What the Timberwolves should do when the lockout ends…

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This is the third installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Today it’s the Minnesota Timberwolves. You can also read up on the Lakers and Mavericks as we start to work our way through all 30 NBA teams.

It was a rough year for the Timberwolves last season. The team was awful on both ends of the floor, and finished with the league’s worst record. But even though the T-Wolves were the league’s worst team last year, there are some positive things happening in Kahn’s kingdom. Kevin Love had an All-Star breakout season. Ricky Rubio is finally coming over from Spain to join the team, and he’ll be joined by #2 pick Derrick Williams. Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph actually showed signs of life.

There is talent on Minnesota’s roster — if they can make a few things work, they may finally be ready to crawl out of the NBA’s basement. Here are a few suggestions for the Timberwolves:

1. Find a way to hide Kevin Love on defense

Kevin Love’s breakout year last season wasn’t merely a case of someone putting up good numbers on a bad team because there was nobody around him talented enough to stop him from taking shots or grabbing rebounds. (Love’s teammate Michael Beasley actually fits that bill fairly well.)

Love’s scoring and rebounding are the real thing. We’ve never seen a player who combines rebounding prowess with deadly three-point accuracy the way Love does, and the UCLA product can score on the inside and pass as well. Love’s 47% field-goal percentage last season may seem pedestrian, but his prowess from beyond the arc and 85% free-throw stroke actually made him one of the most efficient scorers in the league last season.

Love’s rebounding is also special. Even though Love can barely get off the floor, he has an incredible knack for tracking down caroms off the rim, and he averaged 15.2 points per game while the Timberwolves were actually one of the better rebounding teams in the league. There isn’t a single offense or rebounding unit in the league that wouldn’t greatly benefit from the addition of Kevin Love.

Love’s defense, however, was and is a serious issue if Minnesota ever wants to be a serious playoff team. Minnesota was a horrible defensive team last year, and both advanced statistics and the eye test say that Love was a major part of that problem. Having athletic forwards and centers who can change or block shots at the rim or jump out to the perimeter to shut down the pick-and-roll while recovering back to their man has never been more important than it is in today’s NBA, and the slow, undersized Love can do neither of those things.

Whoever Minnesota’s next coach is, his first priority should be to draw up a defensive scheme that can hide Love effectively, and the Wolves should be actively looking for players who can pick up the slack for Love defensively.

2. Find a way to effectively use Ricky Rubio

Rubio’s size, athleticism, court vision, creativity, and defense are still worth getting excited about, but a few miserable statistical seasons in Spain have dampened the excitement surrounding him somewhat. In Rubio’s defense, he was forced to play in a slow-it-down system that isn’t at all suited for his open-floor gifts, and some would say that he sacrificed his own numbers in order to fit in with a very successful FC Barcelona club.

Still, Rubio’s jarringly low field goal numbers are a red flag, and there’s no getting around the fact that the 20-year old simply has no outside shot right now. (This makes any comparisons of Rubio to floppy-haired creators like Pistol Pete Maravitch or Steve Nash completely ludicrous, by the way.) Most guards who can’t shoot know their limitations from a young age. Rajon Rondo, who was stuck in a slow-it-down system before getting to the NBA, still knew what shots not to take in college, and he shot 51% and 48% from the field during his two years at Kentucky.

Jason Kidd, who has the same kind of size and passing ability as Rubio and has a 40.1% career field goal percentage, is a more hopeful comparison, but he’s always offset that by shooting a LOT of threes — conventional wisdom is that Kidd didn’t find the three-point shot until late in his career, but he actually made 133 of the 396 (33.6%) of the threes he took his second year in the league. Rubio hasn’t been shy about taking threes in Spain, and has had mixed success with the shot, but the bottom line is that he’ll either have to seriously overhaul his jump shot or have Rondo-like penetration ability and shot selection in order to become an efficient scorer in the NBA.

For their part, the Timberwolves must make sure that Rubio is given the chance to get out in the open floor and create for his teammates as much as possible, and keep him from having to try and be a one-on-one scorer. Using Rubio correctly will be a challenge, but the potential rewards are worth the challenge.

3. Figure out what to do with all of those wings and forwards

Michael Beasley. Derrick Williams. Martell Webster. Wesley Johnson. Anthony Randolph. Anthony Tolliver. The Wolves’ roster is absolutely packed with young wings and bigs, and all of them (with the exception of Williams), had their ups and downs last season. Williams is a talented scorer, but he’s a natural four offensively. Johnson is a great perimeter defender, but he struggled on offense. Randolph is up-and-down incarnate. Beasley is a volume shooter and can have big scoring nights, but he struggles at everything except for heaving the ball towards the basket with great regularity.

