Last season, The Minnesota Timberwolves missed the Playoffs for the tenth year in a row. Subsequently, Kevin Love demanded to be traded, and was ultimately sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for two number one overall picks, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. With a lot of incoming young talent, and Flip Saunders succeeding Rick Adelman as head coach, this season’s Timberwolves are sure to look a lot different than last year’s.
Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-2015 Minnesota Timberwolves.
Five Guys Think
While it’s true that the Timberwolves were bad last year, and that they’ll probably be even worse this season without Kevin Love, it’s hard not to love what they got out of the summer’s highest-profile trade. Love was leaving no matter what, yet somehow Flip Saunders managed to get the last two years’ worth of #1 overall picks for him, including future superstar Andrew Wiggins. For his part, Wiggins really seems to be embracing his opportunity to lead a bad team and in fact appears to prefer it over playing a tertiary role behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Anthony Bennett had a strong Summer League and looks much trimmer, so there’s promise there, as well, and getting Thaddeus Young from Philadelphia as part of that three-way trade was a really nice bonus. Strong move for the Wolves, all things considered. It certainly brightens their future quite a bit.
5th Place – Northwest Division
The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t reached the playoffs since the 2004 campaign, a distant time ago when Kevin Garnett was once a perennial MVP candidate for the franchise. On paper, at first glance, another trip to the lottery seems more plausible than a spot in the playoffs after the loss of All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a summer deal. However the deal allowed Minnesota significantly retool on the fly securing the last two No. 1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. The team also acquired veteran forward Thaddeus Young who is a guy ready to contribute right away. So while the 2014-15 campaign is likely another without a playoff berth, make no mistake things are looking up in Minnesota.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
It is not everyday that a free agent that is certain to flee as a free agent fetches the players selected with the top overall picks in two consecutive drafts. For that, Flip Saunders deserves credit; he certainly made lemonade out of lemons. The proponents of the T-Wolves accepting a package in return for Love that was headlined by Andrew Wiggins—a group that includes me—mostly understood and believed that Wiggins has the potential to be a special player in the long-run. For the Cavs, the trade made sense simply because the franchise did not have time to sit back and wait for Wiggins to develop into a star. The T-Wolves do. And for those that were quick to label Anthony Bennet a bust after one poor season marked by injury and poor direction from a since-fired head coach, they may eat their words soon enough. In the end, whether the Canadian combination can lead the T-Wolves to a place Love never did—the playoffs—they will each need to prove to be special talents at the NBA level. For now, the T-Wolves are married to those two, but it is with a few of their other players where the questions appear. With almost $70 million due to the combination of Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin over the next four years, the T-Wolves would be wise to ship each of them out, bottom out, stockpile draft picks and allow Wiggins and Bennett to develop. What is more interesting to consider is whether the franchise should commit to Ricky Rubio as a franchise player. Thus far, Rubio’s NBA tenure has been marked by inconsistency and disappointment. He has not come close to fulfilling the lofty expectations that followed him to the NBA, but here and now, the T-Wolves must decide whether he will be a part of the future or not. After the Love trade, the T-Wolves are stuck in the middle. They are a team with about $70 million committed to their 2014-15 ledger, but one that appears to be set for a rebuild. There is a fork in the road that seems to diverge with Pekovic, Martin and Rubio. Saunders certainly has some important decisions to make. As for this coming season, if the best the Wovles could do with love over the course of his six-year career there was 153-323, there is no question that their 10-year playoff drought will hit 11.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Timberwolves did a terrific job getting significant long-term pieces back for disgruntled star Kevin Love, and their future looks bright as a result. Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first-round pick gives them building blocks going forward. Throw in Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III, all of whom are under 24 years old, and the Wolves have some players to get excited about going forward. The acquisitions of Thaddeus Young and Mo Williams, coupled with returning veterans like Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and J.J. Barea among others, also gives Minnesota some veteran pieces who can keep them competitive (and potentially end their playoff drought) while their young guys develop.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
If there’s one thing the Minnesota Timberwolves fan base is immune to getting excited about after a 10-year (and counting) playoff drought, it’s the dawn of a new era. But, this fresh start featuring Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young, who they acquired this August while ridding themselves of the disgruntled Kevin Love and a couple of other excess pieces, really does hold a lot of promise. They’re relying heavily on Wiggins becoming their next star, but there’s enough veteran talent in place to make it to where the expectations won’t be too daunting from day one. There’s immense pressure on him, but more long-term than short-term. As great as Love was individually, a very low bar has been set for this year’s Timberwolves team to clear. And, with the depth and athleticism they’ve added this offseason, they very well could flirt with being a .500 basketball team – something they only did once with Love.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Move over Kevin Love, and enter Nikola Pekovic. Standing 6’11, and weighing in at 285 pounds, Pekovic is one of the most physically imposing big men in the league. In addition to his size, Pekovic is a skilled offensive player with an especially effective right-handed hook shot. With Love heading to Cleveland, Pekovic will take a higher priority offensively and will be the sole big man in the lane with the undersized Thaddeus Young taking over for Love. Pekovic averaged 17.5 points per game last year, third behind only Love, and Kevin Martin. Martin may score more than Pekovic on any given night, but Pekovic will be Minnesota’s only major threat in the painted area this upcoming season and a focal point in the Timberwolves’s offense.
