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First Quarter Grades: Southwest Division

Dennis Chambers breaks down the Southwest Division team-by-team.

Dennis Chambers

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Moving right along in the division breakdowns here at Basketball Insiders, next up on the slate is the Southwest Division.

Check out our installments for the Central, Pacific, and Atlantic divisions as well.

Dallas Mavericks 7-18

Long gone are the days when Dirk Nowitzki could put the Dallas Mavericks on his back and carry them through the gauntlet of the Western Conference. Now, the Mavs are a team more focused on lottery position than playoff position.

Bright Spot: While it’s mostly been a struggle for Dallas so far this season, there are some positives to the product they’ve put out on the floor this season, as well as some positives for their futures. First, at quick glance, their defense is fairly decent. The Mavericks allow 103.5 points per game, good for ninth in the league, and their defensive rating ranks at 14th with a 107.3 clip.

Along with their defense, young guys Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. are showing that they can be serious contributors to the next phase of competitive basketball in Dallas. Barnes is showing that when he’s not on a team with the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, he’s more than capable of shouldering the load offensively. Smith Jr., just 19 years old, is showing flashes that warrant his top 10 draft selection.

Areas to Improve: Moving forward, however, the Mavericks have a lot to improve on. Most importantly, efficiency. Dallas doesn’t rank in the top half of the league in any category that pertains to shooting percentage. Players in Dallas have no trouble chucking up shots, as the Mavs are top 10 in attempts from the field and from beyond the arc. However, they have more than their fair share of trouble getting those shots to fall.

Some of that could be personnel; the Mavs aren’t exactly flooded with talent, but Dallas needs to work on getting the ball actually in the hoop for the rest of the season if they even want to be somewhat competitive.

First Quarter Grade: D+

Memphis Grizzlies 8-16

After seven straight seasons of postseason play, it finally looks like the Memphis Grizzlies are going to miss the cut.

Over the offseason, the Grizzlies lost some Tennessee household names in Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Mike Conley is injured at the moment, and there isn’t any eye-popping talent on the roster outside of Marc Gasol.

Bright Spot: While the team has a whole started off the season with what could be considered a below-average performance, Memphis is currently the recipient of a Tyreke Evans resurgence, and that is definitely something to be excited about. Evans is enjoying the best season of his career since his rookie campaign. Averaging 17.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, and four assists per game, Evans is also producing a career-high effective field percentage with a 54.6 clip.

Areas to Improve: After Evans, the good news stops about there for the Grizzlies. Their poor effort across the board, culminating with one of the league’s worst offenses and the slowest pace, led to David Fizdale losing his job after just 19 games this season.

Moving forward, the Grizzlies’ biggest problem may be reshaping their identity completely. The rock fight style of play may not fly in this league anymore, especially if a team doesn’t have the pieces in place to pull off that kind of play.

Barring a magical turnaround upon Conley’s return, it’s going to be the first long season in quite some time for the Memphis Grizzlies.

First Quarter Grade: D

New Orleans Pelicans 13-12

Down in the Big Easy, the New Orleans Pelicans are doing their best to make a modern-day twin towers system work. Through the first quarter of play this season, it’s got them in the playoff picture.

Bright Spot: DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are tearing it up for the Pelicans. Each averaging a hefty double-double, Cousins (25.9 points, 12.6 rebounds) and Davis (25.2 points and 11 rebounds) have been absolute terrors for opposing frontcourts.

Along with the big men duo, Jrue Holiday is churning out a decent season as well for New Orleans. Cousins, Anthony, Holiday, and a few solid role players look like they could be enough to hang around all season in the playoff race. New Orleans currently has the league’s sixth highest scoring offense. The West is no joke, but through the first leg of the year (and their first full season together), the big man experiment looks to be doing its job at first glance.

Areas to Improve: What the Pelicans do need to focus on, and this will be fairly difficult given their current personnel, is spacing the floor with shooters to surround their paint-clogging behemoths down low. New Orleans ranks 18th in the league at 36.2 percent from downtown. It’s not a terrible clip, but when an offense runs through post players their best complement is shooting.

As the trade deadline nears, if the Pelicans are in serious playoff contention, maybe adding another shooter is in the realm of possibility. But in order to unlock the team’s full potential, they’ll need to start knocking down some more shots on the outside. Cousins’ and Davis’ attention in the paint will surely provide their teammates on the perimeter with more than a few open looks.

