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.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.

Andre Iguodala recalls Draymond Green doubling Kevin Durant in practice: ‘he was mad … We was tryna win’

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Devin Booker complained to his opponents for double-teaming him during a pick-up game.

That has sparked a Great National Debate: Is it right or wrong to double-team during pick-up games?

Kevin Durant:

That’s a reasonable conclusion. The primary defender is missing an opportunity to work on his defense by getting help. But I also think it fails to address the main point. Booker wasn’t complaining to help the defender. Booker wanted the ideal training environment for himself, the offensive player.

How should the offensive player feel about it?

It’s a reasonably interesting question that’s getting taken far too seriously because the NBA is in a dead period. But to give it more juice, let’s add the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green relationship to the equation.

Andre Iguodala:

Durant:

It seems Durant can laugh it off now, but this story feeds into what so many people think they know about these players – that Green is a relentless competitor (accurate) and that Durant is soft (inaccurate).

NBA players spend so much time playing basketball. Sometimes, it’s helpful to face game-like conditions, where double-teams can happen at any point. Other times, it’s helpful to have more-relaxed conditions.

I don’t know enough about Booker’s pick-up game or the Warriors’ practice to say what was appropriate in each.

Report: Executives expect Thunder to say they are not trading Chris Paul (but they are)

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It’s all about leverage.

Right now the vultures are circling the Oklahoma City Thunder, hoping to get a free meal. Everyone knows the Thunder are moving into a rebuilding mode and want to trade Chris Paul for picks/young players, so other general managers — the vultures — are throwing out lowball offers hoping to get a steal of a trade. And by steal we mean making the Thunder throw in a first-round pick as a sweetener to get CP3 and the three-years, $124 million left on his contract off their books.

Oklahoma City’s response? Say “we’re not trying to trade him” and be patient. Here is how Brian Windhorst phrased it on ESPN’s The Jump (hat tip Real GM):

“Here’s what executives expect to happen: they expect the Thunder to put out a message that we’re not looking to trade Chris Paul…We want him to work with our young guys. Because they don’t want anybody to think they’re panic-trying to trade him, and they want to hope that somebody has something happen where they need Chris Paul,” said Windhorst.

Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for ESPN, added that he believed the Thunder would hold on to Chris Paul rather than surrender a draft pick.

This is the smart play. CP3 is still a top-flight point guard in the NBA, even if he has taken half a step back, and there are at least eight NBA teams going into this season thinking they have a shot at a title, and a few more looking at deep playoff runs. Some team is either going to realize they are not as good as they thought they were, or are going to suffer an injury, and be looking for an All-Star level player and replacement. Enter the Thunder and Chris Paul.

What this ultimately means is expect this to drag out. Not just through the summer and through training camp, but maybe all the way to the trade deadline.