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NBA AM: Are The Pacers In Trouble?

The Indiana Pacers have lost four straight. Are the in danger of losing home court?… Kansas big man Joel Embiid seeing back specialist… Knicks could get an answer from Phil Jackson today.

Steve Kyler

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Why You Don’t Mess With Chemistry:  Amusingly several years ago former Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith joked about whether he’d make a major trade at the deadline saying that team chemistry was a unique and fragile thing. Smith opted to hold the line for the most part, acquiring backup guard Rafer Alston from Houston and resisted making a big splashy trade, despite what seemed like a pressing need for one. His team went on to the 2009 NBA Finals. That next summer Smith started to tinker and the whole thing fell apart.

The Indiana Pacers had a good thing going. They were crushing teams on both ends of the floor and looked all but unbeatable, especially if they got home court, which four weeks ago seemed like a forgone conclusion. With the gap between the second place Miami HEAT and the first place Indiana Pacers now just 1 ½ games the Pacers are looking more and more beatable with each passing loss. The team that seemed like the favorite to unseat the Miami HEAT seems a little lost as of late and it may be due to the tinkering the team did at the trade deadline.

The Pacers were lauded as “winning” the NBA trade deadline, nabbing guard Evan Turner and forward Lavoy Allen from Philadelphia in exchange for the ending contract of oft injured forward Danny Granger. To hear the Pacers’ logic behind the deal, they were concerned that Granger had let up on his day-to-day rehab and that without that rehab who really knew what hecould provide the Pacers in the postseason. The desire to add more firepower to the bench and another big body up front prompted the Pacers to shake up a locker room that was as cohesive and united as any in basketball.

»In Related: Evan Turner Still Getting Acclimated To The Pacers.

With four straight losses under their belt and five losses in the last ten games, the Pacers have lost their way.

The Pacers have already clinched a playoff berth, so their postseason ticket is punched. The question for the Pacers is can they find their groove again with only 19 games left on the schedule?

The Pacers have dropped three of their four straight games on the road, and those losses came at the hands of teams that are playoff bound.

The Pacers’ next four games include a home stand versus the rebuilding Celtics on Tuesday, a two day break before heading to Philadelphia on Friday and then to Detroit on Sunday before hosting the 76ers in Indiana on Monday. All four are very winnable games for the Pacers and should give them a chance to rebound and right the ship.

Chemistry in the NBA is a unique and fragile thing and if the Pacers fail to reach their potential this season they have only themselves to blame.

The Pacers may have “won” the trade deadline, but if it costs them homecourt that might not be the win they were hoping for.

»In Related: Who Made The Best Trade Of The Season?

Embiid To See Back Specialist:  Kansas big man Joel Embiid flew to Los Angeles yesterday and is expected to meet with a back specialist in LA today. Embiid, who has been battling both knee and back issues for several weeks, is seeking further opinions on his bothersome back. Kansas head coach Bill Self told reporters yesterday that Embiid’s injury was more “significant” than just a strained lower back as initially described.

 Steve Kyler’s Top 10
1. Jabari Parker – Duke – SF/PF – 6’8″
2. Joel Embiid – Kansas – C – 7’0″
3. Andrew Wiggins – Kansas – SF – 6’8″
4. Dante Exum – Australia – PG – 6’6″
5. Julius Randle – Kentucky – PF – 6’9″
6. Noah Vonleh – Indiana – PF/C – 6’10”
7. Marcus Smart – Oklahoma St. – PG – 6’4″
8. Gary Harris – Michigan State – SG – 6’5″
9. Tyler Ennis – Syracuse – PG – 6’2″
10. Aaron Gordon – Arizona – PF – 6’9″

» More NBA Draft Prospect Rankings

“It’s nothing where he won’t be feeling great in four weeks with some rest,” Self said to Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star. “But we don’t have four weeks.”

Self warned that while the visit to the specialist wasn’t anything to get alarmed about, saying the goal was to get Embiid ready for NCAA tournament play.

“The whole deal is it’s not an injury that he could hurt worse,” Self said. “I don’t think we would put him back out there if it was. We’re going to evaluate him and give him the best chance to finish strong.

“If we have to hold him out for him to be 100 percent for the NCAA we’ll do that.”

The specialist Embiid is meeting with today was involved with the initial diagnosis several weeks ago.

Self said he seriously doubted that surgery would be needed, and that Embiid would continue on a rehab regime. The Jayhawks open Big 12 tournament play this week and it seems likely that Embiid will miss some if not all of the three games in three days Kansas is likely to play.

Embiid is considered by most NBA scouts as a possible top overall pick, however over the last month opinions have changed as Embiid’s game and body have been over scrutinized. Several NBA scouts have pointed to Embiid’s late season fatigue as a concern and now with lingering back and knee issues to consider, Embiid is far from the lock at number one as he was deemed by many pundits two months ago.