Whatever the case may be, New Orleans is winning games, and they have star power. Usually, that’s a recipe for playoff success. Time will tell if the Pelicans can put it together for an entire season.

First Quarter Grade: B

San Antonio Spurs 17-8

Leave it to Gregg Popovich to have the San Antonio Spurs as one of the elite teams in the West… without Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard hasn’t played a minute yet this season and still, the Spurs are their same old selves. Who’s surprised?

Bright Spot: The resurgence of LaMarcus Aldridge has allowed San Antonio to not miss a beat without their star player, making the concept of Leonard’s return that much more frightening for Western Conference opponents. Even more frightening? The Spurs are allowing the second fewest points and have the fourth best defensive rating in all of basketball, all without a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in their lineup.

San Antonio’s defense has been absolutely stifling this season, and once Leonard returns it’s only going to get better.

Areas to Improve: While the defense is more than impressive, the offense is feeling the loss of Leonard more than anything. Outside of Aldridge, just Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay are averaging double-figures in scoring. And they’re both barely breaking the threshold.

Although the lack of diversified scoring hasn’t killed the Spurs so far this season, it would be reasonable to suspect that eventually not having someone else besides Aldridge to go to would be problematic, especially come playoff time given the teams San Antonio could potentially be playing.

No worries for the Spurs, though. Leonard is on his way back, making this already elite team that much better.

Just another day at the office for Popovich.

First Quarter Grade: A

Houston Rockets 18-4

Maybe the most impressive all-around team effort this season outside of the Boston Celtics is the Houston Rockets.

While keeping their same incredibly impressive offensive prowess from a year ago, the Rockets have improved their defensive rating by nearly six points from last season during the first leg of this campaign.

Bright Spot: A team that already boasts MVP candidate James Harden and arguably the best point guard over the last decade in Chris Paul focused on their one weakness — and completely turned it around, on a Mike D’Antoni-coached team nonetheless.

Harden and Paul’s efforts are expected. The two alpha-dog players are responsible for nearly 20 assists per night between themselves. Harden continues his ascent as one of, if not the best, scorers in the NBA, and Paul is doing just fine adjusting to playing alongside another ball-dominant guard.

With a retooled defense, the Rockets could be legitimate threats to Golden State’s throne.

Areas to Improve: But with all of the chucking that goes on inside a Rockets offense, chances for rebounds — and capitalizing on those chances — are incredibly crucial. Outside of Clint Capela, no other Houston Rocket averages more than six rebounds per game. As a team, they rank 25th in total boards.

Getting into a shootout with the Warriors seems like the most likely outcome for the Rockets, should both teams advance to the conference finals this season. And if that’s the case, seeing as how no player shoots 100 percent from the field, grabbing those missed shots could be a deciding factor.

If the Rockets want to become more than just a threat, they need to tighten up their effort on the boards.

First Quarter Grade: A+

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA Daily: The NBA Ten Years Ago

With the 2018-2019 season on the horizon, Basketball Insiders’ Matt John takes a trip down memory lane to look at where the league was ten years prior.

Matt John

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It’s time to take a trip down memory lane – all the way back to 2009.

It was a different time then. The country’s first black president was inaugurated, Swine Flu was petrifying the nation and Justin Bieber was an innocent teenager just trying to make a name for himself. It was a time to be alive, particularly for NBA junkies.

There were some interesting storylines going on in the NBA, like the somewhat growing concern of ballplayers preferring to play overseas after Josh Childress went to Greece. Or the Seattle Supersonics switching cities to become the Oklahoma City Thunder under certain circumstances. However, the 2008-2009 season overall served as a transitional year for the players.

Some of the NBA’s youngest stars such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success, as individuals and in the team setting. They were becoming the present face of the league while established veterans – such as Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter – were becoming the past. Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade had already shown themselves as two of the bright young stars in the league, and Kevin Durant was right around the corner. The 2008-2009 season was when the new generation of young NBA stars started making its mark.

Having said that, looking back at today, what should the 2008-2009 season be remembered the most for? Well, several things.

The NBA Champion

As you probably remember, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 15th NBA title in 2009.
The LakeShow deserved it. Detractors will make excuses – which I’ll get to – but the Lakers were a well-crafted team that was difficult for every team in the league to stop. Ten years later, only one question remains about them: Would they have worked as well in today’s NBA?

