Timberwolves new CEO knows exactly what he’s getting into

Associated Press
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) In the winter of 1998, Ethan Casson started calling professional franchise after professional franchise, begging them to get his foot in the door in any capacity.

One night, a human resources employee for the Minnesota Timberwolves picked up the phone and Casson talked his way into a meeting. He flew from the East Coast, met with several Timberwolves executives and, during the third quarter of a game against the Golden State Warriors, was offered an entry-level position on the business side of the operation at $24,000 per year.

“To think that what started as a cold call of me begging an HR person to let me come in and prove my worth 18 years later turned into me coming back as a CEO is amazing and certainly very special to me,” Casson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Casson had to sell his car and some other possessions to raise the money to pay for his move from Boston to the Twin Cities, but the leap of faith has paid off. Six years after he left the Timberwolves to climb the ladder with the San Francisco 49ers, he is returning as CEO to breathe new life into one of the NBA’s struggling operations.

Timberwolves President Chris Wright remembered the impression Casson left in those first face-to-face meetings.

“I told him we’re going to find a place for you in this franchise because you are exactly the type of person that we want build this franchise around,” Wright said.

Casson’s first stint with the Timberwolves lasted 11 years. He worked his way up to senior vice president of corporate partnerships and met his future wife here before leaving for the 49ers in 2010.

When he arrived in the Bay Area, the once-proud 49ers were in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought. Their revenue had dropped to near the bottom of the league and they were playing in an outdated stadium that couldn’t compete with the shiny new ones popping up around the league. He leaves after helping to secure a 20-year, $220 million naming rights deal with Levi’s for the new stadium and rebuilding the franchise’s business operations.

The Timberwolves have not made the playoffs since 2004, the longest active drought in the league. That futility has contributed significantly to plummeting revenue and a dwindling season ticket base.

“I’m not saying it’s apples to apples, but I certainly feel I’ve been on a six-year journey that involved a lot of similar themes,” Casson said. “And I’ll apply all of those lessons to this next phase of my career.”

Casson replaces Rob Moor, the longtime CEO who stepped aside to work more closely with Wolves owner Glen Taylor’s other business interests. At 42 years old, Casson is part of a youth movement coming into the organization. Taylor also brought in 41-year-old New York real estate mogul Meyer Orbach and 35-year-old Chinese entrepreneur John Jiang as minority owners, and he hopes the three of them help bring a new perspective and energy to the business side that mirrors the vibe youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are bringing to the team.

“I was very aware and respectful that taking on this role wasn’t about coming in and fixing things that were broken,” Casson said. “I don’t look at opportunities like this as somethings not working. I look at it as an opportunity to reset and plot out a different course or a different version of a course that moves the business forward.”

The challenges are real. The Timberwolves’ competitive dormancy buried them in a crowded sports marketplace. Tickets have been hard to sell and the NFL’s Vikings, the NHL’s Wild and MLB’s Twins are competing for the corporate dollars.

“I’ve been here for a long time,” said Wright, who is entering his 25th season with the Wolves. “I’ve tried to do it what I consider the best way for the franchise given all of the different sort of environments we’ve found ourselves in over the last 12 years as we’ve not been making the playoffs. And I think Ethan is going to just bring a completely fresh, new look to all of that and lead us in the direction we need to be as a club in the 21st century.”

The Wolves have one of the most promising young cores in the league, a brand new practice facility in downtown Minneapolis and have begun renovations on the dusty Target Center.

“There’s a lot of momentum in and around the organization that made it very exciting for me as a fan and now as someone who is coming back as CEO,” he said. “That will come and go. The renovation will eventually be complete. The team will stabilize and be competitive. You still have to make sure the business model is sustainable and drivable. That’s what we’re going to be.”

NBA Power Rankings: Celtics remain on top but Suns jump up to second

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We head into the holiday season and the Boston Celtics are still rolling atop the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings this week. The Suns jumped up to second with a few wins while the Bucks stumbled, but the Pelicans remain in the top 10 and a surprise to be there.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (17-4, Last week No.1). Joe Mazzulla is going to get some Coach of the Year votes. It may be too early to start thinking about awards not voted on until April, but Mazzulla was thrust into an awkward situation with the suspension of Ime Udoka for the season, and all he has done is preside over the best offense in the history of the NBA — a 120.9 net rating (for comparison, the Jazz had the best offense in the NBA the previous two seasons at 116.2 and 116.5). Mazzulla didn’t mess with what works and kept the team focused. He deserves credit for that. Two interesting games this week against the Miami Heat, both in Boston (and the second one may see Jimmy Butler return).

