Gorgui Dieng

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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.”

 

Timberwolves ace Jimmy Butler trade… then made some other moves

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

From the moment former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took over the Timberwolves, Minnesota was involved in Jimmy Butler trade rumors. But, as of last year, Chicago reportedly wouldn’t budge without receiving Andrew Wiggins, and I didn’t think that was enough for the Bulls. Since, Butler has only improved and Wiggins moved closer to a max salary that will diminish his value. A deal seemed unlikely.

Then, suddenly the Timberwolves traded for Butler – without surrendering Wiggins. A team bound to improve around Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins is now set to clobber a 13-year playoff drought.

Butler is a star in his prime who’s locked up for two more seasons at an affordable salary. The price to land him – Zach LaVine (injured and up for a contract extension), Kris Dunn (ineffective as a relatively old rookie) and moving down from the No. 7 to No. 16 pick – was absurdly low. By dropping only nine spots rather than give up the No. 7 pick entirely, Thibodeau just stunted on his old bosses.

That fantastic trade started a busy offseason in Minnesota, but the rest of it wasn’t nearly as inspiring. (To be fair, how could it be?)

Going from Ricky Rubio (two years, $29.25 million remaining) to Jeff Teague (three years, $57 million with a player option) at point guard wasn’t ideal in a vacuum. But Teague’s shooting was important considering Butler and Wiggins form a sketchy wing pairing on 3-pointers and Thibodeau insists on playing two traditional bigs. Plus, the Timberwolves got a first-rounder a first-rounder from the Jazz for Rubio.

Another former Bull, Taj Gibson, will bolster Thibodeau’s two-big rotation. But Minnesota already had Gorgui Dieng and Cole Aldrich (who’s overpaid and has disappointed, but can still eat up minutes) to limit the defensive burden on Towns, and No. 16 pick Justin Patton is in the pipeline. Does a 32-year-old Gibson have enough left in the tank to justify a two-year $28 million contract?

Likewise, will a 37-year-old Crawford provide value at the full room exception (two years, $8,872,400 with a player option)? The Timberwolves didn’t need another ball-handler. Butler, Wiggins and Teague can be staggered enough to handle that. Towns should be tasked with a greater offensive role, too. At least Crawford is a solid spot-up shooter, but his defense is a big minus.

Shabazz Muhammad won’t fill Minnesota’s 3-and-D void, either. But on a minimum contract, he was too talented to pass up. Dante Cunningham could help, though he’s better at power forward than on the wing, where the Timberwolves need more depth.

Thibodeau hasn’t exactly instilled faith in his ability to take this franchise into the future. But he hit a home run with the Butler trade, and that buys him leeway.

Offseason grade: A+

Kevin Durant wonders who will be willing to sacrifice to win in Minnesota

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No doubt, the Minnesota Timberwolves are now one of the most talented young teams in the NBA. Karl-Anthony Towns is the best young center in the game and a true franchise cornerstone. They added Jimmy Butler, an All-NBA player who is a force on both ends. They have Andrew Wiggins, who averaged 23.6 points per game last season and knows how to get buckets. Around them are solid role players such as Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, and Gorgui Dieng. They’ve got Tom Thibodeau as the coach, so we should expect their poor defense of a year ago to improve.

But do all those pieces fit together well?

It’s a fair question. Kevin Durant is on the Bill Simmons podcast that drops Monday and he had this to say about the new and improved Timberwolves:

“So let’s go down the line with that. Now Teague. Can’t really shoot that well but he can play. He need the ball though. And Jimmy. He can shoot it, but he need a rhythm so he need the ball, too. Wiggins: He the same way. He need the ball. They can all score. They all good, but somebody gotta give up something….

“I’m just saying somebody will have to give up something in their games in order for it to work, and I believe that they will. But Towns needs to be the guy that they get the ball to, I think, because he’s so good. Jimmy needs to be facilitating. Wiggins is going to be the guy [when] you need a basket; he’s going to be the finisher. I think. If I was coaching the team on 2K that’s how I would play it.”

Some are going to read this as “Durant hates the Timberwolves” but that’s not what he’s saying. Durant has learned the lesson in Golden State that to take that big step forward toward a ring the best players have to sacrifice parts of their game for the team. How is that going to work in Minnesota?

I’ll add this question — where’s the shooting going to come from? Statistically Wiggins, Butler, and Teague all shoot better than 35 percent from three (as did Towns), but none of them are catch-and-shoot floor spacers out there, all three prefer to drive and create first. All three you have to respect at the arc, but you’d rather have them shoot from deep then start to get to the rim and create. Wiggins reportedly has been working on his shot this summer, and he’s the guy who may have to alter his game the most and become more of a floor spacer. Still, in the end, I think Minnesota needs more shooting.

