Many fans and NBA analysts predicted this would be another down year for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team hired a new head coach in Byron Scott, Kobe Bryant was returning from a torn Achilles tendon, Steve Nash was recovering from debilitating leg and back injuries, Pau Gasol left to play with the Chicago Bulls and the rest of the roster lacked overall talent.
Unfortunately, this season has gone even worse than many of those fans and analysts predicted. Nash re-aggravated his back injury while carrying some bags, which would sideline him for the entire season. Heralded rookie Julius Randle broke his leg in the Lakers’ season opener against the Houston Rockets and has been rehabbing all season. Bryant played heavy minutes early in the season and eventually tore his rotator cuff in January, which ended his season prematurely. Because of the shallow roster and bad luck with injuries, this has turned out to be the worst season in the franchise’s proud history.
The Lakers currently have the fourth-worst record in the league, and as a result have an 82.8 percent chance of retaining their top-five protected 2015 first-round pick. If the Lakers end up falling outside of the top-five, their pick will be transferred to the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired the rights to the pick in a deal with the Phoenix Suns at this year’s trade deadline.
So who will Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss target with their potential top-five pick?
Many analysts believe that the first pick in the draft will either by Jahlil Okafor of Duke or Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky. Either player would provide the Lakers with a talented big man to put next to Julius Randle in the front-court next season. However, if Okafor or Towns is not available when it is the Lakers turn to pick, they can look to draft a guard to put next to rising rookie Jordan Clarkson, such as D’Angelo Russell from Ohio State or Emmanuel Mudiay, who played for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. Any of these four players would be a great addition for Los Angeles and would be a significant step in rebuilding the team.
The Lakers will have another first-round pick in the upcoming draft, which they acquired from the Houston Rockets in the deal that landed Jeremy Lin in Los Angeles. This pick will likely end up being one of the last picks in the first-round, but with some luck, the Lakers could end up with another solid player to help rebuild the roster around (especially when you consider that Clarkson was selected 46th overall in last year’s draft by the Washington Wizards and then acquired by the Lakers for cash considerations).
Taking care of the draft is the first order of business for the Lakers this upcoming offseason. The next matter to address is free agency.
The Lakers can potentially have as little as $35 million in guaranteed salary next season. However, the Lakers do have a team option on Jordan Hill for next season at $9 million, which they are reportedly leaning toward exercising. With Hill, the Lakers will have roughly $44 million in salary, which will leave them with around $23 million in cap space, assuming the cap is set around $67.4 million next season.
Ed Davis also has a player option to exercise the second year of his deal, which would pay him $1.1 million next season. However, Davis will likely not exercise that option and instead test free agency, where he is likely to land a significantly better deal than his current one with Los Angeles. Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black and Jabari Brown each have non-guaranteed salary for next season at $845,059, while Robert Sacre has non-guaranteed salary set at $981,348. Considering their age, potential and affordable salary, it is likely that the Lakers bring Black and Sacre back, while it is a foregone certainty that Clarkson will be back.* With at least Clarkson, Black and Sacre back (though Sacre may be squeezed out based on what the Lakers do in the draft and in free agency), the Lakers will then have closer to $20.3 million in cap space.
Now that we know how much money the Lakers can potentially have to use in free agency this upcoming offseason, the next question is, who should they pursue? The Lakers as a franchise have always swung for the fences, unafraid of pursuing prime time free agents and making splashy deals for star players. Here is a list of some, but not all of the best players who will be free agents this upcoming offseason:
The most attractive names on this list include players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol, both of whom are unrestricted free agents. The problem with guys like this is that they are most likely going to re-sign with their current teams. Then, there are players like Kevin Love, who could conceivably join a new team in free agency based on his current circumstances. But these players will have the option to opt into the last year of their current contract, which may be beneficial for them with the cap set to raise significantly in 2016 because of the NBA’s new TV deal. And gambling on restricted free agents is always risky, especially ones who are likely to be retained by their current teams at any price. Signing a restricted free agent to an offer sheet ties up that money for several days while the player’s original team considers whether to match the offer or not, which creates the possibility of missing out on other free agents.
So what strategy should the Lakers take? Like most things in life, it depends. If the Lakers are trying to maximize their final year with Bryant, then they should probably go after veterans that can help them immediately, irrespective of age. But does it make sense to commit serious, and perhaps long-term money to players just to cater to a star player in his final season? Kobe has certainly earned such consideration, but that course of action could hamper the Lakers’ ability to compete at a high level for years after Kobe is gone.
