NBA season preview: Minnesota Timberwovles

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Last season: What could have been. This was a team playoff bound (or at least in the mix for it) until injuries wiped out those hopes. First was the biggie, Ricky Rubio’s ACL, but then both Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic went down and the whole thing fell apart. The Timberwolves finished 26-40 and back in the all to familiar lottery.

Key Departures: There’s been changes, but coach Rick Adelman isn’t shedding any tears over them. Gone is Michael Beasley, who got a lot of run early until Adelman grew weary of him (then again late out of necessity). Also gone is Darko Milicic.

Actually, a team may be shed over Brad Miller, he was the kind of solid, professional guy every team needs (and teammates really liked him).

Key Additions: Minnesota had a fantastic offseason. They needed help on the wing and they got Andrei Kirilenko, who can help where desperately needed at the three and slide over and play a little at the four spot. They also brought in Chase Budinger who is very athletic and can give them minutes at the three, plus Rubio is going to love him in transition. They brought in Russian Alexey Shved, who looked impressive in the Olympics for Russia at the guard spot and should play both at the point and some two. They have Greg Stiemsma as a big man off the bench now, giving them real depth up front.

Then Minnesota took a smart gamble on Brandon Roy. We don’t know how his knees — the ones without cartridge the forced him to walk away from the game — will deal with the long grind of the season. And he may never be his old All-Star self again. But even the Roy we saw near the end in Portland would be an upgrade on the wing for Minnesota, where they need it.

Three keys to the Timberwolves season:

1) When does Ricky Rubio get back and how well does he play? The Timberwolves have a lot of talent now — Love, Kirilenko, Pekovic, Roy, Derrick Williams — but Rubio is the key. He is the gifted point guard who can make it all fit together, keep the ball moving, challenge the defense and get the ball to the right guy at the right time. Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea and if needed  Shved will man the point (as he has in preseason), but none of them have Rubio’s vision or creative flair.

Minnesota would be a lock playoff team if Rubio were going to be there all season and not get back around Christmas. Without him in a deep West, it will be tight. The sooner he returns and returns to form the better for this season, but Minnesota really needs to think long term here.

2) Can Derrick Williams take a step forward? Coming out of college as the No. 2 overall pick, Williams was considered a guy who could score but the questions were about him rounding out his game. But mostly he looked like a rookie — there were impressive moments but he shot just 41.2 percent over all on his way to 8.8 points a game. His jumpshot was dreadful — he shot 28.6 percent from 10 to 15 feet, 29 percent from 16 feet out to the arc, and 26 percent on threes. He can finish around the rim, especially when Ricky Rubio throws the ally-oop, but he needs to broaden his game.

If Williams takes a step forward the Timberwolves become more dangerous.

3) Okay Kevin Love, you got your help, no you must lead. Kevin Love complained to management, complained to the media — he said they needed more veterans and more talent in Minnesota. He got it. Love said there were some less-than-professional personalities in the Minnesota locker room last year. They are gone.

Love, it’s on you to lead now. This is your team, you have the gold medal, you need to keep putting up numbers on the court and keep the team professional off it. That’s what leaders do.

What Timberwolves fans should fear: That another string of injuries slows the team. Rubio is coming back from an ACL and that can be slow going. Brandon Roy could fade as the season wears on and his knees wear down. Kirilenko has had plenty of injuries over the course of his career. This team’s margin for error is too small for them to deal with a lot of injuries.

Prediction: 46-36 and they get the seven (maybe eight) seed in the West. They make the playoffs. That is a big step and this will be an entertaining team to watch once Rubio gets back. They are a team on the rise but if they are the seven seed and get the Lakers/Thunder in the first round, well, there is an entire new level of learning that comes with the playoffs.

Report: Kevin Durant will wait until late July, let Warriors sign other players, before inking his deal

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Kevin Durant isn’t going anywhere as a free agent this summer. He will remain a Golden State Warrior. He wants to stay and he wants to win, which is why he already said he would take a little less money so the Warriors could re-sign players such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

Now he’s taking it to the next level, saying he will delay signing his deal — something he could start negotiating on July 1 — until the team’s other players are taking care of. That according to Marc Stein of ESPN.

Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant plans to wait until after the team completes the bulk of its summer business before re-signing with the NBA champions, according to league sources….

“Look for (Durant) to sign later in the month,” one source said this week.

The Warriors first order of business this summer will be to sign Stephen Curry to a “designated veteran” super-max contract, a five-year deal starting at $34.7 million (assuming a $99 million salary cap).

