The Minnesota Timberwolves completed one of the biggest deals of the offseason. They dealt promising young players in Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn to the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler, one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Butler, along with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, helps form quite possibly one of the best trios in the league. For a team looking to finally break through and reach the playoffs, Butler was a huge addition.
They didn’t stop there, however. Tom Thibodeau added several quality veterans in Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford. These moves made it clear that development is over and playoffs are the goal. The Western Conference is tough though, and it will be a difficult task.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves could be a fascinating clash of standard team-building mantras. On the one hand, summer moves that brought Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague to town while jettisoning Ricky Rubio unquestionably bolstered the overall talent on the roster, as should expected improvements from young blue-chippers like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. On the other hand, though, we’ve seen numerous examples of fit struggles for teams trying to incorporate pieces on the fly – and there are a few signs that could be the case in Minnesota. For one thing, their floor spacing could be a bit of a struggle; guys like Butler and Teague do a lot of things very well, but neither provides a ton of spacing out beyond three for a team that also lost its best volume three-point shooter in Zach LaVine. For another, their depth could be suspect – always at least a token concern for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, who’s been known to run his players ragged. Some are penciling in the Wolves as a playoff lock out West, with many even considering them as the favorites for the 5-seed or higher; to this eye, they’re closer to the rest of the conference’s middle that will compete for the final several playoff spots, though their ceiling is certainly higher than virtually all these other teams (Denver, LA Clippers, Portland, Utah, Memphis, etc). The Wolves could legitimately finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Northwest.
3rd Place — Northwest Division
— Ben Dowsett
With all that has transpired over the course of the offseason, it would have been somewhat easy to miss the fact that the Timberwolves probably had the best offseason of any team. Sure, the Celtics added Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, but they were already the top team in the Eastern Conference last year, and most people would still pick the Cavaliers in a seven-game series.
The T-Wolves, on the other hand, are coming off of a 31-win season and haven’t even as much as made the playoffs since 2004. That’ll change this season.
With Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson joining Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, if things break right, the T-Wolves will make the Northwest Division the toughest in basketball. Although the Jazz are the defending champs, the loss of Gordon Hayward is going to hurt their chances of a repeat. The Denver Nuggets are on the uptick and Russell Westbrook has Paul George by his side.
Because of my belief in Tom Thibodeau, I’m willing to bet that, so long as the team is healthy, Thibs finds a way to land his team in the top three in the Northwest and lead them to a long-awaited return to the playoffs.
2nd Place — Northwest Division
— Moke Hamilton
It’s easy to think, “Don’t get ahead of yourself. There are a lot of new players here. And a lot of young players here. Don’t expect too big a leap in their first year trying to figure it all out.” But I’m defying all that logic and picking them to finish 2nd in the league’s most insane division anyway. We all were excited about the team’s young core a year ago, and now they’ve only improved upon that core by adding Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. They’re coached by a man possessed by the specter of perfectionism, and goodness do they look promising. There’s real star power here, and real depth. That slots them a bit ahead of Portland, Denver and Utah.
2nd Place — Northwest Division
— Joel Brigham
Tom Thibodeau used this summer to get some of his old Chicago Bulls band members back together in Minnesota. With a few solid building blocks in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins already developing under Thibodeau’s tutelage, the former Bulls head coach traded for his former star shooting guard in Chicago, Jimmy Butler. Thibodeau then went a step further and acquired another one of his former players when the Wolves signed Taj Gibson in free agency. Adding those former Chicago guys to the mix in Minnesota, plus the signing of Jeff Teague, gives the Wolves a increased level of talent, and more importantly, veteran leadership to help guide the younger guys to their first ever playoff appearance. Thibodeau’s familiar faces should really put Minnesota over the hump and turn them into a true contender this season.
1st place — Northwest Division
— Dennis Chambers
The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the more interesting teams entering the 2017-18 NBA season. Already featuring young talent like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, while bringing in players like Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, the Timberwolves have a lot of talent and the potential to finish as high as second and as low as fifth in the Northwest Division. Tom Thibodeau will be tasked with making all of this talent fit together in a coheisve manner, which will be difficult considering the team’s lack of overall floor spacing. The Timberwolves have nice talent but are short on quality three-point shooters, which is going to make like particularly difficult for Towns and Butler, who should anchor the team’s offense. The team’s defense is also going to need to improve significantly if Minnesota hopes to make some real playoff noise. Adding guys like Butler and Gibson should help on defense, but guys like Wiggins are going to need to step up their respective games.
