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NBA Daily: Defense Key To Wolves Making Up Ground

Since Minnesota traded for Robert Covington and Dario Saric, the team has a record of 7-2. Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Tom Thibodeau speak on their impact.

Spencer Davies

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When a team digs itself into a hole, it’s not easy to climb out of it.

It’s especially difficult when that team is in the Western Conference, where 14th place and first place in the standings are separated by only five games. There’s a high parity level and competition coming from every way, with little room for error even this early.

The Minnesota Timberwolves started the season in a chaotic fashion. Jimmy Butler wanted out from the onset of training camp and didn’t show up for preseason. When he came back to practice, it caused a distraction that lasted for a month.

It led to a blockbuster trade that brought Robert Covington and Dario Saric into the fold—a deal that has truly refreshed a locker room that needed a fresh beginning. Since Nov. 10—the day the move was made—the Wolves are 7-2 and back to an even record.

“We’ve been coming together as a unit,” Wolves forward Taj Gibson told Basketball Insiders after a win in Cleveland. “We’ve been trying to just make up ground on all the losses that we had early in the season. But we’re slowly gaining ground.”

During that span, Minnesota has the NBA’s lowest defensive rating at 99.6 while holding opponents to a 48.2 percent effective field goal percentage and turning the opposition’s possessions over 16.6 percent of the time—per Cleaning The Glass. The team also recorded its first road wins of the season over the last week.

But can two changes really be that significant? Let’s look at the best two-man defensive lineups (min. 50 minutes) the Wolves have had this season and pick out the common denominator.

According to NBA.com, Covington is in seven of those pairings and Saric is in three. There is only one combined that involves neither, and that is the Gorgui Dieng-Tyus Jones duo, two of the most reliable defenders Tom Thibodeau has off the bench.

Coincidentally, the Wolves’ top five-man unit in defensive rating (80.5) and net rating (35.5) features all four of these players plus Derrick Rose. Thibodeau has seen plenty of results with Covington running with the second unit, which includes Saric.

ESPN 1500’s Danny Cunningham asked Thibodeau why there’s been such a dramatic turnaround with their addition. Minnesota’s head coach points to the toughness and size allowing him to implement more switching. The physicality and versatility that both guys have give other teams a unique look and matchup issues.

Covington’s allowed to be a gambler because he has help behind him. He’s been playing at a high level for a number of years now, but his stealing acumen has always come naturally with quick hands and a knack for causing havoc.

“It’s just a skill,” Gibson said of Covington’s abilities. “We rely on him to get those steals, whatever it takes. We’re being real aggressive with defense. And we kinda get even more aggressive the more that they get comfortable.”

As for what Saric brings to the table, Gibson sees the Croatian forward as a “multiple-task” player who is still young and moldable.

“Dario still hasn’t really got hot the way he normally can,” Gibson said. “It’s only a matter of time before he gets really hot and starts to put it at work.”

The former Philadelphia 76ers have fit in seamlessly, but Gibson thinks there’s still a long way to go.

“The guys haven’t really settled in just yet,” Gibson said. “I feel that they still have a lot more to show…Just gotta keep finding these guys, keep working with them. But I’m ecstatic that they’re here. I’m ecstatic that they’re working hard with us. And they’re team-first kinda guys.”

Perhaps the biggest impact that Covington has made, though, is instilling confidence into All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns. Judging off the interactions that both have had with each other in the same locker room, it is apparent their relationship is developing fast—and it’s shown on the floor.

Though numbers can be skewed by who players are on the floor with, Towns is one of six centers in the league allowing less than 100 points per 100 possessions since the date of the trade. With Covington and the Dominican seven-footer playing together, the Wolves’ DRTG is 96.2, so clearly the former is in the latter’s ear.

“He’s one of the best defenders in the world for a reason,” Towns said of Covington. “There’s a reason why he’s [All-NBA First Team Defense]. He comes in, he brings that energy. But with him doing that, it makes all of us raise our standards on defense and try to match him.