With this in mind, the Lakers should probably go after players that represent good value, rather than simply pursuing stars and big names. Specifically, the Lakers could go after someone like Wesley Matthews, who is currently recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Yes, going after a shooting guard with a surgically repaired Achilles is risky, but Matthews is still just 28 years old, has only been in the NBA since 2009 and is one of the hardest workers in the league. He has established himself as one of the best three-point shooters in the league and the Portland Trail Blazers’ recent play without Matthews has shown us just how valuable of a contributor he is. The market may be lukewarm for him this upcoming offseason because of the injury, and the Lakers could potentially land him on a team-friendly deal to take over as the starting shooting guard moving forward (similar to how the Golden State Warriors locked Stephen Curry into a long-term, team-friendly deal because of his recurring ankle issues).
Or how about someone like Omer Asik? Rather than offering someone like DeAndre Jordan a max (or near-max) contract, why not try to lock up a gritty rim protector like Asik on a multi-year deal averaging around $7-8 million a season? Asik isn’t an exciting, above the rim player like Jordan, but he is still 28 years old, isn’t heavily reliant on his athleticism, has a proven track record of anchoring defenses, and plays within his role.
Of course, Matthews and Asik may not be the answers for the Lakers in free agency, but they are examples of realistic free agents that the Lakers arguably should target: players who could still have a lot of miles left and could be had for a reasonable price. But if the Lakers want to go after younger players, which isn’t a bad idea, they could go after someone like Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Middleton has made a name for himself this season with impressive improvements on both sides of the ball. He doesn’t put up huge box score numbers, but he ranks well in some notable advanced metrics. For example, he is ranked eighth in the league in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric (6.39). That, and he is only 23 years old. But again, the problem with young, valuable players like Middleton is that his current team, and the rest of the league, knows how good he is and is willing to pay big bucks for him. The Lakers could try to snag him away on a deal similar to the one the Dallas Mavericks gave Chandler Parsons, but the Bucks still may decide to match the deal and retain him regardless.
Whatever strategy the Lakers take in free agency this upcoming offseason, it should be rooted in concern for their long-term outlook. Giving a player like Rajon Rondo a near-max contract to make Kobe happy makes sense if the team is one veteran point guard away from making a legitimate run for a championship. But that’s not where this team is or is likely to be next season. And with Clarkson’s rapid development, it may be more beneficial for the Lakers to develop him, rather than spending a huge amount of money on a veteran point guard.
The free agent market is a fluid place where a lot of unexpected things can happen. If the market doesn’t shape up in a favorable way for the Lakers, they should probably hold on to a sizable portion of their cap space and carry it over to 2016, rather than overpaying an older player just to make a splashy acquisition. However, if someone as talented and young as Love becomes available, then yes, the Lakers should go after him (despite the questions about his game that have bubbled to the surface this season).
Beyond personnel moves, the Lakers, and specifically head coach Byron Scott, need to strongly consider revamping their offensive system.
Before the season started, Scott said the Lakers would limit their three-point attempts because they aren’t conducive to winning championships. However, a look into past championship teams shows that three-pointers are in fact a major component of past championship teams. In addition, the best offenses in the league this season come from teams that shoot extremely well from three-point range, including the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks. Also, the modern NBA has collectively moved toward motion-based offenses that include constant off-ball movement, spreading the court with three-point shooters, heavy doses of pick and roll, and limiting inefficient shots like mid-range jumpers. Yet, Scott and the Lakers seem to be going in the opposite direction, and the results speaks for themselves.
According to NBA.com, the Lakers attempt the second-most mid-range field goals per game in the league (29.3). Mid-range jumpers are statistically inefficient shots and really should only be taken in volume from exceptional mid-range shooters like Chris Paul. In addition, the Lakers attempt less than two three-point attempts from the corners, which is one of the most efficient shots there is. Consider that the only team that takes a higher number of mid-range jumpers per game than the Lakers, and almost no shots from the corners, is the woeful New York Knicks.
And as previously mentioned, the Lakers don’t move the ball particularly well either. The Lakers average the third-least amount of passes per game (273.2), are 20th in assists per game (20.9) and 27th in points earned off of assists per 48 minutes (46.6). Earlier this week, Zach Lowe of Grantland pointed out a great illustration of the sort of isolation plays the Lakers run, which feature little to no passing and almost zero off-ball movement. Lowe pointed out that Scott will oftentimes run a play out of the huddle to get Jordan Hill an isolation jump-shot from around 18 feet out. That is not kind of play that is featured in efficient offenses and is a shot that defenses try to force opposing teams to take.
There is potential to turn the offense around, however. Scott doesn’t need to adopt every popular offensive trend. During the preseason, Scott was running elements of the Triangle offense, which looked promising. However, that system was quickly abandoned at the beginning of the season. Rather than running the Triangle, Bryant started putting up a huge number of shots and the Lakers offense became stagnant and iso-reliant. The Triangle may not be as effective in the modern NBA as it used to, but Steve Kerr has proven with the Warriors this season that a team can successfully utilize elements of it with great results.