There’d be little reason for them not to. They had a top-10 NBA talent of all-time still at the top of his game in Kobe Bryant. However, while Kobe may have been their best player, the dirty little secret about the 08-09 Lakers was that their frontcourt was what made them tough to stop. They had one of the best offensive centers in the league in Pau Gasol, one of the NBA’s most versatile players ever in Lamar Odom and a promising young big in Andrew Bynum. The one commonality between these three: None of them were floor spacers.

Back then, stretching the floor wasn’t as much of a necessity as it is now. Also, teams didn’t value small ball nearly as much as they do now. Could that Lakers frontcourt have broken the trend, or would the league’s shooting evolution have limited their effectiveness? We’ll honestly never know, but it’s something worth pondering.

If X Team(s) Had Just Been Healthy…

Every season has that one team that many wonder what would have been had a certain player not gotten hurt. In 2009, the obvious injury to turn to was Kevin Garnett’s. The Celtics that year looked as good as ever until Garnett went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Boston did well without him, but Garnett’s injury left fans with unfulfilled desires. Perhaps the Celtics could have won it all had Garnett been available, but his injury was on them. Reportedly, the organization knew Garnett had bone spurs in his knee before the season started and played him hoping he’d be fine. Had they been more cautious, maybe they’d have 18 banners right now. This shows that when you’re a contender, you should take proper precautions for when the real games begin.

Besides, the Celtics weren’t the ones victimized the most by injuries. The ones that came the closest to beating the Lakers were, and that team was the Houston Rockets.

Many forget that the Rockets were expected to be title contenders leading up to that season. They had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming leading the way, but after they stole the player formerly known as Ron Artest from the Kings, expectations were sky high in H-Town.

It didn’t take long for things to go south. McGrady’s knee was so troublesome that it knocked him out by mid-season. Hope was not lost, though. The Rockets managed to snag the fifth seed in the Western Conference without T-Mac and even advanced to the second round.

After splitting the first two games with the Lakers, Yao’s broken foot in Game Three of the conference semi-finals put the final nail in the coffin. The Rockets still fought until there was no fight left in them, as the Lakers eliminated them in seven games. The Rockets pushed the eventual NBA champs to the brink despite losing both T-Mac and Yao. If there’s one team that was robbed of their potential that doesn’t get enough credit, it’s the 2008-2009 Rockets.

The Deal That Could Have Changed So Much

If you thought the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers could have altered the entire landscape of the NBA, wait until you hear about this nixed trade that happened in 2009. On Feb. 18, New Orleans agreed to trade Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox. Basically, the then-Hornets were dumping Chandler to the Thunder. That was until Chandler’s “turf toe” raised enough red flags to convince OKC to rescind the trade.

After all that’s happened since then, it’s amazing wondering what could have been. The Thunder were one of the league’s worst teams when they traded for Chandler, so who knows what they would have done with him that season. His presence could have impacted whether they got James Harden in the draft that year. Serge Ibaka came over the following season, so imagine what he and Chandler would have looked like together. Trading for Chandler would have meant that he wouldn’t make it to Dallas, which probably meant no title for the Mavericks in 2011. It also would have meant the Thunder trading Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins would be nixed, too.

So much could have been different had OKC rolled the dice with Chandler. Maybe they wouldn’t have lost Durant. Maybe they would’ve formed a dynasty. Maybe LeBron nor the Warriors wouldn’t have won any titles this decade. All of that could have come from one rescinded trade. It’s understandable that the Thunder didn’t want to take the risk with Chandler’s toe, but at times like those, the potential outweighs the risk.

Pull The Plug! Or Don’t!

One of the seasons more prominent storylines was the fall of the Detroit Pistons. After being among the Eastern Conference’s powerhouses for several years, Detroit’s downfall came when they agreed to swap Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson.

While the Denver Nuggets reaped all the benefits from this deal, Detroit crumbled from one of the top seeds to the eighth seed in the conference. In hindsight, the Pistons underestimated how much Billups had left in the tank and overestimated how good their opponents were. When you consider that the Orlando Magic was the reigning Eastern Conference Champion at the time – and the Pistons beat the Magic the previous year in a five-game playoff series – maybe the Pistons would have had a chance.

When you have a window of opportunity, even if the outlook isn’t great, you take advantage of it until you can’t anymore. The Pistons instead folded early and have never recovered since. This trade would have been forgivable had the Pistons used the cap space they got from Iverson’s expiring deal wisely.

Instead, they used it on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva the following summer. Woof.

“Success Is Fleeting”

It was mentioned earlier that Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success both for themselves and for their teams. Both played in the ideal situations for them.

