Zach LaVine

Jimmy Butler says he has game against Bulls “marked on my calendar” (VIDEO)

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Jimmy Butler has helped the Minnesota Timberwolves to the third-best record in the Western Conference early in this NBA season. Butler is averaging 15.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.6 steals per-game for Tom Thibodeau.

The Chicago Bulls, meanwhile, are just 2-6 on the year and have a riff between two players caused by a punch and a broken face.

Uh … huh.

Still, Butler is ready to take on his former team, who famously swapped him for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Lauri Markkanen. During a recent interview with ESPN, Butler said that he had previously made some mistakes with Chicago, but that wasn’t going to stop him from being ready on February 9th when the Timberwolves head to the United Center.

“I said from the beginning it was either going to be me, or the Fred Hoiberg route, and rightfully so they took Fred,” said Butler. “I got that came marked on my calendar, February 9th baby I’m back.”

Meanwhile, the best part of the video was when Butler fell out of the canoe he was being interviewed in. The fact that Butler was wearing two life jackets really sealed the deal on the comedy aspect of the whole thing.

Chicago plays Minnesota February 9th at 8 PM EST on ESPN.

Tom Thibodeau still hasn’t fixed Timberwolves defense

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DETROIT – Taj Gibson is experiencing dΓ©jΓ  vu – to a point.

Gibson played for the Bulls in 2010 when they hired Tom Thibodeau, who exhaustively drilled his trademark defense with his players. Now with the Timberwolves – who hired Thibodeau as president/coach last year – Gibson said Thibodeau is scheming and teaching his defense similarly.

But the results have been radically different.

Chicago ranked No. 1 in points allowed per possession Thibodeau’s first season then second, sixth and second before slipping to a still-above-average 11th his final year. Minnesota ranked 27th last season and is not only dead last this season, but is allowing the most points per possession of all time by a wide margin.

“The only thing about Chicago, we just did what he told us to do – every game,” said Gibson, whom the Timberwolves signed last summer to provide defense and toughness. “If he said A to Z, we did A to Z every single game. And in practice, we did A to Z.

“That’s the only thing we’re trying to work out here now, have us work on things from A to Z. And sometimes you don’t want to do it, but you’re going to have to do it if you want to be successful in this league.”

Gibson didn’t pinpoint why the Timberwolves didn’t follow Thibodeau’s game plans as well as the Bulls did. Minnesota’s roster is less experienced and maybe lacking the defensive capabilities of Chicago’s. Joakim Noah won Defensive Player of the Year and Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler also made All-Defensive teams for Thibodeau’s Bulls. Gibson and Omer Asik were no slouches on that end, either. The only Timberwolves with notable defensive accomplishments are… Butler and Gibson.

And Thibodeau.

Thibodeau was expected to immediately overhaul the Timberwolves – install an impenetrable defense and lift them into playoff contention. He was an overnight success in Chicago, winning Coach of the Year and guiding the Bulls to 62 wins and the conference finals his fist season. Why couldn’t he duplicate that speedy ascension in Minnesota?

His first year there was bumpy, to say the least. The Timberwolves went 31-51 and finished 27th in points allowed per possession.

The common reaction: Pundits, in hindsight, probably overrated Thibodeau’s ability to instantly transform a moribund franchise. The failure to meet expectations was seen as a failure of those setting the expectations, not Thibodeau. Give him another year, and everything would turn out alright – especially once he acquired Butler.

Yet… everything is not alright. Not even close.

Minnesota (2-3) is allowing 114.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. No other team is close:

image

Five games are a small sample, but it’s not as if the Timberwolves have faced a murders’ row of offenses. They’ve played the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs, Jazz, still-figuring-it-out Thunder, Pacers and Pacers.

“We’ve got to be better,” Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “It’s only five games in. We have a lot more time. But we don’t have that much time. It’s too damn much. We’ve got to be better.”

The Timberwolves were missing Butler (illness) for their worst two defensive performances of the season, Indiana and Detroit. When he returns, that will patch some problems. Not only is he the Timberwolves’ best defender, the strong wing unlocks small-ball lineups that allow Minnesota to handle more matchups.

At power forward, the 32-year-old Gibson sometimes looks too slow to handle smaller stretch fours. Butler was a masterful addition, but with a two-year, $28 million contract, Gibson is an expensive band-aid. Despite Gibson’s deficiencies, Thibodeau wanted the big’s reliability.