Top Defensive Player: One of the biggest issues the Timberwolves had last season was their inability to protect the rim. Pekovic and Kevin Love as a frontcourt tandem simply could not keep opponents from scoring near the basket. But with Pekovic missing significant time last season because of an Achilles injury, Gorgui Dieng had the opportunity to fill in and show what he could do on both ends of the court. Last season Dieng blocked 2.2 shot per 36 minutes and contested many more each night. Entering this season, Dieng is still the only real rim protector for the Timberwolves. Number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins has the potential to be a lockdown defender, and the team’s best defensive player moving forward, but Dieng’s defensive ability to protect the rim makes him Minnesota’s top defensive player for the time being.
Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio has been one of the flashiest passers in the world since he was a teenager playing in Spain, but Rubio is more substance than style. Last season Rubio averaged 8.6 assists per game, good for third best in the league in just 32.2 minutes per game. Bump Rubio’s minutes up to 36 per game, which is roughly in line with the amount of minutes played Ty Lawson and John Wall, and Rubio would have finished second in the league in assists per game behind only Chris Paul.
Top Clutch Player: First, it must be noted that the Timberwolves were awful last season in late game situations. The Timberwolves lost their first 11 games of the season in games decided by four points or less. This trend did not end until January 24 when Kevin Martin hit a game winning shot against the Golden State Warriors. This offseason, the Timberwolves signed point guard Mo Williams to backup Ricky Rubio. Williams, age 31, is an eleven year veteran and has hit game winning shots as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Utah Jazz. Mo Williams may not be Kobe Bryant in terms of clutch shooting, but he may be the best clutch shooter in Minnesota this upcoming season.
The Unheralded Player: Overshadowed by the additions of Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett is the addition of power forward Thaddeus Young. Young is not Love, and will fall well short of replacing Love’s nightly production, but Young is talented, young, and experienced. Last season, Young averaged 17.9 points, six rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.1 steals per game. Young isn’t a superstar, and doesn’t generate buzz the way Wiggins does, but he will be a big factor in whether or not the Timberwolves compete for a Playoff spot this upcoming season.
Best New Addition: Thaddeus Young will likely have the biggest impact of all the new players heading to Minnesota this season, but Wiggins is a potential franchise player that Timberwolves fans can base hope for the future on. Wiggins has been compared to a young LeBron James in the past, but is more likely to end up as an elite two-way wing player like Paul George, which is pretty darn good. If Wiggins can improve his game quickly like George did, he’ll be one the best players in the league in just a few years.
– Jesse Blancarte
Who We Like
1. Andrew Wiggins: As previously stated, Wiggins is a potential franchise player and gives Timberwolves fans a reason to hope for a better future. Wiggins will have plenty of off-nights in his rookie season, but that should be expected for any 19 year old rookie, no matter how good he may be. Best of all, Wiggins reportedly preferred to be in Minnesota over Cleveland, looking to embrace a leadership position, rather than just another piece.
2. Gorgui Dieng: Last season, on March 20, Dieng registered 22 points, 21 rebounds, and 4 assists and made 10-of-11 from the free throw line. Four days later, Dieng registered 15 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and one block. These are two of Dieng’s biggest games from last season, but are flashes of how good he can be moving forward. Also, as previously stated, Dieng is the only defensive anchor the Timberwolves currently have, and is insurance in case Pekovic struggles with injuries again.
3. Zach LaVine: Zach LaVine is arguably the most athletic player to come out of this year’s draft class, and yes, that includes the ultra-athletic Wiggins. LaVine has said that he wants to play both guard positions, and showed flashes of that at the Las Vegas Summer League. If LaVine can learn to effectively play the point guard position, we may be labeling him as the steal of this year’s draft in a few seasons.
4. Flip Saunders: After vetting candidates to take over for outgoing head coach Rick Adelman, team president Flip Saunders hired himself as the next head coach of the Timberwolves. Saunders hiring himself while names like George Karl and Lionel Hollins were available has been questioned, but guess who was coaching the Timberwolves the last time they were in the postseason over ten years ago? Flip Saunders. But even if you’re not on board with Saunders hiring himself as head coach, he still deserves credit for landing two number one overall picks in Wiggins and Bennett, and acquiring Young to replace Love.
5. Anthony Bennett: Anthony Bennett may have had a disappointing rookie season in Cleveland, but is still a significant talent that could bounce back this upcoming season. Entering his rookie season, Bennett was recovering from a shoulder injury and was out of shape. He has reportedly slimmed down this offseason, and underwent surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids to improve his sleep apnea. Bennett is now breathing better and looking to show that he was worth being selected number one overall in the 2013 NBA Draft.
