Last year around this time, I debuted the maiden version of my top-10 players in the NBA. At that point, the top tier clearly consisted of only two players, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. While Durant would go on to win the MVP, most at that time felt James was the clear best player in the league.
What a difference a year later. Seven of the 14 players in the top four tiers (including honorable mentions) have completely dropped off the list. Of those, five have been felled by injuries. What’s more, nobody has been as good this year as James and Durant a year ago.
Despite those disappointments, the intrigue has only grown. The 2014-15 season features perhaps the most fascinating MVP race ever, with at least five players able to make a legitimate argument. This list features a slightly different inquiry, as less weight is provided for minutes and games played than in an attempt to measure “value” over the course of the season.
To refresh, the list is created as an answer to the following question: Which player would I pick if I needed to win a game tomorrow* with average NBA talent around him? A guiding philosophy in this ranking is that efficiently creating shots for oneself and others is the premium skill in the NBA. Defense certainly matters, especially at the big positions, but the difference between the best and worst offensive players is far greater than on the defensive end. Finally, I will rank the players in tiers to represent points in the list where there is a big drop off. On to the rankings.
- Stephen Curry
The Warriors’ point guard has statistically been the league’s best player on a per-minute basis this year. He leads the league in RPM and Kevin Pelton’s Win Percentage, while ranking third in PER*. While he is not a lockdown defender and can be blown by in a few matchups, he is one of the best point guards at help defense and has the league’s fourth-best steal percentage. As the point guard for what is by far the best defense in the league, it is difficult to argue he is not a good defender at this point.
I chronicled Curry’s strengths in great detail when I made the argument he is quite a bit better than Steve Nash ever was. Over the last two months, Curry has gone to yet another level. He has a 64.7 percent True Shooting Percentage in concert with a 29.5 percent usage percentage over that time. He is at 48.5 percent from three, while averaging 24 points and eight assists in only 32 minutes per game over that same time period. For the season, the Warriors have a ridiculous 17.5 net rating with him on the court, by far the highest of anyone on this list. His shooting off the pick and roll simply breaks defenses, as it is nearly impossible to prevent either an open shot or a four-on-three for his teammates. And as by far the best shooter on this list, he creates tons of space for his teammates even without the ball in his hands. What he has been able to do, dragging a team of relatively pedestrian offensive talents to near the top of the league in offense, is unbelievable. While I fear that LeBron James could prove me wrong in the playoffs, for now Curry has surpassed him by a nose as the league’s best.
- LeBron James
A year ago, James topped this list. He was fresh off two straight championships in which he had proved an unstoppable all-court force, and the only wart on his resume was the fact that his defense had declined during a regular season in which he was forced to carry the load for the oft-resting Dwyane Wade. His defense when locked in was the primary impetus for ranking him above Durant despite the latter’s explosive 2013-14.
But another year in the ledger has shown James’ defensive decline is real (and unsurprising) as he enters his 30s. Advanced stats and the eye test the last two years have shown that James is not the night-to-night defensive force he once was. Even in their surge the last two months, the Cavs’ defense has been only average.
Meanwhile, his offensive stats have also taken a hit. He ranks a mere sixth among realistic candidates in win percentage, fifth in PER and third in RPM. His efficiency is way down from the astronomical heights of his Miami days—his True Shooting Percentage is almost seven points lower.
Based only on his entire body of work this season, James no longer has an argument as the best player in the game. But he still has a history of a peak higher than any other player in this tier. Since his return from injury on January 13, James has been much better both statistically and by the eye test.
Another argument for James is that he simply is harder to stop than players like James Harden and Steph Curry due to his physical gifts. Even at 30, no player in the league possesses his combination of size, strength and athleticism. What’s more, he has powered the Cavs to spectacular offensive heights since his return despite their rather rudimentary offensive system (though they have tons of talent around him). He is less dependent on teammates to affect the game than perhaps any other player on this list.
Nevertheless, James turns the ball over a bit more than Curry, and even during this post-injury run his True Shooting Percentage is not much higher than his season average. Although he has the better playoff resume, in recent years that was compiled in Miami’s system that encouraged more ball-movement and spaced the floor with great shooters around him. We shall see whether he can reach the heights of playoffs past this year, but the regular season decline may augur he does not.
- Anthony Davis
In ranking Davis seventh last year, it was noted that he should be higher on the list based on his individual box score statistics. However, he struggled to really help his team, as indicated by his miserable (for a superstar) performance in plus/minus metrics. It was also predicted that Davis would figure out that aspect of his game sooner rather than later, and that has indeed occurred. He now ranks a healthy sixth in RPM, including a sterling performance on the defensive end. What’s more, his clutch performance has been among the best in the league this season.
