At this point in the year, every NBA franchise is now firmly separated into one of two camps: pushing for the playoffs or looking toward the lottery. And unless you’re the Brooklyn Nets, who are neither here nor there and do not own their own likely No. 1 overall selection, then your favorite team falls into one of these categories. While most of the Western Conference is captivated by a three-way battle for MVP between Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Russell Westbrook (joined by LeBron James from the East), there are a few teams that have set themselves up for a bright future even without the playoffs on the near horizon.
For those on the outside looking in, which teams in the Western Conference might be ready to take the next step in 2017-18?
Coming into this season, there was no franchise more hyped than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Led by the maturing talents of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, anchored by the once-in-a-generation Karl-Anthony Towns and coached by defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, many were predicting a playoff berth for one of the league’s youngest teams.
Of course, the torn ACL for LaVine quickly complicated things, but the Timberwolves struggled defensively against their elite competition for much of the season. The Wolves’ current defensive rating of 108.3 slots them in at the 7th-worst mark in the league, and they kept their opponents under 100 points just six times before January 1. For all the team’s potential, Minnesota has posted a poor 7-17 record against the current playoff field out West.
Even with their playoff hopes fading by the day (6.5 games back, 9 games remaining), the Timberwolves won’t end the season far from their predicted 8th seed. Which is to say, all in all, there’s plenty of room to grow in Minnesota.
The combined age of their starting lineup is just 23.6 (Gorgui Dieng leads the way at a ripe 27 years old) and Kris Dunn, perhaps this year’s most disappointing rookie, has loads of basketball ahead of him. As of today, the Timberwolves have a 72.5 percent chance of landing the No. 8 overall pick in a stacked class and can add another top prospect to the puzzle. Should they draft a stretch forward like Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen? Or could they target an eventual Ricky Rubio replacement in North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr.?
For the Wolves, their drafting options will be endless.
Still, they’ll need to improve defensively, but there’s no better place to start than with Thibadeau. The former head coach of the Chicago Bulls was a dream fit for this athletic but untrained Timberwolves team. Thibodeau was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2010-11, and his Bulls ranked in the top five in DRtg in four consecutive seasons from 2010-14 (1st, 1st, 5th and 2nd). While those teams were led by stalwart stoppers in Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah, there’s no reason to think Thibodeau can’t mold Wiggins and Towns into similar-like defenders. Defensively, Rubio and Dieng are already above average contributors at their position, so a healthy season and fleshed out bench should help Minnesota reach some of their unfulfilled potential.
So yes, this season was ultimately a disappointment for the Timberwolves, but their window is truly just opening. With a core set for the immediate future and the addition of another top ten pick this June, this Thibodeau-led franchise will start making playoff appearances sooner rather than later.
After the Phoenix Suns landed forwards Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender last summer, the franchise found themselves in an interesting position. Even with a healthy Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, the Suns were always anticipated to fall short of the playoffs this season, but could anyone have predicted this? Now they’re now neck and neck with the Los Angeles Lakers for the No. 2 overall selection, winners of just four games since the All-Star break.
In fleeting moments, these Suns were as electric as advertised, in part thanks to their budding core of youngsters. Chriss has shown real potential as a forward able to run the floor on one end then spot up for a three-pointer during the next possession. And, of course, there’s Booker, the sweet sharpshooter that dropped 70 points on the Boston Celtics last week, and his continued growth, upping his points per game average to 21.6 from his rookie season mark of 13.8.
Those two alone get the Suns in the conversation automatically, but strong periods of play from Alan Williams and Tyler Ulis have helped as well. Ulis has come on strong over the last month and, in March alone, he’s tossed seven or more assists in eight of the Suns’ 15 games. The best month of his professional career was highlighted by his 20-point, 5-assist and game-winning effort against the Celtics and Isaiah Thomas. As for Williams, the Suns’ backup center has quietly loaded up on minutes since the All-Star break. In his second NBA season, Williams has provided some quality minutes for Phoenix off the bench, racking up double-doubles in all but five of the games he’s played in March.
Admittedly, Bender has been a slow burn at times, but he’s a match for the new prototypical NBA big man as a stretch forward that’s agile enough to keep up with most opponents defensively. Although he’s been out since February after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, Bender is just 19 years old and should pair nicely with Chriss for many years to come.
If the Suns decide to part ways with Bledsoe, 27, or Knight, who is in the second season of a 5 year, $70 million deal, then they’ll hope to use their pick on UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Washington’s Markelle Fultz or Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, three guards that sit at the top of this class. Pairing Booker with one of those NBA-ready talents could be the key to an all-out onslaught on the Western Conference for years to come.
