We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2013-14 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.
Who is Chase Budinger? And is it more troubling if we don’t know the answer to that question, or if we do? We are talking, after all, about a player who was brought over from Houston as a key piece of the puzzle to fix the Wolves’ offensive woes, a guy who was supposed to be a seasoned vet of former head coach Rick Adelman’s system. And yet in two seasons on the Wolves, Budinger has played in only 64 games and for just 1,259 minutes. By contrast, Terrence Jones — who was selected by Houston with the 18th pick acquired from Minnesota for Budinger — has played 2,354 minutes in that same stretch. J.J. Barea played 1,471 minutes this season alone. So have we seen enough to know? Or is the fact that we’ve seen so little the more telling thing?
Prior to the knee issues that have dogged him over the last two years, Budinger was seen as a 3-point specialist who could defend reasonably well with his length if not his foot speed and also finish at the rim. (Let us not forget that he dunked over Diddy in an homage to Woody Harrelson’s character Billy Hoyle from White Men Can’t Jump way before Woody got cool again because of True Detective.) But was he ever going to be as much of a difference maker as many Wolves’ fans have hoped he would be, once healthy? His true shooting percentage in Houston was .543 — decent. His offensive rating was 110 and his defensive rating was 109, for a net rating of … (math) … one. Which is decent, I suppose, if you’re not talking about a gamechanger.
But of course, when a team is close to good — as the Wolves definitively were by most metrics (10th in offensive rating, 15th in defensive rating, 13th in net rating, 10th in point differential) — it’s hard not to look toward small shifts that could have an outsize effect on results. How much would Budinger shooting 44.2% from three (as he did his last year in Houston) rather than 39.4% change the complexion of a bench unit that struggled to generate offense? Or if he could do that, how much would shifting Corey Brewer to a sixth man role off the bench help the energy of the defense in that second unit? Could the Wolves have one just half those games decided by five points or fewer with some of these comparatively small but deceptively significant shifts?
Answering those questions in the affirmative is what leads a team to sign Budinger for $15 million for three years even with significant questions about his health. It’s not the worst deal in the world, but it’s also not a steal, even if Budinger produces at the kind of level he was expected to when he came to the Wolves.
The most likely answer to the question of Budinger is that he was probably slightly overrated when he came to the Wolves, with Minnesota expecting improvement over what were entirely reasonable numbers for a solid shooter and bench scorer. With time and injury, though, his ceiling has likely dropped while expectations have hardly budged, and may even have increased.
So the best case scenario for Budinger is that his knees are good enough to carry him through next season with confidence, leading to his shooting stroke rounding into form. (For what it’s worth, his 3-point shooting climbed a notch to 38.7% in the last ten games of the season and 46.7% in the last five.) As that player, he could become an essential piece of a bench that needs consistent offensive production. But if his knees are simply too far gone to allow him to come back, he may find himself giving up time to the likes of Shabazz Muhammad or a draft pick. The problem for now is there’s no way to know which player he’ll be. Call it Budinger’s cat.