3rd Place — Northwest Division
— Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
Yes, the Wolves acquired Butler, and yes he is a top 10-15 talent. But Towns remains the best offensive player on the team. He’s improved every year he’s been in the league so far. He is incredibly versatile offensively. He can post up like a traditional big man, and he can also play the wing like a guard. He has unlimited range as well. He shot 34.1 percent from the three-point line his rookie year, and 36.7 percent from downtown this past season.
He is also an improving playmaker. Interestingly enough, he’s almost in the mold of a young Kevin Garnett, who acted as a mentor to Towns as a rookie. Towns is a franchise talent in the making. He was the unanimous Rookie of the Year in 2016 when he averaged 18.3 points per game on 54.2 percent shooting. This past season, he upped that to 25.1 points on the same shooting percentage. Whatever fate lies ahead for the Wolves, Towns will definitely be at the center of it all.
Top Defensive Player: Gorgui Dieng
The clear choice here is Butler, and while he’ll have a major impact on the Wolves’ defense, it’s possible that the team’s most important defensive player is Gorgui Dieng. Dieng is the epitome of substance over style. He’s not going to wow anyone with spectacular plays, but he does so much of the little things that contribute to winning basketball, including playing defense.
Dieng has become a great shot-blocker and team defender. With the addition of Taj Gibson, Dieng might be moved to the bench. While Gibson is also a solid defender, he does not possess the shot-blocking prowess of Dieng. For someone like Towns who is still a work in progress defensively, having Dieng behind him waiting to challenge opponents at the rim is probably the better fit. It worked last year as Dieng fit seamlessly into the starting lineup.
Top Playmaker: Jimmy Butler
It was just an absolute steal for the Wolves to nab Butler. He can do so many different things on the court, including being a primary playmaker. Butler often played point guard at times with the Bulls, and he should get his fair share of playmaking duties with the Wolves as well. With the ball often in his hands last season, he averaged a career-high 5.5 assists.
The Wolves traded Ricky Rubio this summer who used to occupy the role of top playmaker on the roster. For a talent like Butler, Rubio, who is not a strong shooter to begin with, didn’t really fit alongside him. Jeff Teague is a much better fit as his shooting will help space the floor a lot better. With Teague behind the three-point line and athletic talents like Towns and Wiggins running the floor, Butler will have no shortage of options to pass the ball to. His assist numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the league and it’s possible that happens again this upcoming season.
Top Clutch Player: Jimmy Butler
When the Bulls needed a clutch shot last season, the ball was in the hands of Butler. He’s incredibly strong and athletic, allowing him to get his shot off over most defenders. He has cemented himself as one of the top clutch players in the NBA. Not only was he the Bulls top shot option in the fourth quarter, he was their top option period. Most of his time at point guard came down the stretch as the Bulls trusted him to not only take a clutch shot but make the right play as well.
The Wolves were a team that struggled late in the fourth quarter last year. Butler is the remedy. Thibodeau has a legit go-to option for whatever play needs to be made down the stretch.
The Unheralded Player: Tyus Jones
Jones has been an afterthought his first two years with the Wolves. Now with both Rubio and Dunn gone, the backup point guard spot is his for the taking. It’s possible that the Wolves still sign a veteran backup before the season starts, but it might be a good idea to start utilizing some of the overlooked young talent on the roster.
Jones has only played in a total of 97 games over the past two years, at 14.2 minutes per game. He was, however, used a bit more frequently this past season, Thibodeau’s first as head coach. He showed an ability to hit from downtown at a respectable 35.6 percent, as well as being able to steady an offense and make the right pass. He also showed he can be a solid defensive presence. His ability to score is still a question mark, but with Jamal Crawford generating most of the offense off the bench, simply getting guys good shots and taking the open shot when it comes to him is what he’ll need to do to really establish himself in his third season.