However, if the Suns don’t wind up with their choice guard, they could easily hold onto Bledsoe’s remarkably reasonable contract at $29.5 million over the final two years of his deal. With just T.J. Warren and Derrick Jones Jr. taking up time at the small forward position, Kansas’ Josh Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum would certainly be fantastic options there as well.
Long story short, the Suns already have Chriss, Bender and Booker locked in and the rest of the roster is (nearly) lean and flexible. We’ll just have to wait for the ping-pong balls to fall before the Suns decide how to proceed next.
Los Angeles Lakers
Finally, there’s the Los Angeles Lakers.
Following the retirement of Kobe Bryant last season, the Lakers quickly got to work and identified Luke Walton as the head coach of the future, snagging him away from the 73-win Golden State Warriors. After a solid 10-10 start through November, the wins started slipping away, so Walton trimmed the rotation and handed the reins to his younger players, a move that former head coach Byron Scott notoriously refused to make.
Elsewhere, after one of the strangest sagas in NBA history, franchise legend Magic Johnson took over as president of basketball operations in February. While there’s little evidence to believe that Johnson will be immediately successful in his first front office opportunity, the fit is a relatively perfect one and he’s got a wide margin of error for now.
In the backcourt, D’Angelo Russell pairs with Jordan Clarkson to form a dynamic, offensively-inclined duo. Although Russell’s numbers have nominally risen to 15.7 points and 4.8 assists per game during his sophomore season, Clarkson has replicated his strong output from 2015-16. While both need to improve defensively, it’s a good start to keep pace with the NBA’s guard-focused, offensively powered league.
Even in this weak rookie class, the lengthy Brandon Ingram struggled to leave his mark for much of the season. He’ll benefit greatly from a full offseason in Los Angeles, but he’s shown promise as a two-way player in the second half of this season. From October to January, Ingram scored in double figures just eight times, but following the New Year, the small forward has racked up 10 or more points in 22 of the Lakers’ 36 games. The No. 2 overall selection has a long way to go before reaching his lofty Duke expectations, but he’ll only be 20 years old in September, so there’s plenty of room to build from here.
And then there’s Larry Nance Jr., a former late first rounder that has shown flashes of strong play throughout the season. An injury forced Nance Jr. out for a month in December, but he’s been a consistent member of the rotation since then, supplying just a little bit of everything on the statistical end. The walking one-man highlight reel is averaging 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks per game on a solid 53.7 percent mark from the floor.
Other than the odd signings of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, moves that’ll cost the Lakers about $34 million per year until 2020, it’s safe to say that the new era of basketball in Los Angeles is off to a solid start with Walton at the helm. Now losers in 15 of their last 16 games, the Lakers have made a legitimate push for the NBA’s second-worst record along with the previously mentioned Suns.
Adding another top prospect in June — whether that’s Ball, Fultz or Jackson, it hardly matters — is the next step for Los Angeles this offseason. They’ll be sweating the draft lottery to ensure they retain a pick with which to do so.
While an NBA Championship is still far out of reach for these three franchises, there’s plenty to be excited about in Minnesota, Phoenix and Los Angeles. From high draft picks to blooming stars, these teams have the structure, coaches and potential to make some serious strides toward reaching the postseason once again.
David Nwaba and the Road Less Traveled
David Nwaba speaks to Basketball Insiders about his unconventional path to the NBA.
A player’s path to the NBA usually follows the same formula: A star in high school, a strong college career, and then eventually being selected in the NBA Draft. However, there are times when a player’s path is more unconventional. In the case of David Nwaba, he definitely took the path less traveled.
He attended University High School in West Los Angeles, where he was named All-Western League MVP twice as well as being an all-league selection. He finished his senior year in 2011 putting up 22.0 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.
He went to an NCAA Division 2 school, however, Hawaii Pacific University, but never suited up for them as he redshirted his freshman year. He played a year at Santa Monica Community College, where he was the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Nwaba, the decision to leave Hawaii Pacific was made with the NBA in mind.
“It was always a dream of mine, it’s also why I left a Division 2 school that I started at,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I had bigger dreams of playing D1 and potentially the NBA. So that was a dream of mine. I never thought the journey would go like this but it is how it is.”
Behind Nwaba, Cal Poly made their first-ever NCAA appearance in 2014. They won the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed out of eight teams, and then knocked off Dayton for the right to come in as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Wichita State. Cal Poly would go on to lose to Wichita State, but sparking that run to March Madness put Nwaba on the basketball map.
