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Zach LaVine is the Timberwolves’ X-Factor

Zach LaVine is the Minnesota Timberwolves’ X-Factor going forward, writes 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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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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Jazz agree to trade Derrick Favors, first-round pick to Thunder

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First reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Utah Jazz are trading power forward/center Derrick Favors and a first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a future second-round pick. The goal here was to help reduce their tax bill. While the six-foot-eight Georgia native does not possess any notable NBA awards or honors on his basketball résumé, in the 2020-21 NBA season, Favors averaged 5.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 63.8 percent. The 11-year NBA veteran also recorded a free throw shooting percentage of 73.8 percent last season.

The 2020-21 Thunder finished 27-50 (.306), ranking 14th overall in the Western Conference. They could use another first-round pick. Plus, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, this trade will put Utah $13 million below the luxury tax. On November 24, 2020, Favors signed a three-year, $29.2 million contract with the Jazz. Favors is set to earn $9,720,900 next season. This is the second time in his career he has left the Jazz.

He played with them from the 2010-11 season to the 2018-19 season, before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans on July 7, 2019 for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick. For the 2022-23 season, he has a player option of $10,183,800. The Jazz plan to also re-sign Mike Conley, so this was somewhat of a drastic move to help clear up cap space. On July 6, 2019, Conley was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies to the Jazz, in exchange for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick.

Moreover, scoring-wise, the 33-year-old point guard has not lived up to his performances from his last few seasons on the Grizzlies, but the Jazz need all the help they can get. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik will make it a top priority to re-sign Conley here soon. Conley earned $34,504,132 in the 2020-21 season.

According to Spotrac, Conley has a cap figure of $39,344,900. Center Rudy Gobert and shooting guard Donovan Mitchell have a combined percentage of 47.61 percent of Utah’s total salary cap. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the team. He will earn $35,344,828 next season.

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Wizards, Lakers agree to Russell Westbrook and Three-Player Trade Deal

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The Los Angeles Lakers have agreed with the Washington Wizards to acquire Russell Westbrook in a three-player trade, sending Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick in Thursday’s 2021 NBA Draft to the Wizards. According to ESPN, the Wizards are also giving up their 2024 and 2028 second-round picks as well. During last night’s draft, at pick No. 22, the Lakers sent Wildcats’ center Isaiah Jackson to the Pacers via the Wizards. At pick No. 15, the Wizards drafted Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert. In the second round, at pick No. 31, the Milwaukee Bucks traded NBA G League player Isaiah Todd to the Wizards via the Pacers.

On Thursday, Harrell decided to pursue his $9.7 million player option for next season. Yesterday, rumors surfaced across social media regarding a possible Lakers-Kings trade involving Harrell. Despite the outlandish predictions and mindless speculation from fans over these last couple of days, this trade move could work out great for both teams. Having said that, one person’s prediction is as good as anyone’s. The Lakers needed an accurate shooter. Westbrook might not be the missing piece.

Additionally, Westbrook is a 9-time NBA All-Star and three-time assists leader. In his MVP season back in the 2016-17 season, over the course of 81 games, he averaged a career-high 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. On Twitter, Westbrook tweeted, “I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you!”

In the 2020-21 NBA season, Caldwell-Pope averaged 9.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game in 67 games started for the Lakers. The 28-year-old shooting guard will make $13 million next season. As for Kuzma, in 68 games played last season, he averaged 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. Kuzma is set to earn $13 million next season. For Harrell, in 69 games played last season, he averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. The six-foot-seven power forward/center is also a six-year player. Instead of having one or two notable super stars, the Wizards having several contributing players might work out better in their favor.

Last season, in 65 games played in his only season spent on the Wizards, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 32-year-old point guard finished the 2020-21 season with 38 triple-doubles, ranking first in the league and second highest in his own playing career. Westbrook also surpassed Oscar Robertson last season for the most all-time assists; Robertson accumulated 181 triple-doubles in 14 seasons. Now, the two-time NBA scoring champion has 184 career triple-doubles, the most all-time for any player. Furthermore, this is Westbrook’s fourth team in his NBA career.

He is the fifth former MVP in league history to play on four different teams over the course of four seasons or less, adding to the existent list of Bob McAdoo, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Derrick Rose. Moreover, on December 2, 2020, Westbrook was traded by the Houston Rockets to the Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round draft pick. He is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season. His player option for the 2022-23 season is $47 million. This trade deal will not be official until August 6th.

Per Bovada’s NBA Futures odds, the Lakers now have +300 odds of winning their eighteenth championship in the 2021-22 season. This is a move from 4/1 odds before the trade, leaping the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, and they now have the second best odds behind the Brooklyn Nets (+250). Westbrook also has the best odds of leading the league in assists next season, with first place odds showing EVEN. He is ahead of James Harden (+150), Trae Young (+450), and Luka Doncic (+600). With +6600 odds, he also ranks 19th in the NBA for next season’s MVP odds, trailing Lakers’ teammates such as James (+1200) and Davis (+2800).

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