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Utah Jazz Summer League Recap: Day Two

Matt John analyzes day two from Utah Jazz Summer League in Salt Lake City.

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The second day of Jazz Summer League was underway at Vivint Arena on Tuesday night to a thunderous crowd. After a relatively exciting start, the fans were treated to some more uneven results. One of the games was an embarrassing blowout while the other was an epic near-comeback that pleased the attendees.

It did not have the exact same results as day one, but day two was yet another mixed bag.

Game 1: San Antonio Spurs vs. Atlanta Hawks

The Spurs made easy work out of the Hawks, crushing them 103-81. The route was very impressive since the Spurs opted not to play their most recent first-round pick, Lonnie Walker IV, but the team didn’t miss a beat without him. The balanced attack of Jaron Blossomgame, Chimezie Metu, Derrick White, Jeff Ledbetter, Amida Brimah and Raphiael Putney powered the easy route.

The story of the evening, however, was the continued struggles of Trae Young. After a not very encouraging debut in the summer league, Young didn’t do so much better in his second outing. While his passing and defense have arguably exceeded expectations, his scoring prowess has failed to translate so far in the summer league. Young shot 5-for-16 from the field including 1-for-5 from three-point range. Despite his struggles, Young remained optimistic about both his own and his team’s performance going forward.

“My shot wasn’t falling, but I found ways just like I did in the last game to impact the game,” Young said. “My main thing right now is to make the right plays. As a team, we’re not knocking down the shots that we are eventually going to hit. I’m excited that we are getting the looks that we are getting. We’re just not knocking down shots right now.”

As for the rest of the team, Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce was disappointed with the loss but chalked it up to the young guys learning the ropes of the game.

“We got young guys who all come out and want to play at their own pace and the game doesn’t work that way,” Pierce said. “For me, it’s all about lessons. There’s a lot of teaching points that we will get, there’s a lot of teaching points that we will use, and there’s a lot of teaching points that we will keep talking about.”

Game 2: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Utah Jazz

The Grizzlies pulled out of a close one in a tight 95-92 victory over the Jazz. After the Spurs blew out the Hawks, it seemed the audience was doomed for a repeat in game two. The Grizzlies stormed out of the gate, building up a lead as high as 26 points, but the Jazz hung in there to take their lead with mere minutes to go. But Kobi Simmons, Deyonta Davis, and Wayne Selden came through in the clutch to lead their team to victory.

The story of the night was obviously the comeback that the Jazz nearly achieved. The team was without first-round pick Grayson Allen, so the challenge was going to be harder. Though the first half wasn’t pretty, the team managed a way to claw itself back into it. Coach Mike Wells wasn’t happy with the final result, but he was proud of his guys for making the proper adjustments that helped them literally play the team’s brand of basketball in the second half.

“The whole second half was Jazz basketball where you can chop the game up a little bit more, set your defense, get a little more physical,” Wells said. “I liked our energy. I liked our toughness. I like how our guys battled back and competed.”

Naz Mitrou-Long echoed the same sentiment from his coach on the term “Utah Jazz basketball” and how the defense was its main ingredient in the second half.

“It was just an emphasis on defense,” Mitrou-Long said. “That’s Utah Jazz basketball from the top to the bottom. That’s what they preach and that’s what coach was really trying to emphasize… That’s what the comeback was and really put us in a position to win.”

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Utah Jazz 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Jazz have started to emerge as a legit contender in the West with a great balance of offense and defense. But are they deep enough to be anything more than a playoff team? Basketball Insiders digs into the Utah Jazz in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Utah Jazz find themselves in a curious position headed into the 2018-19 season. They made some of the fewest notable changes of any team in the association this offseason, essentially bringing back the same band plus the addition of first-round draft pick Grayson Allen. At the same time, an already brutal Western Conference got even tougher over the summer. And yet, most projections and predictions have them at least matching last year’s 48-win total, with many expecting them to exceed this and challenge for home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Some of that is due to expected health improvements, while some is also due to projected internal development and some of the best continuity in the league. There are even projection systems and pundits who give the Jazz a real chance to challenge for the third or even second seed out West. Can the team deliver on some of its highest expectations in recent memory?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Utah Jazz didn’t grab any major headlines this offseason but they have plenty of reason to be excited and optimistic as we approach the upcoming season. Utah returns all of its core rotation, which features several players who could take another step forward this season. Rudy Gobert seems to improve each season, though injuries have been an issue in the past. Donovan Mitchell was a breakout star last season and should be even better this season. Dante Exum is still just 23 years old and has plenty of room to keep developing. This team has more continuity in its roster than most teams and a quality coach in Quin Snyder to lead the way. However, the Western Conference is as stacked as ever with Golden State still standing strong at the top of the hill. It’s unlikely that Utah can advance out of the Western Conference playoff race but they will certainly put up a good fight against anyone they are matched up against.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

-Jesse Blancarte

In a league where the elite teams at the top have bent the way we interpret modern basketball, the Utah Jazz are something of a throwback. You can see it in their starting lineup, which succeeds consistently despite their shooting-shy mammoth frontcourt of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. It’s visible in their grinding style of play, one that wears opponents down mentally and physically. Utah’s front office has never wavered in its commitment to this group, as evidenced by a summer where they made virtually no major changes to the roster and will be relying on more of the same to keep them in the upper parts of the West’s playoff conversation.

