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Zach LaVine is the Timberwolves’ X-Factor

Zach LaVine is the Minnesota Timberwolves’ X-Factor going forward, writes Michael Scotto.

Michael Scotto

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The Minnesota Timberwolves hope a rising young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine can lead the organization to a height the Kevin Garnett era never reached – a championship.

In the midst of Minnesota’s 28th season, the franchise has only made eight playoff appearances (seven of which have been first-round exits).

In 2004, Minnesota advanced to the Western Conference Finals led by Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Since then, the Timberwolves have failed to qualify for the playoffs for the past 12 seasons.

Minnesota was one of the trendy picks to make the Western Conference playoffs heading into this season thanks to the hiring of coach Tom Thibodeau and the addition of fifth overall pick Kris Dunn, who spoke with Basketball Insiders earlier this season.

“We’ve got to learn,” Thibodeau said after a recent loss to the New York Knicks. “Winning is hard in this league. Winning is hard and it’s a competition. It’s not a show. It’s a competition. If you want to win, you look at the teams that win consistently, they do all the dirty work and they put all the things that are necessary into winning and that’s what we need to learn and certain points of the game like a home run shot is not what we need.”

Thibodeau knows a thing or two about winning, as he amassed a 255-139 (.629) record in five seasons as the Chicago Bulls’ coach. Under Thibodeau’s tutelage, Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in league history while Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng developed into All-Stars.

Thibodeau’s coaching career has come full circle as head coach of the Timberwolves since he began his coaching career as a 32-year-old assistant with the Timberwolves in 1989. Subsequent assistant coaching stints for Thibodeau included the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics before he earned the head coaching position with the Bulls.

After a month on the job under Thibodeau, LaVine described what it’s like playing for the vaunted defensive savant.

“He’s actually really cool,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “He’s on you; he wants the best for you and the team. And as a young player, that’s what you want. You want somebody that’s going to be straightforward and knowing that you did something wrong so you can fix it and do it better next time. He’s very defensive-oriented and for me, I’ve always been good on the ball, but off the ball has been my weak point and he’s helped me a lot already this year. I feel like it will get better and better.”

For Thibodeau, these types of defensive tips LaVine mentioned are part of a long learning process to instill winning habits in his young team.

“For us, the focus is on improvement, just keep growing,” Thibodeau said. “As long as we’re doing the right things and obviously, I’m closer being there every day, I see how they are in the meetings, how they practice and how they prepare. As long as we’re doing the right things, we’ll continue to improve. So that’s our challenge. Right now we’re pretty close, but there has to be a consistency. I think they’re understanding. When you have young guys, it’s understanding also what goes into winning, how hard it is to win in this league and how hard you have to play all of the time. Not some of the time, all of the time. This is a hard league. We have high character, good work ethic, and I think we will improve.”

While Towns, Wiggins and LaVine have all spent the first month soaking up wisdom from their coach, Thibodeau has also learned more about his trio.

“I think the big thing is that we have great versatility and obviously what Zach, Wiggins and Karl have done, I think they’ve gotten a lot better,” Thibodeau said. “The challenge for them also is not only playing well themselves but bringing the best out of everybody on the team. I think when we’re at our best, we’re very connected both offensively and defensively.”

Towns has become more aggressive this season, averaging three more attempts per game while becoming increasingly consistent beyond the arc at 38 percent. Wiggins, who never shot above 31 percent from downtown, is currently shooting 38 percent.

In his first season as a full-time starter, LaVine has made an early case for the league’s Most Improved Player award and is showing flashes of All-Star potential while averaging 20 points per game. LaVine is shooting a career-best 46 percent overall (including 53 percent on all two-point field goals) and he’s become automatic at the foul line shooting 89 percent. At 21 years old, LaVine’s 37.2 minutes per game ranks fourth in the league.

“Us three young players, as long as we continue to put the work in, we’ve got a very high ceiling,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “The sky is the limit. We’ve just got to put it together even this season. It’s a very long season, you can always turn things around. As you can see, two or three quarters we’re great and top in the league in a lot of different stats, and playing very well with 10-15 point leads, but one quarter can change the game. If you get that together, that’s the part that we need.”

If Minnesota’s young core can eventually grasp Thibodeau’s defensive concepts fully with their length, speed and freakish athleticism, they have the potential to be a defensive powerhouse. All the tools are there, but early this season has been about reading the instructional manual and figuring everything out.

Towns, Wiggins and LaVine have proven to be an elite offensive trio. The only other trios with all three players averaging 20 points per game are Golden State’s trio of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Cleveland’s trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Cleveland’s trio is in its prime. Golden State’s trio is entering its prime. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s trio is merely scratching the surface of how good they can be.

While Wiggins and Towns came into the league with extraordinary expectations as former No. 1 overall picks, LaVine has drawn a buzz from fans around the league for his gravity-defying dunks at All-Star Weekend for the past two seasons. However, as LaVine comes into his own as a full-time starter and continues to display his full arsenal over time, he believes he can participate in more than a Slam Dunk Contest. LaVine’s goal is to participate in the main event and become an All-Star down the road.

“Looking up at the legends and stars of the game, I’ve been to All-Star Weekend two times already, and you want to be at the Sunday night game,” LaVine said. “It’s a big thing. We watch it, and it’s a big accomplishment. I think I’ll get there soon.”

While Towns and Wiggins are the more heralded components of Minnesota’s trio, LaVine has equally enticing All-Star upside and has the chance to play a pivotal role in delivering the franchise’s first championship with Thibodeau at the helm one day down the road.

“You have your own goals and whenever I step on the court I think of myself, that’s the confidence you have to have, that you have to be the best player on the floor and that’s the confidence I have,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “If I continue to do what I have to do off the court, putting my hard work in, I can see myself being one of the better players in the NBA.”

While the trio may be young pups now, imagine what the next decade could look like as they evolve into wolves in their prime?

Michael Scotto is a Senior NBA Writer for Basketball Insiders in his sixth season covering the league. He also works for The Associated Press focusing on Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks game coverage.

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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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