– Jesse Blancarte
Youth and athleticism. This team is now built for the future with Rubio, Wiggins, LaVine, Bennett, Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad making up one of the most exciting young cores in the league. Youth is not a recipe for winning at the highest levels, but for now this team will at least be one of the most exciting in the league to watch. Even some of the older players are athletic enough to keep up with the young guys, including Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger and Thaddeus Young.
Winning close games. This team struggled to close out close games last season, and that was with Kevin Love on the roster. Veteran players like Kevin Martin and Mo Williams have hit big shots at times throughout their careers, but beyond those two there aren’t many proven clutch shooters on this roster. Execution in late game situations is key, but with so many young players on the roster, and Flip Saunders entering his first season back on the bench for Minnesota, closing out games will again be a struggle for the Timberwolves.
– Jesse Blancarte
The Salary Cap
The Timberwolves are hard-capped by virtue of their $3.75 million Mid-Level Exception deal with Mo Williams, but Minnesota is well below the luxury tax line. Barring a trade or buyout, the team is set with 15 guaranteed players. Camp invites Kyrylo Fesenko and Brady Heslip may have a difficult time sticking to the regular season. The Wolves picked up a $6.3 million traded player exception in the Kevin Love deal. Minnesota also has $1.6 million of their MLE left, but as noted – no roster space. Ricky Rubio is eligible for an extension before the season, otherwise he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer.
– Eric Pincus
Here is a very interesting thought exercise: Should Minnesota have been willing to make the Kevin Love trade even if all indications were that he wanted to stay and re-sign a long-term maximum contract? Back in March, I rated Love as the fourth-best player in the league, and at 26 I think he is a good bet to remain in that lofty strata for the next three years or so before declining due to age. Love would also require a new super maximum contract, and could really maximize his money by re-upping right as the 2016 TV contracts kick in, or when he becomes a 10-year veteran. In any event, he would likely be worth it, but his cap number would be one of the biggest in the league over the next five to seven years assuming he continues to play well.
Would Minnesota have been able to build a championship contender around Love? The rising cap would have provided increased flexibility for a team that was largely capped-out in the near term. And it is possible that development from Gorgui Dieng and a trade of Nikola Pekovic for some wing help might have enabled Minnesota to become a solid playoff team even in the loaded West. But it is very difficult to envision the Wolves’ 2013-14 core contending for a championship even with Love. Granted, solid playoff contention probably sounds like nirvana to tortured Wolves fans at this point, but if we look at it from the lens of winning a championship the odds were low indeed.
So the Wolves were not exactly throwing away a wonderful future with the Love trade. Whether it was a desirable transaction depends on what one thinks of Wiggins and Bennett. If one assumed that the Wolves would get the typical number one pick production from each of them, it’s obviously a great trade. But we can probably foreclose that possibility for Bennett at this point after his miserable rookie year, although I do not think he is a total lost cause. Wiggins on the other hand certainly has the potential to be a superstar. That said, even number one picks are unlikely to become top-five players in the league the way Love is right now. And I believe it is unlikely Wiggins reaches superstar status. Nonetheless, many and perhaps most disagree with me.
So it is a close case whether this would have been a good trade or not in a vacuum. For Minnesota to get this return with Love’s free agency gun to their head is remarkable, even if it was more the product of fortunate events in Cleveland than amazing management.
That said, the decision to obtain Young (a potential free agent in 2015) from the Sixers over taking Miami’s top-10 protected pick seems very shortsighted. Young will either leave for nothing or need to be overpaid next summer. Neither scenario is preferable to having a cost-controlled draft pick that is likely to fall in the late teens based on Miami’s performance this year. The upside is getting slightly closer to playoff contention this year, but very likely falling short.
This is a team with a lot of variability given how much they will be relying on young players. Many of them, like Wiggins and LaVine, are unlikely to be winning contributors in their first years. But there is a slight chance they might. In this best case scenario, the Wolves actually sneak into the playoffs as the bottom of the West playoff field takes a step back to more normal levels. Wiggins turns into a viable three and D player right away, and Young is a defensive upgrade on Love. Rubio, Wiggins, Brewer, Young, and Dieng form an ultraathletic unit that runs the ball down teams’ throats and effectively switches everything defensively. Young, Dieng, and Pekovic are a solid frontcourt rotation, and Saunders figures out how to play Dieng and Pekovic together effectively. Rubio takes a step forward, and Minnesota’s defense moves into the low teens while the offense avoids dropping into the 20s after Love’s departure. This team was one of the unluckiest in recent memory last year, with the point-differential of a 48-win team. They could drop off significantly and not see nearly the decline in record that might be expected from losing Love if they have better luck.
Love did much more for this team than anyone, even the stats-inclined, realized. The offense completely grinds to a halt without adequate spacing. Wiggins can’t hit from outside, Rubio continues to be one of the worst shooters in NBA history, none of the other young wings step up, Dieng and Pekovic together hurt the spacing even more, and the team finishes in the bottom-five offensively. Wiggins has a huge adjustment to NBA defense and doesn’t really help the team on that end, and it slips into the 20s as well.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Will Flip Saunders embrace the youth or play the veterans and fight for the playoffs?
