Three questions the Minnesota Timberwolves must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
31-51, missed the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: A whole lot. Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, and Jamal Crawford are the notable additions from this summer. It was a disappointing end to Ricky Rubio‘s tenure with the franchise, but the swap for the No. 7 pick in the draft to the Bulls brought over one of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s favorite former players from Chicago. Add on Gibson, Teague, and a still-able-to-score Crawford and the Wolves roster looks markedly better than it has in years past.

THREE QUESTIONS THE TIMBERWOLVES MUST ANSWER:

1) What will the play look like between Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins? Wiggins played 93% of his minutes at SF in his first year under Thibodeau last season. Meanwhile, Butler played most of his minutes under Thibodeau as a shooting guard. That means the two will be on the floor together, and it will be interesting to see how they play off of each other. Wiggins clearly made a move to try to be a better 3-point shooter last season, and if that continues there could be a real benefit as Butler works as the second ball handler in the pick-and-roll.

That of course is the hope, but as we’ve seen in other circumstances — Al-Farouq Aminu in Portland — when the 3-point shooting of players strongly rises and then dips again they can become a liability. It’s easy to imagine Wiggins clogging the interior of the arc when Butler has the ball and vice versa, with some serious kinks to potentially work out.

2) What exactly are they going to do with Jamal Crawford? Thibodeau typically hasn’t had players like Crawford during his tenure as a head coach, save for perhaps Nate Robinson in 2012-13 with Chicago. Crawford has 17 years of experience in this league, and although he has slowed down a little bit, he is still an excellent ball handler and streaky scorer.

Crawford should fit that bench scorer role for Minny, and even if Thibodeau does play his starters a thousand minutes a game you can be sure that they will still need the veteran presence of Crawford. The year that Robinson played for Thibodeau he shot 40% from three-point range, and perhaps that could be the role that Crawford slots into here. If there is one offseason acquisition that doesn’t quite fit in for the Timberwolves, Crawford does seem to be it. He has a real potential to get lost in the mix. That, or it could go the other direction and they might need to rely on him as a ball handler off the bench more than they would like. I can see both happening.

3) Can they find a groove to keep their head above water in the playoff race in the Western Conference? Set aside the reigning NBA champions in the Golden State Warriors, the Western Conference is still an absolute meatgrinder. So many big name free agents either were traded to or signed with teams out West. Paul Millsap, Brook Lopez, Paul George, Chris Paul to the Rockets, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Thabo Sefolosha are all on the list outside of the guys already mentioned in Minnesota.

The NBA League Pass fan has high expectations of the Timberwolves for the upcoming season, especially after adding an MVP candidate like Butler. However, with so many new players in the Western Conference I think we will still have some of the same questions we have had in years prior about the Timberwolves. That is, what is their development path and how soon should we expect their dominance?

Building a super team doesn’t necessarily mean immediate contention — we know that by now. Yes, having players who have played under Thibodeau before might help this team get through some of their growing pains quicker as the year starts. But there also seems to be a huge potential for a slow start out of the Timberwolves and if that happens it could take some of the wind out of their sails as they try to make up for it going into the All-Star break.

Make no bones about it, Minnesota is likely a playoff team out West. That should feel like a win for Timberwolves fans — because it is. However, I think it’ll take some time for them to jell, and if that’s the case they might end up toward the bottom of the seeding with an uphill battle in April.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

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Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

PBT Podcast: Lakers, Clippers, and Nikola Jokic as Beethoven

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Anthony Davis has played at an MVP level for weeks now, outdueling even Giannis Antetokounmpo recently in a Lakers’ win. LeBron James is still a force at age 37, Russell Westbrook has accepted the role and has been a game-changer as a sixth man, and the Lakers’ role players are hitting their 3-pointers.

It’s been an impressive run, but can the Lakers keep it up and be a genuine threat in the West? Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and I discuss all that, plus whether the now-healthy Clippers can find a groove and become a threat.

In Corey’s Jukebox he dances a little salsa and explains how Nikola Jokic is like Beethoven. Then there is talk of the Kyle Kuzma trade rumors, and what exactly are the long-term plans in Washington.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above or 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.

WNBA star Brittney Griner freed in U.S.-Russia prisoner swap

Brittney Griner
EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic prisoner exchange, as the U.S. released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.

The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden but carried a heavy price.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.

The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.

Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout has been flown home Russian and U.S. officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.

Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.

“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”

Whelan’s brother David said in a statement he was “so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.

“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.

Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.

Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in U.S.-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.

In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the U.S. had offered Bout.

Such a public overture drew a chiding rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private, and carried the risk of weakening the U.S. government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to communicate to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.

Besides the efforts of U.S. officials, the release also followed months of back channel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy, Mickey Bergman.

Griner was arrested at the Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.

Before being sentenced on Aug. 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”

Her supporters had largely stayed quiet for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May once the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the U.S. in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope that additional such exchanges could be in the works.

Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The U.S. government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.

Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brought home Griner also included him.