“It’s more about getting yourself going. You gotta energize yourself.”

Gibson is noticing a ramped up physicality in Towns, as well as a better understanding of how to defend certain sets.

“We’re pushing our big man to be more aggressive with the pick-and-roll, to come out more instead of just sitting back and letting our guards go through all the ups and downs,” Gibson said.

“But I felt in the last couple games, I think Karl’s been doing a good job of just attacking the one-on-one matchup as far as with the pick-and-roll, the guards.”

And on the other side of the ball, the Wolves are actively looking to feed him the ball when it counts late in games. Towns creates mismatches often and the team recognizes that, so the goal is to make sure he gets the chance to take advantage.

While KAT’s production is certainly worth talking about, Minnesota’s collective effort is truly stealing the show. The environment is healthy and the players are enjoying themselves.

And if it sustains, the rest of the NBA should be on high alert.

“We still got a lot of the stuff to improve and a lot of things that we can do better – but the defense is one thing that I see us pushing forward,” Gibson said. “We’re trying to be a top 10 defense and if you do that, you’ve got a chance to win each and every night.

“We’re just trying to play as a unit. You never know whose night’s gonna come. But right now, one game at a time. We’re just slowly making up ground, trying to get above .500 in a talented West. But one game at a time.”

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Bought Out Players Faring Well With New Teams

The deadline for teams to send their unwanted players to the buyout market was March 1. Jordan Hicks takes a look at some of the key acquisitions since the deadline and how they are helping postseason pushes.

Jordan Hicks

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The buyout market seems to be gaining more and more popularity with each season. While rebuilding teams tend to forego more seasoned players in order to give their younger guys some run, veteran players often find themselves bought out or waived prior to the deadline.

Teams competing for a spot in the playoffs – so it seems – have increasingly taken advantage of this situation by signing guys that can definitely help them get enough wins. While you definitely will not find All-Stars in the pool of available players, oftentimes solid role players find themselves there due to a myriad of reasons.

It could be that their previous teams wanted to give more playing time to guys more in-line with their future plans. It could also be because their previous team was simply wanting to lose games in order to increase their draft position, which is also known as tanking. By waiving better players on your roster and keeping less talented ones, teams can essentially give themselves a better chance to lose games without totally making it look like they’re doing it on purpose.

This year had one of the stronger pools of players on the buyout/waived market as of March 1st in recent memory, so let’s take a look at some of the top players and how they’ve fared since joining their new team.

Wesley Matthews

Matthews was part of the marquee trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. He ended up with the Knicks, but after two short games, they realized they didn’t want his talent interfering with their draft position. They waived him prior to the deadline and he was picked up by the Indiana Pacers.

This has turned out to be an incredibly important acquisition for the Pacers – primarily due to the fact that they lost All-Star Victor Oladipo for the season.

Matthews brings grittiness on the defensive end and a diverse set of skills offensively. He is an above average shooter from the three-point line, averaging 38.8 percent on 6.1 attempts per game since joining Indiana. He has added much-needed scoring to the offense as well – currently at 12.5 points and 2.4 assists each night.

He’s very clearly a step below Oladipo, especially when considering what Vic brought to both ends of the floor, but the fact that the Pacers added him without having to give up any assets is pretty remarkable.

While he has yet to add any considerable value on defense, Matthews has ranked fifth on the team in offensive rating since joining them on February 7. If Oladipo was still on the roster, you could argue that they wouldn’t necessarily need Matthews. But in light of recent events, being able to add Matthews as easily as they did was certainly a win for the franchise.

Enes Kanter

Another player the Knicks decided to unload was Enes Kanter. He was sent to the player pool via buyout, and it is safe to assume that New York had to spend handsomely to send him there.

Kanter is an interesting player. He has always been able to get buckets around the rim, as well as grab rebounds, but he has always struggled defensively. This was not why the Knicks wanted to let him go, however. Tension had been growing between Kanter, the front office, and the coaching staff, as they wanted to limit his minutes in lieu of the younger players on the roster.

