’re competing at the highest level. You’re used to seeing a lot of fans out there, but we’re appreciative for the fans that do go. Obviously, we understand the economic crisis and what hit, and Detroit obviously was hit harder than most. But from the beginning, it’s going to be on us to put together something that the fans can be proud of and want to support.”

To Frank’s point, and further proof that tough economic times alone doesn’t kill attendance, the Detroit Tigers have averaged more than 30,000 fans in each of the last six seasons. Even the Lions, amid another last-place season, are averaging more than 63,000 through six home games, better than 98 percent capacity. Both clubs play in relatively new downtown venues and some debate if the Pistons would be better served leaving their suburban digs some 30 miles north of the city.

But that ignores the club’s attendance track record over much of the last decade and before that when the Pistons shared the Pontiac Silverdome with the Lions.

So how close are the Pistons to rising up again?

“I think it’s real close,” impressive third-year center and leading scorer Greg Monroe said. “We have to find a way to come out every night and just play hard and outwork teams. I think we’re very close to doing that, but it’s going to take games to get the actual body of work to say we are doing it consistently.”

It’s hopeless to still lament the Darko Milicic draft and the free-agent millions thrown at Villanueva and Ben Gordon. Monroe is surrounded by a roster that might not contend for a title, but is at least intriguing for its youth. Second-year guard Brandon Knight and rookies Kyle Singler and Andre Drummond join Monroe as possible long-term core pieces. Veterans Jason Maxiell, Corey Maggette, Rodney Stuckey, Prince and, yes, Villanueva, should help to at least make a push toward playoff contention in a mediocre Eastern Conference.

No progress was made on that front during the recent two-game road swing through Memphis and Dallas with two more double-digit losses (nine in 11 road games). It was a disappointing development coming after the season’s first flirtation with momentum, a modest two-game home win streak that gave Detroit four wins in six games.

They put on an offensive show for the few souls that came out, beating Portland, 108-101, and then drilled Phoenix 117-77. That beat down drew an announced crowd of 10,517, about 300 more than the previous night.

Even the league’s top draws haven’t delivered bigger crowds. The Celtics drew 12,214 and 12,784 came to see three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“It’s been tough,” Maxiell admitted. “The last couple years the crowd’s been trimming down. We’re trying to bring the crowds back with some big entertainment. The guys that were here a couple years ago know how it was when we were winning, and we’re trying to bring them back.”