He didn’t get to the NBA right away, though. His first professional experience came with the then Los Angeles D-Fenders, now South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers G-League affiliate. He initially began with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings affiliate, but his rights were traded to Los Angeles. His strong play in the G-League was what caught the Lakers’ attention, enough to give him a pair of 10-day contracts, and then one for the rest of the season.
“It was a perfect spot to start up my professional career The G-League is a place to develop your game, and I think I developed a lot,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I learned a lot about the game, and I think it was a good place for me to start just out of college.”
Although he made a strong impression on the Lakers, Nwaba found out that nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. Due to a roster crunch when the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the summer, the Lakers ended up cutting him. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though. Before he had a chance to hit the open market, the Chicago Bulls claimed him off waivers.
He’s since carved out a role as one of the Bulls most dependable players in the second unit. And just like his path to the league, his role is a bit of an unconventional one as a shooting guard. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from the field, but most of his shots come from in the paint. He only shoots 26.3 percent from three-point range. It’s been effective for him though.
“It’s just bringing energy off the bench and just being that defender,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “For the most part, I just try to be aggressive going to the basket, finishing at the rim, making the right plays, just defending and playing hard.”
The Chicago Bulls got off to a slow start this season. They lost 17 of their first 20 games. In December, they started to pick up their play, winning 11 of their 20 games including a seven-game win streak. However, they’ve now dropped eight of their last 11 games. Despite that, Nwaba does see some encouraging signs. And in the Eastern Conference, he’s not quite ready to count out another run.
“We’re developing every game, just building chemistry amongst each other,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “Who knows, all it takes is just a streak of eight to ten games or something and we’re already back in the playoff race. You never know, anything can turn around. It’s still a long season, a lot of games to be played, and a lot of time to develop our game. We’ve still got a lot of time with each other.”
NBA Daily: The Los Angeles Lakers Could Be Up Next
The Los Angeles Lakers may not make the playoffs this season, but they’re trending in the right direction.
The Los Angeles Lakers are coming.
They may not be playoff-bound this season as some of their purple and gold faithful hoped for, but the prestigious franchise occupying the Staples Center is showing improvement from their young players. Perhaps even enough to lure the likes of established stars come summer time.
In Luke Walton’s second season as the Lakers’ head coach, he hits the All-Star break with his team holding a 23-34 record. Granted, that’s not the level of success he was used to during his time with the Golden State Warriors, but it is only three fewer wins than his team had all of last season.
Prior to limping into the break on the back of a three-game losing streak, the Lakers had won eight of 10. During that stretch, they’d beaten the likes of Oklahoma City (twice), Indiana, and Boston. Along with making the most of their performances over that span, the Lakers were also doing so without 2017’s second overall pick, Lonzo Ball, who’s sidelined with an injury.
But Ball isn’t the only Los Angeles darling who has shined this season. In fact, it’s arguable that he’s not even the most impressive youngster on the team.
Drafted second overall last season, Brandon Ingram is showing the improvement this season that warranted such a high selection. His play thus far suggests he’s one of the building blocks of the Lakers’ next era in contending for a championship.
In his 53 games this season, Ingram is averaging 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. His shooting from the floor and from beyond the arc have both seen dramatic increases as well this season. Over the same stretch that saw the Lakers go 8-2 with wins over cemented playoff teams, Ingram upped his assists per night to 5.2, taking the place of facilitator with Ball sidelined.
Though Ingram and the Lakers haven’t been setting the win column on fire all season, the steady growth and improvement show to him that the team is moving in the right direction, under the right coach.
“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Ingram said to reporters during All-Star weekend. “I think guys have gotten better every single day. I think we come in with the mindset that we have a really good coach that pushes us every single day. I like the progress of what we’re doing in our organization.”
Walton, this season more than last, has shown the ability to get the most out of the players he has. Ingram’s improvement, plus the capability as a point guard Ball has shown, are the givens. They were highly selected players, expected to contribute immediately. But it’s the production of the players who were afterthoughts that are a major testament to Walton’s teachings.
Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart were selected with the 27th and 30th picks in last June’s draft. Both were collegiate upperclassmen with noted handicaps in their respective games that led to teams selecting younger, or more athletic, or sweeter shooting players in their place.
A few years from now when everyone looks back, that could prove to be a silly mistake.