1st Place – Northwest Division

-Ben Dowsett

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Jazz added pretty much nothing to their roster simply because they didn’t have to. Even after losing Gordon Hayward, the Jazz had one of the most resilient seasons in 2017-18. Now that the whole gang is back, plus Grayson Allen, for one more round, the Jazz should expect to take another step forward. Utah now approaches year two in the Donovan Mitchell era, which should bring much optimism given his electric rookie year. The supporting cast he has isn’t very talented, but they all function at a high level together. Because of that, expect more from them. Especially if Dante Exum continues to progress.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

What a fantastic season the Jazz had last year. Having lost Gordon Hayward going into 2017, nearly everybody chalked them up to miss the playoffs. For the first couple of months, it looked that way—until a rookie emerged into a superstar. Donovan Mitchell will try to capitalize on a sensational first season we’ll never forget. Reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert is poised to continue his interior dominance. Ricky Rubio wants to build on a career-year. Joe Ingles will likely continue his ways of being the ultimate teammate and a top three-point shooter. With all of this said, Utah did what they did a year ago with no expectations. The script is flipped this time around. All eyes are on Quin Snyder and company. They’re undoubtedly a top playoff team, but they might fall just short of a Northwest Division title.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

How can you not like what the Jazz have built? They are a tough team defensively, they have a dynamic offensive player in Donovan Mitchell who is just scratching the surface, and their role guys are progressing nicely. Utah is a solid team. The problem is they don’t have the firepower to believe they are truly elite, unless someone we didn’t expect emerges. Maybe that’s Dante Exum, maybe that’s rookie Grayson Allen, maybe it’s Jae Crowder. The problem is you don’t know at this point who the next guy is going to be, if they have that guy at all. Being good is nice, but to matter in the West you have to be great, and it’s hard to see the Jazz as great, especially in the Northwest. The Jazz are going to be a tough out every night and that’s a good thing, but they need one more guy to put them in that top tier and it is just not clear who that guy is yet.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Donovan Mitchell

As a rookie, the questions with Mitchell kept becoming grander and greater in scope as the year went on. Could he crack the rotation? Could he be a spark plug off the bench behind guys like Rodney Hood and Ricky Rubio? Could he start? Could he average 15 points a night?

The answers to all those questions and more proved to be a resounding yes. Mitchell became the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring for the year since Carmelo Anthony with the Nuggets over a decade ago, then went toe to toe with Russell Westbrook and Paul George in Utah’s first-round win over the Thunder. He became the first Jazz player, rookie or otherwise, to shoulder a usage load of 29 percent or higher (minimum 500 minutes played) since the great Karl Malone in 2000-01. He’s the Jazz’s answer to the league’s growing emphasis on switching defense, and their go-to when the play breaks down and they need to generate a shot before the clock runs out.

Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert

When you’re the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, this category isn’t too tough a call. Gobert is coming off his second straight season leading the NBA in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure – he’s never finished outside the top-15 in this category since he became a full-time NBA player in his second year. He’s the basis for Utah’s entire defensive strategy, a funneling operation that allows wing defenders to be more aggressive on the perimeter, clog passing lanes and otherwise disrupt things with the knowledge that Gobert is at the rim to clean up mistakes.

Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio

Rubio averaged by far the fewest assists of his career with the Jazz last year, but that’s a reflection of a scheme, not a player. The Jazz under Quin Snyder emphasize a motion-based system that spreads the playmaking duties around several ball-handlers, and while it took Rubio a few months to get used to it, it eventually clicked and led to a post-All-Star break run that was some of the strongest play of his career. Rubio may not be diming up teammates 10 times a game in Utah, but his effect on the organization and execution of the offense is clear: The Jazz’s assist percentage (the rate of team baskets that drew an assist) dropped from 61.4 percent with him on the floor to 54.8 percent with him on the bench. He could be even more of a force after another full offseason.

Top Clutch Player: Donovan Mitchell

However you define the term “clutch,” Mitchell is clearly that guy for Utah. Using NBA.com’s standard definition – the final five minutes of a game with the score within five points – Mitchell attempted over double the per-minute shots of any other full-season rotation player on the roster. That crazy-high 29 percent usage rate we mentioned earlier? It skyrocketed to 44 percent during these minutes (55 percent in the playoffs!), almost an unfathomable load.

That’s not the only way to think about clutch play, though, at least if you’re liberal about defining it. Consider how reliant the Jazz were on Mitchell to bail them out when the offense stalled, for instance: Donovan attempted more than double the shots in the final four seconds of the shot clock of any other player on the team, per Second Spectrum data. When the Jazz need a bucket, be it in a tight game or just a tight possession, Mitchell is where they turn.

The Unheralded Player: Joe Ingles

As Ingles has gotten a bit of notoriety, including a top-60 finish in the most recent SI Top-100 Players list, this title is at risk of losing its validity to some degree. Still, though, there are plenty of opposing broadcast crews still wondering who the heck this balding Australian guy is as he drops his sixth three-pointer of the night on their team.

Ingles quietly does a little bit of everything for the Jazz. He’s sporting two consecutive finishes in the league’s top five three-point shooters by accuracy, a distinction shared by only Washington’s Otto Porter. Ingles isn’t flashy, but he’s a more than capable pick-and-roll operator with one of the best pass-fakes in the entire league. He’s a jack-of-all-trades defender who spends time on point guards and power forwards alike. And best yet, he’s a grounding presence in a tight Jazz locker room.

Best New Addition: Grayson Allen

Allen wins this one by default – he’s the only actual addition the Jazz made to their 15-man roster who didn’t play for them last year. The front office is incredibly high on Allen, a four-year college prospect who had to adjust his game multiple times at Duke to make room for various talented freshmen. They see him as a light version of Kyle Korver offensively, a guy who can rocket around screens and draw defensive eyes away from guys like Mitchell and Rubio – but who can also put the ball and the floor and run pick-and-roll as a secondary creator. Time will tell if he has the length and lateral speed to defend at a high NBA level, but he’s got sneaky vertical athleticism for his size and already thinks the game really well. It’ll be interesting to see if he can crack consistent rotation minutes for a team that’s deep on the perimeter.

-Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

1. Quin Snyder

Fresh off a second-place finish in the Coach of the Year vote, Snyder has finally begun to draw his due credit around the league for the job he does in Utah. His staff is consistently among the most detailed and prepared in the league, something opposing coaches will happily confirm for you if you ask them. Snyder’s player development skills are also beginning to get recognition – the hiring of former assistant Igor Kokoskov as head coach for a young roster in Phoenix is just one piece of that. Snyder demands a lot from his players, but he puts just as much into the job. He’s a clear asset in Utah.

2. Derrick Favors

Favors deserves real praise for the way he’s accepted multiple changes in roles since Rudy Gobert’s ascent to among the league’s dominant centers, and he got a bit of a reward this offseason with a nice two-year deal from the Jazz (second year non-guaranteed). The deal is great for both sides – Favors gets a nice bump for a year or two, then can re-enter the market while still in his late 20s. The Jazz, meanwhile, have the ability to get off Favors’ contract in just a year if they can land a big fish on the 2019 free agency market. If not, though, they can simply retain him as a starting power forward and arguably the league’s best backup center. He’s a consistent presence on the floor who serves as an excellent insurance policy in case Gobert struggles with injuries.

3. Dante Exum

Another guy who got rewarded over the offseason was Exum, who’s been plagued by two extremely unfortunate injuries but retains the trust of the Jazz front office regardless. The young Aussie showed flashes of his defensive potential late last year, including some elite-level defense on James Harden and other top ball-handlers. Utah paid a bit of a premium on his three-year deal, but they did so with the assumption that this is still far from a finished product. He projects as a third guard behind Mitchell and Rubio, but has the size to play some three at times and could see a lot more court time if his offensive game becomes just a bit more consistent.

4. The 4s

The Jazz quietly have one of the strongest groups of power forwards in the league, one that includes a great deal of versatility. They’ll start with their twin towers combo of Favors and Gobert, a duo that’s continued to crush most teams even despite the league’s emphasis on spacing. Favors will mostly play backup center after those early first- and third-quarter stints, but Snyder will then have his choice of Jae Crowder or Thabo Sefolosha – the former coming off a strange season where he lacked a lot of his usual preparation after the death of his mother and multiple trades, the latter recovering from an MCL injury while also returning from a drug suspension.

The Jazz have consistently dominated playing these wing types at four next to Gobert, and they may be able to downsize even further and play guys like Joe Ingles or Royce O’Neale there (O’Neale deserved to make this list on his own, but there’s only so much space). And watch out for newcomer Georges Niang, who spent much of last season with the SLC Stars in the G-League. Niang doesn’t jump out of the gym, but he’s a savvy and skilled guy who can really stretch the floor.

5. Dennis Lindsey and Co.

The Jazz’s coaching staff has begun to receive plaudits for the work it does, and the same can be said about the front office. Helmed by GM Dennis Lindsey, Jazz brass has secured a number of big wins over recent years: Trading for Donovan Mitchell, hiring Quin Snyder and moving up in the draft to select Rudy Gobert chief among them.

What really separates them, though, is their work around the margins. Look at a guy like Royce O’Neale, who Lindsey and his group signed as an undrafted 24-year-old free agent a year ago – by the end of the year, he was a vital rotation piece who might be the team’s best overall perimeter defender. Imagine how much a team like Houston could have used O’Neale when their seven-man rotation was running out of steam against the Warriors in the conference finals; that one more capable wing body could have done wonders. The Lindsey track record is filled with those kinds of moves, from Joe Ingles (cut by the Clippers) to guys like Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh.

-Ben Dowsett

STRENGTHS

The Jazz have a number of strengths, but everything starts with their continuity. Few teams will be as comfortable with each other from the jump as this group, which returns every guy from last year’s end-of-season rotation. Linked to this is the defense, which is obviously a strength due to personnel like Gobert first and foremost, but also adds up to a sum greater than its parts due to this familiarity.

Depth is another clear strength for the Jazz. Snyder ran 11-deep at times last season, and that was with a few injuries and before adding a rookie in Grayson Allen who looks like he could be capable of bench minutes at least. There will be real competition for playing time in Utah, often among guys who could walk into rotation spots on many other teams.

-Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

The Jazz finished almost exactly league average last season for points scored per-possession, so this isn’t necessarily a weakness in a vacuum, but it’s certainly a concern for the heights this team hopes to reach. In particular, Utah has had issues with teams that emphasize a lot of switching in their defenses – since the departure of Gordon Hayward (and even before then, honestly), they’ve been a bit short on guys who can consistently win the one-on-one mismatches you get from those defenses. Mitchell quickly became that guy as a rookie – can he improve his efficiency on these plays a bit? Can others, such as Exum or Alec Burks, help shoulder some of that load?

One area that could help in terms of picking the low-hanging offensive fruit is transition, where the Jazz haven’t been quite aggressive enough in recent seasons. Per Cleaning the Glass, they were the sixth-most efficient team in the league last year on the break, scoring a robust 125.7 points per play – but they ran in transition just 19th-most in the league on a per-possession basis. Running more might lead to a slight decrease in that efficiency number, but we’re still talking about possessions that are far more valuable than the standard halfcourt look. It’s understandable that Snyder wants to control the tempo of the game and grind teams down, and there’s a limit to how much teams can run when you think about conditioning, but it’s still something Utah could prioritize a bit more.

-Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is this Jazz core a year away from true title contention, or are they still missing a major piece?

We’re going big-picture with this one. With apologies to Jazz fans everywhere (and the fans of at least 26 other teams, most likely), their chances of winning the title this season are slim to none while this version of the Warriors remains intact. But that doesn’t mean this year is meaningless, even without a freak event like an injury in the Bay.