Embiid has kept the door open on returning to Kansas for his sophomore season. If his back continues to be problematic or if he at some point requires surgery, staying in school may become more realistic than it was two months ago.

Coach Self believes Embiid will be ready for the March Madness Tournament, how Embiid plays in the tournament could go a long way towards restoring his value as a possible top overall pick.

Boston Celtics big man Jared Sullinger was considered a top five talent when he entered the NBA draft in 2012. Red flags surrounding his back saw him tumble to the 21st pick, so for Embiid getting his back right could impact more than just Kansas’ attempt for a national title, it could impact his draft stock in a significant way.

»In Related: Who Is The Leading Candidate For Defensive Player Of The Year?

Tick-Tock, Phil Jackson Is On The Clock:  The New York Knicks are expecting an answer from NBA legend Phil Jackson on whether he will accept their offer to run basketball operations.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News is reporting that Jackson and the Knicks have been negotiating a lucrative contract that would put Jackson in charge of all of the basketball decisions for the franchise and that a final decision could come at some point today.

Amid the media speculation about Jackson taking the Knicks job, Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, who is expected to opt for free agency in July, says he has not been told anything about Jackson joining the organization.

“I don’t even know what’s going on with that,’’ Anthony said to reporters on Saturday. “Nobody came to me about that. Until that time comes, I’m not going to know what’s going on.

“It’s hard to say at this particular moment. If anything, it’s not going to be right now. I’m pretty sure they’d try to wait for the offseason and then we’ll deal with all that stuff.”

The belief is that the Knicks have offered Jackson total control of the basketball operations side of the business and would allow him to come and go as he pleased. Jackson has said several times over the last few years that he’d like to have a situation similar to what HEAT President Pat Riley has in Miami. While Riley is the top guy in Miami, he does not do a lot of the day-to-day tasks for the HEAT. That falls on Vice President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Andy Elisburg.

»In Related: Who Are The NBA’s Top 10 Players – According To The Stats?

If Jackson accepts the Knicks’ offer, he is expected to leave current team president Steve Mills in the day-to-day role he currently has. What’s unclear is how much of the Knicks existing front office staff will remain. Changes on the coaching side of the equation are a given, especially with the Knicks likely to miss the postseason.

Jackson’s final seasons as a head coach netted him more than $11 million per season, making him by far the highest paid coach in the NBA. It’s believed the Knicks’ offer to Jackson would make him one of the highest paid executives in the league as well.

Earlier this month in Boston at the MIT Sloan Analytics conference Jackson said he’d been approached by a few NBA teams looking to change their culture, there is no team in the league in bigger need of a culture change than the New York Knicks.

Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for more on this story as it unfolds throughout the day.

More Twitter:  Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @TheRocketGuy, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: Pre-Game Work – The Holistic Approach

Pre-game routines are key in priming players for optimal in-game performance. Jake Rauchbach breaks down integrated player development methods for accomplishing this.

Jake Rauchbach

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Creating the momentum required to produce consistently high-level performance is a delicate process. It’s something that must be cultivated and nurtured daily through disciplined adherence to one’s craft. Doing so ensures the proper velocity needed for a player to instinctually perform at the highest possible level during a game.

Employing holistic pre-game routines may present one of the more efficient ways of doing this. Systematic to the point, integrated player development routines that prime the three levels of the player may increase the probability of cultivating improved in-game results.

Performance momentum is the rate at which a player accesses higher-level flow/production output. In-game production is the byproduct of a player’s consistent focus on his/her craft.

That being said, approaching pre-game prep from this holistic vantage point is about efficiency, and aims to find the fastest way possible to help the player produce come game time.

One of the most effective ways to do this is through a multi-level pre-game player development approach that primes emotional frequency, position-specific skill-development and mental focus. Pairing these approaches has been shown to influence in-game production upwards. Here is how.

Pre-Game Holistic Player Development

Priming Energy

The player’s meridian system is like an energetic highway of interconnected pathways where prevailing thoughts, emotions and feelings flow or travel through.

If and when those roadways get blocked – for instance, with the lingering concerns from an off-court issue or the leftover emotion from a previous on-court failure – this can act as baggage weighing down the player’s future performance. When these energy pathways become blocked, it can also impede a player’s ability to access those higher flow states that produce big-time performance.

Helping a player clear the slate of any mental and emotional residue still lingering pre-game by priming the player’s energy system is the best-kept secret of many high-performers. Many Olympians who compete in individualized sports such as track and field and swimming employ this methodology for fast starts.

