Report: Wolves making a run at Dante Cunningham

These, my basketball-loving friends, are the dog days of the offseason. Only the Cavs-Celtics melodrama pivoting on Isaiah’s hip is saving us from radio silence on the NBA front; sure, plenty of teams have open roster spots, and there are veterans worth signing, but not many players are settling for the veterans’ minimum just yet.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, as I detailed a couple of weeks ago, are one of those teams with roster spots to fill, but until tonight, no concrete news had emerged of possible targets. And then Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a very interesting  (and familiar) name into the mix:

Cunningham, 30, spent the past three seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans, where he averaged 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds in 212 games, including 108 starts. At 6’8 and 230 pounds, Cunningham has carved out a career as a versatile, hardworking defender who stays in his offensive lane, which until two seasons ago was strictly midrange shooting. Over the past two campaigns, he’s become a pretty decent three-point shooter, knocking down 36% of his 355 attempts from beyond the arc. At the veteran’s minimum, he’d be a very valuable pickup, and would almost certainly demand consistent playing time off the bench.

That was the role he filled for two seasons with the Timberwolves, prior to his run in NOLA. He set career highs in points (8.7) and rebounds (5.1) per game in 2012-13, his first season with the team, then followed up by averaging 6.3 points and 4.1 boards on the 40-win team in 2013-14. But while some of us certainly remember his hustle plays, smooth midrange J and signature headband, it was the way his second season in Minnesota ended that garnered him notoriety.

On April 3, 2014, Dante Cunningham was arrested and charged with felony domestic assault after his girlfriend accused him of kicking down a door and striking her during an argument. A few days later, on April 6,the day after suiting up for a game in Orlando, Cunningham was arrested again, this time for “suspicion of making terroristic threats.” Despite being arrested twice in one week, he suited up for each of the Wolves’ final six games, hearing more than a few boo birds at home against the Spurs on April 8th. The Wolves’ disappointing season ended on April 16th, Cunningham’s contract expired, and he suddenly became an NBA pariah.

After four months of silence, news broke on August 18th – the charges against Cunningham were dropped, and he planned to file a civil lawsuit against the woman who accused him of assault. In October, Jon Krawczynski wrote an extensive story for the Associated Press with quotes from both Cunningham and his accuser. While blame for the physical injuries to the woman (who did not require medical attention) remained inconclusive, Krawczynski was able to get to the bottom of the second arrest – for “suspicion of making terroristic threats” – by obtaining a copy of the police report. From the story:

Cunningham missed one game while he was in jail, but the team and league did not suspend him in adherence to a collectively bargained policy of letting the legal process play out before deciding on a potential punishment.

Cunningham was arrested again three days later after Herron told police that he violated a protection order by calling her from his hotel room phone and sending her Skype messages, including one that allegedly read “ur dead mark my words dead.”

According to the police report obtained by the AP, phone records from Cunningham’s hotel room show that no outgoing calls were made the night he was there and surveillance cameras indicate he never left his room until police arrived to arrest him. An investigation of the IP address for the device that sent the threatening messages found that the messages were sent from a device inside Herron’s home, not Cunningham’s phone.

“Evidence does not show that Cunningham sent the messages and in fact, it appears Herron sent the messages to herself in an attempt to frame Cunningham,” Medina Police Officer Charmane Domino wrote.

Police filings also show they had an audio recording of Herron speaking to a friend of Cunningham’s in which she says she knew Cunningham had kicked in the door a week earlier. The felony domestic assault charge was dropped in August and authorities never charged Cunningham in the second incident.

If you’ve been listening to the voices of the many outstanding women who cover sports, especially since the conversation surrounding domestic violence came to the forefront in the summer of 2014, you’ve probably (hopefully) learned one important lesson: believe women. That does not mean they’re infallible, of course; it means, “take accusations seriously.” The charges against Dante Cunningham were dropped – but the legal system’s handling of these issues is far from ideal, so that fact alone does not wash the whole thing away. Cunningham’s arrest came two short months after video surfaced of Ray Rice beating his fiancé in a casino elevator; that summer was a tumultuous one in the world of sports and public relations. Cunningham became a pariah who went unsigned until a month and a half of the 2014 season had gone by.

Prior to the arrest, I know that I, personally, considered him to be one of my favorite Wolves, a role player who always seemed to be in the right spot and made the most of his talent on the floor. I’m a total sucker for guys like that. Afterward… well. I don’t know what happened that night. None of us, here on the outside, ever will. I take the smallest of comforts knowing that the accusations were taken seriously by the legal system. If Cunningham was actually “framed by a vindictive ex,” as some have bluntly stated, that’s awful. If he struck her, that’s obviously much, much worse. If both of those things happened – a physical altercation, and then an attempt at framing to exacerbate things – then it’s an ethical quandary I’d have a hard time unpacking neatly. And maybe that’s the scenario that rings closest to the truth.

The long and the short of it: I know I’d like to have him back on the team, in a strict basketball sense, because as I stated in the third paragraph, he’d be an absolute steal at the veteran’s minimum. The Wolves need another wing who can defend and hit threes. I also know if he does end up back in Minnesota, I’d be pretty uninterested in the “redemption” narrative we’d surely get. I’d feel a little weird about it the whole time. Which is okay, I think. I doubt I’d be alone in my excited apprehension.

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  1. Dante Cunningham would be a very good pick up for one of three remaining spots on the team. He has proven he can play the 3 and 4 spot (which I think Belly will also get more time playing the wing spot this year). He is a good defender and has shown the ability to hit the corner three. To keep him happy, Thibs will need to change his game plan of sticking to his starters and only going a couple deep. As the year goes by and KAT seems more adept at playing tough low post defense, Dante would be a good replacement for Gibson or as a long defender against guys like KD, LBJ and Paul George. It would be a good pick up and a bench player that gives good minutes each night.

    A second unit of Jones, Crawford, Belly, Dante and G would be a pretty good group. If they can get a vet PG insurance policy, Thibs will be set for the start of training camp.

  2. When all of this first happened, I was kind of done with Cunningham as a player because he was mostly just good at team defense, couldn’t physically handle PFs when posting up, was too weak of a jump shooter for that to be a valuable offensive contribution, and could only guard one position. When the allegations occurred, my thoughts were basically, “goodbye and good riddance.” The way the Wolves helped him and the aftermath of the situation, which included multiple reporters saying “there’s more here than it seems on the surface,” at least offered the possibility that his character was being unfairly maligned. And I understood enough about the technology to know that sending Skype messages or iMessages could be done in a manipulative way.

    The rest, though, is unknown. The Wolves rostered a useless big last season in Jordan Hill who pleaded no contest to assaulting his girlfriend, and it’s not like the dude was being heckled on the bench. His past was barely discussed when he was signed; DC’s is being discussed partially because of local awareness of the situation. DC does seem to fit with this group better than he did with that one on the court. Off it, a fan of any team with him will have to deal with the conflicted complexity of an unknown situation and how harshly to judge him.