After another up and down season, the Timberwolves find themselves looking at a defining season in 2019-20. There is new leadership in place that is not tied to anyone on the roster, and all of the contracts and commitments made came from the previous regime, which means everyone starts with a clean slate.
That said, the clock is ticking on All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, who is entering the first season of his 5-year, $190 million extension signed in 2018. Modern NBA history says All-Stars won’t stay committed long if they don’t have a chance to win and win big, which put the pressure squarely on the new front office to turn the ship.
To say this is an important season for the future of the Wolves is an understatement.
The Wolves missed the playoffs last year by 12 games and are returning functionally the same roster, which means if things are going to change its going to have to come from internal growth or a mid-season trade. The outcome of the first half of the season could answer that question either way. The Wolves have solid players, the question is can they put it together?
Let’s take a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Timberwolves are in serious need of a second star. Karl Anthony-Towns should continue to be productive, but even he needs to continue to develop – mostly on the defensive end of the floor. They were pleasantly surprised last season with the play and motor of Josh Okogie, who will be relied on even more so this season. Rookie Jarrett Culver projects to be a strong two-way player with a versatile offensive game – he should be another positive for the Wolves. And there is good depth in Noah Vonleh, Jeff Teague, Robert Covington and Keita Bates-Diop. But the lack of efficiency and effort from Andrew Wiggins has hurt the T-Wolves developmental trajectory. As has been the case for a number of years now, if he improves his three-point shooting, shot selection, and defense, the Wolves have the potential to be a very different team. As currently constructed, they’re going to struggle to keep up with the best in the West.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
We’re entering another year with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as the focal points of the Wolves. Are there more expectations or less? Jimmy Butler is not around anymore, nor is Tom Thibodeau. Ryan Saunders is taking over and following in his late, great father’s footsteps. Can the 33-year-old continue to galvanize this underperforming franchise and turn it into a contender? Stocked with a plethora of forwards, the roster could make it difficult to do so this season. But with a mixture of veteran talent and interesting prospects, there might be a culture shift in Minnesota – and it will prove to be the mark of a new era. As a part of one of the toughest divisions in the NBA, it’s hard to see this team playing in the postseason, though.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Timberwolves have one incredibly good thing going for them, and that’s Karl-Anthony Towns. He is a superstar and, luckily for the Wolves, they have him locked in for the next several years. After him though, the rest of the team is kind of a question mark. Robert Covington emerged as arguably the second-best player on the team, but his season was cut short due to injury. They lost some of their bench depth in Tyus Jones and Taj Gibson, and they’re looking to Jordan Bell and Shabazz Napier to fill those roles. What they really need though is Andrew Wiggins to play like the max contract guy the Wolves believed they had. He was once thought to be a budding star, but he’s been wildly inconsistent to say the least. If he plays as he should, maybe the Wolves challenge for the eighth seed. If not, look for another lottery finish.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
Things have to turn for the Timberwolves right? There is simply too much talent in Minnesota for them to be a team that’s outside the playoff picture. New team president Gersson Rosas resisted the temptation to blow things up in Minnesota, and beyond some minor changes, the bulk of last year’s team is coming back, as is Ryan Saunders at head coach. That could either make this the beginning of the end, or the turning point for the youth on the roster. There is little doubt Karl-Anthony Towns is the franchise cornerstone, but if Andrew Wiggins doesn’t step up on a night to night basis, he could be gone by the trade deadline and that could start a tidal wave of changes. The Wolves have the talent to be a playoff team, the question is can they be consistent and healthy enough to cement themselves in the 7-8 seed discussion?