The current thinking in the NBA is that if a team isn’t a contender, it should bottom out and keep building up through the draft. But Flip Saunders made it clear by acquiring Thaddeus Young that he wanted to compete for a Playoff spot next season, rather than bottoming out and adding more young talent through the draft like the Philadelphia 76ers. The Timberwolves now have a roster that is split between talented, but inexperienced players and solid veterans. Flip Saunders will have the task of playing his young players to get them experience, while trying to compete for the Playoffs. The question is whether he will sacrifice developing his younger players in favor of playing his veterans in an attempt at earning one of last Playoffs spots. In a loaded Western Conference, it makes more sense long-term for Saunders to give his younger players as much time and experience as they can handle and live with the results, even if that means an 11th season outside of the Playoffs.
– Jesse Blancarte
NBA PM: Frank Kaminsky’s Massive Opportunity
The potential frontcourt pairing of Frank Kaminsky and Dwight Howard should make for an exciting season in Charlotte.
With both highs and lows to account for, it’s been an incredibly eventful offseason for the Charlotte Hornets. From trading for Dwight Howard and drafting Malik Monk to the news that defensive stalwart Nicolas Batum would be out for the foreseeable future, the Hornets will start the 2017-18 season off looking considerably different. Still, it’s difficult to see Charlotte stepping into the conference’s upper echelon alongside the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, among others, without some major internal growth.
Down those lines, there may be no better candidate for a breakout season than Frank Kaminsky, the team’s modernly-molded stretch big man. Heading into his third NBA season, Kaminsky struggles at times but has generally affirmed why the Hornets passed on the Celtics’ huge offer and selected the former collegiate stud with the No. 9 overall pick back in 2015. Combined with the more defensive-steady force of Cody Zeller, the Hornets quickly found themselves with a solid, if not spectacular 1-2 punch at the center position.
Unsurprisingly, Kaminsky’s best nights statistically last season came when he hit multiple three-pointers. There were games like his 5-for-9 barrage from deep en route to 23-point, 13-rebound effort against the Sacramento Kings in late February, but his inconsistencies often got in the way just as much. In 2016-17 alone, Kaminsky tallied 41 games in which he converted on one or less of his three-point attempts — and the Hornets’ record? 13-28. Perhaps a tad coincidental for a franchise that finished at 36-46, but the Hornets ranked 11th in three-pointers with an even 10 per contest, so when Marvin Williams (1.6) Marco Belinelli (1.4), Kaminsky (1.5) and Batum (1.8) weren’t hitting, it was often lights out for an ultimately disappointing Charlotte side.
With his 33.1 percent career rate from deep, there’s certainly room to improve for Kaminsky, but his 116 made three-pointers still put him in a special group last season. Of all players at 7-foot or taller, only Brook Lopez made more three-pointers (134) than Kaminsky did — even ranking four ahead of Kristaps Porzingis, one of the league’s most talented unicorns. Once that category is expanded to include those at 6-foot-10 or taller, the list gets far more crowded ahead of Kaminsky, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
On that lengthier list of three-point shooting big men is Ryan Anderson, one of the strongest like-for-like comparisons that Kaminsky has today. Drafted in 2008, Anderson has been an elite three-point shooter for quite some time and his 204 makes last season ranked him ninth in the entire NBA. In fact, Anderson’s 2012-13 tally of 213 ranked only behind Stephen Curry; the year before that, his 166 total topped the rest of the field for a first-place finish. Coming out the University of California, Anderson was solid late first-round pickup by the New Jersey Nets and he knocked down one of his 2.9 attempts per game as a rookie.
Then, Anderson was traded to the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2009 and found out that true basketballing nirvana is playing on the same team as prime Dwight Howard. For three seasons, they were a near-perfect fit for each other as Howard averaged 13.9 rebounds and Anderson hit two three-pointers per game over that stretch. Howard deftly made up for Anderson’s defensive shortcomings while the latter stretched the floor effortlessly on the other end.
Although Howard is now considerably older, he’s never recorded a season with an average of 10 rebounds or less over his 13-year career. Howard’s impressive rebounding rate of 20.8 percent — the third-highest mark in NBA history behind Dennis Rodman (23.44) and Reggie Evans (21.87) — has made it easy for his partners to stay at the perimeter or bust out in transition. Other power forwards that have flourished next to Howard also include Rashard Lewis (2.8 three-pointers per game from 2007-09) and Chandler Parsons (1.8 in 2013-14), so there’s some precedent here as well.
Simply put, Howard still demands attention in the post, and Kaminsky is the Hornets’ best possible fit next to him. As Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Williams will likely slide up a position at times to help navigate Batum’s injury, throwing Kaminsky into the fire seems almost too logical.
An improved sophomore season for Kaminsky saw rises in every major statistical category outside of his percentages due to an increase in volume. However, that 32.8 percent mark from three-point range is considerably lower than the league average and it’ll need to improve for somebody that spends much of the offensive possession ready to fire away. Regardless, Kaminsky’s 11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in 2016-17 are a bright sign moving forward, but with Howard, he’s about to be gifted his best opportunity yet.