Oh, and his box score performance? Davis is on pace to be one of four players ever to record a PER over 31, in company with Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and James. He ranks second in Pelton’s Win Percentage. He has upped his usage rate to superstar-level 27.8 percent, while also increasing his efficiency and (an oft-unnoticed factor) never turning the ball over. He has the lowest ever turnover percentage for a player with a usage rate of 27 percent or higher, a miniscule 6.4 percent.
So why is he only third on on this list? He still isn’t quite the offensive force the rest of this tier is. Davis scores poorly relative to his competitors in offensive RPM, ranking only 20th in the league. That makes some sense subjectively, as he less often initiates the play and finds his teammates (though his passing has improved). And his jumpers, while automatic, do not require defenses to stick to him in the pick and pop because most teams are willing to concede a long two. Extending his range to pick and pop from three could be the next step for him. Defensively he scores well in plus-minus metrics this year, but overall the Pelicans’ defense has been inadequate. He clearly has the talent to be better defensively and racks up the blocks and steals, but he has not been able to push his team to a dominant performance despite the raw tools to do so.
Still, one wonders whether the NBA community is missing the boat and Davis really is the league’s best, but is just unfairly punished for bad coaching and teammates. However, until he at least makes the playoffs, performs well there and shows he can be a dominant force initiating plays as well as finishing them, he remains a bit below Curry and James.
- James Harden
Harden deserves plaudits for the improvements he has made to his game this season, vaulting him into the top-tier. His much-maligned defense has improved mightily, although he is still “not bad” more than he is “good.” Few would really consider him a stopper or an above-average team defender, although he does have the ability to effectively switch onto larger players in the post in small lineups and to anticipate for steals. Offensively, he has upped his usage rate to north of 30 percent while maintaining the same ridiculous efficiency. With Dwight Howard sidelined much of the year, he initiates nearly everything for Houston when he is on the court. He is the league leader in offensive RPM, ranking fourth in Win Percentage and fifth in PER.
But Harden has two major demerits for the top spot. The first is that pretty much no measure indicates he is superior to Curry on a per play basis this season. The only reason he has amassed more “value” for the season is that Curry sits out a ton of fourth quarters because Golden State is blowing teams out.
The second is his relatively pedestrian playoff performance to date. Six-game losses the past two years to Oklahoma City and Portland have seen his efficiency crater. Portland, a defense that was shredded a round later by San Antonio, really put the clamps on him. He was unable to get to the rim and/or get fouled, and was forced to settle for a cavalcade of midrangers.* Until Harden shows the ability to dominate to the same level against great defenses in the playoffs, he cannot be higher on this list.
- Russell Westbrook
Westbrook has always been an extremely controversial figure, often derided by the mainstream for shooting too much and taking the ball away from Kevin Durant. With KD sidelined much of the year, it was Westbrook’s show once he returned from a broken hand. And what a show it has been, with Westbrook currently recording the second-highest usage rate of all time at 38.4. When Westbrook is on the floor this year, his “True Usage” (percent of the time he shoots, sets up teammates for scoring chances, or turns it over when he is on the floor) is 65 percent, over nine percent higher than second-ranked James. During his most dominant stretch after Durant went down in February, that number peaked at 79 percent. Few, if any, players in history could carry their team like that.
The result of all this is a second place ranking in PER (a statistic particularly impressed by high usage), third in Win Percentage and seventh in RPM. Of particular note, RPM sees Westbrook as a negative defender, and the eyes match that despite his outstanding steal rate. He loses his man far too much, and is a mediocre pick and roll defender.
Ultimately though, Westbrook’s season skews slightly more toward impressive than valuable, though it is clearly both in spades. His True Shooting Percentage is right around the league average. While one could argue his high usage rate is partially responsible, he has pretty much been right at this level the last five seasons. Some of the concern for his inefficiency is alleviated by the fact he has been a part of some great offenses, but no matter who he plays with and how often he shoots he has not shown the ability to be elite at scoring efficiently. That and his defense keep him fifth on this list.
- Chris Paul
This year Paul occupies the second tier all by himself, and was still a tough omission from the first tier. Aside from a declining free throw rate, the Clippers’ point guard continues to defy the aging process as he nears 30 years old, putting up an overall statistical season almost identical to a year ago by increasing both the volume and accuracy of his three-point attempts. He has now settled in as solidly above-average from deep, preventing teams from going under on the pick and roll. Paul pilots what has been the number one offense for most of the year, and kept it at those lofty heights even while Blake Griffin missed time.
Paul only misses out on the top tier due to the fact that he just isn’t quite as dominant on a personal level. His usage rate has been below 24 percent the last few years. He rarely gets to the basket any longer, taking only nine percent of his shots at the rim and 19 percent within 10 feet. And unlike the players above him, he really doesn’t have any argument for being the best player in the league, ranking fifth in Win Percentage, seventh in PER and fifth in RPM.
- DeMarcus Cousins
It may be a shock to see the Sacramento center at this level, but pretty much all the advanced statistics support it despite the Kings’ desultory performance since Mike Malone was fired.