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
It’s a bit difficult to assess the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offseason. I like a lot of the smaller moves Minnesota made but I think the team may have missed the mark on what could end up being the biggest move of its offseason. I liked that Minnesota traded Dario Saric and the rights to Cameron Johnson (11th) to the Phoenix Suns for the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. However, rather than addressing the team’s point guard situation by drafting Coby White, Minnesota drafted Jarrett Culver. Culver is a talented player, but White is the better prospect in my opinion and could have been the long-term solution for a major area of need for this team. Having said that, I like that the team locked in Ryan Saunders at head coach, signed Noah Vonleh to a $2 million contract, signed Jordan Bell to a minimum contract (notably Bell will again be a restricted free agent after this upcoming season), acquired Shabazz Napier ($1,845,301 guaranteed for 2019-20), and claimed Tyrone Wallace off of waivers. Minnesota has an expensive roster, so adding talent on the margins at little cost is a nice outcome for this offseason. The team still has some foundational issues in terms of its overall roster balance but Minnesota showed some savviness this offseason.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Wolves have new management with president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, which could lead to roster turnover, though the $122.2 million still owed to Anthony Wiggins isn’t exactly a liquid contract. The team has 15 guaranteed players, which means one would have to go for Ty Wallace and his non-guaranteed deal to stick.
The Wolves still have their $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception and almost $5 million of the Mid-Level Exception. By acquiring Jake Layman via sign and trade from the Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota is locked into a hard cap of $138.9 million, but they’re not close to that figure, at least $6.3 million under the $132.6 million luxury tax line.
Before November, the team needs to pick up its option on Josh Okogie.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
The Timberwolves’ fortunes start and end with Towns, particularly on the offensive end. His blend of size, agility and shooting touch is unrivaled in the NBA, even in the age of the unicorn. As Minnesota’s best three-point shooter (40.0 percent last season on 4.6 attempts per game), most-efficient scorer (57.2 effective field goal percentage last season) and even best free-throw shooter (83.6 percent last season), not to mention its best post player, Towns represents the most effective option at every level of the offensive attack.
With Derrick Rose and his 14.8 shot attempts per game now in Detroit, Towns’ workload should only increase. When Jimmy Butler arrived in 2017, Towns’ attempts per game fell from 18.0 the year before to 14.3. Last year’s uptick to 17.1 represented him picking up a share of Butler’s work, but it did not entirely compensate for what had been a trend line toward prolific offensive numbers. Approaching 20 shots per game would put Towns in the category of ball-handlers like Devin Booker (19.6 last season), Steph Curry (19.4) and Damian Lillard (19.2), but that is appropriate for a seven-footer who has handles enough to comfortably drive on other post players.
For that matter, there is hardly a bad shot for a player with Towns’ skillset. He scored 1.19 points per roll, 1.10 per spot-up and 1.02 per post-up last season, according to NBA.com.
Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington
Covington is a bit of an unknown commodity to Timberwolves’ fans, playing in only 22 games after he was traded from the Philadelphia 76ers. He is a complete unknown in a Ryan Saunders system, not taking the court at all under Minnesota’s then-interim, now-permanent head coach due to a bone bruise that led to loose bodies in his knee.
Covington made his reputation in Philadelphia as a 3-and-D specialist, but even when his three-point percentage waned to 33.3 in 2016-17, his defensive aptitude justified the 6-foot-9 wing’s playing time. He can defend every position on the floor and should be the fulcrum to Saunders’ defensive schemes, if once again healthy.
Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague
Partly by default as the only true point guard in what figures to be the Timberwolves’ top-eight players, Teague is the only genuine ball distributor on Minnesota’s roster. Acquiring Shabazz Napier from the Golden State Warriors put a nominal backup on the roster, but he has yet to average more than 2.6 assists per game in his four seasons.
This is a precarious position for the Timberwolves, particularly coming off the first season in his 10-year career in which Teague did not play at least 66 games, battling a litany of lower-body ailments to appear in only 42. Teague’s patient dribble and aptitude in the pick-and-roll game are ideal to fit with Towns. He may not be more than a league-average point guard, but he is a steady one and averaged 8.2 assists per game last year. Now, the Wolves need Teague more than ever.
