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: Clippers expect Chris Paul to re-sign

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Chris Paul reportedly verbally committed months ago to re-sign with the Clippers. There have been mixed signals about Blake Griffin‘s intention to re-sign.

But they can’t formalize the deals until July, and the Clippers are now one game from another demoralizing first-round exit.

Where do they stand now?

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

Sources close to the Clippers say that they expect Paul to re-sign with the Clippers. He’ll be eligible for a five-year contract in excess of $200 million. Griffin’s return is less certain, sources say. This summer is his first foray into unrestricted free agency. Given his snakebitten tenure with the team and the possibility of another early exit, the prospect of exploring what’s out there will be alluring. One premise volunteered in good humor suggests that Paul is more likely to take a slew of meetings in a public process but ultimately re-sign with the Clippers, while Griffin is more likely to mull the decision privately under the guise of night, but announce he’ll be playing elsewhere in 2017-18.

Clippers president/coach Doc Rivers has made clear his desire to re-sign Paul and Griffin, and the playoffs won’t change that. This is the right call. It’s so difficult to assemble a team this good, the Clippers shouldn’t throw it away for the sake of change. Just because the Clippers haven’t gotten the breaks in previous seasons doesn’t mean they won’t get the breaks in future seasons.

But Paul and Griffin – and J.J. Redick, who’ll also be an unrestricted free agent – will determine the franchise’s fate. If they want to leave, they’ll leave.

Can the Clippers lure them back? They apparently think they’ll keep Paul, but there’s an uncertain dynamic in L.A. that Arnovitz explores in great depth. I highly recommend reading his full piece.

Nike, Adidas, Under Armour pass on potential No. 1 pick Lonzo Ball

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NBA teams reportedly aren’t dinging potential No. 1 pick Lonzo Ball over all the wild stuff his dad says and does.

Shoe companies are apparently taking a different approach.

Darren Rovell of ESPN:

An endorsement deal with Nike, Under Armour or Adidas is not in the cards for Lonzo Ball.

Ball’s father LaVar confirmed that the three shoe and apparel companies informed him that they were not interested in doing a deal with his son. Sources with the three companies told ESPN.com that they indeed were moving on.

In his meetings with the three, LaVar insisted that the company license his upstart Big Baller Brand from him. He also showed the companies a shoe prototype that he hoped would be Lonzo’s first shoe.

“We’ve said from the beginning, we aren’t looking for an endorsement deal,” LaVar told ESPN. “We’re looking for co-branding, a true partner. But they’re not ready for that because they’re not used to that model. But hey, the taxi industry wasn’t ready for Uber, either.”

“Just imagine how rich Tiger (Woods), Kobe (Bryant), Serena (Williams), (Michael) Jordan and LeBron (James) would have been if they dared to do their own thing,” LaVar said. “No one owned their own brand before they turned pro. We do and I have three sons so it’s that much more valuable.”

Is there more upside in this approach? Yeah, I guess.

But the traditional shoe companies bring valuable infrastructure and experience. There’s value in forfeiting upside for those resources. Lonzo Ball, who has yet to play in the NBA, is also missing out on guaranteed life-changing money.

On the risk-reward curve, this seems like a mistake.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers leaves door open for starting Paul Pierce in Game 6 against Jazz

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The Clippers have four sure-fire starters: Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and DeAndre Jordan.

The fifth spot is up for grabs with Blake Griffin‘s season-ending injury.

Marreese Speights started Games 4 and 5 against the Jazz. Paul Pierce started the second half of Game 5.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

When asked if Marreese Speights or Paul Pierce would start against the Jazz in the best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series in which the Clippers trail 3-2, Rivers said, “Yeah, one of them.”

“Paul was good,” Rivers said. “He’s been good throughout the series overall, I will say that. But he’s got to play better too, especially with his second effort, getting out to the shooters and stuff like that.”

There are no good options here.

Pierce, 39, has looked washed up most of his time in L.A. That the Clippers have outscored Utah by nine points in his 58 minutes seems like a product of small sample size.

Speights starting leaves the Clippers vulnerable at center when Jordan sits, and rather than staggering, maybe they ought to just start differently.

Rivers wants to ease the ball-handling burden on Paul, but one choice to do that – Raymond Felton – would be a defensive liability. Another possibility – Jamal Crawford – would present the same defensive issues and sabotage second-unit scoring.

Austin Rivers could bridge the gap, but he’s just returning from his own injury.

Doc Rivers clearly doesn’t trust Wesley Johnson, and the forward’s Game 5 gaffes won’t change that.

The Clippers’ central problem: They have only one player – Luc Mbah a Moute – who can guard Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson. When those Jazz forwards share the court, especially in crunch time, the Clippers face one massive mismatch.

Is relying on Pierce a good option? No way. But it also might be the Clippers’ best option.

Did you know Myles Garrett, No. 1 pick in NFL draft, has brother who played in NBA?

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The Cleveland Browns are trying something new: Making smart decisions. That included drafting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

Garrett has NBA ties. His half brother, Sean Williams, was the No. 17 pick by the New Jersey Nets in 2007. Williams played just four years in the NBA, also spending time with the Mavericks and Celtics. He serves as a cautionary tale for Garrett.

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated in a 2015 profile of Garrett:

Then there’s Sean Williams, Myles’s older brother by almost 10 years, a pro athlete who accompanied him on an official visit to College Station and served as a role model and mentor. More important, he offered a cautionary tale. “Myles looks up to Sean and loves Sean but knows the things Sean went through and how my mom hated watching her son self-destruct,” says Brea. “Myles never wanted to let my mom down. Honestly, the best thing Sean could have done for Myles was to f— up.”

Myles remembers approaching a Chevrolet Avalanche with smoke pluming from its windows. He was around 12, and as he pleaded with the man inside to stop smoking weed, tears streaked his face. Sean, then a 6’10”, 235-pound shot-blocking power forward for the Nets, had heard his little brother make this request many times before but never heeded him. “Definitely not,” Williams, 28, says when asked if he maximized his potential. “I let bad decisions get in the way, [let] smoking so much get in the way.”

As he got older, Myles played a lot of basketball with Sean, and despite the gaps in age and size, they went at it hard. Along with the stellar genes, Audrey gave her children an edge: “There was no allowing the kids to win in our house, be it Uno or tic-tac-toe. They could have been bums, but they would have been competitive bums.”

Myles idolized Sean. After the Nets picked Sean, Myles spent vacations in New Jersey with him, celebrating when he finally won in video games and when he first dunked on his big brother by grabbing onto him with one arm and tomahawking the ball with the other. In 2011-12, when Sean was playing for the Mavericks, the brothers often squared off at the team facility. One day Sean’s agent, Bernie Lee, got a call from Dallas GM Donnie Nelson. “You have to tell Sean to stop bringing his friend in to play one-on-one,” Nelson told Lee. “We’re scared they are going to hurt each other.” Nelson didn’t know who the friend was but guessed he was Sean’s bodyguard. Myles had just turned 16.

Check out the rest of Thamel’s story for a fuller basketball-colored introduction to Garrett.