Al Jefferson

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Hot Timberwolves ready for litmus test vs. champion Warriors

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves won five straight games, five head coaches and nearly nine long years ago, Al Jefferson was the centerpiece of the team. Kevin Love was a rookie, still coming off the bench. Fifteen different players started at least one game.

Karl-Anthony Towns had just turned 13. President George W. Bush was still in the White House.

The woebegone Wolves have waited a long time for this. They will play at Golden State on Wednesday night, just one-half game behind the defending NBA champion Warriors for the best record in the Western Conference. Forget for a moment that the regular season is merely 12 percent complete. For the first time in, well, 13 years or so the Wolves will be a legitimate participant in a marquee national game on ESPN rather than a token opponent.

“You want to see where you are and how you measure up,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Everyone in the league is chasing them.”

These Wolves (7-3) have produced the franchise’s best 10-game start to the schedule since a 9-1 record in 2001 when Kevin Garnett was 25, Terrell Brandon was the point guard and Anthony Peeler was the first player the off the bench.

With only three players who’ve been on the roster longer than three years, there aren’t as many scars in the locker room as all that franchise futility would suggest. The last few seasons have been frustrating enough, though.

“It’s something that’s changing around here, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” said Shabazz Muhammad, who with fellow reserve Gorgui Dieng has the longest tenure in their fifth year.

The 2008-09 team finished 24-58, so the early January success was clearly not a harbinger.

The Wolves have lost 461 games between the end of that streak and now, so even three solid weeks to start a season is an accomplishment. Thibodeau was hired to take them much further than that, of course.

The hard-driving, no-nonsense coach sure won’t be satisfied with this team’s progress anytime soon, and neither will these players, from 17-year veteran Jamal Crawford to Towns, who’s still only 21.

“We just want to keep doing more of what we’re doing,” Crawford said after practice on Tuesday.

That’s continuing to better the defense, for one.

The Wolves have held three consecutive opponents under 100 points, with newcomers Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Crawford beginning to pick up the tendencies of their returning teammates and the young core of Towns and Andrew Wiggins starting to learn the principles of helping and switching under the defensive-minded Thibodeau. Chemistry is just as important when they’re guarding the basket as it is when they have the ball.

“It’s still a work in progress,’ Thibodeau said, “but I think we are moving in the right direction.”

The depth, and the versatility of that depth, is another area of vast improvement. The second team, which Thibodeau has played together as a unit for several stretches at a time, includes Tyus Jones, Crawford, Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica and Dieng. When they are in, there has not been a drop-off at all from the star-studded starting lineup.

The Wolves are shooting 3-pointers more effectively and often, too, another long-running weakness of this team going back dozens of players and a handful of head coaches. With Towns in the paint and Wiggins on the wing, the Wolves already have two of the league’s best offensive players.

“They can definitely score. They have three or four guys out there that can get 20 on any given night,” said Charlotte Hornets power forward Marvin Williams, whose team lost at Minnesota on Sunday night. “They are definitely tough to stop.”

Then there’s Butler, the alpha wolf who Thibodeau wanted so badly as a tough, experienced two-way player who would not only challenge his teammates to excel but selflessly defer to them on the court as needed.

“When I feel like it’s my time to shoot, I’ll shoot it,” Butler said. “But as of right now, my teammates are rolling. Feed them. Let them get us going.”

Butler’s attitude and perspective might be the biggest upgrade the Wolves have made among so many.

“Often times you hear people say things, and they never do the things that they say. But when you watch what they’re doing, it tells you what’s important to them,” Thibodeau said. “Jimmy has always played that way.”

 

Report: Celtics interested in Jahlil Okafor but won’t give up first-round pick

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Jahlil Okafor is a project. The game has moved away from the former No. 3 pick, he doesn’t have much shooting range nor can he defend very well (in space or at the rim). Okafor plays below the rim. But he can get buckets around the rim and out of the post, and there is potential for him in an Al Jefferson/Zach Randolph kind of role (likely off the bench).

The Sixers have given up on that development, Okafor is out of their overstocked front-court rotation. They are trying to trade him to a team that wants to take a chance on that development potential.