Cousins has become an excellent defender by most metrics. The Kings’ D collapses when he is off the court, and he ranks third among centers in defensive RPM. Offensively he could stand to be more efficient, but the dearth of shooting and passing around him means he has to take more tough shots than optimal. He ranks sixth in PER, seventh in Win Percentage and ninth in RPM. While his surly reputation and the Kings’ descent into the maelstrom hurt his national perception, Cousins has earned his spot here.
- Blake Griffin
Griffin’s season has been somewhat of a disappointment for a player his age. Instead of taking the next step, he has regressed. He missed time with an elbow injury after having to withdraw from Team USA with a back fracture. Athletically, he doesn’t look quite the same. His dunks don’t detonate the way they used to, and they have declined from 2.2 per game to 1.3. He doesn’t have quite the same explosion facing up his man from the mid-post. While Griffin has refined his midrange jumper to his credit, and cited the desire to avoid injury in avoiding the paint more, the fact is his bread and butter is getting to the rim. What’s more, he still is not a plus defender protecting the basket, although he is showing a burgeoning ability to switch out onto perimeter players.
In some respects, this ranking is based on a faith that Griffin can return to a similar level to last year. Having just turned 26, the hope is that he will.
9. Marc Gasol
Gasol ultimately takes this spot as likely the most valuable defender in this tier anchoring the Grizzlies staunch unit. He has upped his usage rate this year while remaining relatively efficient, and his passing from the high post powers the Grizzlies’ offense. Curiously though, RPM does not like him nearly so much, putting him at only 45th overall in the league.
10. Damian Lillard
Count Lillard’s ranking in this spot as a vote for the value of being able to shoot threes off the dribble in pick and roll situations. While Lillard is shooting only an aberrational 34 percent from three on the season, he launches them with abandon and defenses respect it. While he’s not Steph Curry in efficiency, he has a similar effect in forcing many teams to change their pick and roll coverages. Lillard also deserves credit for improving his two biggest weaknesses, defense and finishing at the rim.
Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order
All of these players belong in Tier Four as well, as there is little to separate them from Gasol and Lillard.
Aldridge is a tough case because he is not particularly efficient offensively. But the threat of what he can do when he gets hot is perhaps more important than his actual results, as defenses stick to him like glue in the pick and pop and frequently double team him in the post. As a result, he manages to boost Portland’s offense despite his own personal inefficiency.
Butler has been a revelation this season as a two-way wing, and is an easy choice for most improved player in these eyes with the way he has added great footwork and midrange shooting to his individual offensive game. But he isn’t the offensive threat many others on this list are despite his efficiency, given a mere 20 percent usage rate. That keeps him out of the top ten.
Wall is one of the league’s best defensively at point guard, and Washington inordinately depends on him for what offense they can muster. He is right up there among the league’s best distributors. However, Wall still is not particularly efficient and doesn’t shoot threes off the dribble, which contributes to the Wizards’ spacing problems. It would be nice to see what he could do with more shooting around him and a more complex offensive system.
Leonard was perhaps the toughest omission from the top 10. RPM loves his defense, where he ranks second among wings behind specialist Tony Allen. He has also increased his usage to well above-average this year, though his marksmanship from downtown has declined along with his overall efficiency. Ultimately, a preference for bigs on defense and creators on offense kept him out of the top 10, but maybe I should trust the advanced stats more than I do.
Thompson has made unbelievable strides offensively, upping his usage rate into star territory at 27.6 percent while also boosting his True Shooting Percentage by four points to 59 percent. He is a very solid (though not great) defender on the wing as well, and his shooting in concert with Curry’s stretches the defense to its breaking point.
Irving may be overlooked at this point. Not a ton separates Irving from Lillard in individual statistics. What keeps him out of the top 10? Irving continues to be a problem defensively despite some increased effort. He also benefits from being the second option in Cleveland while playing off the ball quite a bit, a luxury Lillard does not have. Irving is younger than Lillard and may surpass him eventually, but for now Lillard is the superior player.
Who Dropped Out
Kevin Durant would clearly be in the top tier if healthy, but after a lost year and four to six months of rehabilitation ahead of him, he has to drop out for now. Kevin Love’s fall is perhaps the most disappointing. He was fourth a year ago, and could not even crack honorable mention this year. Unlike the others on this list, he does not have age or injury (though he has periodically struggled with a nagging back injury) as an excuse. Perhaps he can rejoin this list if he plays elsewhere next year or Cleveland’s system is revamped to play more to his strengths. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard have all had their seasons wrecked by injuries and ailments. Unfortunately, all are of an age where we probably should not expect to see them return to this list. And at age 36, Dirk Nowitzki has finally seen enough slippage to fall out, especially defensively. Paul George unfortunately suffered a horrific broken leg that was bad enough that one wonders whether he can return to full health. Hopefully he can return to this list next year.
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