The defense also needs to be revamped, but that has a lot more to do with personnel than anything else. Adding players like Asik, Middleton or Matthews would go a long way toward addressing the defensive side of the ball. This year’s squad simply did not have the players to create a top-10, or even league average defense. Guys like Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin just aren’t great defensive players and there is only so much scheming a team can do to get around these sort of limitations. Scott preaches defense, and it’s up to the Lakers to acquire players that are willing to buy in and dedicate themselves to that side of the ball.
The Lakers currently have two young players who are clearly part of their future plans. Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle both have the potential to be starters for the Lakers next season and both are on cost-controlled rookie contracts. Assuming the Lakers land a solid rookie with their first-round pick, they will have at least three players to constitute their young core, and can start plugging in pieces from there. But the Lakers need to avoid taking shortcuts in their re-building process. They should pass on pursuing past-their-prime stars and focus on younger impact players who can grow together on manageable contracts.
The Lakers are down, but shouldn’t be counted out. It may take a few seasons to really turn things around, but the opportunity to start building a sustainable, contending team will be present this upcoming offseason. A combination of smart acquisitions and internal growth are essential elements of that process, which is something that falls on the front office, coaches and players.
High-Performance Mindfulness: Pre-Game Work – The Holistic Approach
Pre-game routines are key in priming players for optimal in-game performance. Jake Rauchbach breaks down integrated player development methods for accomplishing this.
Creating the momentum required to produce consistently high-level performance is a delicate process. It’s something that must be cultivated and nurtured daily through disciplined adherence to one’s craft. Doing so ensures the proper velocity needed for a player to instinctually perform at the highest possible level during a game.
Employing holistic pre-game routines may present one of the more efficient ways of doing this. Systematic to the point, integrated player development routines that prime the three levels of the player may increase the probability of cultivating improved in-game results.
Performance momentum is the rate at which a player accesses higher-level flow/production output. In-game production is the byproduct of a player’s consistent focus on his/her craft.
That being said, approaching pre-game prep from this holistic vantage point is about efficiency, and aims to find the fastest way possible to help the player produce come game time.
One of the most effective ways to do this is through a multi-level pre-game player development approach that primes emotional frequency, position-specific skill-development and mental focus. Pairing these approaches has been shown to influence in-game production upwards. Here is how.
Pre-Game Holistic Player Development
The player’s meridian system is like an energetic highway of interconnected pathways where prevailing thoughts, emotions and feelings flow or travel through.
If and when those roadways get blocked – for instance, with the lingering concerns from an off-court issue or the leftover emotion from a previous on-court failure – this can act as baggage weighing down the player’s future performance. When these energy pathways become blocked, it can also impede a player’s ability to access those higher flow states that produce big-time performance.
Helping a player clear the slate of any mental and emotional residue still lingering pre-game by priming the player’s energy system is the best-kept secret of many high-performers. Many Olympians who compete in individualized sports such as track and field and swimming employ this methodology for fast starts.
Employing a pre-game 5-minute energy optimization technique that sleuths out mental and emotional discord can reap dividends come game time. Whether driven by the player or implemented by the hybrid player development coach, leveraging Energy Psychology techniques to reset internal dynamics fast is best practice.
The five-minute period directly before the on-court skill work begins is a great time to do this. Integrating the technique within on-court work helps the player begin to learn how to pair their game and their emotional management together. Making this a component of the pre-game routine gives the player extra repetition for how to do it in a game.
Priming Skill Development
Once the deeper level of the athlete is primed, getting right into player specific skill development is next. The goal here should be to help the player find a rhythm, performance flow, and good feeling; Basically, a skill-development routine that grooves the player.
Each player generally has a routine that they like to employ pre-game. For wings, it may be a combination of spot-shooting, off-ball cuts, and short clock pick and roll action is best. For Bigs it maybe a finishing around the rim package, mid-range catch and shoot and pick and roll action. For point guards, PNRs, spot-shooting and their favorite move, and counter-series could help facilitate the desired rhythm.
The intensity to which players go through their pre-game work is another intriguing piece.
Each player is different, and not all players need to go 100% pre-game to be at their best in-game. Priming performance for the goal of producing maximum level production during the game is an inexact science and is player specific.
However, when there is an absolute focus in pre-game, many times you will see the player touch-into peak-performance states; The player’s pace could look to be game-speed, and the execution rate could mirror that of a late-game situation. This sort of pre-game intensity is generally ideal and is a reflection of the player’s emotional clarity and mental focus. Both of which help to build performance momentum into the game.