Howard played for a team that had reliable shooters who spread the floor along with smart playmakers who could run the pick and roll with him. Howard may have been a shot-blocking terror, but he also benefited from having agile defenders on the wing. Howard’s dominating presence down low made it difficult for defenses to figure out who to cover, which helped the Magic power their way to the NBA Finals.

Anthony played for a team that had an MVP candidate for a starting point guard in Chauncey Billups. “Mr. Big Shot” knew exactly where to find Anthony which greatly helped ‘Melo’s efficiency as a scorer. Carmelo also played for a team whose frontcourt finally got past its injury issues. With everything going Denver’s way, they had one of their most successful playoff runs in years, pushing the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals.

When the Magic and the Nuggets went on their playoff runs in 2009, Anthony was only 25 while Howard was 23. Making it that far into the playoffs is terrific when you’re that young, but little did they know, that was far as they would get in their primes.

Looking at where they are at now, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard will more likely than not be Hall-of-Famers, but they’ll be remembered for being two superstar talents who could have done so much more in their careers had their hubris not gotten in the way. As their careers unfolded, both infamously burned bridges because things had to be done their way, which in turn, hurt their opportunities for success.

One can’t help but wonder if the success they had in 2009 played a role in their egos. Whether it did or not, young players coming into the league need to know that maintaining success in the NBA is not a given no matter how good you are. You never know when the glory days will be taken away from you.

The 2008-2009 season was remembered for many other things as well. LeBron had finally taken the reins as the league’s indisputable best player, a label he still has yet to relinquish, as he went on to win his first MVP award. It was also the one and only year we got the closest resemblance to a full season from the injury-plagued Greg Oden. Hilariously, it was also the year when we realized that maybe fans had a little too much power in all-star voting, as Iverson and McGrady were voted in as starters purely on reputation.

There are many other reasons to remember the 2008-2009 season. Ten years from now, what will the 2018-2019 season be remembered for?

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NBA Daily: Six Breakout Players To Watch – Central Division

With LeBron James in Los Angeles, the Central Division will be looking for a few players to break out and make a name for themselves in 2018-19 — here are Ben Nadeau’s top six candidates.

Ben Nadeau

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While the Central Division likely won’t feature any of the Eastern Conference’s biggest powerhouses, there are plenty of franchises here with postseason aspirations. In order for those teams to rebuild or reach new heights, they’ll need a cast of different characters to ascend into bigger, more important roles. Out in Indiana and Milwaukee, two darkhorse contenders, it’ll take more than just Tyreke Evans and Brook Lopez in order to challenge the likes of Gordon Hayward and Joel Embiid — but who fits the bill?

For Detroit and Chicago, the pressure will be on to avoid a lottery-bound fate once more by leaning on two up-and-comers — no matter the massive difference in their contracts. But Cleveland will undoubtedly have the toughest task of all: Replacing LeBron James. With each franchise staring down a difficult benchmark, breakouts must come in all shapes and sizes, by veterans, new arrivals and budding stars alike — so what will this season bring?

Whether through an opening in the rotation or an offseason acquisition, these are six of the Central Division’s strongest candidates to leave a lasting mark in 2018-19.

Bobby Portis — Chicago Bulls

The Bulls’ fourth-year man is a solid, if not unspectacular, contributor whenever he gets regular playtime. Last year, Portis suffered an immediate setback following his preseason scuffle with former teammate Nikola Mirotic, but he bounced back stronger than ever. The forward made good on his uptick in minutes and nearly posted career numbers across the board thanks to his relentless motor and desire to compete. Averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists on 47.1 percent from the floor, Portis frequently excelled as a change of pace rebounder off the bench.

This season, he’ll have an even bigger opportunity to shine. With Lauri Markkanen sidelined until November at the earliest, it looks like Portis will earn significant minutes and maybe even a legitimate shot at the starting power forward position. In his first start of the preseason on Wednesday, Portis dropped 20 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in just 21 minutes. If he comes off the bench, Portis could become an underrated Sixth Man of the Year candidate. But even if he just starts until Markannen’s return, he’ll be well on his way toward earning a lucrative offer sheet in restricted free agency next summer.*

*Portis is eligible to sign an extension until Oct. 15

Zach LaVine — Chicago Bulls

For a hot minute, it looked like Zach LaVine might end up in Sacramento during his own trip to the restricted free agency pool this summer. Ultimately, he’s staying in Chicago to the tune of $78 million over the next four years — which, officially, will put the pressure of an entire franchise squarely on his shoulders. Naturally, the high-flyer will not be alone, joined once again by Kris Dunn, the aforementioned Portis and Markkanan, plus newcomers Jabari Parker and Wendell Carter Jr., but LaVine will deservedly receive grander-than-ever expectations.