 
Suns small icon 2. Suns (14-6, LW 3). The Suns are not the same team away from the Footprint Center in Phoenix — they are 11-1 at home and 3-5 on the road so far this season. Starting Sunday that will be put to the test as the Suns head out on the road for 6-of-7. Will Phoenix have Chris Paul for those games? Suns just-extended head of basketball ops James Jones said “he’s close” to a possible C3P return (he has missed 10 games with a heel injury), but there is no official return date set (he is out Wednesday vs. Chicago). One of the games on the upcoming road trip is against Dallas and Luka Doncic, the first time the playoff foes from last season have met since opening night.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (14-5, LW 2). After their 9-0 start to the season, the Bucks are a .500 team, with a pedestrian defense and a bottom-10 offense in that stretch. It’s hard to read too much into that with Khris Middleton still out — although he is poised to return this week, a massive boost for the team in the half-court — all of which may be a sign there are vulnerabilities in Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo set a career-best with nine dunks against the Cavaliers, a team with generally good rim protection but not in transition last Friday night.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (13-8, LW 4). Donovan Mitchell has been everything the Cavaliers have hoped for and more, but the first quarter of the season has shown Jarrett Allen is the most valuable Cavalier — he solidifies their paint defense and provides quality screen setting on offense. The Cavaliers have been 6.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court this season, but it’s the defensive end that comes apart when he misses games. Cleveland is a team of streaks: Win eight in a row, lose five in a row, win 5-of-6, then they fell again Monday in Toronto. LeBron and the Lakers come to town next Tuesday.

 
Grizzlies small icon 5. Grizzlies (12-8, LW 12). Memphis may only be 3-2 in games Jaren Jackson Jr. has played since his return, but they have outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions in the minutes he is on the court — he matters that much to this team. We also need to give some love to Santi Aldama, who played well with Jackson out and his defense and finishing are going to help this team win games when it matters. A couple of interesting games against the East are coming up, Friday night against the 76ers then Monday against the Heat.

 
Pelicans small icon 6. Pelicans (12-8, LW 9). Is New Orleans for real? On paper they are one of a handful of teams with a top-10 offense and defense, the traditional sign of a contender (it’s also a flawed measure, Boston doesn’t have a top-10 D right now but they are clearly contenders). Doubters will point to the fact opponents are shooting just 33.2% from 3 against the Pelicans (something likely to go up), plus that the Pelicans are 8-1 against teams under .500 but 4-7 against teams over that mark. Still, you have to beat the teams in front of you and the Pelicans have the fourth-best net rating in the league. Good tests are coming up with games this week against Toronto and Denver.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (12-9, LW 16). James Harden is expected to return on Philadelphia’s three-game road trip, maybe in Houston next Monday night (good soft landing spot). The 76ers are 8-4 in the dozen games Harden has missed so far and have the best defense in the NBA over that stretch — that is the end of the floor where they need to thrive after Harden (and, eventually, Tyrese Maxey) returns. The 76ers have those eight wins without Harden because B-Ball Paul Reed, Shake Milton and others (including Tobias Harris) have stepped up in recent games.

 
Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (13-7, LW 11). Denver outscores its opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions when Nikola Jokic is on the court, but gets outscored by 13.9 per 100 when he sits — the team is +26.7 when he plays. That’s the kind of wild on/off differential that helped him win back-to-back MVPs, but it was supposed to be different this season with the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the maturation of Bones Highland and the addition of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The issues with the Nuggets bench remains and it’s something they need to solve if they want to challenge the teams above them in this ranking.

 
Clippers small icon9. Clippers (13-9, LW 7). It’s still hard to figure out what these Clippers are. They won the first three games Kawhi Leonard was back, and they have a ridiculous +31.7 net rating in the limited minutes that Paul George and Leonard are on the court together. But this team can’t stay healthy — Leonard was out with a sprained ankle — and gets its rotations set, so it just keeps treading water. Tuesday night in Portland started 6-of-7 on the road for Los Angeles.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (12-8, LW 13). Indiana and Myles Turner came through Los Angeles — the Pacers beat the Lakers on a dramatic game-winner by rookie Andrew Nembhard, but fell to the Clippers — and that revived trade speculation going back to this summer. While Turner works to ignore the noise and is having a career year so far, the bigger question becomes would the Pacers still trade him? Or do they want to keep him with Tyrese Haliburton long-term? Even if Indiana doesn’t want to trade him, if they think he will bolt in free agency next summer they may not have a choice, but for now the buzz around the NBA is the Pacers are not eager to deal (and would need to be blown away by an offer).

