ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

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Last season: Once again, the Timberwolves went into the season appearing to have the talent to make a playoff run, and once again they fell short, finishing 40-42. They couldn’t catch a break in close games, going 6-13 in games decided by four points or less (including an 0-11 start in close games). Some of that was bad luck, but ultimately, offseason signings Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer weren’t a strong enough supporting cast for Kevin Love. It’s hard to blame him for wanting out.

Signature highlight from last season: Let the record show that “The Corey Brewer 51-Point Game” was a thing that happened.

Key player changes: Nothing major. Just the biggest game-changer of a summer blockbuster trade since Dwight Howard was traded to the Lakers in 2012. Flip Saunders sent Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers in return for the No. 1 picks in the last two drafts, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. As part of the same deal, the Wolves turned Alexey Shved and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute into veteran Sixers forward Thaddeus Young. With their own lottery pick, Minnesota took high-flying UCLA guard Zach LaVine. They also signed veteran point guard Mo Williams for some scoring help off the bench. Head coach Rick Adelman retired; after flirting with Memphis’ Dave Joerger, Saunders replaced Adelman with…himself.

Keys to the Timberwolves’ season:

Can Anthony Bennett contribute? Wiggins was the headliner of the Wolves’ return in the Love trade, but Bennett is still a total mystery. In Cleveland, he had the worst rookie season for a No. 1 pick since Kwame Brown, but he was recovering from a shoulder injury suffered at the end of his college career that kept him from working out last summer, which contributed to his poor conditioning. He looked considerably better in July playing with the Cavs’ Summer League squad, and the Wolves have every reason to believe last season’s struggles were more a product of circumstance than of a lack of talent. Still, Bennett is very raw and what he’ll show this season remains to be seen.

What is Ricky Rubio’s ceiling, and can he reach it? This is a pivotal season for Rubio. If the Spanish point guard isn’t signed to an extension by Halloween, he’s set to hit restricted free agency next summer. Even after three years in the NBA, it’s tough to get a handle on what exactly Rubio is as a player — his torn ACL midway through his rookie season wiped out much of his effectiveness the following year. Last season, he proved himself to still be a gifted passer and above-average defender, but he shot an abysmal 38.1% from the field on 8.2 attempts per game. This season will make or break Rubio’s future with the Timberwolves — if he can’t turn his scoring woes around, the team may decide to go in another direction when it’s time to re-sign him.

Does Saunders have the patience to see this rebuild through? Months before trading Love for Wiggins and Bennett, Saunders used his authority as team president to appoint himself head coach. This arrangement may work out, but things can get complicated when the guy building the roster and the guy coaching it are the same person. As a GM, Saunders did a terrific job of leveraging Love into high-level prospects. But as a coach, he will have to understand that Wiggins, Bennett, LaVine and promising 2013 first-round pick Gorgui Dieng aren’t going to learn the NBA game overnight. It’s not worth rushing that process to chase a shadow of a chance at a playoff berth that wouldn’t amount to anything. If Saunders the coach is willing to play the long game with the development of the young talent Saunders the GM brought in, the franchise is in good hands.

Why you should watch the Timberwolves: They won’t be good, but they’ll be the most fun bad team in the league. Wiggins, LaVine and Brewer turned loose in transition with Rubio throwing them lobs? Yes please.

Prediction: 25-57. As soon as the Timberwolves traded Love, they pretty much tossed any playoff aspirations out the window. This is a developmental year, and it’s not exactly going out on a limb to say that Minnesota will be at or near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. The rewards won’t come for a few years at least.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.