51 Q: Will Tom Thibodeau fast-track the Timberwolves’ ascension?

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The Minnesota Timberwolves won just 29 games last season, but few teams have more crowded bandwagons right now, or brighter futures. In many ways, their position isn’t too dissimilar to the Oklahoma City Thunder circa 2009 — still a lottery team, but the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was obvious. The Wolves have a similarly promising young core with the last two Rookie of the Year winners, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the latter of whom has all the makings of a once-in-a-generation, MVP-caliber big man and an unbelievable amount of poise and polish for his age.

Young teams take time to come together, but the Timberwolves set themselves up to make a leap with their biggest offseason move, parting ways with interim head coach Sam Mitchell (who filled in admirably following the passing of Flip Saunders before last season) and hiring Tom Thibodeau. Because of this alone, the Timberwolves will win more games than they did last year. That’s what Thibodeau does — he wins games, no matter what his roster looks like. He does this by treating every game like it’s Game 7 of the Finals, and unlike the injury-riddled Bulls teams he got to overachieve, this Wolves group is young, healthy and unproven.

But even though any group with Wiggins, Towns and Thibodeau projects long-term to be in the title race, it would be unfair and unreasonable to expect contention overnight. Even Thibodeau, who expects the absolute most out of any group he coaches, is fully aware of that. Here’s what he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in July:

“We like our young core a lot,” Thibodeau said, “and I would say this: We’re also not fooling ourselves. We know we’re in a very competitive conference. We won 29 games last year.”

Short of the kind of offseason haul of superstars that transforms a roster (think the Celtics getting Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, or the Cavaliers getting LeBron James and Kevin Love in 2014), going from a bottom-tier lottery team to a contender overnight just doesn’t happen. A more realistic expectation of a best-case scenario for the Timberwolves under the first year of Thibodeau would be the 2009-10 Thunder. After winning just 23 games in 2009, Oklahoma City went 50-32 in 2009-10, grabbed the eighth seed in the Western Conference and lost to the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. A playoff berth and a competitive first-round loss to the Warriors or Spurs is only incremental progress, but considering what the starting point is, and the fact that the Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, a similar season would be a resounding success for the first year under Thibodeau.

The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is going to be an uphill battle for the Wolves to break into. Beyond the top tier (Golden State, San Antonio and the Clippers), it seems to be a safe bet that the Jazz, Blazers, Thunder and Grizzlies will be in the playoffs. The Timberwolves will be one of the teams fighting for the final spot, but they’ll have stiff competition with the Rockets, Pelicans and Mavericks in the hunt. It’s not hard to picture the Wolves edging those teams out, but it’s far from a sure thing.

Long-term, it’s hard to think of a team with a higher ceiling than this Timberwolves group. In the here and now, though, it’s best to keep expectations in check.

Karl-Anthony Towns just cleared to walk Saturday following non-COVID illness

Karl-Anthony Towns Offseaon Workout
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images
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Karl-Anthony Towns has not been in camp with the Timberwolves, sidelined by a non-COVID illness. Beyond that there were not a lot of details, other than his girlfriend Jordyn Woods saying on social media that she had taken him to the hospital.

Towns spoke to the media for the first time this season on Monday and said he was just cleared to walk again on Saturday, but did not get into detail about what he is dealing with.

First, it is Towns’ right if and when to disclose what he went through. This is not an on-court injury leading to a loss of playing time.

Towns has been sidelined before by injury, previously it was COVID. After losing his mother and other family members to the disease, he also had a long battle with it. Fortunately, this is not that virus, but whatever it was it sidelined him for a couple of weeks.

That missed training camp is a setback as the Timberwolves try to get used to a two-big lineup with KAT and Rudy Gobert, plus some other new faces. Still, Towns and Minnesota should be good to go by the start of the season, a team thinking playoffs and much more after spending big this offseason.

Lakers reportedly ‘seriously considered’ Westbrook trade for Hield, Turner

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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That was Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on media day talking about the possibility of the Lakers trading the only two first-round picks they control this decade — 2027 and 2029 — to upgrade this roster around LeBron. Pelinka was clear the Lakers were committed to building a winner around LeBron, “We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract… He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”

But should that include a Russell Westbrook trade to Indiana for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner? Shams Charania of The Athletic updated and added to the extensive previous reporting on this trade, saying the Lakers kept the door open right up to the start of training camp but didn’t pull the trigger.

Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, owner Jeanie Buss and senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis seriously considered sending Westbrook and unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to the Pacers for center Myles Turner and guard Buddy Hield, sources said. They held a series of meetings in the days leading up to camp to analyze the possible Pacers deal from every angle, with the views of Ham and Lakers executives Joey and Jesse Buss also being strongly considered in the process. The organization even delayed the midweek news conference for Pelinka and Ham as the debate continued…

If they were going to gamble on a make-or-break move of this magnitude, the thinking went, then everyone had to have confidence in the same vision. But when that wasn’t the case, sources say, the choice was made by Pelinka to remain patient and see, yet again, if Westbrook might find a way to make this imperfect fit with the Lakers work.