Best New Addition: Jamal Crawford
For a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade, adding a veteran like Crawford was exactly the type of move they should be making. Crawford may be 37 years old, and his shooting percentages have always hovered around the low 40s, but he remains one of the deadliest scorers in the league off the bench. His difficult shot making ability as well as being able to get his shot off against any defender is almost unparalleled.
He’s been a double-digit scorer his entire career, he averaged 12.3 points per game with the Los Angeles Clippers last season, and that should stay the same. The Wolves are in desperate need of consistent bench production and Crawford will address that issue. He also brings a ton of veteran experience, something that should rub off on the young Wolves.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Tom Thibodeau
Thibodeau has long been regarded as one of the toughest and best defensive coaches in the NBA. He helped transform the Big 3 Boston Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen into one of the best defensive teams of the past few decades. His Chicago Bulls teams were always among the top defensive teams in the NBA. Now, he’s looking to work his magic with the young Wolves. The additions of Butler and Gibson, two players he coached in Chicago, and two strong defenders will fit in perfectly with the system he runs. He’ll have to squeeze in all the new players, but Thibs can do it. A no-nonsense type of guy, he’s perfect to guide the Wolves back to the playoffs.
2. Andrew Wiggins
The least established of the Wolves Big 3 of himself, Towns, and Butler, Wiggins is still a force to be reckoned with. There was a lot of hype surrounding Wiggins when he entered the 2014 draft, and it came with some heavy expectations. Thus far, he hasn’t quite been the superstar many projected him to be, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t an impact player, or that he can’t still emerge into that type of guy. His scoring has improved every season, going from 16.9 points per game two years ago to the 23.6 he averaged this past season. He shoots around 45 percent from the field which is very respectable for a wing scorer. What he’ll need to improve upon to take that next leap are his defense and three-point shooting. He’s got all the physical tools to become a top wing defender and consistently being able to hit the three-ball is a must in today’s game.
3. Jeff Teague
When the Wolves traded Rubio, they almost immediately came to terms with Teague as a free agent. For the roster that Thibodeau is building, Teague was clearly the better fit. Teague is nowhere near the elite playmaker that Rubio was, but that won’t matter too much with Butler as the de facto point guard on the floor. Where Teague will excel is his outside shooting. He can space the floor much better than Rubio which is a necessary skill in today’s NBA. He will help open up the lane for Minnesota’s Big 3. He also brings playoff experience and leadership to help steer the young guys in the right direction.
4. Taj Gibson
Gibson was one of the best role players on the market this summer and it was an excellent move for the Wolves to snatch him up. He can start or come off the bench and still make a solid impact on the court. He’s a good midrange shooter to help space the floor and he has a knack for playing around the rim and getting put-backs off missed shots. He is also a rugged rebounder and strong defender, traits that are necessary for Thibodeau’s system. Gibson is a veteran with years of playoff experience. Whether he starts or helps anchor the second unit, his impact will surely be felt.
5. Justin Patton
The deal for Butler was a home run for the Wolves even if he was the only player they received in return. The fact that they managed to acquire Justin Patton as well made the trade that much more in favor of Minnesota. Patton required offseason surgery for a foot injury and was unable to make his summer league debut. He will most assuredly miss time once the season gets underway and will have to postpone his NBA debut. If he manages to get on the court this season, however, he could have a solid impact. He’s an athletic big who can finish around the rim as well as step out and knock down jumpers. He’s also in the mold of a potentially elite interior defender. The Wolves have little front court depth off the bench, with Cole Aldrich and Nemanja Bjelica as the only realistic options. If Patton can get healthy quickly, he could find a spot for himself in the rotation.
SALARY CAP 101
The Wolves made their big play on the night of the NBA Draft, trading for Jimmy Butler. The team went on to use cap room to sign Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, and spent its $4.3 million Room Exception on Jamal Crawford. Now all Minnesota has left to round out the roster are minimum contracts.
The team has until the start of the season to work out an extension with Andrew Wiggins. The Wolves need to pick up team options on Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones before November. With the sizable contracts of Gorgui Dieng, Butler, Teague and Gibson, the Timberwolves do not project to have any significant spending power.