This is a chance to assess this core against the other elite teams in the league. It’s a chance to see how much more development guys like Mitchell, Exum and even Gobert have in them. If they’re close enough to the Warriors and Rockets of the league by season’s end, Lindsey and his team could reasonably conclude that moderate offseason moves in 2019 (plus more internal development) will be enough to push them into true title contention pending events in Oakland. If not, the front office will have a clearer idea of what they need to do or add to help bridge that gap. There are numerous smaller questions about this team, such as whether they can get home court in the first round and whether they can make the second round for the third year straight, but this is the broadest one in regard to the franchise’s future.

-Ben Dowsett

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Oklahoma City Thunder 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Oklahoma City Thunder have all the pieces to be an elite team, even in the West, but can they survive missing Russell Westbrook and does their style of play translate to winning NBA basketball? Basketball Insiders take a look at the Oklahoma City Thunder in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Oklahoma City Thunder entered last season with championship aspirations. They surprisingly pulled off a trade to bring Paul George to the team, and then followed that up by trading for Carmelo Anthony. On paper, they appeared to have all the makings of a team that could make a deep postseason run.

Their season didn’t end that way, however, as they were bounced in the first round by the Utah Jazz despite having home-court advantage. Anthony never seemed to fit, and the team traded to him to the Atlanta Hawks, who eventually bought out his contract. They did manage to secure a huge win in free agency, though by convincing George, who supposedly was all-in on finding a way to Los Angeles, to re-sign. They also made a couple of nice pickups in Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel to strengthen their roster and stay afloat in the ever tough Western Conference.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Give Sam Presti credit for the work he did this offseason. He managed to re-sign Paul George to a four-year, $136,911,936 contract, moved Carmelo Anthony’s contract while acquiring Dennis Schroder, traded for the rights to Hamidou Diallo, signed Nerlens Noel to a two-year, $3,745,548 contract (player option on final season) and rounded our the roster with some other cost-effective deals. This offseason could have been a disaster, but re-signing George sets the stage for the Thunder to remain competitive in the Western Conference. The team has the potential to make some real noise in the postseason if Russell Westbrook and George develop some meaningful chemistry — something that didn’t happen last season. Westbrook underwent an operation recently, so that will be a factor as well. If Westbrook, Andre Roberson and the Thunder’s other key players avoid the injury bug this season, they could be a surprisingly competitive team. However, even in the best case scenario, the Thunder will likely be a tier below the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Thunder did about as well as anyone could have hoped over the summer, winning Sam Presti’s 2017 gamble outright when they re-signed Paul George to a long-term deal. That they also managed to shed Carmelo Anthony’s albatross deal in the process was just icing on the cake. The big question now becomes this: Will keeping George and Russell Westbrook together motivate the pairing to address some of their on-court shortcomings last year and come back even stronger, or will they rest on their laurels? A recent Westbrook surgery is only supposed to keep him out through training camp, but it’s worth monitoring – if he has to miss any time, new acquisition Dennis Schroder will be put to the test early. But the Thunder were a very strong regular season team last year before Andre Roberson went down with an injury, and it’ll be interesting if they can parlay his renewed health into a charge at a top-three seed in the West.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

If there was ever a time to use the phrase “addition by subtraction,” now would be the appropriate time with the Thunder. After a year together, Russell Westbrook and Paul George know each other’s tendencies. One’s more aggressive than the other, but they’ll both have a better feel for things. Oklahoma City adding Dennis Schroder to the equation gives its bench bunch a potential sixth man candidate that could potentially play alongside the starters in certain rotations. Steven Adams broke out as best offensive rebounder in the NBA, and that won’t change. There’s real potential for Jerami Grant to take on a more significant role, as well as a chance for Nerlens Noel to re-establish himself in the league. Billy Donovan has plenty of options to go with for different types of styles.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Thunder were one of the league’s biggest letdowns last season. Although, it was not entirely their fault. They were playing their best basketball before Andre Roberson’s season-ending knee injury. Since their elimination, OKC not only kept the best of their team together, but they also renovated the roster. Replacing the incompatible Carmelo Anthony with Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel gives the team well-needed depth. Lack of shooting might be a cause for concern if they plan to make an extended playoff run, but the Thunder have a better supporting cast around Russell Westbrook and Paul George. That should mean a better final result than last season.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

The injury/surgery of Russell Westbrook is going to impact the team more than most think; it not just that he’ll miss some time, it’s he’s going to miss time and need to reintegrate. In any other division that might be okay, but in the Northwest virtually every team should make the postseason, so every game is going to matter in the final standings. Think about last season: one game decided third place from fourth place and one game determined whether you got in the playoffs or not. The balance of the Thunder is scientifically better. The addition of Dennis Schroeder is solid. Andre Roberson is supposed to be healthy, so the Thunder should be better, but missing Westbrook for any games is going to be tough to overcome, even with Paul George back in the fold.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Russell Westbrook

The 2016-17 Most Valuable Player, Russell Westbrook is one of the most explosive offensive players in the league. He’s near impossible to stop when attacking the rim and his strength allows him to finish the play while absorbing contact. He’s also worked on his jumper tremendously since coming into the NBA, to the point where he’s a threat to score from anywhere on the court.

He’s been among the league leaders in points per game the past few seasons, and during his MVP year, he led the league with 31.6 points per game. There have been questions about Westbrook’s shot selection and whether or not he dominates the ball too much, but the fact remains that he’s an amazing offensive talent and a walking triple-double. He is without a doubt the type of player you can build a franchise around. There are 29 other teams that would love to have a player of that caliber. He’s a top-five player in the league and a perennial MVP candidate.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson

Despite being a limited threat offensively, the Thunder missed Anthony Roberson tremendously in the playoffs. He suffered a season ending injury back in January. He’s emerged as one of the premier wing defenders in the league. His presence would have gone a long way to corralling Donovan Mitchell, whom the Thunder seemed to have no answer for in the postseason.