Whether he’s operating in transition, out of pick-and-pops or catch-and-shoots, Kaminsky has the tools to join the elite stretch forwards in the near future and stay there permanently. Kaminsky’s growing chemistry with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker has made the pair difficult to defend out on the perimeter. From the aforementioned pick-and-pops to a slightly more complicated dribble hand-off, trying to guard the two three-point shooting threats is enough to make your head spin. When he’s not firing from behind the arc, Kaminsky has also exhibited a soft touch and an ability to score among the trees as well.
As he continues to grow and expand his skill set, Kaminsky just needs to find some much-needed consistency as a shooter. If Kaminsky can raise his three-point percentage up closer to the league average this season, he’ll be an invaluable asset for the Hornets as they push for a playoff berth. Over his two full NBA seasons thus far, the Hornets have never had somebody like Howard to pair with Kaminsky and past results for those shooters playing with the future Hall of Famer are promising. Of course, head coach Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded leader — Charlotte’s defensive rating ranked 14th in 2016-17 at 106.1 — so Kaminsky will need to improve there to take full advantage of the available minutes. Fortunately, Howard’s savvy rim protection should make it a palatable experience on both sides of the ball.
When the Hornets rebuffed the Celtics’ massive draft day offer in order to select Kaminsky two years ago, it would’ve been impossible to predict Howard falling right into their lap as well. Between his expanding game and the new frontcourt combination, there’s potential here for Kaminsky to take the next big step in 2017-18.
If and when they do indeed pair him with Howard, the Hornets will be both maximizing his talents as a perimeter threat and minimizing his weaknesses as a defender. While Clifford leaned on Zeller in the past, Howard’s decorated history surrounded by court-stretching shooters should make the decision even easier. Kaminsky’s got all the workings of a modern offensive big man, the faith of the front office and the perfect paint-clogging partner — now it’s up to him to put it all together and become one of Charlotte’s most indispensable players.
Where Do the Celtics Go From Here?
The Boston Celtics face an uphill climb after the loss of Gordon Hayward, writes Shane Rhodes.
The Boston Celtics suffered a crushing blow Tuesday night after losing marquee free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward to a gruesome leg injury in the early goings of the season’s opening contest. Unfortunately for Boston, the NBA will continue to march on and Brad Stevens and his squad will have to adapt, adjust and learn on the fly. With 81 games still to play, all might not be lost for the Celtics, but where can the team go from here?
A lineup shuffle is almost certainly in the cards. Marcus Smart, projected to be Stevens’ first man off the bench, will likely slot into the starting lineup as the shooting guard next to Kyrie Irving, sliding Jaylen Brown to the small forward position. From there, a larger rotation and a minutes bump for other bench guys like Terry Rozier, Shane Larkin, Semi Ojeleye, etc., would make the most sense as Stevens attempts to ensure his key guys — Irving, Brown and Al Horford — have fresh legs down the stretch. Nineteen-year-old Jayson Tatum, who impressed in his debut with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, should also get an extended look, even after presumed starter Marcus Morris is back and healthy enough to play. Irving and Horford’s veteran presence in the locker room cannot be understated as well.
Brown, who should move into Hayward’s spot in the lineup, had already been pegged for a major role on the team this season. Now, the second-year wing will bear an even heavier burden and will seemingly have to produce all over the floor for the Celtics. Without Hayward, Brown now joins a defensive group of Smart, Horford and Morris that will have their work cut out. Brown will also be expected to produce more on the offensive end as well and do so efficiently. While he poured in 25 points last night, Brown did so on an inefficient 11 of 23 shooting while going just 2-of-9 from three-point range. Still rough around the edges as expected, Brown will need to quickly smooth out his game if Boston wants to remain competitive during the season.
Danny Ainge will certainly survey the remaining free agent and trade market as well. If a low-cost, low-risk opportunity were to present itself, don’t expect the thrifty general manager to just sit back. While low-cost and low-risk doesn’t fit Ainge’s usual MO, he knows better than to make a knee-jerk reaction to a freak injury like the one Hayward sustained; he isn’t going to break the bank and mortgage the future he painstakingly built over the past several seasons to bring Anthony Davis to Boston, but a grab at JaMychal Green or a similar player certainly isn’t out of the question.
The real key to the team’s success going forward will be the play of Irving. Formerly the 1A to Hayward’s 1B, Irving will now be the sole No. 1 option and will be relied on by Stevens and the rest of the team as such, which is what Irving has really wanted all along. The whole reason he wanted out of Cleveland, out of LeBron James’ massive shadow, was to show that he could be “the guy” and now Irving has a prime opportunity to prove that he can be. The Celtics from here on will go as he goes; if Irving falters, the team will as well. While the initial showings were positive — Irving posted a double-double of his own with 22 points and 10 assists — there is a lot of basketball left to be played.
All is not lost for Boston and the 2017 season can certainly be salvaged. While Hayward’s injury is devastating and certainly sucked the enjoyment out of what many expected to be a very exciting season, the Celtics are more than capable of weathering this storm and coming out stronger on the other side with Ainge and Stevens at the helm and Irving, Brown and others leading the team on the floor.
