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.

Everything big and small goes right for DeMarcus Cousins in Warriors debut

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LOS ANGELES — It was the little things.

Not that DeMarcus Cousins’ overall line — he fouled out with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 3-of-4 from three, six rebounds, three assists, one block, and he was +21, all in 15 minutes — was bad at all. In fact, it was pretty damn good. In his first game in nearly a year, Cousins looked like a slightly rusty version of himself. All the trademarks were there, from hitting threes to complaining about calls.

Cousins made the Warriors better from the moment he stepped on the court, and while the big things were obvious it was the little things should worry any challenger to the crown. For example:

• Cousins’ ability to not just score but to be a playmaker out of the midpost adds a new dimension to the Warriors offense.

• Cousins provides versatility to sets the Warriors already run regularly. For example, in the third quarter, he was the guy making the entry pass on the double-screen play the Warriors like, with Draymond Green in the post and Klay Thompson curing off the screens. Cousins set a hard screen that freed Thompson up for a clean look.

• He gives them another three-point shooter, one that creates matchup problems for defenses. The Clippers chose to chase Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over picks and play on top of them, but that means the big has to drop back and protect against backcuts and drives. Do that with Cousins off the ball and he’s wide open for threes.

“I want to know what the scouting report is on me,” Cousins joked about how open he was from deep.

• Cousins is strong on the offensive glass and that’s going to lead to more kick-out threes for Golden State’s shooters.

• Cousins also gives the Warriors some defense. He’s a big body in the paint who knows how to get in the way. At one point on back-to-back plays Cousins drew a charge on Tobias Harris, then on the next trip down stripped Harris when he drove.

“Like a kid on Christmas,” Cousins said of how he felt on the night. “It’s been a long journey… this was probably one of the best days of my life, just being out on the floor again and playing the game that I love.”

Cousins was part of the Warriors picking up their seventh straight win, beating the Clippers 112-94. Curry led the way with 28 points.

Everything went Cousins’ way — he even got a standing ovation from the bench when he fouled out.

“Hopefully that’s the last time we give him a standing ovation when he fouls out, but it was great to see him out there,” Durant said.

“Probably all the fakest love I’ve received in my life,” Cousins joked.

The NBA world shook when Cousins signed with the Warriors last July. Everyone knew it was going to take him a long time to get healthy and right, but Golden State was a team that could be patient and wait for him, not rush him back, and when he did play it would be another weapon to punish switches or just use in their existing sets.

“I thought, good for him. It’s a good spot for him,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said of his reaction when he read about the Cousins signing. “And then I thought, wow, that’s not right.”

Cousins started the game with Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, which meant nobody could really double him.

“This is a first, like in my entire basketball career,” Cousins said of the lack of doubles thrown at him. “I definitely can get used to this.”

Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior was a thunderous dunk, one created because his man had to focus on Durant (and Danilo Gallinari was late with the rotation).

“I’m just glad to know I can still dunk,” Cousins joked.

Cousins said he was nervous before the game but his girlfriend sent him a picture of himself in the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair the day after his surgery. That helped put the journey in perspective.

“It’s been a year since his injury, he’s gone through a long rehab process…” Kerr said before the game. “This is not the end of the story, this is sort of the middle of the story and it’s a milestone but there is a long way to go.”

Cousins is going to get better at things big and small as that journey continues.

Which should scare the rest of the NBA.

DeMarcus Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior is a monster jam

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LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins sure looked his hops are back on this throw down.

Cousins started for the Warriors Friday night after missing almost a full year with a torn Achilles, and on the Warriors first possession they fed him the rock in the post. Cousins faced up on Marcin Gortat, drove baseline with a nice first step, but got caught under the basket and couldn’t power it up through the Clipper big, getting his shot blocked.

Nobody was blocking his next shot.

It was a side pick-and-roll where Gortat had to cut off Durant’s drive, but Danilo Gallinari didn’t tag into the middle to cut off Cousins’ roll (or, made the business decision not to). The result was an impressive first bucket for DeMarcus as a Warrior.

Cousins’ first shift was three minutes long. He’s on a minutes restriction for a while.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).

Report: Isaiah Thomas could return to Nuggets right before All-Star break

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The Denver Nuggets have shown off their depth this season. Three starters — Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap — have missed a chunk of time and yet until a few days ago the Nuggets were the top seed in the West, and they are still a clear second.

And all of that without Isaiah Thomas, their biggest name reserve. He has been recovering from hip surgery last March.

The Nuggets are hoping Thomas will make his debut next month, right before the All-Star Break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thomas has been gathering momentum in his rehabilitation process from hip surgery in March, and there’s hope among Thomas and the Nuggets organization he could return as soon as a Feb. 11-13 homestand against Miami and Sacramento, sources said.

There’s strong confidence that he will return no later than the first game after the All Star break on Feb. 22 in Dallas, league sources said….

The final hurdle for Thomas remains playing full 5-on-5 scrimmages. He is expected to start that process soon.

Thomas was playing well and playing through pain in Boston, becoming a fan favorite and pulling that team into the postseason, before his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas could provide a playmaking guard off the bench, although Monte Morris has filled that role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone will need to finesse the minutes to get both of them touches and involved. How much Thomas can help the Nuggets in the playoffs depends on how he recovers (he has always been a defensive liability because of his size, which factors in as well).

If Thomas can show he would have value as a bench player he will have teams calling next July about a much bigger contract. He has motivation, and he’s popular around the league — people want to see him succeed. But is he fully healthy and does he still have the lateral explosiveness that made him so hard to stop on drives to the rim? We should find out the final couple months of the season.