The Timberwolves need to figure out which wings should be getting the lion’s share of the minutes, and which ones will work best next to the Rubio/Williams/Love core the team should be building around. If they can do that while getting effective seasons from Williams and Rubio and hiding Love on defense, the Timberwolves might actually begin their return to post-Garnett respectability in earnest this season — if this season happens.

Tom Thibodeau on Timberwolves not getting first-rounder in Jimmy Butler trade: ‘Getting good players was a priority’

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The Heat offered Josh Richardson and a first-round pick. The Rockets offered four first-round picks or Eric Gordon, Nene and two first-round picks. The Pelicans reportedly offered Nikola Mirotic and an unprotected first-round pick.

But the Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler to the 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric in a deal that included no first-round picks and Minnesota getting only one second-rounder.

Timberwolves president-coach Tom Thibodeau:

We wanted quality players. I think that that was important for us.

When you look at, to get two starters off a team that won 52 games, and they’re both young, and they’re going to get better, and they’re both very good defensively. They both shoot the 3, so we think they fit well with the guys that we do have.

And so once we once got to that point where felt we were getting multiple rotational players, then we felt it would be time to execute the deal.

It was what was best for the organization. Obviously, getting good players was a priority. But the pick part is important, and we felt we got a good pick from Philly.

It was what does it mean for the team? If you get two rotational players, that’s good. And then if you can get a pick, that allows you to do more things. And so I think that’s all part of it. You always try to think about what the possibilities could be.

Thibodeau might have taken the best offer for the the Timberwolves by the time he actually accepted a deal. Miami pulled the Richardson offer after his strong start to the season. Getting four first-rounders from Houston required taking Brandon Knight‘s negative-value contract, and it’s unclear exactly how the picks were protected. New Orleans has the best record of those three teams, so an unprotected pick carries less value.

But it’s also impossible to overlook Thibodeau’s present-minded attitude. That’s how he already approached everything. Now, he appears to be coaching for his job this season. Nobody ever expected him to prioritize long-term assets.

Covington and Saric are good players, but Minnesota was also 4-9 at the time of the trade. Are Covington and Saric good enough to lift the Timberwolves out of this hole and into the playoffs? It’s a tough ask. In 2020-21, Saric will be up for a big raise, and the Timberwolves already have a lot of money committed. They might have to downgrade the rest of the roster to keep Saric and avoid the luxury tax. This is a narrow window for Minnesota to get value from this trade.

That said, blame Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor for creating this situation. By allowing Thibodeau to remain in charge without much job security, Taylor is practically demanding Thibodeau emphasize the present. If Taylor wanted draft picks, he should have fired Thibodeau earlier.

Caris LeVert suffers injury so horrific, it brings teammates to tears and opponents to prayer (video)

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Caris LeVert has been one of the Nets’ biggest bright spots. The hard-working 24-year-old was a Most Improved Player candidate, and he seems well-liked throughout the organization. He’s even already hit a couple gamewinners this season.

But LeVert’s breakout campaign hit a devastating snag tonight, as he injured his leg.

The reactions of both his Brooklyn teammates and the Timberwolves say everything. This is a tough one.

Markelle Fultz takes ugly pump-fake free throw

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A key question after the 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler: How would the demanding star affect Markelle Fultz‘s confidence?

Butler isn’t even playing for Philadelphia yet, but this isn’t an encouraging sign.

Kyle Neubeck of The Philly Voice:

Maybe the ball just slipped out of Fultz’s hands on the way up, and he had to continue pushing it toward the rim to avoid a violation. That could happen to anybody.

But given everything we know about Fultz’s shooting woes, it’s impossible to take this as anything other than a ghastly low point in an ongoing problem.

LeBron James: ‘I almost cracked’ with Lakers’ slow start

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LeBron James has played in eight straight NBA Finals.

How’s he handling reduced expectations with the Lakers, who started 2-5 before rising to 7-6?

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

‪“I haven’t changed anything outwardly, but you know me. You know how I am. I almost cracked [last week]. I had to sit back and remind myself, ‘[Expletive], you knew what you were getting yourself into,’” James told Yahoo Sports while laughing after Saturday’s win in Sacramento. “This process has been good for me. I just have to continue being patient.”‬

LeBron warned everyone to stay clear when he loses his patience, but he has never sounded close to losing it this season. He signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, said he doesn’t feel urgency to win quickly before his prime ends and seems content to wait for a co-star.

If anything, it seemed LeBron might be too relaxed, enjoying the Los Angeles lifestyle and focusing on showbusiness.

So, this is a welcome sign of his competitiveness.

Also kudos to LeBron for harnessing it unlike others in the organization. These Lakers need time to determine how these oddly shaped pieces fit together – unless a star becomes available. Then, all bets are off.