The real problem: Thibodeau can’t find that elsewhere – especially his franchise cornerstone younger players, Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Towns is a mobile 7-footer with ideal physical tools and improving defensive effort. Yet, his awareness lags far behind, as this play clipped by Dane Moore of Zone Coverage illustrates:

Like Towns, Wiggins, entered the NBA with high defensive expectations. Rangy and quick, Wiggins looked like he could hawk opposing wings. Instead, he has turned into a score-first player with limited complementary skills. He’s not nearly aggressive enough defensively even to tell whether he gets it.

The Timberwolves are lucky they fleeced the Bulls for Butler, because he covers what would have been major growing pains around Towns and Wiggins (and Zach LaVine, another minus defender). Minnesota has allowed an astounding 134.0 points per 100 possessions when Towns and Wiggins share the court without Butler.

“You need everyone committed to playing defense,” Thibodeau said. “It can’t be left upon one or two guys.

“If one guy is resting or taking it easy, it’s going to make the whole group look bad. I think that we still have to have an understanding of how hard we have to play and how hard we have to close out and challenge shots and get in the fight to rebound and things like that.”

Minnesota has been torched in transition, not getting back quickly enough and losing track of opposing players. The Timberwolves surrender steals only slightly more than average. Sometimes, they crash the offensive glass too hard, but they’re only middling at actually securing offensive rebounds. So, there’s no good excuse for getting beat down court as often as they are.

It hasn’t been much better in the halfcourt, where they’re slow to close out and plagued by miscommunication and poor angles against screens and handoffs.

“We’re better, but making mistakes that we made last year,” Towns said. “So, we’ve got to fix it.”

NBA GMs overwhelmingly pick Warriors to win title, LeBron MVP

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NBA GMs seem to agree with Jeff Van Gundy β€” this season belongs to the Golden State Warriors.

The NBA released its annual survey of league general managers and they overwhelmingly picked the Warriors to repeat as champions. GMs picked the Warriors at a higher rate than any team in the history of the survey.

They also picked LeBron James to win MVP in a crowded field, Lonzo Ball to be Rookie of the Year (but Josh Jackson to be the best player from this class in five years), Kawhi Leonard as the best defender in the NBA, and Gregg Popovich as the best coach in the game. This survey has certainly not been 100 percent accurate over the years (they picked LeBron to win the MVP last year, too) it’s been pretty reliable.

Here are some of the results of the NBA GM survey for 2017 (when the percentages don’t add up to 100%, there were other teams/players receiving one vote).

Which team will win the 2018 NBA Finals?
1. Golden State – 93%
2. Cleveland – 7%

GM’s ranked the top four teams in the East (in order) as Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Toronto. In the West, it was Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City.

Who will win the 2017-18 MVP?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 50%
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State –29%
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 11%
4. James Harden, Houston – 7%
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 4%

If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player in the NBA, who would it be?
1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota – 29%
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – 21%
3. LeBron James, Cleveland – 18%
4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 14%
5. Kevin Durant, Golden State – 11%

Which player forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 48%
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 21%
3. James Harden, Houston – 14%
4. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – 7%

Which player would you want taking a shot with the game on the line?
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 55%
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State – 34%
3. Kyrie Irving, Boston – 7%
4. LeBron James, Cleveland – 3%

Which player is most likely to have a breakout season in 2017-18?
1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota – 21%
2(T). Kristaps Porzingis, New York – 14%
2(T). Myles Turner, Indiana – 14%
4. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland – 10%
5. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota – 7%

Who is the best point guard in the NBA?
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 62%
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – 28%
3. Chris Paul, Houston – 7%
4. John Wall, Washington – 3%

Who is the best shooting guard in the NBA?
1. James Harden, Houston – 83%
2. Klay Thompson, Golden State – 10%

Who is the best small forward in the NBA?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 61%
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State – 32%
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 7%

Who is the best power forward in the NBA?
1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans – 41%
2. LeBron James, Cleveland – 28%
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State – 17%
4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota – 7%

Who is the best center in the NBA?

