51 Q: When will the Timberwolves break through?

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Out of the teams that can be considered “rebuilding,” it’s hard to argue that any are in a better long-term position than the Minnesota Timberwolves. They have the reigning Rookie of the Year in Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick in Karl-Anthony Towns, a slew of other intriguing young prospects, and some of the best veteran mentorship you can ask for in Kevin Garnett and Andre Miller. Wiggins’ and Zach LaVine‘s high-flying acrobatics make them a League Pass must from an entertainment standpoint. But entertaining and good are not the same thing, and these Wolves are still a ways away from achieving the latter.

The Timberwolves have so much attractive individual talent that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they still won’t win a lot of games this year. They had the league’s worst defense last season, giving up 109.6 points per 100 possessions, and that isn’t going to change dramatically. They were better with Garnett on the floor, but he’s a 20-minute-a-game player at this point, and everyone else on the roster with the potential to be a good defender (Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng) still needs a ton of seasoning.

Minnesota was beset last season by so many injuries that its young core hasn’t had much of a chance to build chemistry together. An ankle injury limited Ricky Rubio to just 22 games, and he’s the clear-cut starting point guard. He also can’t shoot, which is going to be a problem when Wiggins, LaVine and the Timberwolves’ other young wings have inconsistent shots. But the offense functions better when he’s out there, and his passing will put those players in positions to get better shots. But he has to stay healthy, and that’s been hard for him the last few years.

Rubio isn’t the only player on this Wolves team who has to prove he can stay on the court. Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Shabazz Muhammad all missed over half of last season, and are all key pieces to the Timberwolves’ hopes of improving on the fifth-worst offense in the NBA.

All of this, by the way, will be managed by an interim coach. Sam Mitchell will be in charge of the Timberwolves while Flip Saunders undergoes lymphoma treatments (get well soon, Flip!) and this many moving parts get all the more hazy when the person in charge isn’t a long-term answer.

There are a lot of reasons for Timberwolves fans to be excited. This team has the foundation of a roster that’s going to be competitive for years to come. But their defense is going to be awful once again, and in the crowded Western Conference, it’s simply difficult to see them being seriously competitive for a playoff spot. Not now, anyway. In a year or two, they’re too talented not to make that leap. For now, they’re League Pass fodder on the outside looking in.

Lakers LeBron James “pissed” about NBA MVP voting

LeBron MVP
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LeBron James, like many of the great players ever, gets his motivation wherever he can find it.

Like, for example, only getting 16 first-place votes for MVP. It was announced Friday that Giannis Antetokounmpo won his second consecutive MVP award, with LeBron second. Of the 101 votes from select media members, Antetokounmpo got 85 first-place votes, LeBron 16. LeBron vented about it on Twitter.

After the Lakers won Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, LeBron talked about how unhappy he was with the voting.

“It pissed me off. That’s my true answer,” LeBron said. “It pissed me off because out of 101 votes I got 16 first-place votes. That’s what pissed me off more than anything. I’m not saying that the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP, but that pissed me off. I finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship, and now four times as the MVP.

“Like I said, I never came into the league saying ‘I’m gonna be MVP’ or ‘I’m gonna be champion,’ I’ve always said I just want to get better every single day and those things will take care of themselves. Some things are just out of my hands, some things you can’t control, but it pissed me off…

“The voting scale is a little weird to me sometimes… And then I looked at the Most Improved this year, and rightfully so, Brandon Ingram was amazing and I thought he should’ve won it, but did you see the votes Devonte' Graham got? He averaged four points last year compared to 17.5. If that’s not improving, what is? It’s just a weird thing sometimes that, I don’t know how much we are really watching the game of basketball, or are we just in the narration mode? The narrative.”

LeBron is right, sometimes the media voters can get sucked into a narrative for MVP and other awards. However, this year the narrative favored LeBron, not Antetokounmpo — having that kind of season at age 35 and lifting the Lakers franchise back to the postseason after six years, that all had voters leaning toward LeBron.

Why did voters pick Antetokounmpo? Because on offense he scored more points and did it more efficiently than LeBron. While LeBron had his best defensive season since he played in Miami, Antetokounmpo was better on that end of the court as well. Antetokounmpo led his team to more wins than LeBron. And if you want to make the argument about LeBron lifting up his teammates you’re right, the Lakers were +11.4 points per 100 with LeBron on the court this season before the bubble (which is the time frame voters had to consider, bubble games didn’t count toward the award, per league rules). The Buck were +12 per 100 with Antetokounmpo on the court.

(To be transparent: I am one of the NBA’s award voters, and I had Antetokounmpo first and LeBron second.)

LeBron had an unbelievable season, at any age, and for a playoff run this season I would rather have had LeBron than Antetokounmpo even before the games tipped of. Other players around the league respect Antetokounmpo, but not the way they respect LeBron or other players who have gotten it done in the playoffs. That’s understandable. That’s also not the award — it’s an NBA regular-season award.

But LeBron is going to find his fuel where he can, like saying earlier this season people were calling him washed when nobody said that. Or saying the Lakers won the No. 1 seed when nobody said they could do it when, again, not exactly sure who said that.