He struggled after returning from his torn ACL in January — but before he got injured, LaVine was on the cusp of a breakout with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Through 47 games in 2016-17, LaVine was averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 45.9 percent from the floor. With all that in the rearview mirror — the injury, the trade, the contract — LaVine will have a clear path forward for the first time in years. Certainly, LaVine’s defense still needs work, but given the Bulls’ presumed fate outside of the postseason and their unproven collection of talents, there’s a stellar chance that the hyper-athletic scorer will make his big leap now that he’s back at full health.

Pat Connaughton — Milwaukee Bucks

By far, Pat Connaughton has the least spectacular case on this page — but when the opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to ignore the call.

Connaughton played in all 82 games last season and averaged 5.4 points, two rebounds and 1.1 assists on 42.3 percent from the field — all career-bests. Of course, those 18.1 minutes per game came behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, one of the league’s best backcourt duos. After the Trail Blazers did not extend his qualifying offer, Connaughton was free to explore other destinations, eventually signing with the Bucks for two years and $3.4 million. For the Bucks, he’ll likely join rookie Donte DiVincenzo as the backup guards, looking to space the floor at the perimeter and set up his teammates.

Of note, Connaughton played 20-plus minutes in 37 contests and exceeded his points per game total in 25 of them. It’s a somewhat basic lens through which to examine Connaughton’s impact, but when he gets the minutes, he typically rises to the occasion. Connaughton has some serious bounce and playmaking skills that should fit seamlessly with Milwaukee’s long, athletic rotation immediately. The fourth-year professional even has some experience at small forward as well — so if he can facilitate for others, hit some open three-pointers and scrappily defend, this will be Connaughton’s best season yet.

Luke Kennard — Detroit Pistons

After an up-and-down rookie season, there are lofty expectations brewing for Luke Kennard as he heads into his follow-up campaign. At first, there was some disappointment that the sweet-shooting lefty was picked ahead of Donovan Mitchell, but as the season went on, the Detroit faithful grew fond of the former Blue Devil’s nuanced play style. Over the final 19 contests of the year, Kennard averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, even reaching the multi-three-pointer mark in seven of those games. Assuming that his role grows under the tutelage of Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, Kennard could be a standout sophomore in 2018-19.

Even craftier, the Pistons had planned to use Kennard at point guard during summer league, but a strained knee tempered those expectations for now. Kennard can play three positions, flexible enough to compete on both offense and defense already. His potential from three-point range is not without merit either, as Kennard averaged 19.5 points on 43.8 percent from deep during his final season in college, marking him as one of Division-I’s most elite shooters. At 6-foot-5 and just 22 years old, it looks like we’re just scratching the surface on Kennard’s budding future.

Doug McDermott — Indiana Pacers

Perhaps the most interesting case on the list is that of Doug McDermott.

Dangerously close to joining the rank of journeyman, McDermott landed a three-year deal worth $22 million in July — a contract that left many onlookers initially puzzled. But now that he’s there and entrenched in the Pacers’ preseason rotation, it’s clear what type of impact he might bring off the bench. Although Indiana will be McDermott’s fifth team since he was drafted in 2014, he’s excelled as an above average three-point shooter thus far. Sporting a career tally of 1.1 three-pointers per game on 40.3 percent, he could fill a serious void for the Pacers if they let him loose.

Between New York and Dallas last season, McDermott had 26 multi-three-pointer outings, including a blistering 5-for-7 effort against the Clippers in November. Admittedly, he’s not really a consistent contributor anywhere else, but the recent long-range renaissance means that there will always be room in the NBA for a sharpshooter like McDermott. Most importantly, then, is Indiana’s desperate need for not just bench three-point marksmanship, but shooting in general. In 2017-18, the Pacers only made nine three-pointers per game (their bench contributed a woeful total of 2.4), which left them tied for the fifth-worst mark in the entire league.

Even if McDermott doesn’t see a major uptick in volume, he’ll join the Pacers as their fourth-best three-point shooter at the very worst, only trailing Darren Collison (1.4), Bojan Bogdanovic (1.9) and Victor Oladipo (2.1) from deep. His track record may not be exhilarating on just numbers alone, but given his above-average percentages and his forthcoming opening, this may be McDermott’s biggest chance to breakout yet.