1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota – 28%
2. Anthony Davis, New Orleans – 24%
3. Marc Gasol, Memphis – 21%
4. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans – 14%

Which team made the best overall moves this offseason?
1. Oklahoma City – 43%
2. Boston – 25%
3. Minnesota – 14%
4. Houston – 11%
5. Golden State – 7%

Which one player acquisition will make the biggest impact?
1. Paul George, Oklahoma City – 59%
2. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota – 17%
3. Chris Paul, Houston – 10%
4. Kyrie Irving, Boston – 7%

What was the most underrated player acquisition?
1. Paul Millsap, Denver – 24%
2. Avery Bradley, Detroit – 17%
3(T). Jimmy Butler, Minnesota – 10%
3(T). Jae Crowder, Cleveland – 10%
5(T). Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento – 7%
5(T). Rudy Gay, San Antonio – 7%

Which team will be most improved in 2017-18?
1. Minnesota – 69%
2. Philadelphia – 17%

Who will win the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year?

1. Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers – 62%
2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia – 24%
3. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas – 7%

Which rookie will be the best player in five years?
1. Josh Jackson, Phoenix – 24%
2(T). Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia – 21%
2(T). Jayson Tatum, Boston – 21%
4(T). Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers – 14%
4(T). Ben Simmons, Philadelphia – 14%

Which rookie was the biggest steal at where he was selected in the Draft?

1. Dennis Smith Jr. (9), Dallas – 37%
2. Kyle Kuzma (27), L.A. Lakers – 22%
3(T). Donovan Mitchell (13), Utah – 7%
3(T). Caleb Swanigan (26), Portland – 7%

Who is the best international player in the NBA?
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – 69%
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver – 14%
3. Marc Gasol, Memphis – 10%
4. Kristaps Porzingis, New York – 7%

Who is the best defensive player in the NBA?
1. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 62%
2. Draymond Green, Golden State – 21%
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah – 10%

Who is the best perimeter defender in the NBA?
1. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 72%
2. Avery Bradley, Detroit – 14%

Who is the best interior defender in the NBA?
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah – 66%
2. DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers – 24%

Which is the best defensive team in the NBA?
1. Golden State – 55%
2. San Antonio – 34%
3. Utah – 7%
4. Oklahoma City – 3%

Who is the best head coach in the NBA?
1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio – 82%
2. Steve Kerr, Golden State – 11%

Which head coach makes the best in-game adjustments?
1. Rick Carlisle, Dallas – 34%
2. Brad Stevens, Boston – 31%
3. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio – 24%
4. Stan Van Gundy, Detroit – 7%
5. Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta – 3%

Which active player will make the best head coach someday?

1. Chris Paul, Houston – 39%
2. Manu Ginobili, San Antonio – 14%
3(T). Stephen Curry, Golden State – 7%
3(T). Garrett Temple, Sacramento – 7%

Which team is the most fun to watch?
1. Golden State – 90%
2. Houston – 7%
3. Denver – 3%

Which team has the best home-court advantage?

1. Golden State – 76%
2(T). Oklahoma City – 7%
2(T). San Antonio – 7%

Which player is the most athletic?
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – 62%
2. LeBron James, Cleveland – 14%
3. Zach LaVine, Chicago – 10%

Which player is the best pure shooter?
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 71%
2. Klay Thompson, Golden State – 25%
3. Devin Booker, Phoenix – 4%

Which player is the fastest with the ball?
1. John Wall, Washington – 48%
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – 45%

Which player is the best passer?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 36%
2. Chris Paul, Houston – 32%
3(T). James Harden, Houston – 7%
3(T). Ricky Rubio, Utah – 7%
3(T). John Wall, Washington – 7%

What bench player makes the biggest impact when he enters the game?
1. Andre Iguodala, Golden State – 41%
2. Eric Gordon, Houston – 24%
3. Jamal Crawford, Minnesota – 10%
4. Lou Williams, LA Clippers – 7%

Who is the most versatile player in the NBA?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 55%
2(T). Kevin Durant, Golden State – 14%
2(T). Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio – 14%
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – 10%
5. Draymond Green, Golden State – 7%

Which player has the best basketball IQ?

1. LeBron James, Cleveland – 64%
2. Chris Paul, Houston –14%
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State – 11%

Three questions the Chicago Bulls must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 41-41 getting the eight seed, lost to Boston in the first round.

I know what you did last summer: Chicago traded away Jimmy Butler for a handful of magic beans Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and they swapped first round picks with the Timberwolves (that they gave up their No. 16 pick in that trade is inconceivable). The Bulls used that draft pick on Lauri Markkanen They let Rajon Rondo walk, re-signed Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio, picked up Quincy Pondexter and Justin Holiday.