Prior to his injury, Oklahoma City had the best defense in the league. Without him in the lineup, their defense took a huge hit and they slipped to only middle of the pack. He’s able to guard multiple wing positions and his one-on-one defense is almost second to none. When he’s back on the court, he’s a potential All-Defensive First Team member and could be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

In many ways, as Westbrook goes, so go the Thunder. Much of their success relies on the superhuman efforts of Westbrook, part of which is his ability to create opportunities for his teammates. There has been plenty of garbage floating around suggesting that Westbrook “hunts for stats,” as if it were that easy to average double figures in assists. He’s become one of the elite playmakers in the league. The Thunder are that much better with him on the floor.

The past three seasons he’s averaged double figures in assists, including his final season with Kevin Durant, in which he dished out a career-high 10.4 assists. This past season, his 10.3 per game led the league. Not only does he generate offense himself, but he does so for his teammates as well. They all become a threat to score when Westbrook is on the court. He’s a floor general and leader who quarterbacks the team.

Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook/Paul George

Of course Westbrook deserves to be mentioned here. He’s hit numerous big shots and come through in plenty of clutch situations for the Thunder. However, Paul George has garnered more of a reputation of his own for making big plays in crunch time. There are plenty of stats floating around that suggest George isn’t a clutch player or that he’s abysmal with the game on the line. As always, stats don’t tell the complete story.

The Thunder struggled during close games last season, mostly due to the trio of Westbrook, George and Anthony never really finding a groove together. It was pretty much each guy taking turns with the ball in his hands. With Anthony now out of the picture, things should run a little more smoothly. The casual fan forgets George going toe to toe with LeBron James and the Miami Heat a few years back. He made numerous big plays during those battles with Miami. The fact is you can rest comfortably knowing that the ball is in either Westbrook or George’s hands when the fourth quarter comes around. You can’t go wrong with either.

The Most Unheralded Player: Steven Adams

Steven Adams has rightfully begun to garner more attention for what he brings to the Thunder, but there are times when it still can go unnoticed. His rebounding and interior defense are a huge part of what the Thunder do. Last season, he averaged more offensive rebounds (5.1) than defensive rebounds (4.0), helping Oklahoma City to extra possessions.

He’s become one of the best defensive anchors in the paint as well as a good man to man defender. He’s also emerged as a valuable contributor on the offensive end as well. He’s great in the pick and roll as both a screener and a finisher. His offensive rebounding prowess enables him to get multiple put-backs. And he’s begun to develop a jump shot and a little floater. The Thunder certainly have star power, but Adams is a vital piece of the team and an absolute necessity if they want to make a deep playoff run.

Best New Addition: Dennis Schroder

As part of the three-team trade that sent Anthony out of Oklahoma City, the Thunder received Dennis Schroder from the Hawks. Schroder gives the Thunder a much-needed scorer off the bench. Last season, the Thunder had a few capable bench guys, but none that could really stabilize the second unit. Schroder can do just that. He can generate his own offense as well as create opportunities for his teammates.

Last season in Atlanta, he averaged a career-high 19.4 points per game and 6.2 assists. He will need to improve his outside shooting, but there’s no doubt that he’ll be a welcome addition to the Thunder offense. He should also get an opportunity to share the backcourt with Westbrook at times while Westbrook slides to shooting guard. It will give the Thunder a scoring punch in the backcourt that they haven’t had since they traded Reggie Jackson.

– David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Patrick Patterson

Still recovering from offseason surgery, Patterson had quite an underwhelming year for the Thunder. Also, with Anthony playing power forward and the emergence of Jerami Grant, Patterson was the odd man out, although he did manage to play in all 82 games. It wasn’t too long ago that he was one of the most valuable contributors off the Toronto Raptors’ bench. He’s a stretch four with good defense and rebounding and with Anthony gone, look for him to play more of an important role in the rotation.

2. Jerami Grant

Jerami Grant was perhaps the best player off the Thunder bench last season. He’s mobile big man who can guard multiple positions. He also has an improving offensive game. He’s great in the pick and roll, and has ability to finish around the rim. He drew plenty of interest as a free agent this summer, but the Thunder were able to retain him. He should continue to improve as a player and be a reliable contributor in the second unit.

3. Nerlens Noel

Nerlens Noel was once thought of as one of the top up and coming defensive big men in the league. A former lottery pick, he found himself out of the rotation with the Dallas Mavericks. This is essentially a fresh start for him, a chance to remind everyone why he was once a coveted draft pick. He’s a Steven Adams-lite, essentially. He’ll be counted on to provide the Thunder with defense and rebounding off the bench. He could end up being an X-factor in Oklahoma City.

4. Terrance Ferguson

As a rookie, Terrance Ferguson saw himself thrust into the rotation with the injury to Andre Roberson. He had a pretty good showing despite being a player who wasn’t expected to do much. He still has a long way to go in his development, but he showed flashes of the player he could become. He can create his own shot and he’s a good shooter. He’s got the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. Overall, he’s a nice young player for the Thunder to continue to develop.

– David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Defense, defense and defense. When Roberson was in the lineup, the Thunder were on top of the league defensively. His return to the lineup is much needed. Prior to the addition of Anthony last summer, the lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams looked like the team best equipped to match up with the Golden State Warriors juggernaut defensively. With Anthony now out of the picture, Oklahoma City should regain their spot as one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. Whether it’s Patterson or Grant that ultimately wins the starting power forward spot, all five of the Thunder’s starters are above average to elite defenders. They should wreak havoc on the league defensively.