 
Mavericks small icon 11. Mavericks (10-10, LW 6). Tuesday night’s win over the Warriors sums things up for the Mavericks:
On any given night they can compete with anyone and win, but it takes a 41-point triple-double from Luka Doncic (12 rebounds, 12 assists) to have a chance. There is no secondary shot creation (off-season acquisition Christian Wood is coming off the bench), and with that the workload on Doncic is incredible. How long can he keep this up? That one game explains why no team wants to face the Mavericks in the playoffs, but what it will take for Doncic to get this team to the postseason is a lot to ask.

 
Warriors small icon 12. Warriors (11-11, LW 19). Golden State is 8-4 in last 12 and has found its footing. A key part of that was a move by Steve Kerr to split more of the minutes of Draymond Green and Stephen Curry more, having Green play with the second unit in place of the youngsters who did not work out as a group. The result has been something steady that works and doesn’t blow leads. Throw in Klay Thompson finding his legs again and the Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again.

 
Raptors small icon 13. Raptors (11-9, LW 17). Pascal Siakam returned from a 10-game absence Monday and looked like his best self, getting downhill, attacking the rim, grabbing rebounds, and pushing the pace. Toronto went 5-5 without Siakam but it didn’t take long to see why they missed him. Scottie Barnes is back on the court as well, and with OG Anunoby playing at an All-Star — maybe Defensive Player of the Year — level, it could be time for the Raptors to string tother a few wins (doing so at Brooklyn and at New Orleans will not be so easy, however).

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (12-11, LW 5). Losers of five in a row and 8-of-10, Utah has come back to earth after its fast start. The Jazz’s problems are on the defensive end, where they are second worst in the league over the last 10 games. The bad news is that in a very tight West, even a little losing a few games means a quick tumble down the standings (the Jazz fell to eighth in the West, part of the play-in). The good news is they are home for 7-of-8 coming up, a chance to rest and turn this thing around (the Jazz lost the opener of the homestead to the Bulls).

 
Kings small icon 15. Kings (10-9, LW 8). Sacramento looks at the way De'Aaron Fox is thriving, the way Domantas Sabonis fits in with them, and yes, the way Tyrese Haliburton has blossomed in Indiana, and think they nailed the trade (something Sam Amick talked about at The Athletic). Maybe they were right, if they can hold on to a playoff spot. The Kings have had one of the easiest schedules in the league but that is about to change with a 7-of-8 on the road starting Saturday against the Clippers.

 
Nets small icon 16. Nets (11-11, LW 21). The Nets could be getting T.J. Warren back on Friday night, which could be a huge boost if Warren can get back close to his vintage self. Warren was one of the breakout stars of the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers. However, he has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot. Kevin Durant may want nothing to do with the MVP conversation, but he continues to play at that level: 30 points per game on an insane 65.9 true shooting percentage, plus 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a night.

 
Wizards small icon 17. Wizards (11-10, LW 15). Consistency has not been in the Wizards’ vocabulary this season. Last week they dropped two games to the Heat, then watched Kristaps Porzingis go off for a career-high 41 against the Timberwolves in a win. Sometimes consistency can come when a team bonds on the road, which is what Washington needs to happen — 14 of its next 20 games are outside DMV. Bradley Beal seems to be finding his scoring groove again, which would help bring some consistency to the table.

 
Blazers small icon 18. Trail Blazers (11-10, LW 10). Good news in Portland: Damian Lillard is targeting Sunday to return from his latest calf strain. They need him. The Trail Blazers have gone 1-4 without him this time, including their worst loss of the season, a blown 18-point second-half lead to a Clippers team without either of their stars. Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and seven assists a game this season, showing the explosion we were used to from the perennial All-Star. Hopefully he gets back to being that player quickly.

 
Hawks small icon 19. Hawks (11-10, LW 19). This team’s success seems fragile at times — Clint Capela has to sit a couple of games with dental pain and the defense comes apart, leading to losses. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray are blending fairly well together (+4.7 net rating when both are on the court) but the players around them have not meshed with the duo, and we thought the offense would thrive but it is 22nd in the league. Atlanta needs to pick up some wins in a soft part of the schedule this week (Orlando, OKC, and the New York Knicks).