Top Clutch Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
This may be another by default designation simply due to Towns’ offensive repertoire. Teague would rather move the ball than shoot more often than not, and Andrew Wiggins’ inefficient tendencies are exacerbated in pivotal situations. Towns, meanwhile, can score from any point on the court.
That Wiggins-Towns contrast has never been more on display than it was at the end of a January overtime against the Memphis Grizzlies. After Wiggins missed a long two from the top of the key, Towns snagged the rebound over Marc Gasol and then let loose a buzzer-beating fadeaway baseline jumper over Gasol, hitting nothing but net for the win. Those rebounding abilities — Towns averaged 12.4 per game last year — make him a constant threat for putbacks in clutch moments, as well.
The Unheralded Player: Josh Okogie
The No. 20 pick in the 2018 draft, Okogie earned notice from last season’s outset for his persistent defense and all-around hustle. He repeatedly wowed crowds with steals only to lose the ball in a chaotic drive to the bucket. Minutes later, Okogie would again flash his athleticism with a highlight reel dunk.
That was the general limit to his contributions, more intangible than anything else. Yet those intangibles earned Okogie 52 starts on a team racked by injuries and drama. The under-the-radar draft pick could have been in over his head, but instead earned the trust of his teammates and both coaching staffs. Yes, even Tom Thibodeau was willing to play this rookie, beginning with the third game of the season.
Okogie has spent the last month leading the Nigerian national team in the FIBA World Cup, averaging 12.6 points per game. More notably, he hit 42.1 percent of his 3-point attempts, which would be a significant jump from his 27.9 percent from beyond the arc in his first NBA action.
Best New Addition: Jarrett Culver
The piece acquired for the No. 11 pick and Dario Šarić will forever be seen as the first move from new Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas. Even without that mantle, expectations would be large for Culver. Minnesota did not intend to have a high lottery pick for a long time after selecting Wiggins and Towns No. 1 overall in back-to-back drafts. Culver restores that belief moving forward.
The 6-foot-7 wing was known for his defense at Texas Tech, eventually developing a scorer’s mentality when it mattered most. That mentality did not inherently include efficiency, as Culver went 5-of-22 in the national championship game. The Timberwolves want his defense right now and will be content to let the rest of his game progress in time.
Not to put too much pressure on a rookie, as if the Rosas burden has not already done so, but Minnesota finished No. 24 in defensive rating last season, and Culver is pegged to be the best defender added to the roster. If that ranking improves, he may get much of the credit, but if it doesn’t, the offensive loss of Šarić could become a regret.
– Douglas Farmer
WHO WE LIKE
If any NBA franchise is grateful to have little attention paid to it this fall, it is the Timberwolves. A year ago, infamous practices featured Butler-led bench units embarrassing the supposed stars of the future, buttressing Butler’s berating of Minnesota front office personnel. The chaos undermined whatever credibility Thibodeau still had. The 4-9 start may have actually been better than it should have been, in retrospect.
Barring a complete shock, the Timberwolves will have a quiet preseason camp this time around. Towns has made an offseason point of embracing some of the free agent signees; Wiggins and Covington spent considerable time in Minneapolis over the offseason, compared to the roster going separate ways in 2018; and Saunders has a clear runway as head coach.
2. Outside Influence
Hiring Saunders as the permanent head coach was expected. It would have been hard to fire the son of the franchise’s most-beloved figure after only 42 games, especially as he had to pick up the debris from the Butler fiasco, the Thibdoeau disillusionment and then a rash of injuries.
Contrarily, Minnesota owner Glen Taylor hiring Rosas was unexpected. Taylor has long preferred to stay within the family, so to speak, and considered former Timberwolves players Calvin Booth and Chauncey Billups. Sticking to his norms would have meant bringing in one of them. Instead, Taylor shook things up.
Rosas brings an analytics-driven approach from Houston. His star hunting will be high in both risk and reward, but for a franchise that has rarely appealed to free agents, such innovation and aggression is necessary.