Hield and Turner would absolutely improve the Lakers. Turner can play the five, is an elite shot blocker who could provide a strong defensive back line next to Anthony Davis, and is a respectable 3-point shooter who can space the floor. He’s a natural fit. Hield brings shooting that the Lakers have coveted for years and need more of now.

That trade would have moved the Lakers up the ladder to a solid playoff team in the West. Would that trade make the Lakers contenders? Probably not. It still would have come back to the bubble version of Davis and LeBron being ready for the final 16-game sprint to have a puncher’s chance (that may be the case regardless of other moves). Also, it would have messed with future free agency plans in Los Angeles — the Lakers can have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase Kyrie Irving (although Shams reports that’s not in their plans) or other name players, Hield is owed $19.3 million next season and Turner will be a free agent the Lakers would need to re-sign. This deal would end the dream of a free agent taking a little less than the max to come to the Lakers (a dream not likely to come to reality anyway).

As Pelinka said, the Lakers have one shot with trading their two picks to upgrade the roster — they have to hit a home run, this can’t be a solid single. The Lakers were not convinced Hield and Turner could be that home run tandem.

So Los Angeles will go into the season with a starting five of Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, LeBron, Davis, and Damian Jones, with a bench of Patrick Beverley, Thomas Bryant, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder. The Lakers will see if it fits, how far it looks like this group can take them under new coach Darvin Ham, and watch the market to see what other stars could become available.

The Lakers aren’t done dealing, but it looks like a deal with Indiana is now in the rearview mirror.

PBT Podcast: Philadelphia 76ers 2022-23 season preview

2022-23 Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Philadelphia 76ers are title contenders — if James Harden and Joel Embiid can play up to their potential on the biggest of NBA stages. That hasn’t always happened before, particularly with Harden.

Those two are now set up well. Philadelphia learned its lessons from the playoff loss to Miami last season. GM Daryl Morey rounded out the roster with more toughness and two-way players in the form of P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and DeAnthony Melton. Add in the development of Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle and you have a deep roster of quality players — down to BBall Paul.

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia joins me to discuss if Doc Rivers is ready to take this team to the next level, and if all the additions can come together when it matters. Can Harden shake his history of playoff reputation and lead a team to the Finals?

You can always listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

When will LeBron James break Kareem’s all-time scoring record?

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LeBron James is trying not to think about it too much.

“The only time I’ve kind of like thought about it is when someone, you know, been posting on social and it went through my scroll, through my feed, and I’ve seen it,” LeBron said at Lakers’ media day. “And every single time I’m kind of in awe of it, like, wow.”

The wow is breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record.

It was a record thought almost untouchable at 38,387 points, but now LeBron sits just 1,326 points shy of breaking it — health willing, he should pass Kareem this season.

When? Well, that takes a little math and speculation.

LeBron scored 30.3 points a game last season, but the two seasons prior to that it was closer to 25 points a game. If we split the difference and land at 27.5 points per game, it would take 48-49 games. We have to assume that 37-year-old LeBron (turning 38 just before the New Year) will sit out at least a couple of those first games, pushing this back a few games.

Considering LeBron could slide back in scoring to close to 25 a game again, the smart bet is he breaks Kareem’s record in late January or early February. The Lakers have a five-game East Coast road trip that includes Boston and New York starting Jan. 28 and running through Feb. 4, and that’s about the window.

“To sit here and to know that I’m on the verge of breaking probably the most sought-after record in the NBA, something that people say will probably never be done, I think it’s just super like humbling, for myself,” LeBron said. “I think it’s super cool.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well. I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Having been in the spotlight for as long as LeBron has — remember he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler — he can be very practiced, very polished with the media. His brand is smooth, as are his dealings with the press in general.

However, when talking about passing Abdul-Jabbar, it felt like LeBron’s guard was down. He was raw, more reflective and genuinely moved.

“You guys always see me use my hashtag #thekidfromakron and that those are the moments where I really think about that kid from Akron. Walking those streets and, you know, playing basketball when I had actually had a basketball and the hoop, or actually just walking around and air dribbling and shooting into it and invisible hoop you know, and counting 5…4…3…2…1 and, you know, making game-winning shots.

“I’m not going to put too much pressure on it throughout the season. But I think it’s a pretty historical moment when it gets here and you know, as long as my family and friends are all there that’s that’s the most important for me.”

LeBron’s family will undoubtedly be there, and the whole world will be watching. Longevity and LeBron’s ability to be great into age 38 (and beyond) is part of his GOAT argument — and there is no better cornerstone of that argument than being the game’s all-time leading scorer.