 
Bulls small icon 20. Bulls (9-11, LW 20). After a 6-10 start, the Bulls beat the Celtics and Bucks in back-to-back games and have now won 3-of-4. Part of that can be tied to Patrick Williams, who started the season slowly but has averaged 10.8 points and 5.2 rebounds a game in November, with a fantastic 63.2 true shooting percentage. Plus he plays solid defense. Chicago is 2-1 on its six-game road trip, but things do not get easier with Phoenix, Golden State, and Sacramento remaining.

 
Heat small icon 21. Heat (10-11, LW 24). With the roster shorthanded (Jimmy Butler is out for his seventh straight Wednesday due to right knee soreness) the Heat have leaned heavily into more zone defense. Couper Moorhead noted on Heat Twitter that in the six games including Sunday the Heat had over 330 possessions in the zone, “more than 21 teams used all of last year.” All the roster issues are part of why the Heat have been in 15 clutch games this season (within 5 points in the final five minutes), tied for most in the NBA, and they are 7-8 in those games despite a +9.4 net rating in those minutes.

 
Knicks small icon 22. Knicks (10-11, LW 20). RJ Barrett continues to present a challenge for Tom Thibodeau and Knicks fans. On the one hand, he gets you buckets — 18.4 points a game, plus 5.4 rebounds. But he’s terribly inefficient doing it, shooting 27.4% from 3 this season and with an ugly 49.9 true shooting percentage. He has a four-year, $107 million extension that kicks in next season, and while that is not wildly out of line he is not living up to it, either. Thibodeau has given Barrett plenty of room to be Barrett, but if this team wants to take the next steps either he needs to start making more shots, or those shots need to go to someone who will.

 
23. Timberwolves (10-11, LW 18). Karl-Anthony Towns is now out 4-6 weeks with a calf strain, and even if he beats that timeline it’s concerning for the Timberwolves — it’s never good to be without your franchise player for an extended period. What’s more, the Timberwolves have a -11.8 net rating this season when Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards are on the court together but Towns is not. That can change, maybe going to a more conventional one-big lineup and some D'Angelo Russell pick-and-roll will work, but the pieces have not fit well yet in Minnesota and this isn’t going to help matters.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers 7-12, LW 25). The Lakers did what they needed to do, racking up wins (5-of-6) through a soft part of the schedule. Now things get serious, and it didn’t start well with the heartbreaker loss to the Pacers. There are positives with the Lakers — Russell Westbrook‘s play off the bench, a more consistent Lonnie Walker IV — but if the losses start piling up again as the schedule gets tougher, tension around this team is going to rise quickly.

 
Thunder small icon 25. Thunder (8-13, LW 22). After a strong start to the season, OKC has hit a rough patch losing 5-of-6, with a bottom-10 offense and defense in that stretch. There are positives to take away from the first quarter of the season, beyond the fact Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has ascended to All-NBA level star. Rookie Jalen Williams (the wing out of Santa Clara) has impressed. Aleksej Pokusevski has taken a step forward and is contributing. This team was never going to win a lot of games but there are positives.

 
Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (6-15, LW 26). Gordon Hayward‘s fractured left shoulder has added drama on and off the court in Charlotte, Terry Rozier is not meant to play point guard but is forced into the role with LaMelo Ball still out, and the lack of shooting and depth has left the Hornets with the worst offense in the NBA this season. Still, there are positives, such as the recent play of center Nick Richards, who has shown potential at the five (and deserves more run over Plumlee).

 
Rockets small icon 27. Rockets (5-15, LW 28). After a rough start to the season, rookie Jabari Smith Jr. has looked better of late, averaging 15.8 points per game and shooting 40% from 3 over his last five. What’s more he’s +19 in those five games (for context, he is -125 for the season). It will be a process with him, but he’s showing improvement. Rough stretch for the Rockets this week with three on the road — Denver, Phoenix, Golden State — then coming home to a healthy Philadelphia 76ers team.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (5-18, LW 29). If you hear one name more than any other starting Dec. 15 (when most players signed this summer can be traded, unofficially the start of NBA trading season) it will be Bojan Bogdanovic. He is playing well, averaging 20.3 points a game and shooting 39.7% from 3. A lot of teams are going to be calling, the Pistons just extended him at a fair price, but the question is do they want to keep him to help speed the turnaround next season (with a healthy Cade Cunningham), or should they get younger players and continue the rebuild? One thing is for sure, they are not giving him away, it will take an impressive offer to land him.

