A word to the wise: fear the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Truth be told, I made a similar declaration about the Milwaukee Bucks not too long ago, and collectively, they certainly took a step back this season. But individually, Giannis Antetokounmpo has proven himself to be as unique of a player we have seen enter the National Basketball Association in a long, long time. With a little more seasoning, the Bucks will be ready to cook.
As for the Timberwolves, by adding Tom Thibodeau to their bench (and front office), they have certainly added leadership and a brilliant basketball mind who specializes in accountability and getting the most with the least. The franchise also boasts an impressive core featuring the likes of the 2015 Rookie of the Year in Andrew Wiggins, phenoms Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine and the young veteran Ricky Rubio.
And, of course, the Timberwolves boast Karl-Anthony Towns, a player who just put together one of the best rookie campaigns we have even seen.
Remember back when Anthony Davis was entering the league and coaches and scouts were salivating over him and his potential? After just three seasons in the league, Davis had earned consideration for Most Valuable Player and seemed to have turned the New Orleans Pelicans around.
His growth over their first three seasons was impressive, especially considering that his rookie averages weren’t necessarily anything to write home about (13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, one assist and 1.8 blocks).
Towns, on the other hand, just gave us a superior rookie season, is better than advertised at taking defenders off the dribble, shot 34 percent from the three-point line and now has one of the finer head coaches in all the league.
Forget two or three years from now, imagine what Towns and the Timberwolves will look like next season.
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What has been most disappointing as it relates to Anthony Davis has been his inability to stay healthy. For that reason, we caveat all predictions and prognostications by acknowledging that health is everything. The human body wasn’t made to play 100 basketball games over the course of a six-month season. Some guys are able to withstand that punishment while others are not. The fact that Towns was able to play all 82 games in his rookie year, though, is a major positive that should be acknowledged. If a young big man has brittle bones, that will usually reveal itself quickly after he begins taking grown man punishment at the hands of NBA veterans.
What also should be acknowledged about young big men is this: they usually start slow and take time to develop into dependable, everyday players. This season, though, Towns joins a short list of big men who scored at least 18 points, grabbed at least 10 rebounds, dished out at least two assists and blocked at least 1.5 shots per game in their rookie seasons.
The list includes 14 different players, including Blake Griffin, Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Larry Johnson, but of all of the players that have accomplished this feat, only three of them did so while shooting at least 34 percent from the three-point line: Derrick Coleman, Larry Bird and Karl-Anthony Towns.
What makes Towns even more impressive, though, is further extrapolating the numbers. The 20-year-old phenom is the only player of the three to both shooting 34 percent from the three-point line and shoot over 50 percent from the field.
Put differently, Towns is the only rookie in NBA history to turn in per-game averages of 18 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and 1.5 blocks while shooting at least 50 percent from the field and at least 34 percent from the three-point line. The fact that he converted 81 percent of his three-throws pretty much reveals a player whose game has no discernible weakness.
As he prepared to enter the league, Towns was known to be a difference maker on the defensive side of the basketball. Offensively, though, his ceiling was difficult to determine. The soft touch from midrange was evident, but there were concerns about his willingness and ability to operate from the low post and taking the pounding that this would require. At times, Towns looked a bit like Andrew Bynum. Bynum was similar in that he was a very long and very rangy prospect who never seemed to fully grow into his body. Although he was able to be effective as an offensive player, his movements never seemed fluid and he never seemed to have the balance, poise or body control of a dominant post player like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett or even Marc Gasol.
Over the course of his rookie year, we saw Towns make significant strides operating from both the high and low post, and the Timberwolves often ran their offense through him. He has the ability to see the floor and make good decisions when presented with a tough choice.
Back on April 5, when the Timberwolves pulled off a monumental upset over at the Warriors, Towns tirelessly chased Stephen Curry around screens and made his life difficult by not giving up on plays, but offensively, Towns did his best impersonation of Draymond Green, catching outlet passes at the top of the key and driving to the rim. Once there, Towns made strong finishes or crisp passes. He wasn’t the game-high scorer for the Timberwolves, but he was the standout player. It was one of his finer performances, but certainly not an aberration. In the end, Towns turned in 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
Because the Timberwolves managed to win just 29 games, Towns and his immense contributions got lost in some of the bigger story lines that dominated the season: the Warriors making history, Kobe Bryant retiring and the surprising seasons turned in by the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards.
As always, next season, there will be a few more surprises. Among them will be the Timberwolves.
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We often overlook the extent to which coaching and culture impact the development of a young player. Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant would not have become who they were had it not been for the influence and teaching of Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, respectively. It should come as no surprise that Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson enjoyed their best seasons under the guidance of leaders such as Doc Rivers and Frank Vogel, and it is that reason more than any other than Karl-Anthony Towns will likely surpass every expectation that we had of him.
A brief look at the players who Thibodeau has maximized will reveal that he is a coach who makes the most from the least. The more appropriation question today, though, and one which the entire Western Conference should be asking is what Thibodeau will be able to make out of one of the most promising rookies that this league has ever seen.
I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.
Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal
Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.
Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.
So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.
You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.
With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.
He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.
But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.
Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.
Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.
These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.
Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.
The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.
Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.
The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.
NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls
Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.
The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.
LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.
“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”
The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.
So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.
In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.
At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.
LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.
“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”
LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.
“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”
In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.
Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.
Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.
NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team
Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.
When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)