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.

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.