Changing Circumstance: On Utah’s Foundational Frontcourt
Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are ready for a big season as a duo, writes Ben Dowsett.
In many ways, the partnership that now forms the starting frontcourt in Utah is characterized by circumstance. The Jazz basically stumbled upon the duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert during a mostly lost 2014-15 season, allowing it to blossom after trading Enes Kanter at the deadline. Many in the organization loved Gobert, but few expected to force his way into such a large role as early as he did.
Even with the league beginning to move firmly in the direction of smaller, spaced-out lineups, the Jazz quickly realized they had something here. Favors and Gobert picked up chemistry in a hurry – the ability to “communicate telepathically,” as Favors jokingly puts it. They quickly formed a formidable defensive duo, nicknamed “The Wasatch Front” by certain clever folks in Jazzland. (Jazz fans: Rudy is fine with this nickname, but is open to better suggestions. Get those Twitter fingers typing.)
After the Kanter trade really opened things up for the pair to start games following the All-Star break, the Jazz posted a frighteningly low 92.5 per-100-possession defensive figure – over 10 full points better than their third-ranked defense in 2016-17, and nearly nine better than the league-best Spurs posted last year.
Over the next couple years, circumstance would strike in other ways. Both guys would miss significant time with injuries in 2015-16, including overlapping periods that made it tough to find rhythm. Gobert admitted he was never really himself after an MCL sprain he likely rushed back from just a bit. Even many casual fans could pick up on how physically limited Favors was last year, even when he was ostensibly healthy.
Another bit of circumstance arose last season: With Joe Johnson in town, the Jazz found their own versions of the league’s small trend. Lineups featuring Gobert at center and Johnson playing the power forward spot were easily Utah’s best for the season, quickly becoming coach Quin Snyder’s go-to look in crunch time. Even when Favors was in the lineup, he’d regularly lose big minutes.
Circumstance was once again present over the summer, with star Gordon Hayward and point guard George Hill departing. Where Favors may have once looked like a forgotten man, he’s back at full health for the first time in over a year and is right back in the picture as a foundational piece. Where Gobert may have been part of a two-headed monster hoping to challenge for contender status in the West, he’s now the singular face of a franchise that fully expects to avoid another rebuild.
Individually, it’s a big season ahead. As a duo, it might be even bigger – not only for the pair, but for the Jazz and even for the league as a whole.
Most of the concerns you hear regarding the Favors-Gobert duo come on the offensive side of the ball. There were some struggles in that first year together, where they posted an anemic on-court figure (they were still a net plus, but only because they also strangled opponents in those minutes). That’s also about how long it took for that almost supernatural connection to kick in, as Favors tells it – it was in full swing by the 2015-16 season.
“That whole type of thing normally comes with a point guard, because they’ve got the ball all the time and they see stuff,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. “We just see each other, just communicate telepathically.”
Favors describes the connection as one of the most unique of his career, and it was visible on both sides of the ball. The two developed an uncanny knack for covering each other at the rim. Offensively, they quickly picked up a big-to-big passing game that helped with some of their spacing concerns.
“I think we both learned that we need to space for each other, we need to be precise with our spacing,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “I got better at passing, I got better at finishing, he got better at passing too. I know that when I’m rolling, if his guy comes, he’s going to be open – so I dump it off to him or the corner.”
“These things don’t come just like that, but once we figure it out, it’s very hard to guard,” Gobert continued. “People see that as a weakness – I see it as a strength. When teams play small, there’s going to be small guy on either one of us.”
A smaller guy on Favors means a better passing lane for Gobert, or an opportunity to seal for deep post position. A smaller guy on Gobert – something teams used to do often but have moved away from more and more as he’s developed his rolling skills – invites high lobs and dunks, or compromising help from elsewhere in the defense.
Both guys have gotten much better with their angles, as well. That smaller defender is often trying to mitigate his size advantage by fronting or some other exploitable technique, and both Favors and Gobert have learned how to attack these strategies.
Gobert has taken huge strides in his ability to finish from both sides of the hoop, and through contact. He shot one of the highest percentages in the league among centers near the rim last year, at over 68 percent, and was up at a ludicrous 81.5 percent during the preseason.
Put it together, and it’s possible the duo’s offensive concerns have been a tad bit overstated in the past. The per-possession net rating the Jazz posted while Favors and Gobert played together in 2015-16 would have ranked seventh in the league for the full season, and it actually rose last year (the corresponding rank dropped, however, as the league improved overall). The Jazz’s slightly above average offense saw virtually no drop-off last year from when the duo played together to when they didn’t, and that’s before considering Favors’ health woes.
The savvy reader will note that their surroundings are an important part of this, and they’d be right. A big chunk of their minutes together last year came with Hill running the point and spacing the floor, and over 90 percent of them came with Hayward on the court – they did okay in a tiny sample last year, but historically have struggled to score at even league average rates without Utah’s former All-Star sharing the court.