3. Ryan Saunders
Saunders is young, unproven and arguably unqualified, but he is also a crowd favorite, beloved by his roster and willing to adjust to improve. Implementing an up-tempo offense and a switch-heavy defense will be massive deviations from the previous regime, but those should also play into Towns’ strengths and a wing-heavy roster. With Covington, Wiggins, Okogie, Culver and 2018 second-round draft pick Keita Bates-Diop, Saunders will have both flexibility and numbers, concepts Thibodeau avoided wholesale.
He may have been a questionable hire on paper, but Saunders is also not another coaching retread. Minnesota just lived through that cycle. Doing so again would have been a step backward simply by staying put.
4. Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell
Two of the Timberwolves’ few free agent signings, both Vonleh and Bell should be able to play alongside Towns in Saunders’ system in ways Gorgui Dieng cannot. Neither is a dominant player, but that is not needed when Towns is on the floor. Either Vonleh or Bell should be able to defend a power forward when opponents go big while still being able to run the floor to keep up the pace.
These were minimal signings by Rosas and intentionally so, each on only one-year deals, but they will not compromise Towns and could come to be a solid fit with the superstar.
– Douglas Farmer
Towns might not yet be a top-10 player in the NBA, but he is on the cusp and could offer a dominant season as Minnesota’s unquestioned leader, finally. Any team with such a cornerstone will construct everything around him, and the Timberwolves are no different. The bevy of wings, the malleable big-man free agent signings and even the chosen head coach all accommodate Towns.
In a season stilted by mayhem, Minnesota still finished No. 13 in the league in offensive rating. Steering into Towns in every way possible will only help that figure further. The wings and Vonleh, Bell and Jake Layman should slightly reduce Towns’ defensive workload while not depriving him of offensive opportunities. For a player with his skillset, allowing him every shot attempt he desires is both the prudent and the efficient decision.
– Douglas Farmer
This remains a lengthier list than the previous categories, but it can all trace back to a singular shortcoming. It could be argued the best offensive post-up threat on the roster beyond Towns is Wiggins and his 0.74 points per post-up last season. The secondary ball-handler beyond Teague may also have to be Wiggins.
These concerns all landing on the same slight shoulders underscores the Timberwolves’ tipping point. Wiggins has a max contract, but until he becomes a semblance of a max-contract player, this roster will remain depleted in areas it cannot afford to be if it wants to avoid the cellar of the Western Conference.
A charitable view would claim the year-plus of Butler stagnated Wiggins’ growth even more than it did Towns’. Indeed, Wiggins’ career highs in 3-point percentage, effective field goal percentage and field goal attempts per game all came in 2016-17, the season prior to Butler’s arrival. A return to those levels may not be what Taylor had in mind when he committed years of max-contract space to Wiggins to be Towns’ second-fiddle, but it would be a distinct improvement from last season, nonetheless.
– Douglas Farmer
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Timberwolves show enough evidence of long-term potential to keep Towns from forcing his way out sooner than later?
Minnesota will claim playoff aspirations this season, but in the competitive whirlwind that will be the Western Conference, it is an unrealistic hope in 2019-20. If things stay that way, though, the Timberwolves’ situation will quickly become dire. Towns is signed through 2023-24, but in the current era of player empowerment, those contract lengths are mere hiccups to moving along. If Towns voices a desire to contend for the playoffs, a majority of the other 29 franchises will call Rosas to gauge trade possibilities.
Minnesota needs to at least be respectable this season to give Towns reason to believe playoff contention is not far off. Doing so will come as a result of leaning on Towns more than ever until Rosas’ front office can figure out what big deal it inevitably wants to swing.
Towns is capable of such a monster season so as to keep the Timberwolves in vague playoff conversations past the All-Star break, maybe even into May. For now, that kind of individual showcase should placate him. That will give Rosas the time needed to thoroughly understand the mismanaged roster on hand.
– Douglas Farmer
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.
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