– Eric Pincus
The Wolves will have no trouble scoring the basketball, that much is clear. Butler, Towns, and Wiggins are all deadly offensive options. With Teague and either Dieng or Gibson rounding out the starting lineup, it will be tough for opposing defenses to slow them down. Although neither Dieng nor Gibson are known for their scoring, they are capable scorers when needed. Both can finish at the rim, and both have become strong midrange shooters. It’s a pick your poison type of situation. The bench is more of a question mark, but that’s where Crawford comes in. If the Wolves can get one or two other guys to provide consistent scoring for the second unit, they should be alright. Thibodeau plays a tight rotation, so whoever it is will need to give solid production.
The Wolves were one of the worst teams in the league last season at finishing games. There were numerous instances when the Wolves went into the fourth quarter with a lead, only to see it evaporate and watch the game slip away in defeat. Enter Butler and Crawford, two players among those with the best crunch time reputations in the NBA. They should vastly improve the Wolves clutch decision making.
The defense was also an issue for the Wolves this past year. With Thibodeau bringing in some of his former defensive standouts like Butler and Gibson, that should help remedy their defensive woes. In order to make that jump to a true playoff contender in the West, it is imperative that the Wolves improve their defense to the upper echelon of the league.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Timberwolves break through and end their decade plus long playoff drought?
It’s clear that playoffs are the ultimate goal for the Wolves this season. Their offseason moves reinforced that. The Western Conference is a tough place. The Golden State Warriors reign supreme with teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and Oklahoma City Thunder lying in wait. Outside of those four teams, though, the West should be much more of a tossup. Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz have taken steps back while the Denver Nuggets should be improved. When looking at the bottom half of the conference, the Wolves have as much talent as anyone, perhaps more. A 5-7 seed is definitely not out of the question. With Thibodeau at the helm, and a current superstar in Butler paired with a superstar in the making in Towns, the Wolves will not only end their postseason drought, but they will finish with a top-5 record in the West and give some team all they’ve got in the first round of the playoffs.
Results-Based Mental Performance: Plan B
Jake Rauchbach breaks down how players can improve their on-court games with off-court tools during this hiatus
For players looking to remain sharp, getting in on-court work right now can prove to be a challenge. Considering the social distancing and lockdown currently in effect, players and teams alike may be forced to look outside the box to employ other sorts of ways to maintain an edge.
Integrated player development tools that touch upon the deeper level of the mind could provide the answer.
With limited skill development time, mental tools that aim to maintain and refine player’s instincts, habits and routines could hold the key to producing improvement during this on-court hiatus.
In this column, we are going to highlight four different ways to train the mind (And Game) to remain sharp.
Science has shown that there is a direct connection between thoughts, emotions and the body. This means when players are relegated to primarily off-court activities, there could be no better way to train, than visualization.
Players that I have worked with in the past who have employed visualization, have often produced mirror-like on-court results.
For instance, during my time at Temple University, there was a player who pictured himself stealing the ball in the full court and then going down to dunk the ball. Before visualizing this, he had not completed this play during the game. After doing so, he began to repeatedly complete this play during the games. This is just one example, of how powerful visualization can be, and there are many more. This type of phenomenon has become the new normal for the community of MindRight Pro community players. What we are finding, is there is a direct connection between internal picturing and external outcomes.
This is one of the reasons why, visualization is such a beneficial tool to use, especially when players are not able to get-in adequate court-time. At this point, making this apart of the player’s daily routine should be a no brainer.
Affirmations have long been used as a way to affirm mindset. For players, whose seasons have abruptly come to an end, and where on-court time has been limited, training mindset to stay sharp is VITAL.
Consistent use of affirmations helps players hone their very own personal mission statement. If players can stay on a mission now, they can perceivably do so through any future experience.
Regular check-ins help to keep players on a mission, and headed in the right direction.
Leveraging breath as a way to increase awareness and performance is a pillar of virtually every type of self-help and high-performance modality.
Being aware of one’s breath is very powerful. Breathwork has also long been used as a vehicle to bring people into the present moment. The present moment is where high-performance lives. For players, there may be nothing more important for their game than this.