Ricky Rubio’s acquisition will likely make them even more lethal defensively, but it also presents some additional theoretical concerns. Snyder appears likely to start each of Rubio, Favors and Gobert, meaning Utah will open the game with three non-threats from deep.
Rubio’s history, though, offers a glimpse of how they might get around these issues. With the exception of last season, when Karl-Anthony Towns’ development as a shooter and playmaker opened things up a bit more, Rubio never exactly played in spacing-charged lineups in Minnesota in the past. Look at the three-point percentages of his most common jump-shooting floor-mates from the 2015-16 season:
Andrew Wiggins (played during 95 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent
Karl-Anthony Towns (89 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 34.1 percent
Gorgui Dieng (54 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent
Zach LaVine (45 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 38.9 percent
Tayshaun Prince (39 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 17.4 percent
Shabazz Muhammad (18 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 28.9 percent
Only Towns and LaVine were passable three-point shooters among that group, and LaVine played well under half of Rubio’s minutes. Virtually every lineup Rubio played in contained at least two other total non-threats (often three), and not a single one ever contained a marksman like Jazzman Joe Ingles, who nearly led the league in three-point percentage last year. Things were like this for the vast majority of Rubio’s time in Minnesota.
And yet, his teams consistently have succeeded offensively.
Since he became the full-time starter, no Wolves offense helmed by Rubio finished lower than 11th in the league during a year he was healthy – in his only non-healthy year, 2014-15, they were 26th. His teams consistently got way worse offensively when he left the floor, and consistently strong offensive Real Plus-Minus ratings (17th among point guards in 2016-17, 12th in 15-16 and 14-15, 22nd in 13-14) indicate that this was more than just a case of bad backups.
“He’s been like that his whole career, and I think he’s been pretty good [despite] it,” Gobert said of his new teammate. “There’s a lot of ways to score. He’s very quick. Even if you’re backing up, he can still attack you and find the open man. I’m not really worried about spacing.”
Rubio also comes with a few strong points that should help improve areas the Jazz were lacking on in recent years, namely their transition game. Play type figures from Synergy Sports on NBA.com seem to indicate that the Jazz were elite on the break last year – they had the highest per-possession efficiency – but this is an example of where those numbers can lead you astray. The Jazz had one of the lowest frequencies of such plays in the league; their efficiency was only so high because they only attempted sure-thing shots while avoiding other transition chances like the plague.
That’s not an optimal approach offensively. Even some of those iffier transition chances still hold an expected point value that’s far higher than anything you’ll find in the halfcourt, and backing out of them for fear of an imperfect shot leaves easy points on the table.
Snyder recognizes it, and he’s looking to transition (pun maybe intended) the Jazz away from their state as one of the league’s slowest teams on the break. It starts with Rubio, long known for his ability to jitterbug up the court after defensive possessions and wreak havoc. Snyder is placing more emphasis on the ball in Rubio’s hands after misses – he wants his wings sprinting up the floor to space out to the corners whenever possible. Guys like Favors and Gobert play a big role as well.
“It’s important, especially the big that doesn’t get the rebound,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Snyder] put an emphasis on [that] this year – the big who didn’t get the rebound has to run, has to sprint and try to beat his guy up the floor.”
Favors is ready for more of that now that he’s back at full health. Gobert has always loved beating guys down the floor; look how far behind DeAndre Jordan he is when he’s pushed out of the frame, and how much faster he is getting up the court for an easy bucket.
Snyder has talked about upping the tempo in preseason before, notably in his first year in Utah, only to see it fall flat when the games count. It feels different this time, though: The Jazz finished eighth in per-possession fast break points for the preseason, per NBA.com, way up from a 29th-place finish last season. Rubio is easily the cleanest fit they’ve had at the point in this area, and it feels like we should expect a few extra freebies every night in transition to goose the offense.
The other area that should see a big spike, especially when the two behemoths play together, is offensive rebounding. The Jazz were a dominant team here in 2015-16, generating the third-most per-possession second chance points in the league largely on the back of the Favors-Gobert duo, which rebounded nearly 30 percent of the team’s own misses and put up over 10 second-chance points for every 36 minutes on the court.
Last year, though, things fell way off. Some of that was drop-off and health concerns from the tandem itself, and some was more stylistic.
“We’ve emphasized transition defense, and sometimes there’s an opportunity cost at the offensive glass,” Snyder said. “Sometimes when you’re spaced a certain way, it’s harder to get to the glass.
“A couple years ago our spacing was a little different – we just had guys around the rim all the time. We didn’t design our team that way or our offense that way in order to offensive rebound, we designed it that way because we had players that were effective around the rim and didn’t necessarily have three-point range. So when you look at Joe Johnson, offensive rebounding is not going to be as much of a premium for him. But Ekpe [Udoh], Derrick and Rudy, certainly.”
