Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio

ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

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Last season: The Timberwolves never had much of a chance to finish better than their 31-51 record, thanks to a rash of injuries to the team’s top players. Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger and Nikola Pekovic all missed substantial time due to injury, rendering the season an unforced failure in the process.

Signature highlight from last season: Rough year in Minnesota, so how about we spread the wealth a little? Here are the top 10 plays as determined by the NBA, and notice there’s a lot of Ricky Rubio, a little Derrick Williams, and not much else — indicative of the kind of season it was.

Key player changes: The biggest improvement in Minnesota will come from its healthy star players, but there were a few free agent additions that the team hopes will complement the talent it already has in place on the roster.

  • IN: Corey Brewer, coming off of a huge season in Denver, was signed as a free agent to complete his second tour of duty with the Timberwolves. Minnesota also decided that Kevin Martin was worth four years and more than $27 million, and they signed veteran Ronny Turiaf to a small two-year deal to add another big man to the frontcourt rotation. Shabazz Muhammad is a rookie who was selected with the 14th overall pick in this summer’s draft.
  • OUT: Andrei Kirilenko signed with the Nets in free agency. Greg Stiemsma was signed by the Pelicans in free agency. Luke Ridnour was traded to the Bucks.

Keys to the Timberwolves’ season:

1) Stay Healthy: The Timberwolves have done an excellent job of assembling talent through the draft, signing existing quality players to long-term deals, and adding role players in free agency. Now, if they can only stay healthy.

Give us anywhere close to 82 games from the combination of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and the rest of the team’s role players, and along with a tenured and proven head coach in Rick Adelman guiding the ship, it’s tough to envision Minnesota finishing out of the postseason once again. The talent is there; it simply needs to materialize on the court for more than twenty-something games in a single season.

2) Don’t slip defensively: As troubled as the Timberwolves were a season ago with their high volume of injuries, they managed to finish 14th in defensive efficiency. The offense was brutal, of course, but that’s to be expected when your star players are sidelined. Defense is about individual effort and team scheme more than anything else, and if Minnesota can replicate last year’s defensive output with this year’s talent, substantial improvement should not only be expected, it should be evident very early in the season.

3) Can the offense catch up? Theoretically, having a full complement of talented players would fix any team’s offensive woes. In Minnesota’s case, that would mean a necessary improvement in a category where the team ranked near the bottom of the league (25th) last season.

Three-point shooting has become a critical component of successful NBA teams in recent years, and the Timberwolves ranked dead last in that category by shooting 30.5 percent from beyond the arc as a team last season. The presence of Love and the return of Brewer should help in that area, and it better if Minnesota wants to increase its offensive efficiency — a statistic that (normally, unless you’re the Bulls) directly translates into wins and losses.

Why you should watch: It’s easy to follow the favorites, but it’s more fun to join the journey of a good team on the rise. Rubio and Love are two of the more fun players in the game to watch, and they’re going to be in the mix for a playoff spot all season long.

Prediction: Minnesota has too much going for them (when healthy) not to make the playoffs. The mere presence of Love and Rubio, along with the additions of Martin and Brewer should be enough to show dramatic improvement offensively. That should in turn result in enough wins — in the 45-48 range — to secure the Timberwolves a postseason spot.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.