Three things to know: Pelicans take over No.1 seed in West after Suns crushed by Celtics

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Chris Paul returns, Celtics don’t care and thrash Suns

There are no statement games in December, but if there were this is what they would look like.

This could have been billed as a potential Finals preview — the top team in the East, the Boston Celtics, against the West-leading Phoenix Suns, who were getting Chris Paul back (he showed his rust after being out 14 games, with as many turnovers as points, four). However, the reality is there is a gap right now — based on Wednesday night, a rather large gap — between the top of the East and West.

The Celtics got 25 points each from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, while the Boston defense held Phoenix to under a point per possession on offense on their way to a crushing 125-98 win. Boston led by 27 at the half and the final 24 minutes felt like garbage time.

“Feels like that game should count for two losses,” was how Devin Booker put it postgame (via Duane Rankin).

What it felt more like — especially paired with the Suns’ recent 130-111 loss to the Mavericks — is that Phoenix is the same team as a season ago: An outstanding regular season team with some deficiencies that get exposed in playoff-like (or actual playoff) games.

The loss dropped the Suns to the No.2 seed in the West for now — keep reading to check on the Pelicans — but whether it’s Phoenix or New Orleans or Memphis at the top of the conference right now, they are on a different tier than the teams at the top of the East. Boston and Milwaukee are just better.

The West’s preseason favorites — the Warriors and Clippers — both had ugly losses on Wednesday: The Warriors fell apart at the end against the Jazz (keep reading for more on that) and a Clippers team with their two stars fell to an Orlando team that had lost nine in a row. The Clippers and Warriors are keeping their heads above water and both are playing the long game, but we’re approaching a third of the way into the season neither has put it all together and looked like a threat for an extended period (injuries play into that in both cases).

Phoenix had looked like the best team in the West, and now we see the gap between them and Boston.

2) Pelicans take over top seed in West with win over Pistons

The New Orleans Pelicans are the new No.1 seed in the West.

While the Suns were getting their doors blown off by the Celtics, the Pelicans took care of a feisty Pistons team 104-98 behind 29 and 10 from Zion Williamson.

The Pelicans are legit: Sixth in the NBA in offense, third in defense (the real surprise and a sign of the work coach Willie Green is doing), and second overall in net rating behind only the Celtics. New Orleans has a balance of veterans and youth, athleticism and savvy. Having a locker room leader like CJ McCollum to get everyone pulling the rope in the same direction has been critical in the Big Easy.

The Pelicans are on a 54-win pace. If that seems high to you know Cleaning the Glass thinks that underestimates the Pelicans’ current performance and says they have played more like a 57-win team. The more conservative estimation of fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR model still has the Pels winning 50 games.

Part of that is there Pelicans also have done what great teams do: Keep winning despite its stars being out. McCollum, Herbert Jones and Brandon Ingram have recently missed time, but New Orleans has won five in a row and 10-of-12 despite the shifting lineups. They have depth, balance and an identity that carries them.

The next couple of weeks will be a real measuring stick for New Orleans: They host the Suns for two games, travel to Utah for two, then face the Suns again, followed by the Bucks. Six games against quality teams.

Expect plenty of New Orleans wins in this stretch. This team didn’t luck its way to the top of the standings, and while we can debate how far they might go in the postseason they have earned the right to be in the discussion of who could come out of the West.

3) Jazz score four points in final :07 seconds, beat Warriors

The Warriors were without Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, so they can shrug off this loss if they want, but when you’re up four with 13.3 seconds left — and Utah’s Jordan Clarkson had just been ejected on a soft Flagrant 2 — this is a game you should close out.

The Warriors didn’t. First, they let this happen.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker curled off a pick and drove to the basket and the Warriors wisely were going to let him have it, but as he drove Klay Thompson “fell asleep” (his words) on Malik Beasley, who was wide open at the arc. Alexander-Walker passed out of the easy two to Beasley, who drained the 3 and made it a one-point game, 123-122.

Still, the Warriors should have closed this out — they were ahead with 6.9 seconds remaining and the ball. Inbound the ball, hit your free throws, get out with the W. Instead, after a timeout, this happened.

Golden State inbounded the ball to the red-hot Jordan Poole — he finished the night with 36 points — but Alexander-Walker stripped him, the ball caromed to Beasley who raced up in transition and he found Simone Fontecchio for the game-winning dunk.

Steve Kerr was understandably frustrated after this one.

“We didn’t take care of the ball,” Kerr said, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “We turned it over, and they took the game and it’s a shame because our guys did a lot of great stuff.

“I thought, to that point, they really fought and earned the right to win the game and then we didn’t close it. And you got to close it. You got to be rock solid with the ball. You got to be smart defensively. And we were neither of those things the last 13 seconds.”

The Warriors are 13-13 and sit as the 10 seed in the West. It’s easy to say they have looked better of late and are playing the long-game coming off an NBA title — both of those things are true — but there are games like this that are a reminder this Warriors team is different and not quite as deep as the one from a season ago.