The Timberwolves have had their share of splashy injuries, the kind that lead on Sportscenter and receive their own Twitter hashtags, injuries that date models and endorse Nikes. But the Wolves also boast injuries that are less gaudy and heavy-trending but that were nonetheless essential to last season’s disappointment and frustration. Because for much of the season, while the Wolves were desperate for perimeter players who could a) capably execute the corner offense and b) hit a three more than 30% of the time and c) be taller than 6’1″, they had just such a player sitting behind their bench in a slightly ill-fitting suit.
That player, of course, is the fair Chase Budinger. Like most things involving the Wolves this year, Budinger’s season was disfigured and disjointed. He was felled after six games by torn meniscus in his left knee; and when he finally returned, 59 games later, he looked like he was running with a ten-pound weight on his left ankle. He had no explosiveness, no lateral movement and no rhythm in his jumper.
Still, when he returned to the lineup in March, his effect on the team was palpable. Because the Wolves’ lineup was so depleted during the heart of the season, Rick Adelman radically simplified the offense, abandoning most of his corner sets, putting the ball in the hands of his guards and asking them to make plays. This was out of necessity–the Wolves just didn’t have enough talent to run sets with multiple options–but this distillation of the offense made it one-dimensional and awfully easy to defend. When Budinger rejoined the team, his ability to move without the ball, to hit midrange jumpers off of flare screens and to even marginally threaten the defense from beyond the arc significantly improved the Wolves’ spacing and offensive continuity. After all, if you want to run the pick and roll, its helpful if the defense is forced to do something beyond packing five players into the paint. It was no magic bullet–certainly nothing that balanced the loss of Kevin Love–but the Wolves’ offense was noticeably better when Budinger was on the floor (about two points per 100 possessions better according to 82games).
What’s more it underscored the importance of skilled, savvy role players to a team’s makeup. When those roles go unfilled, especially a role as essential to success in the contemporary NBA as outside shooting, a team’s offensive idea collapses in on itself. You get what you saw in the Wolves this year: a team forced to improvise and scrape just to keep its head above water.
This summer, the Wolves will be scouring the draft and the free-agent market for shooters. Despite his struggles last season, Budinger is still shoots 36% from distance for his career, will likely once again be able to dunk like this and is still tall. All that, plus he isn’t likely to command much more than $3 million per year. I’d advise them to look into it.
Correction: In an earlier version of this post, I said that Budinger was unlikely to command “much more than the veteran’s minimum.” The 2013/2014 minimum for a five-year vet will be just over $1,027,000. Clearly, in real world dollars, $3 million is quite a bit more than that. Certainly, the difference is enough to buy and sell you or me many times over. Still, my point remains: for a player with the potential to help the Wolves offense so much, in NBA money, $3 million a year is a solid bargain.