The Celtics are one of those teams. What has stalled the deal is Boston will not give up a first-round pick for him, reports Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.

Philadelphia does not want to buy out his contract and then watch him sign with a conference rival with no compensation. The Celtics have long held interest in Okafor, but as more of a project than an immediate contributor. Boston is also not willing to part with a first-round pick for Okafor.

Boston is in the right here. Sure, Danny Ainge has been a hoarder when it comes to future picks and he has them to spare, plus they have the Gordon Hayward injury exception in which to absorb the salary. But Okafor is a long-term project and Boston is a team that is winning now, plus since the Sixers didn’t pick up his fourth-year option, Okafor is a free agent at the end of the season. How much should Boston really give up?

The Sixers seem to have unrealistic expectations of what Okafor can fetch on the market right now — Okafor himself basically told the Sixers he has no trade value and they need to let him go for less. The Sixers aren’t going to get more than a second-round pick, yet they seem more concerned about the perception of how they look giving up on a former No. 3 pick for basically nothing than doing the right thing (the current Sixers regime seems very concerned about PR after the Sam Hinkie era).

You can be sure that players and agents around the league are taking notice of how the Sixers are treating Okafor right now, and it will factor into future decisions.

Report: Sixers will not buy out Jahlil Okafor, still looking for trade

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Jahlil Okafor made it clear: He wants out of Philadelphia. Now.

“It could be a buyout, it could be a trade. I just want something to happen rather quickly.”

It’s not going to be a buyout, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Sixers did not pick up the fourth-year option on Okafor, which worsens his already-low trade value because interested teams can just get him as a free agent next summer for nothing. Okafor’s camp has said they think there are fair trade offers on the table, but what a player/agent think is a fair trade and what a general manager thinks is a fair trade are very different things. They come at it from different perspectives, and we don’t know what offers are really out there.

There is some interest in Okafor, the former No. 3 pick (Boston is one, but they may not want to do it via trade). There are teams who think they can resurrect his career. While his old-school game — below the rim, post-ups, but with terrible defense — will not fit with a lot of teams, he could become an Al Jefferson/Zach Randolph type off the bench if he can accept that role.

But first, he needs to get on a team that will give him the run. He is out of the rotation in Philly, and he wants the chance to prove he has a spot in this league. The Sixers want to move him, but like everything else with the franchise, they will move at their own pace. They will not be rushed into a deal they don’t like.

Sixers do not pick up fourth-year option on Jahlil Okafor

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After trying desperately to trade him for a year (an effort that is ongoing but fruitless), the Philadelphia 76ers are getting out of the Jahlil Okafor business after this season.

Multiple reports broke the news the Sixers would not pick up the fourth-year, rookie-scale option on Okafor for next season. That will make him an unrestricted free agent next summer.

The Sixers have since confirmed it.

A trade is still not out of the question.

Or, maybe the two sides agree to a buyout.

Okafor was the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, behind Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell, but ahead of Kristaps Porzingis. Okafor had won a national championship at Duke and looked like a guy who could come into the NBA and get buckets right away.

His fall to not having the last year of his rookie scale contract picked up — and how now, finally healthy, he is on the outside looking in at the Sixers’ rotation — speaks to how fast the game has changed for NBA bigs.

The days of a player having high value just because he can get buckets in the post are gone, a throwback to a bygone era. And that’s what Okafor is — a solid low post big with an array of moves who also is good in isolation, but he stops the ball on offense. Plus, he has almost no shooting range, he doesn’t defend well, and he’s had a torn meniscus in the past.

The Sixers have a logjam up front — Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Amir Johnson, Dario Saric — Okafor was the odd man out picking up DNP-CD’s nightly (he’s gotten 22 minutes in one game this season). Philly has tried to move him for more than a year, but no decent offer has come their way (at least from the Sixers’ opinion).