Enes just wanted to play, and, by being bought out and signing with the Portland Trail Blazers, he’s been able to do just that.

Since joining Portland, the team as gone 9-3. While he continues to have his struggles on defense, he is posting 10 points and 6.7 rebounds on only 18.2 minutes per night.

Since the acquisition, Meyers Leonard has seen a decreased role. Kanter has turned into the de-facto backup to starting center Jusuf Nurkic. While Kanter is a poor defender himself, Portland has enough solid defensive players in the frontcourt that they haven’t had too much of a problem hiding him on that end of the floor.

Jeremy Lin

Lin headed to the market after being bought out by the Atlanta Hawks. He was picked up by the Toronto Raptors, who have struggled to field consistent backcourt players off the bench due to injuries – which was made more difficult after dealing Delon Wright to the Grizzlies as part of the Marc Gasol trade.

In 13 games with the Raptors, Lin is averaging 8.4 points and 2.5 assists in 20.8 minutes per game. He has struggled to find any consistency with his shot, as he’s averaging just 39 percent from the field and a morbid 18.4 percent from three.

That shooting has every opportunity to increase. Lin is a 34.3 percent shooter from downtown over the course of his career.

The Raptors will need Lin to pull his shooting together as the season wraps up for a strong playoff campaign. The bench unit was a major part of their success last season and it is proving to be another key part this year. In order for Toronto to finally reach their goal of winning the Eastern Conference, they’ll need Lin to be at his best. He isn’t the only key to their success, but he’ll have a major impact on how the Raptors finish out the season.

There are still plenty of solid players on the market. Carmelo Anthony, Ben McLemore and Nick Young could provide instant offense off the bench. Greg Monroe, Marcin Gortat and Zach Randolph could help improve the frontcourt of any team in need. Whether or not teams decide they need their services, only time will tell.

While the season plays out, it will be interesting to see just what impact these players discussed – as well as those not mentioned – will have for their franchise in the postseason.

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NBA Daily: Justin Bibbs Gets First NBA Opportunity In L.A.

Justin Bibbs spoke to Basketball Insiders about joining an NBA team after going undrafted, playing in the G League, his developing skill set and more.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the best moments in the life of an aspiring pro basketball player is to receive the news that an NBA team wants to sign them.

For Justin Bibbs, that dream became a reality of his when the Los Angeles Clippers called him up to the team on a 10-day contract last week. The former Virginia Tech guard went undrafted last summer and was spending his first professional season in the G League with Maine Red Claws, the affiliate of the Boston Celtics.

This past Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets was actually his first day being around the team as they had immediately assigned him to the Agua Caliente Clippers after signing him.

“To be honest, I still don’t have words for it. It’s kind of indescribable,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I always wanted to be on this level, but now that I’m here I just trying to take in every second of it, just relax and let God do his thing.”

Bibbs had a decent showing with the Celtics in summer league, leading to him being added to their training camp roster. He was ultimately cut and joined the Maine Red Claws as an affiliate player. Each NBA team is allowed to assign up to four players to their G League affiliate, players who were in training camp and are guaranteed a G League roster spot.

Affiliate players, however, are still considered ‘free agents’ in that they can sign with any NBA team. Bibbs played in 44 games with the Red Claws and averaged 11.8 points per game, 3.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists.

At Virginia Tech, he was a knockdown outside shooter (42.4 percent) and a strong defender. He has good size for a guard at 6-foot-5 and 225-pounds. It’s those qualities that he’s hoping to bring to the Clippers should he get the chance on the court.

“I always bring energy defensively and I just play my game. On offense, I bring shooting,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “But it’s whatever the coach tells me to do and basically just playing the right way.”