This is a big-time opportunity for athletes to train on-court performance via present moment awareness. We are talking about training breath as a proxy for improvement.
Ultimately, on-court performance all boils down to present moment awareness. Without a strong handle on this aspect of consciousness, players will hold themselves back from the best version of themselves. For players, training this aspect now could reap big-time rewards when basketball resumes.
Of course, we can provide this list without talking about meditation. Meditation is like the anchor for all other mind-based methods. With the increasing number of options for meditation, players should have no problem finding resources in this regard.
This being said, there are a ton of different types of meditation. It does not matter which one a player chooses, the most important thing is that he/she is consistent.
Consistency moves the dial, and that is super important right now. Players who consistently train the mind during their time off the court; Give themselves an edge once they’re cleared to be back on the court in the full.
Check out Jake Rauchbach’s High-Performance Mindfulness podcast here.
NBA Daily: The Hot Seat – Western Conference
Matt John takes a look at head coaches and general managers in the Western Conference whose jobs might be on the line.
Back on Monday, Basketball Insiders took a look at which personnel from the Eastern Conference could be in danger of losing their jobs. In case you missed it, check it out here.
Previously, we discussed the notion that there’s always one guy you’d never suspect to lose his job to get hit by the Hot Seat – Kenny Atkinson’s mutual parting a few weeks back was just that.
Before we dive into the jobs on the line in the Western Conference, there’s something else that must be pointed out about the Hot Seat. It’s true that when it comes to job performance in the NBA, most of what determines your fate stems from the question: “What have you done for me lately?”
Joe Dumars’ time as the general manager of the Detroit Pistons is a good example of this. Outside of infamously drafting Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in 2003, Dumars had a near-perfect track record after taking over from 2000 to 2006. Following the departure of franchise icon Grant Hill, Dumars did the following:
– Acquire Ben Wallace in a sign-and-trade with Orlando for Hill. Wallace then went on to become one of the best rim protectors of his era and all-time
– Brought in Chauncey Billups on a cheap deal just before Billups became Mr. Big Shot
– Traded Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton, who became a perfect complement next to Billups in the frontcourt
– Drafted Mehmet Okur, Tayshaun Prince, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell, all productive players that were taken after the lottery
– Replaced Rick Carlisle with Larry Brown
– Basically stole Rasheed Wallace mid-season
Naturally, this created a great era of basketball for Detroit. They won a championship, went to two consecutive finals, and went to six consecutive conference finals from 2003-08. Not many can say they were able to win a championship after losing a superstar and failing to draft one when they had the chance, but Dumars can.
But then came the fall of 2008: That bred the awful Billups-for-Iverson deal. Paying top dollar for the ill-fated Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva contracts. Putting together a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. If Dumars didn’t have an incredible run earlier as general manager, how long would he have lasted after putting the team in mediocrity?
Given the massive amount of franchise success to his name, he kept his job long after things nosedived for Detroit. It’s that same sort of success that guarantees leaders like Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle will keep their job for as long as they want, even if they are sitting at home when the playoffs start.
The following people are on the hot seat not because they haven’t necessarily experienced success with their team — but because they haven’t had enough to keep their job should they fail in the situation they find themselves in now.
“Figure It Out… And Quickly Now”
Mike D’Antoni — Houston Rockets
D’Antoni has a lot of success both with the Rockets and as an NBA head coach in general. So much so that if he retired right here and now, he’d make a case for the best coach to never win a championship. Even so, the pressure on him to get Houston over the hump is stronger than it’s ever been.
Obviously, going to the small-ball lineup is something D’Antoni has no issue deploying. In fact, he embraces that gameplan. But even this may be too tall of a task for him. In the past, he used perimeter guys to soak up minutes at the power forward and center spots, but he usually had at least one pure big in his rotation. Now he doesn’t.
With Robert Covington and Clint Capela out, the Rockets don’t have any rotation players taller than 6-foot-8. In fact, the only one who’s actually measured at that height is Jeff Green, who was not only cut from Utah mid-season but spent most of the year riding the pine before Houston inquired about his services. Can you really call it small-ball if you have no bigs to begin with?