– David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

The Achilles Heel for Oklahoma City last season was their performance in the clutch. They struggled mightily in close games. Most of that, however, was the result of Westbrook, George and Anthony never meshing well as a trio. Each of them would take turns doing their own thing with the ball. Now with only Westbrook and George there, they should be more efficient down the stretch.

– David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Are the Oklahoma City Thunder good enough to beat the Warriors and get to the Finals?

There’s no question that after the Thunder brought in George and Anthony, getting through the Western Conference and to the Finals to compete for a title was the goal. They fell woefully short of that. The Warriors have run roughshod on the West the past several years. Their stars are all in the prime and they show no signs of slowing down. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the Thunder. Will their offense run smoother with Anthony gone? Can Roberson make a full recovery and bolster Oklahoma City’s defense? Will they get the necessary production out of their bench? They’ve got the talent, and they should be able to make a stronger postseason run, but ultimately it’s tough to envision them knocking off Golden State. Stranger things have happened, but it doesn’t appear likely.

– David Yapkowitz

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NBA

Minnesota Timberwolves 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Minnesota Timberwolves have an abundance talent, and its share of problems, too. Will talent prevail? Or will chaos have too great of an influence on the roster? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Timberwolves enter this season with a lot to look forward to, coming off a weirdly successful 2017-18 season. Its franchise player, Karl-Anthony Towns should continue to mature and develop. Jimmy Butler is still in tow as the team’s most dependable star on both sides of the court. Andrew Wiggins has yet to realize his full potential, but still possesses incredible upside. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s assumed desire to reconstruct his 2010-11 Bulls team is mildly entertaining – so much so that some in the media have taken to calling the team the Timberbulls – but what’s really interesting is that the 2017-18 Wolves team were a subpar defensive unit despite being coached by a defensive guru. What’s even more surprising is that the team was successful with that style of play. So much so that it entered its February 24th contest against the Rockets in fourth place in the loaded Western Conference – a game in which Butler was injured, forcing him to miss the next 17 games and do serious damage to its playoff standings. Still, the Wolves talent wouldn’t allow them to implode entirely. The team ended the season with 47-wins and the eighth seed in the playoffs.

But problems exist for the Timberwolves. Can the team overcome the hostility between Butler, Towns and Wiggins? Can Jeff Teague and Tyus Jones continue to lead the team from the point guard position? Will Andrew Wiggins lock in defensively and become the star he was projected to be? And will Thibodeau be able to develop a deeper rotation or will be continue overwhelming his stars with tremendous workloads in the 2018-19 season?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Minnesota Timberwolves have so much talent and so many issues, unfortunately. The biggest issue, of course, is the internal discord between Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. If Tom Thibodeau can get his star players on the same page, this team could be one of the better Western Conference teams this season. If things fall apart early on, things could get ugly. I want to be optimistic and project that the key players on the roster will put the team first and focus on making a deep postseason run. However, I get the sense that this ongoing situation has gone too far and cannot be fully resolved at this point. I hope I am wrong, but only time will tell.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

As Tom Thibodeau continues his attempt to recreate his old Bulls roster and guys from the current group bicker somewhat publicly, it’s been a weird summer in Minnesota. This group clearly has the talent to be a playoff team in the West, and maybe even a top-four seed if everything breaks right and they get some internal development. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that despite that, this locker room feels primed for an implosion that sees them fall well short of the level their talent suggests they should attain. Butler’s renewed health along with the development of Karl-Anthony Towns will be two of the biggest factors, but so will the relationship between stars who have rumored to not exactly see eye to eye. Butler’s impending free agency in 2019 also looms large here.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

Whatever optimism there was headed into last fall has gradually faded away a short year later. The Timberwolves are an enigma. They have a stud All-Star big man in Karl-Anthony Towns, a no-nonsense All-Star swingman in Jimmy Butler and steady veteran starters like Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. Entering the first year of his five-year maximum contract extension signed in October 2017, Andrew Wiggins has to bring forth better production than he did last season. Chances are after a run with Butler for a full season, he might have a better feel for that role. However, with the Northwest Division in high competition, Minnesota could find itself on the short end of the stick.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

It might be time to declare that we jumped the gun on the Timberwolves. For the past few years, they’ve been hyped as the team of the future. Once they added Jimmy Butler, it seemed like their potential would finally be tapped. They may have made the playoffs last season, but the red flags definitely manifested themselves. Nobody appears to be happy. Butler appears ready to skip town. Thibs appears to not have learned his lesson from Chicago. The Timberwolves should be back in the hunt this year, but they are in a very competitive division within an even more competitive conference. If the discord is legit, it’s hard seeing them returning to the postseason.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

We’ll see… that’s the only way you can honestly look at this Timberwolves team. On paper they should emerge as an elite team in the NBA. They have two bona fide All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, and if Andrew Wiggins can find that next gear they should have three. The problem is the noise about the young guys and Butler is very real, and while Tom Thibodeau is a solid head coach, we’re seeing that the coach in charge of everything model isn’t working, so we’ll see. Too much is being made of the TimberBulls thing because adding quality veterans that the coach knows and trusts is a common thing, regardless of where they played. The real question for the Wolves is can their Big Three play like a Big Three and not three high level guys trying to do their own thing? The Wolves could be special, they have some special players, but as we’ve seen elsewhere, having good guys doesn’t always equate to success. Especially when egos and contrasting needs and wants factor in.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns

The Wolves have a number of strong offensive players, but none with as many gifts as Towns. Towns fits the unicorn mold as a seven-footer who can shoot from deep, punish opponents in the post, pass the ball and run the court. Towns is a mismatch for opponents nearly every night. He posted a PER of 24.9 last season, with 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. While his scoring dipped four points per game last season, he saw increased efficiency in his already strong three-point and free throw shooting. Further, Towns decreased his turnovers per game from 2.7 to 1.9.

