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NBA PM: Minnesota Timberwolves Are Finding Ways To Win

Despite countless obstacles, the Timberwolves are finding ways to stay in the playoff picture.

Buddy Grizzard

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It seems odd that a Tom Thibodeau-coached team could struggle defensively, but those struggles have been a theme for Minnesota throughout the season. Thibodeau said the defensive challenges have combined with a less-than-ideal schedule and injuries to make the first quarter of the season a struggle.

“The hard thing has been this: It’s important for us just to find ways to win,” said Thibodeau after Sunday’s win over the visiting Clippers. “Our schedule hasn’t been ideal as far as practicing. You’re trying to make corrections in ballrooms and walk-throughs. In the meantime, you do the best you can, you watch film and you want to learn. We’re down players, so that’s part of it, too.”

Starting point guard Jeff Teague and third-year forward Nemanja Bjelica—owner of a supremely-efficient 18.2 PER that trails only Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler on the team—have both missed time due to injury. The team appeared to dodge a bullet when Towns was able to return to action quickly after being evaluated for a concussion following a collision with OKC’s Andre Roberson that required stitches above his right eye. However, Towns had only seven points on six shots in 37 minutes of action in an embarrassing defeat at Memphis on Monday. The Grizzlies had lost 11 in a row before Minnesota’s visit but were able to snap the streak against a Timberwolves team that is below .500 on the road.

“Like I’ve said time and time again, we’ve got to start guarding somebody,” said Butler after the Clippers game. “It’s really bad, really noticeable, and everybody capitalizes on it.”

After struggling early against a brutal opening schedule, as Basketball Insiders’ Jesse Blancarte described, the Timberwolves have actually improved to 24th in defensive efficiency. The team presently matches the Cleveland Cavaliers in allowing 108 points per 100 possessions. Minnesota is outscoring opponents by nearly half a point per game, a differential that ranks 11th and places them squarely in the playoff conversation.

At sixth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, the team has made strides toward breaking a string of 13 consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance. Butler echoed Thibodeau’s comments about finding ways to win but also fell back on the familiar theme of emphasizing effort on defense.

“We’ve got to just continue to win,” said Butler. “We’re not worried the past and what happened X amount of years ago or last year. We can only control the right now.

“We’ve got some phenomenal scorers, guys that can put that ball in that basket better than a lot of guys in this league. But you’ve got to want to guard. You’ve got to have that second effort.”

Part of the problem for Minnesota is that the perimeter players haven’t been able to provide much support to Towns in limiting opponents near the basket. Andrew Wiggins came into the league with a reputation as a lockdown defender, but he’s allowed opponents to shoot nearly 50 percent this season. Outside 15 feet, opposing players are shooting a mere 36.5 percent against Wiggins, but once they get within 10 feet of the basket, that number shoots up to 67.4 percent on 135 shots guarded.

That theme continues with the starting backcourt of Teague (49 percent overall field goals against, 68.4 percent within 10 feet) and Butler (45.7 percent overall, 67 percent within 10 feet). As such, Butler was quick to add that he’s not singling out teammates for criticism, and includes himself among Timberwolves that need to improve.

“We talk about it every single day amongst ourselves,” said Butler. “I even don’t do what I’m supposed to do sometimes, letting the ball get [to the] middle. So, you know what? It starts with me. I’ve got to fix it on my end as well.”

With a challenging schedule, few opportunities to practice, injury woes and defensive shortcomings, the Timberwolves have faced a stacked deck in the early going. Nonetheless, the team has found a way to gut out a 14-11 record that has it on pace to break the playoff drought. If the team can continue to improve defensively, as seems likely for a team coached by Thibodeau, Minnesota should remain in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA

Knicks Holdovers Proved Something to Carmelo Anthony and the NBA

The Knicks made a statement in beating Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder convincingly in his return to Madison Square Garden.

Moke Hamilton

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As he walked up the tunnel in his dapper outfit and slick looking fedora, Carmelo Anthony had spent the past few nights thinking about this moment.

Seeing friends and family he’s missed since relocating to Oklahoma City, the game was quite emotional for the 10-time All-Star.

Never did he imagine, though, that his former teammates would want to beat him more than he wanted to beat them.

Even without Kristaps Porzingis, though, that’s exactly what the Knicks went out and did.