D’Antoni wouldn’t be here if this experiment was definitively working — they’re in the mix, but certainly not full-on contenders at this moment. For a while there, it looked like it was. Houston won seven of its first eight games, coming with notable wins coming against the Lakers, Boston (twice) and Utah. They then followed it up with a four-game losing streak with losses at the hands of New York, Charlotte and Orlando.
A record of 8-5 honestly isn’t too bad with such a drastic mid-season change, in retrospect. Russell Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball of his career, while James Harden was a little more off than usual. Still, the mixed results were scary given what the Rockets have ahead of them if the playoffs eventually come.
If Houston doesn’t get to the championship round or, at the very least, go further than they did last season, D’Antoni might get the lion’s share of the blame. Either way, D’Antoni’s contract extension talks with owner Tilman Fertitta didn’t go… smoothly either. As bad as that all may sound, with his reputation, he wouldn’t have much trouble finding another job.
“We Cannot Lose Another Franchise Player… We Just Can’t”
Ryan Saunders/Scott Layden – Minnesota Timberwolves
First, some props are due for both Saunders and Layden. In Layden’s case, he should get the credit for stealing Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez away from the Denver Nuggets. Then as a follow-up, he acquired D’Angelo Russell to appease Karl-Anthony Towns and give him the best scoring guard he’s ever had.
For Saunders, he’s integrated them pretty well mid-season. Beasley and Hernangomez are both playing excellent basketball right now for the Timberwolves. Russell is doing his usual thing. Appearances, finally, are on the rise for the talented squad.
Has that changed Minnesota’s fortunes one bit? Nope! Since the Timberwolves made their mid-season roster shakeup, they’ve gone 3-10, which puts them at 19-45, good for second-worst and only ahead of the injury-decimated Golden State Warriors.
It’s numbers like those that make the Wolves’ promising start back in October feel like an eternity ago. It wouldn’t matter if the season resumed or not, the Timberwolves weren’t making the playoffs. Worse, Towns was not happy with the team’s lack of success for most of the season. What Minnesota has to ask themselves is how long will he be willing to put up with such a lack of progress.
Bringing Russell aboard was the smart, obvious, and let’s face it, inevitable move. Pairing your franchise player with his friend has brought his spirits up, but the continued losing might not indefinitely postpone these feelings forever.
The real pressure on Layden and Saunders doesn’t come from only how the Timberwolves do, but how they fare against their competition next year. Excluding the conference’s top seven, their younger competitors — New Orleans, Memphis, Sacramento, Phoenix — are further along in developing their team than Minnesota. Worse, Golden State and Portland are also going to be much healthier next season. Making the playoffs in the Western Conference is going to be quite the mountain to climb, especially for Minnesota.
If they can’t get over that hump, Minnesota will have to do something to keep Towns happy. That might start with getting rid of Layden and Saunders.
This list may be short, but that’s because it’s hard to see other coaches and general managers being put on the hot seat right now. Ether because their seasons have gone well, their seasons have gone badly for reasons that were out of control, or there’s too much loyalty there for anyone to get fired.
The one coach who might eventually be on the hot seat is Quin Snyder. He’s done an excellent job for Utah over these past several years, so his one hiccup shouldn’t be enough to put his job in jeopardy. That’s more of a wait-and-see situation. Even if it doesn’t get better, it took several years for Toronto to dismiss Dwane Casey because he did so much for that organization.
Oklahoma City’s season has gone so surprisingly and enjoyably well that Billy Donovan’s job should be just fine. Some will blame Neil Olshey for what happened to Portland this season, but with all that happened with Jusuf Nurkic and their other injuries, what were his options?
Alvin Gentry would have made this list, but it wasn’t his fault that Zion Williamson missed most of the season. Now that the generational prospect is back, New Orleans has most definitely turned a corner and went 11-8 since his debut. It might be too late both due to the injury bug and COVID-19, but their improvement over the last few months should make Gentry’s job safe for now.
Luke Walton or Vlade Divac would also be prime candidates for this list, but who knows what’s going on in Sacramento’s collective head?