Employing a pre-game 5-minute energy optimization technique that sleuths out mental and emotional discord can reap dividends come game time. Whether driven by the player or implemented by the hybrid player development coach, leveraging Energy Psychology techniques to reset internal dynamics fast is best practice.

The five-minute period directly before the on-court skill work begins is a great time to do this. Integrating the technique within on-court work helps the player begin to learn how to pair their game and their emotional management together. Making this a component of the pre-game routine gives the player extra repetition for how to do it in a game.

Priming Skill Development

Once the deeper level of the athlete is primed, getting right into player specific skill development is next. The goal here should be to help the player find a rhythm, performance flow, and good feeling; Basically, a skill-development routine that grooves the player.

Each player generally has a routine that they like to employ pre-game. For wings, it may be a combination of spot-shooting, off-ball cuts, and short clock pick and roll action is best. For Bigs it maybe a finishing around the rim package, mid-range catch and shoot and pick and roll action. For point guards, PNRs, spot-shooting and their favorite move, and counter-series could help facilitate the desired rhythm.

The intensity to which players go through their pre-game work is another intriguing piece.

Each player is different, and not all players need to go 100% pre-game to be at their best in-game. Priming performance for the goal of producing maximum level production during the game is an inexact science and is player specific.

However, when there is an absolute focus in pre-game, many times you will see the player touch-into peak-performance states; The player’s pace could look to be game-speed, and the execution rate could mirror that of a late-game situation. This sort of pre-game intensity is generally ideal and is a reflection of the player’s emotional clarity and mental focus. Both of which help to build performance momentum into the game.

Priming Mental Focus

The next layer of this process is mental, and priming mental focus is all about consistency. During pre-game, it is good to have a pre-established mental focus routine in place. Once honed, the player can internally perform the mental cue in under five seconds.

Deliberately working mental focus repetitions into pre-game further prepares players. Employing one or two repetitions is effective. On free throws, or in between drills, players who can knock out mental focus cues before the game are priming mental acuity for in-game action.

Players with pre-existing internal processes like this can proactively read and attack in-game situations as they arise. This helps to increase their probability of success. Greater confidence and cleaner execution are all byproducts of mental primers in action.

Priming the energetic, physical and mental systems in this fashion, is already being seamlessly integrated into player and team concepts. Synthesizing these three levels of player development before the game helps facilitate greater execution during the game.

A proactive hybrid approach such as this can create openings for players. As players continue to report the benefits of integrated approaches such as these, expect pre-game quick-hitting visualizations, meditations, and energy optimizations to become a valued and common component of pre-game player development.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: Mental Performance Consultant Dr. Rainer Meisterjahn

Jake Rauchbach and Dr. Rainer Meisterjahn dive into the NBA’s Mental Performance Space.

Jake Rauchbach

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Dr. Rainer J. Meisterjahn is a Mental Performance Consultant and the Founder & Owner of Courtex Performance. Rainer and Courtex Performance provide basketball mental performance training, personality evaluation and professional development services for players, coaches and organizations from the youth to the international pro and NBA levels with the goal of empowering clients to maximize performance.

Rainer has worked as a consultant for multiple NBA organizations, particularly in the area of mental player evaluation, as well as in a mental training capacity. As a draft consultant, in collaboration with Courtex Director of Analytics, Dr. Dave Laughlin, Rainer has developed NBA Pre-Draft interview guides, tracked player behavior, conducted interviews, administered and interpreted mental assessments and broken down observations for the front office

Dr. Meisterjahn has made great traction at the NBA level within the Mental Performance space. He has consulted for teams such as the Miami Heat, Utah Jazz and the Milwaukee Bucks. Other clients include FIBA and NCAA Division-I, II and III teams and coaches. He has also spent time with the German Youth National Team players and German BBL teams, such as Oliver Würzberg s.Oliver Basketball Club. Working with players such as Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris, Rainer is quickly establishing himself as a leader within the Mental Performance space.

Basketball Insiders caught up with Dr. Rainer to pick his brain about the Courtex Performance LLC philosophy and to get his take on burgeoning mental performance space.

Jake Rauchbach: What’s up Dr. Rainer? Thanks for taking the time. Can you talk about your Courtex Performance’s philosophy on mental performance training?

Rainer Meisterjahn: Our philosophy is about three things. Firstly, mental training needs to be personalized to the individual – which means there is no cookie-cutter approach. You must understand the personality of the individual: What are their values? What are their motives? What are their goals?

The second part is that it has to be systematic. There has to be an ongoing systematic approach to it. There has to be regularity to it. We do a lot of stuff around developing the core values that are important to the individual and looking at what those core values look like in action, behaviorally on the court. We have players rate themselves. We have coaches provide ratings. In that context, we teach pre-game visualization, in-game focus cues and other techniques to help players regulate their focus in productive ways.