Cedi Osman — Cleveland Cavaliers

Everybody loves Cedi Osman.

Not much was expected of the 23-year-old when he joined the Cavaliers last season as an end-of-bench piece. But as the season grew longer, Osman got an honest shot at the rotation and he made the most of his unexpected fortuity. From February on, Osman tallied five or more points in 13 of his 22 appearances, even reaching double digits in six of them. During an uneventful win against the Atlanta Hawks, Osman notched 16 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two three-pointers over 38 minutes — more or less, the kid can play.

Everywhere you look, the people surrounding Osman can’t stop gushing about his love for the game, his desire to get better and the impact he may have this season. During his two Las Vegas Summer League contests, Osman exploded for 20 points, eight rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and one block per game — a salivating preview most definitely. Although the team is undoubtedly Kevin Love’s now, he’ll need some backup and Osman — a grinder, slasher and do-it-all-glue-guy — has the skill-set to take a leap in 2018-19 and beyond.

Needless to say, there are some intriguing storylines developing in a freshly LeBron-less landscape. Can the mid-tier teams join the conference’s current royalty? Can the division’s two lottery members reach the postseason conversation? Surely, if anything, the Cavaliers won’t make their fifth straight NBA Finals — but can the efforts of Osman keep them from falling out of the playoff race completely? Answers will come sooner rather than later, but all these teams will need some breakout players to help lead the way this season.

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NBA Daily: Can Timberwolves Repair Relationship With Butler?

Is a change in heart possible for Jimmy Butler when it comes to staying with the Minnesota Timberwolves? Shane Rhodes examines.

Shane Rhodes

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After a long offseason hiatus, Jimmy Butler returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.

It probably didn’t go as Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff had hoped.

Butler was fired up as soon as he stepped onto the court with his teammates. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, it was the first time he’s done so since the Timberwolves were eliminated by the Houston Rockets back in April. However, Butler wasn’t fired up to be on the floor with them, but to show them what he can do and that they need him.

Butler, in an outburst that may or may not have been staged for an interview, dominated the floor and challenged all he could, per Wojnarowski. He went at teammates, coaches and front office personnel. As the frustrations over his September trade request (and lack of an actual trade) boiled over, Butler pushed his teammates and, while he may have initially stunned them, energized them in the process.

Ironically, that’s one of the major things Butler was brought to Minnesota to do in the first place; push Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, among others, and make them better.

But where do Butler and the Timberwolves go from here? Whether this was a one-time stunt, a last-ditch effort to get his teammates to match his effort and intensity or simply a way to force management to make a move, Butler is still unhappy with the team.

Butler reportedly won’t miss any regular season games, and Thibodeau may just be happy to have him back in the building, but how long can things go on like this before it all blows up? Can a strained player-franchise relationship potentially on the brink of collapse even be fixed?

Butler, to put it short, doesn’t think so.

In an interview later Wednesday evening with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Butler further elaborated on the flare-up. Among the talk of passion, heart, appreciation and other factors that led to his eventual trade request, Butler put it bluntly.

“It’s not fixed,” Butler said. He added that it could be, though, in the end, he doesn’t think it will be.

But why not? If the roster goes into the season energized and if Towns and Wiggins practice and play with the passion and heart that Butler is looking for, there is no doubt that Butler’s feelings toward the team and thoughts on a trade may shift.

On paper, and with Butler in the fold, the Timberwolves have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NBA. They certainly afford Butler the best opportunity to win games right now. Barring the blockbuster of all blockbuster trades, there isn’t another team with an established star of Towns’ caliber and high-level role players that Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver, Jeff Teague and others that Butler could turn to.

The Miami HEAT, who continue to pursue Butler despite numerous trade disruptions, have similar issues that forced Butler’s hand in the first place. Hassan Whiteside, namely, has a questionable motor and intensity and – as arguably the best player Erik Spoelstra’s squad has to offer  – it may, at the very best, be a lateral move for Butler.

If Butler is all about winning, and those previous criteria are met, it would almost make more sense to work things out in Minnesota rather than continue to seek a trade.

Of course, Towns, Wiggins and the others could just as easily go about their business as usual while Butler further isolates himself from the team before an eventual departure via trade or otherwise.

Either way, it is clear that the Butler-Timberwolves saga will be the storyline to watch in the early days of the season until some outcome is achieved. That outcome, whether it be realized in Minnesota or elsewhere, could have the potential to alter the playoff landscape as we know it.

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