NBA Season Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

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Last season: 15-67, second worst record in the NBA last season, although at the end of the campaign they were playing worse ball than the Nets.

Head Coach: Kurt Rambis enters his second year with this question: How good a coach is he? I’m not sold we’ll get the answer. The Timberwolves brought him in to run the triangle offense then gave him personnel that poorly suits it (strong shooting point guards, for one). Minnesota didn’t totally abandon the traditional triangle, but it was pretty heavily modified last season. Will it be more of the same this season?

Key Departures: Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Ramon Sessions, Ryan Hollins

Key Additions: They brought back Darko Milicic for four years at $20 million. I am not as down on the idea of bringing Milicic back as most — he’s a good passing big man who is a decent fit if they’d run the triangle offense — but the price is mind numbing. They were bidding against themselves for his services yet they seemed to keep driving up the price. If this were two years $6 million, it would be a decent risk. At this price it’s a mistake.

The other additions are not as bad: No. 4 overall pick Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley (really a good risk to take, they got him for nothing), Martell Webster, Luke Ridnour, Nikola Pekovic, Anthony Tolliver, Sebastian Telfair.

Best case scenario: GM David Kahn’s best case is at the deadline they are able to make a trade that pulls in the superstar player they need to vault Minnesota to the upper echelons of the West.

Most fans best-case scenario is for them to just take a step forward and play some entertaining basketball.

For that to happen: For Kahn’s best case, it will require and act of God. But he is right in this sense — the next step is for this team to get a star player that can really lead them. Debate amongst yourselves if Ricky Rubio is that guy (he’s good but probably not that good). Love, others on this team could be good number twos but there needs to be an Alpha dog. The question is if you think Kahn can get one? Now we’re back to an act of god.

If that is the future, here is the question for this season: What kind of team is this? Kahn keeps saying a running team yet he brought in a coach that runs the triangle (while transition points is one of the core principles of the triangle, it is not a classic running offense). They have not looked like much of a running team in their couple of preseason games.

Until the Timberwolves decide what they are and then build accordingly, they will live in limbo.

If you’re a running team — get Ricky Rubio over here, draft athletes and pure shooters, and go seven-seconds-or-less. Michael Beasley, Martell Webster and Anthony Tolliver could be fits if you go that direction. (And a more fluid, fast paced European style may be the way to go — they have some athletes on the wings and guys like Kevin Love and Darko that can run the pick-and-pop well. But if you’re doing that, why Rambis? Why Luke Ridnour?)

If you’re a triangle team, you need a guy who can create and penetrate from the wing (and please don’t think Beasley is that guy) and get a center who can protect the rim on defense (might want to do that either way). Luke Ridnour and Darko are decent fits here.

Whatever it is choose one path, then from the owner on down to the guy who has to wash the uniforms, be committed to it. Right now you are all over the map.

Whatever direction they go, one thing needs to happen — get Kevin Love the ball more. Did anyone see what happened when you put this guy on Team USA this summer? He was the best rebounder and outlet passer on the squad. He can be a stretch four or bang inside. He makes smart passes. If the Timberwolves are going to run they need his rebounding and outlet passing. If they are going to run the triangle they need to get him the ball at the elbow and run the offense through him. Just give him the ball; you get better when it happens.

I think the Beasley pickup was a good one — for them to reach their goals they need him to break out. That probably won’t happen, but as they gave up just a couple second rounders for him it was a good risk. He has not done well playing the three spot, he is more skilled and efficient near the basket, but that spot is taken up on the Timberwolves. They are asking him to play the three and he is going to have to figure it out — and defend better on the perimeter — for them to take a step forward.

The other thing the Timberwolves will need is rookie Wesley Johnson to take on a bigger role. It would be asking a lot, but then again a lot is asked of you if you are the No. 4 overall pick.

More likely the Timberwolves will: Be better than last year, but not good.

For all the sniping we do at David Kahn around these parts, the fact is the Timberwolves are a deeper team now than they were last season, and that should win them some more games. There has been some talent stockpiled on this roster.

Luke Ridnour will likely take a step back but be a steady hand at the helm. Webster can score and he may well lead this team in that category. Beasley will be inconsistent and frustrate T-Wolves fans, and Wesley Johnson may ultimately be the swingman of the future (or maybe not, lots of questions there and as a rookie he will be inconsistent, too). Kevin Love will be good. Darko will be nice. But it’s hard to see where the cohesion comes from.

Prediction: 24-58. And another high lottery pick. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.

Watch Pacers’ rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO (AP) — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.