Thirdly, mental training really needs to take into account environmental factors. What is the culture of an organization? What’s the player’s role and what is their relationship with others that he or she deals with on a regular basis? This is really how we look at it.

JR: What’s your way of building rapport with players?

RM: Starting out it’s always about finding common ground, especially with players I may have nothing in common with on the surface. We may look different, we come from different places, and we are different ages. I am just always looking for the one thing that might connect you. Sometimes that’s a personality trait. Maybe the player is a little bit more of an introvert like I am, as well, and actually might appreciate when I take the time to chat one-on-one and get them away from the crowd.

In other cases, maybe you just kick it with a player over a mutual love for sneakers or music or whatever the case may be. Also, oftentimes approaching players from the perspective of wanting to utilize them as an expert, I think that really helps. Instead of coming at a player like you’re trying to fix him, you utilize him as an expert. All players have some expertise that can help a younger teammate, for instance. So you try to be as much of a learner as you are a teacher in the context of building rapport.

JR: How do you see this field progressing over the next 10 years?

RM: The big analytics wave started maybe about 10-12 years ago, and then maybe, about 5-6 years ago you had a pretty significant sports science movement to where organizations have started to build out more extensive sports science departments that are a couple steps up from that old school model of just having one or two athletic trainers on staff. I think mental health and mental training are both up and coming right now. I think that the NBA organizations, probably in some cases, are a little bit confused as to what’s what, and how those two things (mental health and mental performance) coexist.

It’s exciting that I think the NBA is starting to recognize the role of mental health a lot more and they’re acknowledging it and putting in place professionals to take charge of those efforts. The mental performance piece – I think it is still somewhat exploratory for a lot of organizations. I know, my guy Dan Kalkstein has been with the Mavericks going on 20 years or so. I do think it is getting to that point that most organizations are going to start to bring in at least one consultant.

I think within the next 5-10 years, we are going to start looking at mental training departments. I think that is where the future is at. There are just too many opportunities, and there is just too much need within organizations to just simply have one person there.

Mental training can be done at the team level and it can be done at the individual athlete level, and it should be. You need mental training and leadership development within the coaching staff. Beyond that, you look at the front office. You look at the organization as a whole, the staff and the employees. You know most people are being overworked and they’re stressed and they have no tools and skills to deal with everything that is coming at them. You have the G League, which really should be about development not just from the neck down, but also from the neck-up as well. Now you have E-Sports teams within organizations, which is another really intriguing angle.

JR: What part do you think analytics departments are going play into validating Mental Performance?

RM: I think there is a lot that can be done in terms of tracking and analyzing player body language and working with an analytics department inside an organization to pump out information to educate coaches, and, for players, to set more tangible goals in key areas.

The more that we can show that mental training does make a tangible difference – in terms of not only in-game stats, but also in terms of longevity for a player in the league, things of that nature. Obviously, that stuff is powerful. It does take time to accumulate that type of information….As far as moving our field forward, I would agree that the more we can show tangible differences that we are able to make, I think that is really crucial.

JR:  What are the differences in how a league like the German BBL and the NBA incorporate the mental performance coach?

RM: With the team in Würzburg, I have had the luxury of working with a head coach in Denis Wucherer, who gives me the opportunity to work with players as a group, developing our cores values, our identity. Being on the court, working one-on-one with players – rebounding, passing – and building trust – being around the guys, showing that I am a basketball guy first and foremost and not a shrink. It’s been exciting to able to work like that.

NBA organizations are much more complex. You have a lot more people involved from front office people, coaches to performance staff. It is a little bit more complex, so sometimes it’s not as easy to get as much access as a club like Würzburg has given me. At times that is probably necessary, but overall it limits what we are able to do a little bit. The more an organization develops trust in you to do it your way, that’s really where it’s at. You got to get in there and you got to be able to do the work. You can’t be a bystander.

In Summary

Rainer made several big-time points. Firstly, mental performance is best employed through a customized, systematic process that factors in environmental elements. There is a big difference between mental health and mental performance.

Currently, there is a substantial need at the player, team, coaching staff and decision-maker level for mental performance resources that can provide effective High-Performance training. Analytics departments provide an opportunity to help validate tangible outcomes in mental performance and player behavior. German BBL teams seem to understand how to effectively employ the mental performance resource as a part of the greater coaching staff.

Lastly, just like the analytics and sports science waves, mental performance could be poised as the next major departmental build-out at the NBA level.

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Minnesota Timberwolves 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Minnesota Timberwolves have new leadership but are bringing back functionally the same roster that missed the playoffs last year by 12 games. Can the Wolves improve enough internally to make the postseason or will the Wolves become sellers at the trade deadline? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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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

1. Stability

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

STRENGTHS

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

WEAKNESSES

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

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