Although Bibbs has reached his goal of the NBA, he’s in a different situation than the rest of his Clippers teammates. They’re all secured with guaranteed contracts. Bibbs has ten days to prove himself to team brass, ten days to show he’s worth keeping around a bit longer.

“I’m happy that my play has been rewarded, that the organization believed in me enough to give me a 10-day. Its motivation for me to keep going,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I was called down from the G League team, and I’m just trying to get all the sets and plays and stuff, trying to make that adjustment. But it’s definitely a blessing.”

He’s played in three games for the Agua Caliente Clippers so far, logging 27.1 minutes per game off the bench. He’s put up 9.7 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists during that stretch.

He’s yet to log any minutes for the Clippers, but he’s just thrilled to be a part of an NBA organization. Despite being undrafted, he always knew that he’d get to this level at some point.

“Yeah I did, for sure I did. I didn’t know when or how, but I always thought I would be here,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I had no idea what team, but being out in LA, I’ll take that as a blessing. But yeah I thought I would be here for sure.”

For players like Bibbs who are on 10-day contracts, nothing is guaranteed. But he’s soaking up the entire experience as long as he can. Whether the Clippers decide to retain him a little bit longer, or he moves on to another opportunity, he just wants to be able to play his game.

“My overall goal is just to actually play my game my way and not be restricted,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “Kind of just play freely and right now that’s what I’ve shown, that’s what got me here. I’m just taking in the whole process, just taking it all in and getting the experience and knowledge.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 3/19/19

With the field of teams set for the 2019 NCAA March Madness tournament, things should get noisy over the next few weeks on the NBA Draft front. Steve Kyler offers up another 60-pick Mock Draft before all the zaniness begins.

Steve Kyler

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Let the Madness begin.

The basketball world will shift its attention to college basketball’s biggest stage over the next few weeks, especially this weekend’s opening round of 64.

While the tournament doesn’t necessarily make or break a player’s draft stock, this will be the first time some notable draft prospects will face elite talent and, more importantly, the pressure of the big stage. You can check out march madness predictions 2019 here.

Expect things in the draft world to start to percolate, not just because of the magnitude of the games, but also because a lot of NBA scouts will be in the same places, which is where the draft chatter originates.

Equally, a lot of NBA teams will watch games together in the conference rooms this week, so more group discussion on players will happen inside NBA teams’ front offices, and that could lead to new preference information flowing into the NBA Draft information bubble.

Here is this week’s 60-Pick Mock Draft, based on NBA games played through 3/18/19:

Here are the first-round picks that are owed and how those picks landed where they are.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyle Korver trade in 2017, which is top-10 protected. But based on the standings, it will not be conveyed.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick as a result of the three-team Jeff Green trade in 2015; the pick is top-eight protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Dallas Mavericks first-round pick as a result of the Luka Dončić – Trae Young swap on draft night in 2018. The pick is top-five protected and, based on the standings, would convey.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the more favorable of either the Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers first-round picks as part of the Markelle Fultz pre-draft trade in 2017. Based on the current standings, the Kings pick is the more favorable and would convey to Boston.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the LA Clippers first-round pick as a result of the Deyonta Davis draft day trade with Memphis in 2016. The Grizzlies got the pick in their Jeff Green/Lance Stephenson deal at the deadline in 2016. The pick is lottery protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are to receive the Houston Rockets first-round pick as a result of the three-team deadline deal that sent out Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.

The Brooklyn Nets are to receive the Denver Nuggets first-round pick as a result of the Kenneth Faried – Darrell Arthur trade in July 2018. The pick is top-12 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The San Antonio Spurs are to receive the Toronto Raptors first-round pick as a result of the Kawhi Leonard – DeMar DeRozan trade in July 2018. The pick is top-20 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are to receive the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as a result of the Eric Bledsoe trade in 2017. The pick has top 3 and 17-30 protections, designed to yield a lottery-level pick to Phoenix. Based on the current standings this pick would not convey. If the debt is not settled this year, the pick in 2020 would be top-7 protected.

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