All Kuzma has done this season is keep his name consistently in the Rookie of the Year award race by averaging 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and shooting nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc. He’s been a lightning rod of scoring for the Lakers on nights where they desperately need it, racking up 13 games where he’s reached at least 20 points, and three games breaking the 30-point plateau.
Hart, on the other hand, hasn’t been as steady a performer as his fellow late first-round selected teammate. But when called upon, especially since Ball has been out, Hart’s shown the all-around game that made him one of the most decorated players in college basketball while at Villanova.
Over the last month, Hart has averaged 8.8 points and five rebounds per game, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. During that same stretch, Hart’s scored in double-figures six times and registered three straight double-doubles at the beginning of February.
Moving forward, as the Lakers look to add high-priced free agent in the coming summers, having guys like Kuzma and Hart on cost-effective rookie contracts is a luxury teams around the league hope to have.
Diamonds in the rough like Kuzma and more than capable contributors like Hart are nice, of course, but the real reason for optimism in L.A. is Ingram. He’s the player with a star power ceiling. He’s the guy that the likes of LeBron James and Paul George look at when they weigh their free agent options, as a guy who can handle the workload on the nights they may not have it.
Ingram’s game isn’t finished, though; far from it, in fact. But he knows that, and he’s aware of the steps he needs to take to get to that next level.
“To improve my game I think from a shooting standpoint,” Ingram said. “If I get that down, I think it would be a lot more easier for me to drive to the basket, break down a lot of guys, make plays for my other teammates. I think it would take me to a whole other level.”
Playing for the Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t come void of expectations. There, in Hollywood, everyone is always watching. Fans, other teams, the media, everyone is waiting for the next time a Laker championship comes around. With the weight of the world on their shoulders, Ingram thinks the current legend captaining the ship is the young team’s best asset to achieving that ultimate success everyone in Los Angeles is accustomed too.
“Magic Johnson,” Ingram said. “He’s in our front office. He’s at most of every practice, every single day. For any advice why not go to him, with the caliber of player he was and how many championships he won, the way he carries himself. He always there for just information on anything we need.”
NBA All-Star Friday Recap
Simon Hannig recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2018.
NBA All-Star Celebrity Game
The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game was highlighted by many stars this year, including Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Nate Robinson, Candace Parker, Bubba Watson, Rachel DeMita and many more. Team Lakers was led by head coach, Rachel Nichols. Team Clippers was led by Katie Nolan.
Quavo, of hip hop group Migos, had the first the two points for Team Clippers, and Justin Bieber had the first three points for Team Lakers.
Team Clippers defeated Team Lakers 75-66.
Quavo led the way for Team Clippers with 19 points on 7/10 shooting, with 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Olympic sprinter Andre De Grasse had 17 points on 8/14 shooting and 6 rebounds. Actor and social media star Brandon Armstrong finished with 16 points on 6/17 shooting, 11 rebounds and 3 assists for Team Clippers. Both wereamong the top three leading scorers for Team Clippers.
NBA2KTV host, actress and model, Rachel DeMita led the way for Team Lakers with 17 points on 6/12 shooting and 2 rebounds. NBA legend Nate Robinson was the second leading scorer for Team Lakers with 14 points on 4/11 shooting, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.
Other notable NBA and WNBA legends stats from tonight’s game — Stefanie Dolson (Chicago Sky) had zero points. Paul Pierce had 4 points on 2/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Jason Williams had 2 points on 1/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Tracy McGrady had 3 points on 1/3 shooting, 3 assists and 2 rebounds. Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks) had zero points.
Quavo was named MVP.
BBVA Compass Rising Stars Game
There is a ton of young talent in this league, and the league will be in good hands for years to come. The talent was put on display tonight in Los Angeles.
Utah Jazz rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell gave us an early preview of the dunk contest tomorrow by throwing an ally-oop pass to himself off the backboard in the first half.
However, it was all Team World in the first half as they led 78-59 at the break. Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Sacramento Kings each had 14 points to lead Team World. Jaylen Brown led the way for Team USA with 16 points at the half.
It felt like a three point contest throughout the entire game, as there were 96 combined three point attempts. Bogdanovic led the way with seven three pointers made for both teams.
All in all, Team World defeated Team USA 155-124. Hield led the way for Team World with 29 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics led the way for Team USA with 35 points and 10 rebounds.
The MVP of the game was Bogdan Bogdanovic, who dazzled the crowd with his three point shooting. He had 26 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds with seven made three’s.
Next up for the NBA in this fun-filled weekend is NBA All-Star Saturday Night with the dunk contest, three point contest and much more.