The Timberwolves would love to lock Towns up long term, which they can do soon if they agree to a contract extension prior to October 15. Towns is eligible for a five year max extension worth between $158 and $190 million. Will Towns sign the extension this late in the offseason? Will he and the Wolves agree on a shorter contract, which puts pressure on the team to get creative? Or might he wait until next offseason to make a decision? Only time will tell.

Top Defensive Player: Jimmy Butler

The Minnesota Timberwolves are among the few NBA franchises whose best defender is also the team’s leader and best player. Fortunately for the Wolves, the 2018 All-NBA defender is a maniacal worker who is incredibly dedicated to his conditioning and his craft. The Wolves are also fortunate that Butler’s defensive workload doesn’t affect his ability to contribute offensively. In fact, Butler led the Wolves in scoring last season with 22.2 points per game. He also tallied a personal best in steals per game (2.0) while regularly guarding the opposing team’s best guard or wing.

But last season was the first since his rookie year that Butler failed to play in at least 65 games. Butler proved that his knee was healthy following a February 2018 meniscus tear, but is the grind of carrying such a heavy workload on both sides of the court beginning to result in unsustainable fatigue? And will last season’s missed games prove to be the rule now and into the future or the exception to it?

Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague

By default, a team with as much infighting as the Wolves must have an effective playmaker to spread the floor and distribute the ball. Fortunately for the Wolves, Teague is a veteran who is used to sharing the ball with multiple starts. Remember, Teague was the starting point guard for the Atlanta Hawks teams, which featured Al Horford, Josh Smith and Joe Johnson – all of whom were legitimate scoring threats in the early 2010s.

Teague might not be a vocal leader like Chris Paul, but he is capable facilitator. He averaged 14.2 points and 7.0 assists per game last year while captaining the Wolves offense. And despite the team’s internal struggles, he fed his three main offensive weapons the rock, with Butler, Towns and Wiggins averaging 22.2, 21.3 and 17.7 points per game, respectively. If Teague can continue to play as reliably as he did last season, the point guard position looks to be in good hands for now.

Top Clutch Player: Andrew Wiggins

While this may seem slightly counterintuitive – after all, the word on Wiggins is that he has developed less through this point of his career than many had hoped – Wiggins actually has the stats to back it up. Believe it or not, Wiggins is the only member of the Timberwolves to hit a buzzer beater last season. But he didn’t win only one game with his heroics. He hit two buzzer beaters in 2017-18: a three-pointer on October 22 against the Thunder and an 18-footer on January 24 against Phoenix. Does this mean he has Mamba blood coursing through his veins? Not exactly. But it does mean that when asked to come through in the clutch, he can do so with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Taj Gibson

The majority of the Wolves roster is easily classifiable as a star, former star, role player or rookie. And then there is Taj Gibson. Team President Thibodeau overpaid the veteran with a two-year, $28 million dollar deal beause Head Coach Thibodeau values Gibson’s on-court contributions. And it’s not Gibson’s fault he was offered a lucrative contract. Besides, he registered an above average PER of 15.4 last season. He put up 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, which represent the second best scoring and rebounding outputs of his career. And he even set a single-season team record, shooting 57-percent from the field.

But it’s important to remember that Gibson’s biggest contributions are harder to measure. Yes, he can score when needed. In fact, he scored 16 or more points in 23 games. But he was also the Wolves best post defender, and possibly their most versatile one, too. He covered an array of all-star-quality talent from James Harden to Nikola Jokic. Gibson is a good shot-contester. He was actually the twenty-second bes shot contester in the league last season. He also works his tail off and is a good locker room presence for a team that needs a positive influence. Most importantly, he impacts the game without being featured in the offense. But can Gibson impact remain as strong as he enters his tenth season? If he can, look for Gibson to log heavy minutes and make nightly contributions.

Best New Addition: Josh Okogie

Josh Okogie played two seasons at Georgia Tech, where he developed nicely. The 6’4” guard has elite athleticism that will likely carry him early in his career while he acclimates to the NBA game. He is a leaper who can run the court effectively on both offense and defense. He has numerous highlight-worthy chase-down blocks, for which he was aided by his freakish 7’0” wingspan. His energy and motor will be a valuable asset for a team that is lacking in both youth and depth.

Okogie’s peers think highly of his athleticism, too. He was rated the second most athletic rookie by the 2018 rookie class in their recent survey with NBA.com, which also named him second-runner-up in the best defender category. Okogie would be wise to make nice with Jimmy Butler and study his off-the-court procedures given their similar skill sets. Nothing is guaranteed – especially from a rookie – but Okogie should be a foundational building block if he’s willing to put in the requisite work.

– Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. Keita Bates-Diop

Nabbing an impact player in the second round of the draft is always a cause for celebration. While doubts exist around most second-rounders, most of them are centered on a 2017 stress fracture in his left leg. But the 2018 rookie class seems to be fairly confident in Bates-Diop’s abilities. Through the above-mentioned survey, they named Bates-Diop as the biggest steal of the draft after watching him average 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game in summer league action.

Bates-Diop has a relatively polished two-way game. The2017 Big Ten Player of the Year has a good touch. He is 6’8” wing with a 7’3” wingspan, which should allow him to develop into a versatile rim protector who can switch onto almost anyone on the court. The Timberwolves are thin up front and can benefit greatly from Bates-Diop, especially if he can mature quickly and improve his willingness to engage defensively on the low block

2. Tyus Jones

Tyus Jones stat line doesn’t come off as terribly impressive. Through 82 games in 2017-18, Jones averaged only 5.1 points and 2.8 assists per game., and was a mediocre three-point shooter at .349 from deep. But upon closer inspection, the Timberwolves’ fourth-year guard looks like he could be a keeper.