******

When LeBron James spurned the Knicks and announced his intentions to take his talents to South Beach, word began to trickle out of Denver that another big fish had his eyes on New York.

It was there, in the aftermath of heartbreak that the infatuation with Anthony began. Forcing a trade to New York in 2011, Anthony will forever wear the fact that the Knicks were muscled into trading for him like a Scarlett letter. It was ironic then that even with Anthony, the Knicks would spend the majority of his career in New York lacking the talent required to compete for supremacy atop the Eastern Conference.

As the years progressed and the Knicks continued to flounder, fans in New York inevitably split. Some blamed Anthony for the franchise’s failure to achieve higher. By forcing the trade, they’d argued, Anthony stripped the team of valuable assets that could have been used to help acquire reinforcements for him. Those that defend Anthony would sooner point to the organization’s lack of continuity—both on the bench and in the front office—as the primary reason the team floundered.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, just like the scores of teammates Anthony has had in New York have.

Player movement in the NBA has become its own phenomenon. Tons of time is spent talking about things from the superstars’ perspective, and not much from the perspective of the role players. So when a player like Anthony is  deemed to need to relocate in order to have an opportunity to win at the highest levels, players like Lance Thomas, Courtney Lee and even Kristaps Porzingis begin to be thought of as players who aren’t good enough to succeed in a serious way in the league. It usually takes many years of futility for the superstar to be the one considered damaged goods.

So when Anthony and the Thunder came into Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, the 10-time All-Star wasn’t the only one that had something to prove. Subliminally, the role players left behind—the team that many expected to find itself in the lottery once the season was over—was just as eager to prove that the team’s failure to win around Anthony wasn’t completely due to their shortcomings as professionals.

As the Knicks soundly defeated the Thunder by a final score of 111-96, there’s no doubt that the Thunder’s triple-overtime game in Philadelphia the night before had an impact, but there’s also no doubt that there just so happened to be a little extra pep in the step of each Knick player. That the Knicks managed to outlast the Thunder without top gun Porzingis was especially impressive.

And when it was all said and done, the Knicks fans that curiously booed Anthony proved a central point: there is a large section of them that believe that Anthony somehow held the team back. Certainly, the Knicks could have and should have achieved higher during his years there, but to boo an athlete that chose New York—a franchise that has been marked by poor management and poorer decisions—seemed a bit out of touch.

Sure, Anthony may have failed the Knicks, but they absolutely failed him, too. And in the face of it, all Anthony ever did was show up, play hard and answer every question ever posed to him authentically and honestly. He proudly wore New York across his chest and showed up every day. In a world where LeBron leaves for Miami and Durant leaves for Oakland, Anthony’s commitment to New York should have meant something to Knicks fans. Flaws and all, Anthony chose New York and it wasn’t until he was told in certain terms that the organization wanted to move on that he honored their wish.

And in the end, Anthony decided to waive his no-trade clause to head to Oklahoma City. In return, the Knicks got Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and the rights to the Chicago Bulls’ second round pick in 2018 NBA Draft.

Still, heading into the season, the Knicks were projected to be a lottery team. Without a player the caliber of Anthony, they were thought to be a long shot for the playoffs. Holdovers from last year’s team knew what people were saying about them, and although head coach Jeff Hornacek refused to admit it, there is genuine surprise around the team that, at 16-13, has matched its 29-game start to last year.

Perhaps those that booed Anthony on Saturday night did so because of some warped sense of reality. Perhaps they believed that it was Anthony that quit on the team and not vice versa. Maybe they thought that, without Anthony, they wouldn’t have a shot at doing anything impactful this season.

Through 29 games, it would appear that they were wrong.

And in Anthony’s return to Madison Square Garden, the Knicks proved that, and a lot more.

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NBA

Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA

David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.

David Yapkowitz

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Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.

But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.

“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”

Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.

He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.

VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.

Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.

“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”

VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.

Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.

“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”

The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.

Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.

“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”

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G-League

NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard

On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.

Dennis Chambers

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Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.

In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.

Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.

Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.

Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.

Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.

For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.

“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”

Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.

Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.

“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”

After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.

During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.

Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.

For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.

“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”

New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.

On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.

After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.

Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.

“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game,  more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”

It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.

“I know it’s coming,” he said.

When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.

“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”

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