Priming Mental Focus
The next layer of this process is mental, and priming mental focus is all about consistency. During pre-game, it is good to have a pre-established mental focus routine in place. Once honed, the player can internally perform the mental cue in under five seconds.
Deliberately working mental focus repetitions into pre-game further prepares players. Employing one or two repetitions is effective. On free throws, or in between drills, players who can knock out mental focus cues before the game are priming mental acuity for in-game action.
Players with pre-existing internal processes like this can proactively read and attack in-game situations as they arise. This helps to increase their probability of success. Greater confidence and cleaner execution are all byproducts of mental primers in action.
Priming the energetic, physical and mental systems in this fashion, is already being seamlessly integrated into player and team concepts. Synthesizing these three levels of player development before the game helps facilitate greater execution during the game.
A proactive hybrid approach such as this can create openings for players. As players continue to report the benefits of integrated approaches such as these, expect pre-game quick-hitting visualizations, meditations, and energy optimizations to become a valued and common component of pre-game player development.
High-Performance Mindfulness: Mental Performance Consultant Dr. Rainer Meisterjahn
Jake Rauchbach and Dr. Rainer Meisterjahn dive into the NBA’s Mental Performance Space.
Dr. Rainer J. Meisterjahn is a Mental Performance Consultant and the Founder & Owner of Courtex Performance. Rainer and Courtex Performance provide basketball mental performance training, personality evaluation and professional development services for players, coaches and organizations from the youth to the international pro and NBA levels with the goal of empowering clients to maximize performance.
Rainer has worked as a consultant for multiple NBA organizations, particularly in the area of mental player evaluation, as well as in a mental training capacity. As a draft consultant, in collaboration with Courtex Director of Analytics, Dr. Dave Laughlin, Rainer has developed NBA Pre-Draft interview guides, tracked player behavior, conducted interviews, administered and interpreted mental assessments and broken down observations for the front office
Dr. Meisterjahn has made great traction at the NBA level within the Mental Performance space. He has consulted for teams such as the Miami Heat, Utah Jazz and the Milwaukee Bucks. Other clients include FIBA and NCAA Division-I, II and III teams and coaches. He has also spent time with the German Youth National Team players and German BBL teams, such as s.Oliver Würzburg Basketball Club. Working with players such as Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris, Rainer is quickly establishing himself as a leader within the Mental Performance space.
Basketball Insiders caught up with Dr. Rainer to pick his brain about the Courtex Performance LLC philosophy and to get his take on burgeoning mental performance space.
Jake Rauchbach: What’s up Dr. Rainer? Thanks for taking the time. Can you talk about your Courtex Performance’s philosophy on mental performance training?
Rainer Meisterjahn: Our philosophy is about three things. Firstly, mental training needs to be personalized to the individual – which means there is no cookie-cutter approach. You must understand the personality of the individual: What are their values? What are their motives? What are their goals?
The second part is that it has to be systematic. There has to be an ongoing systematic approach to it. There has to be regularity to it. We do a lot of stuff around developing the core values that are important to the individual and looking at what those core values look like in action, behaviorally on the court. We have players rate themselves. We have coaches provide ratings. In that context, we teach pre-game visualization, in-game focus cues and other techniques to help players regulate their focus in productive ways.
Thirdly, mental training really needs to take into account environmental factors. What is the culture of an organization? What’s the player’s role and what is their relationship with others that he or she deals with on a regular basis? This is really how we look at it.
JR: What’s your way of building rapport with players?
RM: Starting out it’s always about finding common ground, especially with players I may have nothing in common with on the surface. We may look different, we come from different places, and we are different ages. I am just always looking for the one thing that might connect you. Sometimes that’s a personality trait. Maybe the player is a little bit more of an introvert like I am, as well, and actually might appreciate when I take the time to chat one-on-one and get them away from the crowd.
In other cases, maybe you just kick it with a player over a mutual love for sneakers or music or whatever the case may be. Also, oftentimes approaching players from the perspective of wanting to utilize them as an expert, I think that really helps. Instead of coming at a player like you’re trying to fix him, you utilize him as an expert. All players have some expertise that can help a younger teammate, for instance. So you try to be as much of a learner as you are a teacher in the context of building rapport.
JR: How do you see this field progressing over the next 10 years?
RM: The big analytics wave started maybe about 10-12 years ago, and then maybe, about 5-6 years ago you had a pretty significant sports science movement to where organizations have started to build out more extensive sports science departments that are a couple steps up from that old school model of just having one or two athletic trainers on staff. I think mental health and mental training are both up and coming right now. I think that the NBA organizations, probably in some cases, are a little bit confused as to what’s what, and how those two things (mental health and mental performance) coexist.