Then they will go about trying to shore up their role players. Iguodala, Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West, and Matt Barnes all become free agents this summer. Iguodala is the one other teams are targeting — including the Spurs, Clippers, and Timberwolves — and it likely will take $10 million to $12 million a year for the Warriors to keep the guy who just finished second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting.

Durant’s moves help with all of this. Durant is expected to sign a 1+1 deal with the Warriors (a two-year contract where he can opt out next summer and get a larger deal), then opt out next summer and get his deal starting close to $35 million a year.

The Warriors are trying to lock up their core for as long as they can, and they should be a force for the next four or five years. However, the price tag will get expensive, and it will be interesting to see how the Warriors handle that when it gets to 2019 and Klay Thompson‘s contract is up, or 2020 when Draymond Green is a free agent.

It’s official: Phil Jackson out as president of the New York Knicks

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The build up was slow. It began simmering when the feud with Carmelo Anthony became public, as talk of a trade and then a buyout started to come to become louder and louder. Things got warmer with oversized contracts for older players such as Joakim Noah. It picked up steam when the triangle offense was being forced on players and a coaching staff that didn’t like or fit it. Things really got hot when Kristaps Porzingis skipped his exit meeting last April, and rather than try to smooth things over and find a solution it became about sending a message and threating to trade the team’s best player and the face of the franchise.

Wednesday everything boiled over — Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks have parted ways, the sides announced.

“After careful thought and consideration, we mutually agreed that the Knicks will be going in a different direction,” Knicks owner James Dolan said in a released statement. “Phil Jackson is one of the most celebrated and successful individuals in the history of the NBA. His legacy in the game of basketball is unmatched. We wish him the best and thank him for his service to the Knicks as both a player and an executive.”

“The New York Knicks will always hold a special place in my heart,” Jackson said. “This team and this town launched my NBA career. I will forever be indebted to them. I am grateful to Mr. Dolan for giving me the opportunity to return here. I had hoped, of course, to bring another NBA championship to the Garden. As someone who treasures winning, I am deeply disappointed that we weren’t able to do that. New York fans deserve nothing less.”

Knicks fans are celebrating.

HALLELUJAH.

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Dolan had picked up the extension on Jackson’s contract earlier this year, and Jackson is still owed two-years and $24 million.

All this comes just three days before free agency opens. This decison came on fairly quickly, with Dolan and Jackson discussing it the past week. However, aids to Dolan had been suggesting the team owner think about this move for some time.

Current Knicks GM and trusted Dolan confidant Steve Mills will run basketball operations for now. Former Raptors executive Tim Leiweke will work with Mills and with Dolan to find a new head of the Knicks’ front office.

Dolan reportedly wants to hire Toronto’s Masai Ujiri, one of the most respected team presidents in the league — and the guy who fleeced the Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony trade from Denver and the Andrea Bargnani trade with Toronto. However, Ujiri signed a contract extension — with a raise and a title bump — a year ago, the Raptors have no obligation to let him out of that deal. If he does leave, it will cost the Knicks plenty.

Other viable options, such as just-released by the Cavaliers David Griffin, are available. What the Knicks need to do is hire someone with experience, they don’t want to repeat the Jackson experience.

This does not mean the Knicks are more likely to trade Carmelo Anthony — he still has a no-trade clause and would need to waive it for any deal. His family is in New York, there are limited teams he would consider a trade to, and there may not be a team willing to give up quality players/draft picks to take on the 33-year-old on the downside of his career.

Despite the public issues with Anthony and Porzingis, plus the insistence on running the triangle, Phil Jackson did some good with the Knicks. He drafted Porzingis, as well as Willy Hernangomez and the recent Frank Ntilikina (we will see how he pans out). He also stopped the Knicks ridiculous trend of trading away their first-round picks, the Knicks have theirs going forward (he did move some second rounders). Whoever replaces Jackson will have a foundation to work with that was not there when Jackson arrived.

However, Jackson’s unquestioned knowledge of the game — he does have 11 championship rings as a player and a coach for a reason — did not translate well into the front office. The mind-games Jackson liked to play, such as calling out a player in the media, work when as a coach and you see the players every day, if they have a problem they can come talk to you. It comes off very differently from the ivory tower of the front office. Jackson kept changing his team vision and plans, brought in expensive older players such as Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, and continued feuding with the team’s stars.

Now the Knicks are starting over. A good thing, but the timing of the move just days before the start of free agency was very Knicks.

What’s next for Knicks? Owner reportedly targeting Raptors’ Masai Ujiri, but it’s longshot

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Phil Jackson is out as the Knicks head of basketball operations. The Knicks just made it official.