This is still a team that breaks into the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, and this is a team that in a few years could start to challenge Durant and his Warriors. But the questions are still out there for them to answer first.

Reports: Minnesota explores Kyrie Irving trade, but is Andrew Wiggins part of it?

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are “starting to engage in trade talks” for Kyrie Irving, whether LeBron James wants him back or not.

The problem is finding a deal. Cleveland wants a massive haul in return — a young stud talent, a player who can start and help them now, and picks. They’re not likely to get all of that, but as talks start the Cavaliers are wisely going in asking for everything but the Iron Throne and see if anyone relents.

Irving listed the Minnesota Timberwolves as a preferred destination, and the Wolves are serious about exploring that, something well-connected AP reporter Jon Krawczynski said on 1500AM ESPN Twin Cities Wednesday.

Minnesota could make this work with a trade of Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, and maybe a pick, but the Cavaliers likely don’t want that deal as is, so it requires a third team to take on Dieng or another salary. It would be complex. If it came to be, it would send Wiggins back to the team that drafted him, then traded him for Kevin Love in the wake of LeBron James choosing to return to Cleveland.

The big question is, do the Timberwolves want to put Wiggins in the deal? Should they? That is more than a Tom Thibodeau question, that is a talk with the owner Glen Taylor decision.

Wiggins averaged 23.6 points per game last season, shot 35.6 percent from three, and has become an offensive force who can get buckets and puts defenders in posters. He likely will get a max contract extension and deserves it. However, he hasn’t been as efficient a scorer as hoped yet, his passing skills and rebounding need work, and he is not the defender he was projected to be out of college (ESPN’s defensive plus/minus is a flawed stat, but it still had Wiggins only ahead of Doug McDermott and Shabazz Muhammad as small forwards, and that’s bad company to keep).

Wiggins also is just 22 years old and entering his fourth NBA season. He should improve, as he has each year in the NBA (though mostly focused on the offensive end).

It’s a tough question Thibodeau and the Timberwolves need to ask: Is Wiggin’s ceiling better than Irving’s? Do they want to max out Wiggins with an extension, or leave that to another team? Wiggins hasn’t been a great defender, but he has potential still, and we know Irving is weak on that end. We also don’t know if Irving would fit better with Karl-Anthony Towns than Wiggins. What we do know is Irving is an elite scorer and also a very popular player who will pack the building home and road. We also know Wiggins has missed just one game in three seasons, while Irving has an injury history.

Minnesota would be exchanging risks. With Irving, Towns and Jimmy Butler, the Timberwolves move into “challenge the Warriors now” mode for the next two years, while all those guys are under contract. Is that where Minnesota wants to be, going at the Warriors hard while they are fully loaded? The risk would be one or both of Butler and Irving could walk in two seasons, leaving the team to rebuild (sort of) around KAT. If the Timberwolves keep Wiggins, and he takes steps forward — particularly defensively — they are built for the longer haul, but that has risks as well (for example, will those players develop, and will Butler stay?).

I’m not sure Minnesota puts Wiggins on the block. If they did, it’s another thing entirely to think a deal gets done. Which is to say, all of this is a longshot.

Just know the Timberwolves are serious about exploring it.

DeMarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis, six All-Stars to play in NBA Africa Game

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NEW YORK (AP) — DeMarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans, Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors and Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks will play for Team World in the NBA Africa Game.

Dirk Nowitzki and Kemba Walker had already been chosen as captains for Team World. The squad includes Portland’s CJ McCollum, Detroit’s Andre Drummond, Boston’s Jaylen Brown, Denver’s Wilson Chandler, New York’s Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa, who most recently played with Phoenix.

The rosters were announced Thursday for the second game featuring players born in Africa and second-generation African players against a team from the rest of the world. It will be played Aug. 5 in Johannesburg.

Team Africa, captained by Luol Deng and Thabo Sefolosha, will be rounded out by Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder, Orlando’s Bismack Biyombo, Houston’s Clint Capela, Minnesota’s Gorgui Dieng, Toronto’s Serge Ibaka, Luc Mbah a Moute, most recently with the Clippers, Denver’s Emmanuel Mudiay and Dallas’ Salah Mejri. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, from Cameroon, is on the roster but won’t play because he is recovering from injury.

The game will be played in support of UNICEF, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and SOS Children’s Villages South Africa.