It’s exciting that I think the NBA is starting to recognize the role of mental health a lot more and they’re acknowledging it and putting in place professionals to take charge of those efforts. The mental performance piece – I think it is still somewhat exploratory for a lot of organizations. I know, my guy Dan Kalkstein has been with the Mavericks going on 20 years or so. I do think it is getting to that point that most organizations are going to start to bring in at least one consultant.
I think within the next 5-10 years, we are going to start looking at mental training departments. I think that is where the future is at. There are just too many opportunities, and there is just too much need within organizations to just simply have one person there.
Mental training can be done at the team level and it can be done at the individual athlete level, and it should be. You need mental training and leadership development within the coaching staff. Beyond that, you look at the front office. You look at the organization as a whole, the staff and the employees. You know most people are being overworked and they’re stressed and they have no tools and skills to deal with everything that is coming at them. You have the G League, which really should be about development not just from the neck down, but also from the neck-up as well. Now you have E-Sports teams within organizations, which is another really intriguing angle.
JR: What part do you think analytics departments are going play into validating Mental Performance?
RM: I think there is a lot that can be done in terms of tracking and analyzing player body language and working with an analytics department inside an organization to pump out information to educate coaches, and, for players, to set more tangible goals in key areas.
The more that we can show that mental training does make a tangible difference – in terms of not only in-game stats, but also in terms of longevity for a player in the league, things of that nature. Obviously, that stuff is powerful. It does take time to accumulate that type of information….As far as moving our field forward, I would agree that the more we can show tangible differences that we are able to make, I think that is really crucial.
JR: What are the differences in how a league like the German BBL and the NBA incorporate the mental performance coach?
RM: With the team in Würzburg, I have had the luxury of working with a head coach in Denis Wucherer, who gives me the opportunity to work with players as a group, developing our cores values, our identity. Being on the court, working one-on-one with players – rebounding, passing – and building trust – being around the guys, showing that I am a basketball guy first and foremost and not a shrink. It’s been exciting to able to work like that.
NBA organizations are much more complex. You have a lot more people involved from front office people, coaches to performance staff. It is a little bit more complex, so sometimes it’s not as easy to get as much access as a club like Würzburg has given me. At times that is probably necessary, but overall it limits what we are able to do a little bit. The more an organization develops trust in you to do it your way, that’s really where it’s at. You got to get in there and you got to be able to do the work. You can’t be a bystander.
Rainer made several big-time points. Firstly, mental performance is best employed through a customized, systematic process that factors in environmental elements. There is a big difference between mental health and mental performance.
Currently, there is a substantial need at the player, team, coaching staff and decision-maker level for mental performance resources that can provide effective High-Performance training. Analytics departments provide an opportunity to help validate tangible outcomes in mental performance and player behavior. German BBL teams seem to understand how to effectively employ the mental performance resource as a part of the greater coaching staff.
Lastly, just like the analytics and sports science waves, mental performance could be poised as the next major departmental build-out at the NBA level.
Minnesota Timberwolves 2019-20 NBA Season Preview
The Minnesota Timberwolves have new leadership but are bringing back functionally the same roster that missed the playoffs last year by 12 games. Can the Wolves improve enough internally to make the postseason or will the Wolves become sellers at the trade deadline? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
After another up and down season, the Timberwolves find themselves looking at a defining season in 2019-20. There is new leadership in place that is not tied to anyone on the roster, and all of the contracts and commitments made came from the previous regime, which means everyone starts with a clean slate.
That said, the clock is ticking on All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, who is entering the first season of his 5-year, $190 million extension signed in 2018. Modern NBA history says All-Stars won’t stay committed long if they don’t have a chance to win and win big, which put the pressure squarely on the new front office to turn the ship.
To say this is an important season for the future of the Wolves is an understatement.
The Wolves missed the playoffs last year by 12 games and are returning functionally the same roster, which means if things are going to change its going to have to come from internal growth or a mid-season trade. The outcome of the first half of the season could answer that question either way. The Wolves have solid players, the question is can they put it together?