The team played better with Jones on the court in his 17.9 minutes per game than it did while he was on the bench. With Jones, the Timberwolves were 5.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents, and only .4 points per possession better while he was on the bench. Further, the team’s four starters plus Jones in place of Teague was actually 23.6 points better per 100 possessions than opponents. – albeit in only 261 minutes action. Much of this success stems from the fact that Jones had a low usage rate, and Towns, Butler and Wiggins took more shot attempts with Jones stewarding the team instead of Teague. Further, Jones turned the ball over at a low rate and contributed positively to the team’s defensive efforts. But those are difficult stats to ignore.

Jones opportunities should grow dramatically in the near future, too. The Wolves unofficially parted ways with guard Jamal Crawford after his contract expired following this past season. Crawford accounted for 20.7 minutes per game of the team’s available playing time for guards. It is unlikely that all of those minutes go to Jones, but the NBA is a production-oriented league. If Jones continues to produce, he will earn more playing time and, therefore, more opportunity to prove himself.

3. Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins is an interesting case. He hasn’t lived up to the sky-high expectations he’s been shouldering since entering the league as the next sure thing. But he did average 17.7 points per game last season as the team’s third option, not too shabby for an disappointment, And considering he is only 23, he still has substantial upside.

Wiggins regressed last season, partially due to the presence of Jimmy Butler and the fact that they play similar roles on offense. Butler is the more efficient of the two, but Wiggins natural talent might be greater. If he can figure out how to remain engaged for longer periods of time, his efficiency should improve. Further, if he embraces the challenge of becoming a lockdown defender – a challenge he is perfectly capable of succeeding at – he will receive additional accolades for being a true two-way player, much like Butler himself. And the Wolves will certainly need that level of production from its only committed star this season and beyond.

4. Derrick Rose

Despite the injuries and the dramatic fall from grace, Derrick Rose is still a big name in the basketball world. He is incredibly polarizing: loved by many, hated by others. Regardless of what you think of him, Rose can still contribute, albeit in a lesser capacity than he once did.

Rose should not be inserted into the starting lineup, nor should he be relied on to play too many minutes on a regular basis. But last we saw, he can still accelerate and finish around the rim better than most NBA players. He actually averaged 21.5 points per 36 minutes in the team’s five-game playoff series against the Houston Rockets in 2018. He can enter the game and prop up an otherwise stagnant offense for a short period of time. Assuming realistic expectations are in place, Rose can be an effective piece of a competing team – so long as he remains healthy.

– Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

Superstars are traditionally viewed as foundational pieces for NBA teams. In the modern NBA, a team needs more than one superstar to be competitive. The way teams rank players is subjective, but its generally thought to be better to have more widely-considered great players than not. Sports Illustrated recently published its top 100 player rankings, and the Timberwolves’s Butler, Towns and Wiggins all ranked in the top 100 at 10, 19 and 74, respectively. They all complement each other nicely. They are all athletic and versatile. At 7’0”, 6’8” and 6’8”, they boast a good amount of size and length. Sure, Butler and Wiggins are a bit redundant. But if they can get on the same page, they are the closest thing to a present-day Michael and Scottie.

On paper, the team should be competitive with most teams in the league. They kept most of their talented players and added in two serviceable rookies. The roster should have no problem propelling the Wolves back into the playoffs, but unfortunately the games are not decided on paper.

– Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

The Minnesota Timberwolves are top heavy. We’ve established that the team is built around its three core stars. Towns and Wiggins are both young. Butler is 29, which means he is likely in the middle of his prime. Beyond those three there is very little youth on the roster, discounting the addition of the two rookies. Their point guards are Jeff Teague (30 years old), Tyus Jones (22) and Derrick Rose (29). Its forwards include Gibson (33), Anthony Tolliver (33) and Luol Deng (33). And its only serviceable backup center is Gorgui Dieng (28), an athletic, but limited, player. The Wolves do not have a backup shooting guard other than rookie Josh Okogie.

Coach Thibodeau’s strategy of relying on his starters will be tested this season. Hopefully it holds up for at least one more year. If not, the Wolves will need to rethink its philosophy on the fly.

– Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can Minnesota keep its core together?

The Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves in a precarious situation. On the one hand, the Wolves just completed its first winning season since 2004-05, ultimately posting its best season in years. And two of its franchise players, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are only 22 and 23 years old, respectively. The Wolves should theoretically be in great shape to continue improving this season.

On the other hand, the team enters the 2018-19 season with drama surrounding its core. The Wolves’ most productive player – Jimmy Butler – has taken offense to the casual approach of its other two superstars. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Butler is all but fed up with the nonchalant attitude of his younger teammates, especially Karl-Anthony Towns. Further, Sean Deveney of The Sporting News reported last season that Butler had problems with Wiggins, his work ethic and his approach on the defensive end of the floor.

Unfortunately for the Wolves, Wiggins is the only one of the three to be signed to a long-term deal at $146.5 million dollars. Towns hasn’t yet accepted the contract extension offered to him in July. The opportunity to extend Towns evaporates as of 6 pm EST on October 15. Further, Butler becomes a free agent following the 2018-19 season. Unfortunately, Minnesota gave up a lot of value to pry Butler from Chicago last summer, and yet it seems as though the Wolves’ relationship with Butler might be irreparable – especially considering his rumored desire to pair up with Kyrie Irving.

Minnesota can go in one of two very different directions: it can re-sign Towns – and try to sign Butler – and continue to build around its existing core, or it can lose one or both of its soon-to-be free agent stars. This season and next offseason carry massive implications for the franchise. The three stars do not have to become friends with one another, but they need to co-exist on the court for the Wolves to be successful.

– Drew Maresca

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