The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t made the postseason since 2003-04 when Kevin Garnett was in his prime. Since then, they’ve peaked at 44 wins – in the following 2004-05 season. They couldn’t even sneak in with a franchise player like Kevin Love putting up monster numbers such as 26.2 points and 12.6 rebounds in his final season with the team in 2013-14. With him, they never even ended the season as a .500 team. However, the Love trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers and subsequent drafts have netted the Timberwolves a young core that looks to break that playoff drought in the next several years.
Part of that Kevin Love deal was Andrew Wiggins. Hyped beyond belief coming into college and into the NBA, it seemed impossible Wiggins could live up to the hype, but he is certainly turning into a very nice NBA player, still with the potential to be much more. The 20-year-old Canadian stands at 6’8 and has increased his offensive production from his rookie season last year. His points per game jumped from 16.9 to 20.9 in about one minute less per game and he remains a great perimeter defender. He still has a lot to work on as his rebounding and assist averages decreased and his three-point percentage got worse. He’s still figuring out his game and honing his skill. But by the time he hits his prime in about five years, he’ll probably be an All-Star. Wiggins is one part of the two-man tandem that will lead Minnesota to the playoffs.
The other part of that duo is Karl-Anthony Towns. The number one pick by the Timberwolves in this summer’s draft has certainly produced incredible numbers so far in his rookie season. Towns has led the team in rebounding 32 times this season, which also makes his 21 double-doubles unsurprising, yet nonetheless impressive. The seven-footer was awarded the Western Conference rookie of the month award for November and December (Wiggins won the award four times during his rookie year). Last month, Towns tallied five games with 25+ points and 10+ rebounds – the most in one calendar month for a rookie since future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan’s rookie campaign.
Along with fellow rookie Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks), Towns is in a select group of young players who had a player efficiency rating (average is 15) of more than 19 during their aged-20 season. PER is a metric used as an overall gauge of a player’s effectiveness on the court. The list includes Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Tracy McGrady, Elton Brand, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis—and now Porzingis and Towns.
The rest of the roster is comprised of mostly two different groups. The first are the three veterans that are as old as dirt compared to the rest of the league. That is 39-year-olds Kevin Garnett and Andre Miller along with 35-year-old Tayshaun Prince. The other group is a bunch of young role players who have some potential such as Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, Tyus Jones and Adreian Payne. Some other players in the middle, age-wise, are 30-year-old Nikola Pekovic, 32-year-old Kevin Martin and 27-year-old Nemanja Bjelica. The Timberwolves are in the beginning stages of a promising rebuild with a serious youth movement and strong mentorship of Garnett, Miller and Prince. They have two players that look to be superstars in the making in Wiggins and Towns, both of whom are 20.
The question then becomes, does the 25-year-old point guard phenom Ricky Rubio fit into those plans?
Rubio is a great playmaker. He was playing professionally in Spain back when he was a teenager, then eventually came over to the NBA. He was hyped up before he came to America and hasn’t quite lived up to those lofty expectations, but has certainly solidified himself as a solid NBA player for years to come.
The Spanish point guard has averaged 8.2 assists per game since he came over to the Timberwolves and has been one of the better playmakers in the NBA. In 2015-16, he is averaging 8.5, which is good for fifth-best in the league. He also averages 2.2 steals per game this season, which puts him third in the NBA.
The problem keeping Rubio from becoming a star has been a lack of scoring. Rubio has only averaged 10.1 points per game for his career, which is nowhere near good enough for a star in the league. His scoring issues stem from his release, causing sub-par percentages. For example, for his career he has shot 35.6 percent overall and 31.4 percent from the three-point line. That’s not going to cut it for a starting point guard in the NBA. Fortunately for himself and the team, he seems to have turned a corner. In January, Rubio is shooting 40 percent from both the three-point line and overall, which is much more respectable and helps keep the defense honest, instead of playing off him and clogging up the lane.
Looking at the on/off court splits for Rubio this season, the Timberwolves’ assist percentage plummets a significant 10.5 percent when the Spaniard goes to the bench. Additionally, their offensive rating is 1.2 percent higher with Rubio on the floor than when he sits.
Minnesota has Rubio locked up through the 2018-19 season at an annual salary that jumps incrementally from $12.7 million this season to $14.8 million by the end of the contract. The only real competition Rubio has at point guard is Zach LaVine, who Minnesota has tried out at that position in spurts with mixed results.
While Rubio will be hovering around 30 years old when the rest of the core (Towns, Wiggins, LaVine) is entering their prime, this new and improved version of Rubio will probably still be part of their plan and will stick around in Minnesota and along with the rest of the core lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs in a few years. For instance, in 2021, a lineup of Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, a shooter, a screen-setter and rebounder, and Karl-Anthony Towns with Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad coming off the bench will be pretty formidable.
Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal
Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.
Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.
So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.
You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.
With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.
He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.
But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.
Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.
Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.
These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.
Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.
The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.
Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.
The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.
NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls
Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.
The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.
LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.
“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”
The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.
So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.
In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.
At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.
LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.
“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”
LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.
“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”
In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.
Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.
Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.
NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team
Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.
When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)