Let’s take a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Timberwolves are in serious need of a second star. Karl Anthony-Towns should continue to be productive, but even he needs to continue to develop – mostly on the defensive end of the floor. They were pleasantly surprised last season with the play and motor of Josh Okogie, who will be relied on even more so this season. Rookie Jarrett Culver projects to be a strong two-way player with a versatile offensive game – he should be another positive for the Wolves. And there is good depth in Noah Vonleh, Jeff Teague, Robert Covington and Keita Bates-Diop. But the lack of efficiency and effort from Andrew Wiggins has hurt the T-Wolves developmental trajectory. As has been the case for a number of years now, if he improves his three-point shooting, shot selection, and defense, the Wolves have the potential to be a very different team. As currently constructed, they’re going to struggle to keep up with the best in the West.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
We’re entering another year with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as the focal points of the Wolves. Are there more expectations or less? Jimmy Butler is not around anymore, nor is Tom Thibodeau. Ryan Saunders is taking over and following in his late, great father’s footsteps. Can the 33-year-old continue to galvanize this underperforming franchise and turn it into a contender? Stocked with a plethora of forwards, the roster could make it difficult to do so this season. But with a mixture of veteran talent and interesting prospects, there might be a culture shift in Minnesota – and it will prove to be the mark of a new era. As a part of one of the toughest divisions in the NBA, it’s hard to see this team playing in the postseason, though.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Timberwolves have one incredibly good thing going for them, and that’s Karl-Anthony Towns. He is a superstar and, luckily for the Wolves, they have him locked in for the next several years. After him though, the rest of the team is kind of a question mark. Robert Covington emerged as arguably the second-best player on the team, but his season was cut short due to injury. They lost some of their bench depth in Tyus Jones and Taj Gibson, and they’re looking to Jordan Bell and Shabazz Napier to fill those roles. What they really need though is Andrew Wiggins to play like the max contract guy the Wolves believed they had. He was once thought to be a budding star, but he’s been wildly inconsistent to say the least. If he plays as he should, maybe the Wolves challenge for the eighth seed. If not, look for another lottery finish.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
Things have to turn for the Timberwolves right? There is simply too much talent in Minnesota for them to be a team that’s outside the playoff picture. New team president Gersson Rosas resisted the temptation to blow things up in Minnesota, and beyond some minor changes, the bulk of last year’s team is coming back, as is Ryan Saunders at head coach. That could either make this the beginning of the end, or the turning point for the youth on the roster. There is little doubt Karl-Anthony Towns is the franchise cornerstone, but if Andrew Wiggins doesn’t step up on a night to night basis, he could be gone by the trade deadline and that could start a tidal wave of changes. The Wolves have the talent to be a playoff team, the question is can they be consistent and healthy enough to cement themselves in the 7-8 seed discussion?
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
It’s a bit difficult to assess the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offseason. I like a lot of the smaller moves Minnesota made but I think the team may have missed the mark on what could end up being the biggest move of its offseason. I liked that Minnesota traded Dario Saric and the rights to Cameron Johnson (11th) to the Phoenix Suns for the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. However, rather than addressing the team’s point guard situation by drafting Coby White, Minnesota drafted Jarrett Culver. Culver is a talented player, but White is the better prospect in my opinion and could have been the long-term solution for a major area of need for this team. Having said that, I like that the team locked in Ryan Saunders at head coach, signed Noah Vonleh to a $2 million contract, signed Jordan Bell to a minimum contract (notably Bell will again be a restricted free agent after this upcoming season), acquired Shabazz Napier ($1,845,301 guaranteed for 2019-20), and claimed Tyrone Wallace off of waivers. Minnesota has an expensive roster, so adding talent on the margins at little cost is a nice outcome for this offseason. The team still has some foundational issues in terms of its overall roster balance but Minnesota showed some savviness this offseason.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Wolves have new management with president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, which could lead to roster turnover, though the $122.2 million still owed to Anthony Wiggins isn’t exactly a liquid contract. The team has 15 guaranteed players, which means one would have to go for Ty Wallace and his non-guaranteed deal to stick.
The Wolves still have their $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception and almost $5 million of the Mid-Level Exception. By acquiring Jake Layman via sign and trade from the Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota is locked into a hard cap of $138.9 million, but they’re not close to that figure, at least $6.3 million under the $132.6 million luxury tax line.
Before November, the team needs to pick up its option on Josh Okogie.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
The Timberwolves’ fortunes start and end with Towns, particularly on the offensive end. His blend of size, agility and shooting touch is unrivaled in the NBA, even in the age of the unicorn. As Minnesota’s best three-point shooter (40.0 percent last season on 4.6 attempts per game), most-efficient scorer (57.2 effective field goal percentage last season) and even best free-throw shooter (83.6 percent last season), not to mention its best post player, Towns represents the most effective option at every level of the offensive attack.
With Derrick Rose and his 14.8 shot attempts per game now in Detroit, Towns’ workload should only increase. When Jimmy Butler arrived in 2017, Towns’ attempts per game fell from 18.0 the year before to 14.3. Last year’s uptick to 17.1 represented him picking up a share of Butler’s work, but it did not entirely compensate for what had been a trend line toward prolific offensive numbers. Approaching 20 shots per game would put Towns in the category of ball-handlers like Devin Booker (19.6 last season), Steph Curry (19.4) and Damian Lillard (19.2), but that is appropriate for a seven-footer who has handles enough to comfortably drive on other post players.