If LeBron wants to use the MVP voting for fuel, go for it. It’s just bad news for Denver.

 

 

Anthony Davis scores 37 as it was all too easy for Lakers in blowout win

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It was all too easy for the Lakers.

Too easy for them to get out in transition, or even run on made baskets and beat Denver down the court.

Too easy for Anthony Davis to rack up 37 points.

Too easy for an attacking Lakers team to get key Nuggets players — including Nikola Jokic — in foul trouble.

Too easy for the Lakers’ defense to bottle up the Nuggets guards in the pick-and-roll, never letting Denver’s offense get on track after the first quarter.

And the “too easy” list goes on and on. It resulted in a 126-114 Lakers’ win where the Lakers led by 27 at one point and never felt truly threatened in the second half. The Lakers now lead the Western Conference Finals 1-0 with Game 2 on Sunday.

“Even in that first quarter, we didn’t guard anybody… Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone said, trying to target his team’s troubles in Game 1. “There was little defense.”

Add to that this Laker offense is relentless and will punish mismatches and mistakes in a way that other Staples Center team rarely did. Denver lear

After an even first quarter, what changed was that the Lakers started locking down on defense — the Nuggets had seven second-quarter turnovers, which led to the Lakers getting out in transition on plays like this.

But the Lakers were running on everything, including made shots, and beating Denver down the court for buckets.

Denver scored 41 points over the second and third quarters combined, with an 88 offensive rating. Part of the frustration from the Nuggets was the foul calls, which they thought bent toward the Lakers, but also Los Angels was the more aggressive team. The Lakers simply outhustled the Nuggets down the court time after time.

L.A. went on a 19-3 run from the end of the first half to early in the second, never looking back from there. Los Angeles was led by the 37 from Davis, while LeBron James had 15 points and 12 assists. As a team, the Lakers were 11-of-26 from three (42.3%).

Denver had 21 points each from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and both played far fewer minutes than normal due to foul trouble. Michael Porter Jr. had 14, and the game was such a blowout that by the end Bol Bol was in and had a bucket.

Denver needs to consider this a game spent to learn more about their opponent and how they will have to play the rest of the series. Not exactly a game to flush completely, but it’s pretty close.

The Lakers need to remember that Denver has come back twice in playoff series already, the Nuggets learn from their mistakes and improve. Things are not always going to be this easy.

But the Lakers could not have asked for a better start.

Watch the Alex Caruso to LeBron James alley-oop

LeBron Caruso
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
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One of the keys to Denver having a shot in the Western Conference Finals: Keep the Lakers out of transition.

That did not go so well to start.

Denver had seven second-quarter turnovers, which allowed the Lakers to get out an run and the result was this highlight, Alex Caruso to LeBron James for the monster alley-oop.

The Lakers added more points per 100 possessions in transition than any other team in the league, and the Lakers have started a higher percentage of their offense in transition than any other team in the playoffs (16.5% of their plays start that way, stats via Cleaning the Glass). Denver has improved halfcourt defense this postseason, but their transition defense has struggled in the playoffs. That is potentially a bad combo for the Nuggets.

 

Report: Heat tried to trade Goran Dragic away in Jimmy Butler deal

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The Miami Heat are not in control of the Eastern Conference Finals — just two wins from the NBA Finals — without the combination of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. They are the shot creators, the two penetrating into the paint, breaking down the Celtics’ defense, then kicking out to shooters. Butler is an All-NBA player, and Dragic is playing like the All-NBA player he was six years ago.

That pairing almost never happened.

Michael Lee at the Athletic told the story.

What’s hilarious about the Dragic-Butler partnership – a bromance that has found them bonding in the bubble over bottles of Michelob Ultras, cups of Big Head coffee, and singing the “Bad Boys” theme song from “Cops” – is it nearly didn’t happen. The initial three-team trade [Heat president Pat] Riley facilitated to get Butler involved sending Dragic to Dallas. Dragic would’ve teamed up with his Slovenian little homie, Luka Doncic, but would’ve said farewell to what he intended to do with the Heat.

The Mavericks had no interest in taking on Dragic – a 30-something hobbling on a surgically-repaired knee whose best years were way in the rearview – so the Heat had to get more creative, while remaining stuck with seemingly damaged goods. Again, nothing went according to plan.

We knew this at the time, consider this a reminder. Also, don’t blame Dallas on this one. Dragic played 36 games last season, had knee issues, and had looked like a shell of the All-NBA player he used to be, and on top of it he was getting paid $19.2 million. There were not a lot of teams looking to get in the Dragic business before this season started.

Instead, Dragic stayed, got healthy, accepted a sixth-man role (until the playoffs, before that Kendrick Nunn started and Dragic was the change of pace off the bench), and found his stride.

In the bubble, Dragic has taken off as the second scoring/shot-creating option in the Heat offense. Erik Spoelstra, as he does, has put Dragic in positions to succeed.

And, after these playoffs, get paid this offseason when Dragic is a free agent.