With Favors back healthy and starting, plus the addition of Udoh as mostly a big lineup four-man (at least in preseason), expect the Jazz to revert back to their bullying ways on the offensive glass. They lost nearly three second-chance points per night between the 15-16 season and the 16-17 one – if they can get those back or even add to them slightly, it’s another piece that can help fill in the gaps offensively. Utah was back to fourth in second-chance points for the preseason, another positive sign.
“If you’re a three and you’re playing at the four, and you’re guarding Derrick or myself, it’s not going to be a fun night for you,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders.
And if Favors and Gobert can maintain or even improve offensively together, watch out.
They’re fearsome defensively, and will only be more so if Favors’ improved mobility remains. Utah’s entire defensive scheme is built around them.
“My job really, not to give away a scouting report, but is to take guys off the three-point line and really just send them in there,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “They take pride in defending the basket, they take pride in defense.”
The Jazz are looking to take a few more risks defensively this year to up their steals, which Snyder hopes will feed into increased transition opportunities. Rubio’s presence as one of the league’s premier ballhawks helps, but having those rocks behind them makes this emphasis easier to follow.
“It gives you a lot more confidence – not even to gamble, I guess, but just to be more aggressive,” swingman Joe Ingles said. “I know that if I do get beat being aggressive, that they’re going to be there and they’re going to come over and help.”
How Snyder chooses to use his big duo is yet to be seen. If preseason is any indicator, their usage will resemble much of last season, particularly toward the end: Favors and Gobert both start the game, but outside those minutes and the ones to open the third quarter, they rarely play together once Favors exits. At this point, Favors is mostly relegated to backup center during the minutes Gobert sits while Gobert plays either in small lineups or alongside Udoh.
Can they do enough to force Snyder’s hand into more minutes? It’s tough to say. Gobert is one of the few bigs in the league who can keep an interior defense afloat completely by himself – there was virtually no drop-off to Utah’s field goal percentage allowed at the rim when Gobert played around a small lineup compared with when he played next to Favors last year.
A good chunk of that could have been Favors’ health, and the Jazz will hope it’s a big chunk; if Favors’ presence doesn’t actually swing the interior defense all that much compared to when the Jazz play small, it’ll be hard to really maximize his value. Even for all the offensive improvements they’ve made as a pair, the Favors-Gobert combination still can’t touch the kind of efficiency the Jazz put up with Johnson playing power forward next to Gobert. Why play Favors-Gobert at all if there isn’t a value to the trade-off?
A healthy Favors could make that last question sound silly, and he’s out to do that to plenty of folks. Derrick doesn’t have the same kind of outward bravado Gobert boasts, but he’s quietly fierce. He heard all the noise about his declining game over the last 18 months.
He’s also prideful, and it’s tough to sit on the bench during crunch time when you’re a player of his stature. For Favors, this was an intersection of personal frustration and collective acceptance.
“Of course I want to be out there, but at the same time you’ve got to do what’s best for the team,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. He also knew who was replacing him: “If it was anybody else you’d be mad – but it’s Joe Johnson, so it’s like, ‘Hey, Joe Johnson can close games, man.’”
It was a sacrifice for Favors, and not the first one he’s made to help foster optimal usage for a teammate. As a young player, he was one of the league’s up-and-coming talents as a roll man in pick-and-roll; he’s still great there, but Gobert’s emergence as one of the game’s most dangerous lob threats here has changed the way Favors is used.
He expanded his game, working to find ways to complement Gobert when the played together. His timing has grown leaps and bounds as the “dunker” in pick-and-roll action, waiting for a dump-off from Gobert. He’s developed a great chemistry with Gobert on the “short roll” for when teams blitz ball-handlers.
All this has essentially forced him to become more versatile.
“I know when I came into the league, my calling card was rolling to the rim,” Favors said to Basketball Insiders. “[Now] I can roll to the rim, I can pop, I can play in the half roll, I can space out. I think that’s something I wanted to show everybody I can do.”
With a contract year set to begin Wednesday night, it’s a vital time for Favors. Comments from agent Wallace Prather last spring indicated that a Hayward departure was likely the only realistic avenue to Favors remaining in Salt Lake City long term; with Hayward indeed gone, Favors now has to show Jazz brass he’s worth that investment.
Gobert isn’t going anywhere, and that means Favors’ stock could rise and fall depending on how the two fare together. If the combo can’t succeed, or if small lineups end up far more effective, it would be virtually impossible to justify Utah investing the amount Favors is worth into his future.
More than that, the Favors-Gobert combo could represent a last stand of sorts for these kinds of big lineups across the league. An optimized Favors, or a similar type, is virtually a must if you’re going to try big ball against the Golden States and Houstons of the world: A guy big enough to punish wings guarding him on one end, but stick with those guys laterally on the other.
Only the fully healthy version of Favors is capable of this in big minutes. Even then, it might be a struggle against the league’s best teams – every possession in these lineups is an uphill climb against the simple math that’s made small-ball so popular in the first place. Elite opponents will choke away space and demand that Favors and Gobert beat them while outside their comfort zone.
They’re out to prove they’re ready, though. A duo marked by unexpected circumstance ever since they first came together is now looking to write their own narrative, and they’ll start it off on Wednesday night.