For that matter, there is hardly a bad shot for a player with Towns’ skillset. He scored 1.19 points per roll, 1.10 per spot-up and 1.02 per post-up last season, according to NBA.com.
Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington
Covington is a bit of an unknown commodity to Timberwolves’ fans, playing in only 22 games after he was traded from the Philadelphia 76ers. He is a complete unknown in a Ryan Saunders system, not taking the court at all under Minnesota’s then-interim, now-permanent head coach due to a bone bruise that led to loose bodies in his knee.
Covington made his reputation in Philadelphia as a 3-and-D specialist, but even when his three-point percentage waned to 33.3 in 2016-17, his defensive aptitude justified the 6-foot-9 wing’s playing time. He can defend every position on the floor and should be the fulcrum to Saunders’ defensive schemes, if once again healthy.
Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague
Partly by default as the only true point guard in what figures to be the Timberwolves’ top-eight players, Teague is the only genuine ball distributor on Minnesota’s roster. Acquiring Shabazz Napier from the Golden State Warriors put a nominal backup on the roster, but he has yet to average more than 2.6 assists per game in his four seasons.
This is a precarious position for the Timberwolves, particularly coming off the first season in his 10-year career in which Teague did not play at least 66 games, battling a litany of lower-body ailments to appear in only 42. Teague’s patient dribble and aptitude in the pick-and-roll game are ideal to fit with Towns. He may not be more than a league-average point guard, but he is a steady one and averaged 8.2 assists per game last year. Now, the Wolves need Teague more than ever.
Top Clutch Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
This may be another by default designation simply due to Towns’ offensive repertoire. Teague would rather move the ball than shoot more often than not, and Andrew Wiggins’ inefficient tendencies are exacerbated in pivotal situations. Towns, meanwhile, can score from any point on the court.
That Wiggins-Towns contrast has never been more on display than it was at the end of a January overtime against the Memphis Grizzlies. After Wiggins missed a long two from the top of the key, Towns snagged the rebound over Marc Gasol and then let loose a buzzer-beating fadeaway baseline jumper over Gasol, hitting nothing but net for the win. Those rebounding abilities — Towns averaged 12.4 per game last year — make him a constant threat for putbacks in clutch moments, as well.
The Unheralded Player: Josh Okogie
The No. 20 pick in the 2018 draft, Okogie earned notice from last season’s outset for his persistent defense and all-around hustle. He repeatedly wowed crowds with steals only to lose the ball in a chaotic drive to the bucket. Minutes later, Okogie would again flash his athleticism with a highlight reel dunk.
That was the general limit to his contributions, more intangible than anything else. Yet those intangibles earned Okogie 52 starts on a team racked by injuries and drama. The under-the-radar draft pick could have been in over his head, but instead earned the trust of his teammates and both coaching staffs. Yes, even Tom Thibodeau was willing to play this rookie, beginning with the third game of the season.
Okogie has spent the last month leading the Nigerian national team in the FIBA World Cup, averaging 12.6 points per game. More notably, he hit 42.1 percent of his 3-point attempts, which would be a significant jump from his 27.9 percent from beyond the arc in his first NBA action.
Best New Addition: Jarrett Culver
The piece acquired for the No. 11 pick and Dario Šarić will forever be seen as the first move from new Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas. Even without that mantle, expectations would be large for Culver. Minnesota did not intend to have a high lottery pick for a long time after selecting Wiggins and Towns No. 1 overall in back-to-back drafts. Culver restores that belief moving forward.
The 6-foot-7 wing was known for his defense at Texas Tech, eventually developing a scorer’s mentality when it mattered most. That mentality did not inherently include efficiency, as Culver went 5-of-22 in the national championship game. The Timberwolves want his defense right now and will be content to let the rest of his game progress in time.
Not to put too much pressure on a rookie, as if the Rosas burden has not already done so, but Minnesota finished No. 24 in defensive rating last season, and Culver is pegged to be the best defender added to the roster. If that ranking improves, he may get much of the credit, but if it doesn’t, the offensive loss of Šarić could become a regret.
– Douglas Farmer
WHO WE LIKE
If any NBA franchise is grateful to have little attention paid to it this fall, it is the Timberwolves. A year ago, infamous practices featured Butler-led bench units embarrassing the supposed stars of the future, buttressing Butler’s berating of Minnesota front office personnel. The chaos undermined whatever credibility Thibodeau still had. The 4-9 start may have actually been better than it should have been, in retrospect.
Barring a complete shock, the Timberwolves will have a quiet preseason camp this time around. Towns has made an offseason point of embracing some of the free agent signees; Wiggins and Covington spent considerable time in Minneapolis over the offseason, compared to the roster going separate ways in 2018; and Saunders has a clear runway as head coach.