That’s a good thing for the future of the franchise and has New York fans celebrating, but making this move just four days before the start of free agency is the most Knicks of timing. While other teams are laying back-channel groundwork for the July 1 free agency onslaught, the Knicks will be trying to figure out who is in charge (likely trusted GM Steve Mills for a while).

Who is next in line to lead the Knicks? Before you say “anyone is better” think back over owner James Dolan’s hires. The worst of the lot was Isiah Thomas, and he and Dolan are still friends. Plus there are the times Dolan himself was involved in the basketball decision making.

There are a lot of potential quality candidates available, but Dolan appears to be going with the “if you can’t beat them, join them” idea of chasing Raptors president Masai Ujiri, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Marc Stein of ESPN adds:

Leiweke hired Ujiri in Toronto.

It’s been known for more than a year that if/when Jackson was pushed out, Ujiri would be the Knicks target. Dolan wants to hire the guy that keeps beating him. Ujiri was the GM in Denver when the Knicks traded far too many young assets for Carmelo Anthony, stripping the team of any chance to win by gutting it to get a star. Then when he was in Toronto, Ujiri orchestrated the trade that sent Andrea Bargnani and his massive contract from the Raptors to the Knicks. Dolan reportedly was so worried about being fleeced by Ujiri again he blocked a trade for Kyle Lowry out of fear of being burned (of course, the Lowry trade would’ve been a good one for the Knicks).

However, this is a longshot. Last year, Toronto gave Ujiri and extension and the title of President of Basketball Operations. The Raptors can simply refuse to let him talk to the Knicks, and even if Ujiri wanted the job (which is not clear) then it will be very expensive to buy him out.

If not Ujiri, then the Knicks could and should consider just released David Griffin, who was able to help turn the Cavaliers into a contender when LeBron James decided to return home. Griffin did an impressive job, came up with creating ways to get more talent on a capped-out roster, all while working for a notoriously difficult owner. That seems like the right resume for New York.

There are a number of other qualified candidates available, or the Knicks could hire a smart up-and-comer ready to make the leap such as Mike Zarren out of Boston, or a host of others in that spot.

What would be a mistake is to chase big name who has no front office experience. Or one with a questionable history as GM. Which is to say, don’t make the Phil Jackson mistake all over again. The Knicks need quality front office experience, someone who has proven they can do the job well. With Kristaps Porzingis on the roster, the Knicks have what can be the cornerstone piece of a championship roster in place — drafting him was Jackson’s one shining moment in the job. Building a team around him needs to be the priority (not getting in stupid squabbles with the star and threatening to trade him).

Knicks fans are right to celebrate Jackson being gone, but until the next shoe drops they shouldn’t completely relax.

Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns ticked he didn’t make All-NBA team

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Players in their first few years in the NBA almost never make an All-NBA team. There are exceptions — Larry Bird was First Team All-NBA as a rookie, for example — but it usually takes time and development before a player can crack the top 15 in the league.

Karl-Anthony Towns is frustrated he didn’t make All-NBA in his second year, he felt snubbed. He was the person with the most points/votes of anyone not to make the team, but the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan had one more first team vote (three to two) and ended up just four points ahead of Towns. Here’s what KAT told Sean Deveney of The Sporting News about that.

Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists in just his second season, but still was snubbed from the All-NBA team, beaten out by a mere four points by DeAndre Jordan.  And now it can be told: It bothered him — a little.

“You know what, it did a little bit, it did a little damage to me,” Towns told Sporting News. “But that’s all right, because it is all about team success. You’ve got to win. You’ve got to win to be respected in this league. You have to do little things, there are things we can do as a team. We have to come back as a stronger team and win in the playoffs, because the playoffs are the most important thing.”

For the record, I was one of those official voters who had Jordan in front of Towns (Jordan was my third team All-NBA center). It was close and something I debated (and watched film on, and talked to people around the league about), but for me the deciding factor was not winning, it was defensive impact.

Towns is improving fast on both ends, and the Timberwolves should win more with the addition of Jimmy Butler next season. Having Butler and Andrew Wiggins on the wings should help the Timberwolves defense that held the team back last season. Minnesota is poised to make the leap into the playoffs (although it will not be easy, with the Nuggets and Pelicans both improving the final few slots in the West could be tough to get).

Towns is going to end up with a ridiculous amount of All-NBA honors before his career is done. However, the best players use anything as motivational fuel, and if this is what fires Towns up, then go for it. We’re all expecting big things from him next season.