 
Magic small icon 29. Magic 5-16, LW 27). Paolo Banchero is back on the court after missing seven games, and scored at least 18 points in each of those games, including 24 on 9-of-17 shooting against the Nets. Markelle Fultz is also close to a return, as is Cole Anthony, adding more ball handlers and shot creators to the mix for the Magic. When healthy, this is an entertaining team to watch, if not one winning many games because of their defense.

 
Spurs small icon 30. Spurs (6-15, LW 30). It’s challenging to find bright spots on a Spurs team that has lost eight in a row and 13-of-14, but the one worth talking about might be Devin Vassell. The third-year wing out of Florida State has made a leap this season, averaging 20.4 points, shooting 41.9% from 3, and being more efficient overall despite a massive jump in usage. He deserves consideration for the Most Valuable Player award, even if it’s going to be tough to win it on this team.

Report: James Harden, Khris Middleton nearing return to court

Indiana Pacers v Philadelphia 76ers
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Two of the East’s top teams are about to get key stars back.

Milwaukee has been without Khris Middleton all season as he recovers from off-season wrist surgery. Philadelphia has been without James Harden for a dozen games with a right foot tendon sprain. Both are nearing a return, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Milwaukee has a 14-5 record and sits as the two seed in the East, but they have done that on the back of the best defense in the league, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. The Bucks’ offense is 18th in the league overall and bottom 10 in half-court possessions, an area Middleton should help shore up.

Philadelphia has gone 8-4 in the dozen games Harden has missed so far and has the best defense in the NBA over that stretch. The question becomes can the 76ers continue to defend like that when Harden (and, eventually, Tyrese Maxey) returns? Players such as B-Ball Paul Reed, Shake Milton and Tobias Harris have stepped up in recent games, can they continue that with shifting roles?

While there are questions, the Bucks and 76ers are about to get better, which should worry the rest of the league.

Myles Turner says he’s staying focused, tuning out trade rumors

Minnesota Timberwolves v Indiana Pacers
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Myles Turner heard his name come up all summer in trade rumors, particularly to the Lakers in a massive Russell Westbrook swap. It never happened as the Lakers would not throw in two first-round picks to seal the deal. Since the season started, the trade rumors around Turner have not stopped, with the Clippers mentioned as having interest.

Turner is trying to ignore all of it.

That was especially difficult on a recent swing through Los Angeles, and Turner spoke to Law Murray from The Athletic about it.

“Nothing changes,” Turner told The Athletic.”Just go out there and focus on getting wins for this team. That’s just where my focus lies. You can’t pay attention to outside noise … doesn’t change anything, bro. All I can do is go out there and play my game.”

Every player says some version of that, but Turner has lived up to it. Able to play his natural spot at the five without Domantas Sabonis sharing the paint (Sabonis was sent to the Kings in a trade that brought back Tyrese Haliburton to Indiana), Turner is averaging a career-high 18 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, while shooting 39.7% from 3. Plus, Turner remains an elite rim-protector, averaging 2.6 blocks per game (second in the league).

Turner is playing the best basketball of his career, coincidentally as he heads into summer as a free agent.

Whatever team trades for him will have to pay him next summer impacts Turner’s trade market, as does the fact that the Pacers are a surprising 12-8 start — Indiana is reportedly not as eager to trade Turner. If a team wants to trade for him, they are going to have to overwhelm the Pacers.

Turner has hinted he likes the idea of a brighter spotlight than he has seen in recent years, but in the end money will talk. Turner has kept his head down and his play this season has earned him more of it.

Damian Lillard reportedly targeting Sunday for return from calf strain

Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers
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How much the Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard was on clear display Tuesday night in maybe their ugliest loss of the season. The Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, Anfernee Simons was on his way to putting up 37, and they were facing a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. Yet Portland came from ahead to lose. Their defense was bested by the unstoppable offensive weapon that is Nicholas Batum (32 points). Portland just let go of the rope in this one.

The Trail Blazers are now 1-4 with Lillard out with a strained calf (the second time this year). The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is targeting Sunday against the Pacers for a return, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

Haynes is well connected with the Lillard camp, this is a report that can be trusted.

Portland is trying to keep its head above water and is now 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week, with games at the Lakers and at the Jazz before Lillard’s targeted return.

Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and seven assists a game this season, showing the explosion we were used to seeing before he was slowed by an abdominal injury that required surgery.