THREE QUESTIONS THE BULLS MUST ANSWER:

1) When does Zach LaVine return and how does he look? LaVine is an explosive athlete β€” remember the dunk contest? β€” who scored 18.9 points per game last season because of that gift. Then he tore his ACL. There is legitimate reason for concern. LaVine is young, he could well bounce all the way back, but traditionally this is not a fast process.

The latest projections are LaVine will start contact in practice in mid-November, which could have him back around Thanksgiving if there are no setbacks. However, expect the Bulls to be cautious with him, and restrict his minutes when he does return. Usually with ACLs it takes players time β€” like months, maybe a year β€” after returning to the court to really truly trust the knee again, not think about it, and play like their former selves.

LaVine is a restricted free agent next summer, so how he looks when he does bounce back will directly impact his paycheck next season. The Bulls will want to keep him after getting him for Butler, the only questions are at what cost, and can he continue his upward trajectory after his return.

2) Who plays point guard? This is the worst point guard rotation in the NBA. (I see you waiving your hands Knicks fans, but Ramon Sessions and the promise of Frank Ntilikina is a clear step better than anything in Chicago.) All three of their current options are poor.

The Bulls front office wanted Cameron Payne as part of the Taj Gibson trade with OKC, but he is going to miss at least the first month of the season with his third injury to the same foot in a couple of years. He hasn’t been terribly impressive when on the court and may not be in the NBA next season.

That leaves Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant as the Bulls point guards. Dunn probably gets the first crack at the job, but he was terrible this past season β€” he shot 37.7 percent overall and 28.8 percent from three, turned the ball over on 21 percent of his possessions, didn’t run the offense well or get to the foul line. His PER of 8.1 last season suggests guy who should be bouncing between the NBA and G-League. He also didn’t look good in very limited Summer League action, either. On the upside, he can defend a little. Fred Hoiberg has a lot of development work to do here, but after last season I wonder if Dunn is as explosive as advertised. Look at it this way: Tom Thibodeau used the No. 5 pick on Dunn, then after one season was willing to trade him away. Dunn is going to get his chance, but he’s going to have to be a lot better for this to work out to the Bulls.

My guess is, like last season, eventually Hoiberg will be Forced to turn to Grant. He played respectably for the Bulls last season in tandem with Rondo (a little below NBA average, but he shot 37 percent from three), at least until the playoffs when Rondo went down and Grant was so bad Hoiberg had to turn toΒ Isaiah Canaan (who Chicago didn’t even bring back). Grant struggles on defense. Bottom line, there are no good options at the point for the Bulls, and that is going to drag their team down.

3) Can Fred Hoiberg develop young talent? The Gar/Pax front office hand-picked Hoiberg out of college as a guy they could work with, who cared about analytics, and a guy who would bring a more modern style of play to Chicago. That hasn’t gone smoothly. To be kind. Now Hoiberg sees his job change to one more about developing players for the future rather than trying everything to win now. He comes out of the college ranks where he did develop players β€” he still serves as the Bulls’ shooting coach β€” but can he translate all of that to the NBA level? He’s got a couple a season to prove he can. (Whether Bulls fans should fear Gar/Pax as the architects of this rebuild is another question.)

At the top of the list, how does Hoiberg grow LaVine,Β Markkanen, Bobby Portis, Paul Zipster, and Denzel Valentine?

Outside ofΒ LaVine and Markkanen, how much can any of them grow? They may be rotation players.

Markkanen was a controversial pick, a European big man who can shoot the three, those kinds of players have a mixed history of adapting to the NBA game. Markkanen was unimpressive in Summer League in Las Vegas (he averaged 14 points and 9 boards a game, but shot 29.3 percent and was pushed around by the likes of Ryan Kelly), but the challenge for Hoiberg is to get him in spaces where he can be confident with his shot, then develop his all around game. It’s going to take time.Β Markkanen did play well in EuroBasket, if you want some silver lining.

The Bulls are tanking this season, they are going to be one of the handful of worst teams in the NBA, and in the final season before lottery reform they should have a very high pick in a draft expected to have serious talent at the top. (The Bulls second-round pick goes to the Knicks via the Thunder.) Starting this season with LaVine (when healthy) and Markkanen, Portis, and Washington, we’ll see if Hoiberg is up to this new developmental. He’s not on the hot seat (yet), but if these players don’t grow it will get warm.

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 β€˜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+