Today in Basketball Insiders’ continuing offseason series, we tackle the Minnesota Timberwolves.
However, unlike many other NBA teams, the Wolves don’t necessarily need to be “fixed.” This young Minnesota squad needs some tweaking, but “patience” should be the overriding theme for the Timberwolves this summer. The team certainly needs to improve, but much of that growth and improvement will hopefully develop organically.
Don’t Rush the Rebuild
It’s difficult to find a more promising core in the NBA today. The foundation’s centerpiece is Karl-Anthony Towns. Coming into his rookie season, expectations were sky-high for the number one overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. However, KAT exceeded even the loftiest of expectations by putting together one of the more impressive rookie campaigns in recent memory. He finished the season averaging 18.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, setting franchise rookie records in all three of those categories in the process. He posted a PER of 22.5, which ranks as the fifth-highest PER by a rookie since the merger – behind only Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan. Still just 20 years old, it’s not a stretch to argue Towns is the most valuable and prized young big man in the NBA today.
Andrew Wiggins is still just a puppy as well, turning 21 back in late February. He finished his second NBA year as Minnesota’s leading scorer, ranking 19th in the league at 20.7 points per game. In addition, he was a far more efficient scorer and played the best ball of his young career over the final three months of the season; Wiggins’ field goal percentage jumped to 48.9 percent after Feb. 1, including 40 percent (30-for-75) from long distance.
The tandem of Wiggins and Towns has Minnesotans giddy, envisioning the possibilities of greatness in the not-too-distant future. Per NBA.com, entering 2015-16, only 31 players in NBA history had ever averaged at least 15 points in their age-19 or age-20 seasons. The Wolves became just the second team ever to feature two such players in the same season, joining the 2008-09 Oklahoma City Thunder (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook). Wiggins joined Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as the only players to accomplish that feat in both their age-19 and age-20 seasons.
Zach LaVine (also 21 years old) is the other youngster making up the Wolves’ precocious core. No longer known strictly as a dunker, LaVine showcased vast improvements over the second half of the 2015-16 campaign. (More on that later.)
Last January, Minnesota became the first team in the history of the NBA to have three players, all under 21, score at least 20 points in same game.
And now, these prodigies will learn from one of the better young coaches in the NBA. Minnesota was able to snag the most sought after free-agent coach on the market in Tom Thibodeau, who’s a proven defensive mastermind.
The moral of the story is that the future in Minnesota is exceptionally bright. Thus, the focus of the organization should be staying patient as they slowly but soundly build around this exceptional core (specifically the two franchise cornerstones of Towns and Wiggins).
The Wolves are not winning a title next season. Consequently, there is no need to rush the rebuild. In practical terms, avoid the temptation to make a major splash by overpaying to lure a big name in free agency, which may result in tying up cap space long-term on pieces that may not fit.
While it’s important to improve, have these young guns get tested and gain valuable experience by getting a taste of games with playoff implications, that should be the result of natural progression as opposed to overzealous hastening of the timeline.
Rounding out the Roster: Add Shooting and Defense
The Timberwolves have 11 players with guaranteed contract for the 2016-17 season, which is tied for the most in the NBA. Minnesota is looking at approximately $25 million in cap space to spend this summer.
The Wolves’ primary priority should be adding shooters. As a team, Minnesota knocked down just 455 three-pointers (on 33.8 percent shooting) last season – the second fewest number of made triples in the entire league. To put that in context, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson made 678 three-pointers last season.
The only Timberwolf on the roster to make more than 65 threes last year was Zach LaVine. The encouraging news is that LaVine has showed tremendous improvement as a shooter (this may be related to the Wolves’ decision to take away the ball-handling responsibilities and play more frequently alongside Ricky Rubio).
Over the first 50 games of his rookie season in 2014-15, LaVine shot just 27.5 percent from three-point territory (20-of-71).
Over his final 50 games last season, LaVine shot 43.3 percent from behind the arc (87-of-202).
Consider this: In the games played following the 2016 All-Star break, LaVine was one of only five players players to make at least 60 three-pointers and shoot above 43 percent from behind the arc: The other four were Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, C.J. McCollum, and J.J. Redick.
Nonetheless, the Wolves still desperately need to add more players who are capable of knocking down long-range jumpers. It’s imperative they bring in shooters to space the floor, which will allow Towns to dominate on the low block. Without floor-spacers, Towns will eventually get swarmed by double- and triple-teams.
The elite shooting guards on the market this summer are Bradley Beal (restricted) and DeMar DeRozan. Some other free agent options for the Wolves to consider this summer include Kent Bazemore, Evan Fournier, Jamal Crawford, Eric Gordon, Courtney Lee, Luol Deng, Joe Johnson, Allen Crabbe and Ryan Anderson.
Also, the Wolves will have a high lottery pick, likely drafting in the top-six. Might they target a sharp-shooter such as Buddy Hield?
Another area that requires dramatic improvement is Minnesota’s team defense. They were near the bottom of the league in many defensive categories last season. They ranked 27th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 107.1 points per 100 possessions.
It’s likely safe to assume that Coach Thibodeau will be eager to focus on that end of the floor. His arrival should lead to an immediate, concerted effort to make the Wolves far more aggressive defensively.
With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how Minnesota approaches free agency and the draft. With Thibs calling the shots on personnel decisions, will the Wolves focus on defensive-minded players?
The future is undeniably bright in Minnesota. Now, the pressure is on the Timberwolves to ensure that they keep improving and growing the right direction.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.