NBA season preview: Minnesota Timberwovles

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Last season: What could have been. This was a team playoff bound (or at least in the mix for it) until injuries wiped out those hopes. First was the biggie, Ricky Rubio’s ACL, but then both Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic went down and the whole thing fell apart. The Timberwolves finished 26-40 and back in the all to familiar lottery.

Key Departures: There’s been changes, but coach Rick Adelman isn’t shedding any tears over them. Gone is Michael Beasley, who got a lot of run early until Adelman grew weary of him (then again late out of necessity). Also gone is Darko Milicic.

Actually, a team may be shed over Brad Miller, he was the kind of solid, professional guy every team needs (and teammates really liked him).

Key Additions: Minnesota had a fantastic offseason. They needed help on the wing and they got Andrei Kirilenko, who can help where desperately needed at the three and slide over and play a little at the four spot. They also brought in Chase Budinger who is very athletic and can give them minutes at the three, plus Rubio is going to love him in transition. They brought in Russian Alexey Shved, who looked impressive in the Olympics for Russia at the guard spot and should play both at the point and some two. They have Greg Stiemsma as a big man off the bench now, giving them real depth up front.

Then Minnesota took a smart gamble on Brandon Roy. We don’t know how his knees — the ones without cartridge the forced him to walk away from the game — will deal with the long grind of the season. And he may never be his old All-Star self again. But even the Roy we saw near the end in Portland would be an upgrade on the wing for Minnesota, where they need it.

Three keys to the Timberwolves season:

1) When does Ricky Rubio get back and how well does he play? The Timberwolves have a lot of talent now — Love, Kirilenko, Pekovic, Roy, Derrick Williams — but Rubio is the key. He is the gifted point guard who can make it all fit together, keep the ball moving, challenge the defense and get the ball to the right guy at the right time. Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea and if needed  Shved will man the point (as he has in preseason), but none of them have Rubio’s vision or creative flair.

Minnesota would be a lock playoff team if Rubio were going to be there all season and not get back around Christmas. Without him in a deep West, it will be tight. The sooner he returns and returns to form the better for this season, but Minnesota really needs to think long term here.

2) Can Derrick Williams take a step forward? Coming out of college as the No. 2 overall pick, Williams was considered a guy who could score but the questions were about him rounding out his game. But mostly he looked like a rookie — there were impressive moments but he shot just 41.2 percent over all on his way to 8.8 points a game. His jumpshot was dreadful — he shot 28.6 percent from 10 to 15 feet, 29 percent from 16 feet out to the arc, and 26 percent on threes. He can finish around the rim, especially when Ricky Rubio throws the ally-oop, but he needs to broaden his game.

If Williams takes a step forward the Timberwolves become more dangerous.

3) Okay Kevin Love, you got your help, no you must lead. Kevin Love complained to management, complained to the media — he said they needed more veterans and more talent in Minnesota. He got it. Love said there were some less-than-professional personalities in the Minnesota locker room last year. They are gone.

Love, it’s on you to lead now. This is your team, you have the gold medal, you need to keep putting up numbers on the court and keep the team professional off it. That’s what leaders do.

What Timberwolves fans should fear: That another string of injuries slows the team. Rubio is coming back from an ACL and that can be slow going. Brandon Roy could fade as the season wears on and his knees wear down. Kirilenko has had plenty of injuries over the course of his career. This team’s margin for error is too small for them to deal with a lot of injuries.

Prediction: 46-36 and they get the seven (maybe eight) seed in the West. They make the playoffs. That is a big step and this will be an entertaining team to watch once Rubio gets back. They are a team on the rise but if they are the seven seed and get the Lakers/Thunder in the first round, well, there is an entire new level of learning that comes with the playoffs.

Rumor: Patrick Beverley may meet with five teams before Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers want to bring Patrick Beverley back next season, his spark was at the heart of why this team made the playoffs and impressed with their potential.

First, however, the Clippers are going big game hunting for the likes of Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant (even with the Achilles injury). Beverley isn’t just going to sit around and wait for them, reports longtime NBA reporter Sean Deveney Tweeted.

The Bulls need a point guard and Beverley — a Chicago native — has said he is interested.

The Lakers also are reportedly big game hunting, but Beverley is the kind of guard they could use around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Phoenix and other teams have been mentioned.

Beverley is going to have options, but he loved his time with the Clippers last season, and that means something.

Pelicans reportedly pick up option year on coach Alvin Gentry

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David Griffin, the guy with the hammer in New Orleans, likes Alvin Gentry. They have a relationship that goes back to Phoenix, where Gentry was the coach and Griffin was in the front office (and was eventually GM).

Gentry also has a style of play — he wants to run and be up-tempo. That should fit very well with soon-to-be No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise the Griffin and the Pelicans want to keep Gentry around, as reported by Malika Andrews of ESPN.

This is another smart, stabilizing move by Griffin. The Pelicans want to build an athletic, fast-paced team and Gentry is the right coach for that style.  Maybe it doesn’t pan out, maybe the Pelicans ultimately need to go another direction with their coach, but right now this seems a good fit.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.