Right now, it looks like a lot more jobs in the Western Conference are safe than not at the moment. That can all change in a short amount of time, but we don’t know anything, really. Here’s to hoping that no one will lose their job in this league – especially at a time like this.
NBA Daily: Under The Radar – Western Conference
David Yapkowitz takes a look at players from the Western Conference that deserve their due for stepping up this season despite receiving less attention.
NBA basketball is on an indefinite hiatus for the foreseeable future, but here at Basketball Insiders, we’ve still got some content to keep you entertained.
We kicked off last week with a look at some of the top upcoming free agents around the league, started this week with coaches and executives who could be on the hot seat, and we’re transitioning into looking at players who may have been flying under the radar this season.
There are various reasons why a player could be flying under the radar. Playing in a small market, not being on a playoff team, etc. Whatever the reason may be, here’s a look at some of the players in the Western Conference who have been under the radar this season.
Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder
With all the attention Chris Paul has gotten throughout his career, it’s funny to think of him being on an under the radar list. But he really hasn’t gotten his proper due for this season he’s putting together. At the start of the season, the Thunder looked like a fringe playoff team at the absolute best. Thanks to Paul’s leadership, they were in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and surely would have given anyone a tough opening series.
In his 15th season, Paul’s numbers are right around his career averages. He was putting up 17.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals. His 48.9 percent shooting from the field is the third-highest mark in his career. As of publishing, the Thunder were actually ahead of the Houston Rockets in the standings; the team that traded Paul last summer.
Torrey Craig – Denver Nuggets
Craig is in third NBA season, all with the Nuggets. He went to a small NCAA Division 1 school (University of South Carolina Upstate) and spent the early portion of his career overseas in Australia and New Zealand. He originally began his NBA career on a two-way contract, earning a standard contract after his first year and now becoming a mainstay in the Nuggets rotation.
His numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the NBA. This season he was shooting career-bests 46.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. What has really stood out about him, however, is his defensive ability. He’s quietly become one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. On a team full of offensive firepower like the Nuggets, his skill-set is a much-needed asset.
Ben McLemore – Houston Rockets
There was a time when McLemore was a lottery pick and supposed to be one of the future building blocks for the Sacramento Kings. That didn’t end up panning out and when he joined the Rockets on a non-guaranteed contract this past offseason, it was widely seen as his last shot to prove himself as an NBA rotation player.
He has certainly answered the call this season. He emerged as an invaluable member of the Rockets rotation. He established himself as a legitimate 3&D player. Early in the season when his shot wasn’t falling, he was still contributing on the defensive end. As of now, he’s shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. He’s been a starter for Houston and he’s come off the bench. He’s certainly done enough to earn himself another contract in the offseason.
De’Anthony Melton – Memphis Grizzlies
Melton played in a total of 50 games last season as a rookie for the Phoenix Suns. This season, he was on pace to surpass that. In his second year in the league, he’s become a key piece for a Grizzlies team that was hanging on to the eighth spot in the West. He has a versatile skill set and he can play multiple positions.
Melton was putting up 8.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He’s a legit combo guard. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and running the offense. He is also a strong defensive player. There is a lot of young talent on the Grizzlies and Melton is perhaps the most underrated one.
Landry Shamet – Los Angeles Clippers
Shamet had an immediate impact as a rookie last season, especially in the Clippers entertaining first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Last season, he started 23 of the 25 games with the Clippers after the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He began this season as a starter, but has since transitioned into a bench role.
His numbers and minutes have dropped off since the arrival of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, but he still is a valuable part of the team. He’s averaging 9.7 points per game and shooting 39.2 percent from the three-point line. He can play both on and off-ball. He is especially adept at moving without the ball to get open.
Georges Niang – Utah Jazz
Niang started his time with the Utah Jazz on a two-way contract and has gradually worked his way into the Jazz rotation. When Utah waived Jeff Green back in December, Niang was the beneficiary of increased playing time. He has fit in well as a small-ball four-man who can space the floor.
He’s shooting a career-best 41.6 percent from the three-point line and earlier this year was among the top three-point shooters percentage-wise in the league. He comes into the game, plays his role and doesn’t try to do too much. A key utility guy who does what is asked of him and can contribute to winning.