Okafor deserves a fresh chance in the NBA. His ultimate role will be scoring off-the-bench big, think Al Jefferson or a poor man’s Zach Randolph. Those guys have below-the-rim games like Okafor, but were able to carve out good careers. Okafor isn’t going to fit anywhere — he’d be a disaster in systems such as in Houston or Golden State — but a team that plays a little slower and needs some buckets off the bench might take a long look. Next summer, in a tight market, somebody is going to pick him up at a bargain price.

Then, when he finally gets some run, we’ll see if he can fit in today’s NBA or not.

That is just not happening in Philly.

 

Paul George trade just the start of a pathetic Pacers offseason

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The Pacers would have been better next season if they just kept Paul George.

They also might have been better in 2019-20.

Indiana got a head start on 2018-19 and little else this offseason.

George said he planned to leave in 2018 free agency, so dealing him was certainly reasonable. But for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis? That paltry return sent shockwaves beyond just scorned Cleveland.

It’ll be tough for Oladipo to provide surplus value as he makes $84 million over the next four years. Sabonis is as pedestrian as a second-year lottery pick can get.

The Pacers also lost Jeff Teague and C.J. Miles in free agency and waived – and stretched! (more on that later) – Monta Ellis, three players who started in the playoffs last season. Their replacements: Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph.

Bogdanovic ($1.5 million of $10.5 million) and Collison ($2 million of $10 million) have small guarantees for 2018-19. So does returning center Al Jefferson ($4 million of $10 million). Essentially, Indiana will keep those players if they have value at those salaries or clear cap space otherwise.

Though Miles, essentially acquired for free in a trade with the Raptors, has a $7,945,000 player option for 2018-19, the Pacers will have his Bird Rights.

This is shaping up to be a 30-something-win team, where the “something” will determine whether Indiana sneaks into the playoffs in a down Eastern Conference or picks in the low lottery. Though not stuck in that position with several long-term contracts, it’s still a lousy place to be even for a season or two.

The Pacers might have felt George’s declared plan to depart sent them down this path, but it didn’t have to.

If they kept George, one of two things would have happened:

  • He’d re-sign. Despite his insistence that he was leaving, he could have always reversed course. If he made an All-NBA team this season, he would have been eligible for a super-max contract. Indiana could have dared him to turn that down.
  • He’d leave. The Pacers probably still would have been in better long-term shape than they are now. Though I’m high on Myles Turner, they probably could have tanked around him in his fourth year and launched a proper rebuild.

Either way, Indiana would have been better in the interim. The Pacers wouldn’t have been postseason locks with George this season, but they would have been more likely than this rag-tag bunch. They also could have cut bait on George and dealt him before the trade deadline – likely for more than they got this summer.

Indiana just doesn’t want to slip too far, though. That’ll pay off next summer, when the Pacers have Oladipo and Sabonis locked up, team control over Bogdanovic and Collison in unguaranteed salaries and Bird Rights for Joseph if he opts out.

Starting after the lopsided George trade, this wasn’t bad execution of the plan. It’s just a bad plan.

Striving for mediocrity with established veterans just inhibits meaningful growth. That’s especially evident with stretching Ellis, who will count $2,245,400 against the cap through 2022.

The Pacers cleared nearly $9 million in cap space with the move, but their guaranteed salaries still land about $7.5 million below the salary cap, and the $4,328,000 room exception remains unused. Though the cap space and room exception can’t be combined, the space created by stretching Ellis didn’t go to great use. If Indiana offered Bogdanovic and/or Collison just $1 million or so less, they wouldn’t have signed? It would have been better to play hardball with those free agents and lose one than to stretch Ellis.

Indiana isn’t going anywhere significant this season, anyway. The right move was paying Ellis his entire $11,227,000 this season and getting it over with.

The Pacers aren’t completely bereft of young talent. Turner, a stretch center with impressive defensive potential, is now their franchise player. Oladipo is just 25. Draft picks T.J. Leaf (No. 18), Ike Anigbogu (No. 47) and Edmond Sumner (No. 52) are all fine.

But Indiana lost George, its most valuable asset, without getting a single draft pick or high-end young player. Now, the Pacers are just headed toward a couple uninspiring years before inevitably undergoing the rebuild they could have gotten a head start on this summer or next.

Offseason grade: F