2. Outside Influence
Hiring Saunders as the permanent head coach was expected. It would have been hard to fire the son of the franchise’s most-beloved figure after only 42 games, especially as he had to pick up the debris from the Butler fiasco, the Thibdoeau disillusionment and then a rash of injuries.
Contrarily, Minnesota owner Glen Taylor hiring Rosas was unexpected. Taylor has long preferred to stay within the family, so to speak, and considered former Timberwolves players Calvin Booth and Chauncey Billups. Sticking to his norms would have meant bringing in one of them. Instead, Taylor shook things up.
Rosas brings an analytics-driven approach from Houston. His star hunting will be high in both risk and reward, but for a franchise that has rarely appealed to free agents, such innovation and aggression is necessary.
3. Ryan Saunders
Saunders is young, unproven and arguably unqualified, but he is also a crowd favorite, beloved by his roster and willing to adjust to improve. Implementing an up-tempo offense and a switch-heavy defense will be massive deviations from the previous regime, but those should also play into Towns’ strengths and a wing-heavy roster. With Covington, Wiggins, Okogie, Culver and 2018 second-round draft pick Keita Bates-Diop, Saunders will have both flexibility and numbers, concepts Thibodeau avoided wholesale.
He may have been a questionable hire on paper, but Saunders is also not another coaching retread. Minnesota just lived through that cycle. Doing so again would have been a step backward simply by staying put.
4. Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell
Two of the Timberwolves’ few free agent signings, both Vonleh and Bell should be able to play alongside Towns in Saunders’ system in ways Gorgui Dieng cannot. Neither is a dominant player, but that is not needed when Towns is on the floor. Either Vonleh or Bell should be able to defend a power forward when opponents go big while still being able to run the floor to keep up the pace.
These were minimal signings by Rosas and intentionally so, each on only one-year deals, but they will not compromise Towns and could come to be a solid fit with the superstar.
– Douglas Farmer
Towns might not yet be a top-10 player in the NBA, but he is on the cusp and could offer a dominant season as Minnesota’s unquestioned leader, finally. Any team with such a cornerstone will construct everything around him, and the Timberwolves are no different. The bevy of wings, the malleable big-man free agent signings and even the chosen head coach all accommodate Towns.
In a season stilted by mayhem, Minnesota still finished No. 13 in the league in offensive rating. Steering into Towns in every way possible will only help that figure further. The wings and Vonleh, Bell and Jake Layman should slightly reduce Towns’ defensive workload while not depriving him of offensive opportunities. For a player with his skillset, allowing him every shot attempt he desires is both the prudent and the efficient decision.
– Douglas Farmer
This remains a lengthier list than the previous categories, but it can all trace back to a singular shortcoming. It could be argued the best offensive post-up threat on the roster beyond Towns is Wiggins and his 0.74 points per post-up last season. The secondary ball-handler beyond Teague may also have to be Wiggins.
These concerns all landing on the same slight shoulders underscores the Timberwolves’ tipping point. Wiggins has a max contract, but until he becomes a semblance of a max-contract player, this roster will remain depleted in areas it cannot afford to be if it wants to avoid the cellar of the Western Conference.
A charitable view would claim the year-plus of Butler stagnated Wiggins’ growth even more than it did Towns’. Indeed, Wiggins’ career highs in 3-point percentage, effective field goal percentage and field goal attempts per game all came in 2016-17, the season prior to Butler’s arrival. A return to those levels may not be what Taylor had in mind when he committed years of max-contract space to Wiggins to be Towns’ second-fiddle, but it would be a distinct improvement from last season, nonetheless.
– Douglas Farmer
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Timberwolves show enough evidence of long-term potential to keep Towns from forcing his way out sooner than later?
Minnesota will claim playoff aspirations this season, but in the competitive whirlwind that will be the Western Conference, it is an unrealistic hope in 2019-20. If things stay that way, though, the Timberwolves’ situation will quickly become dire. Towns is signed through 2023-24, but in the current era of player empowerment, those contract lengths are mere hiccups to moving along. If Towns voices a desire to contend for the playoffs, a majority of the other 29 franchises will call Rosas to gauge trade possibilities.
Minnesota needs to at least be respectable this season to give Towns reason to believe playoff contention is not far off. Doing so will come as a result of leaning on Towns more than ever until Rosas’ front office can figure out what big deal it inevitably wants to swing.
Towns is capable of such a monster season so as to keep the Timberwolves in vague playoff conversations past the All-Star break, maybe even into May. For now, that kind of individual showcase should placate him. That will give Rosas the time needed to thoroughly understand the mismanaged roster on hand.
– Douglas Farmer