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Tom Thibodeau still hasn’t fixed Timberwolves defense

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DETROIT – Taj Gibson is experiencing déjà vu – to a point.

Gibson played for the Bulls in 2010 when they hired Tom Thibodeau, who exhaustively drilled his trademark defense with his players. Now with the Timberwolves – who hired Thibodeau as president/coach last year – Gibson said Thibodeau is scheming and teaching his defense similarly.

But the results have been radically different.

Chicago ranked No. 1 in points allowed per possession Thibodeau’s first season then second, sixth and second before slipping to a still-above-average 11th his final year. Minnesota ranked 27th last season and is not only dead last this season, but is allowing the most points per possession of all time by a wide margin.

“The only thing about Chicago, we just did what he told us to do – every game,” said Gibson, whom the Timberwolves signed last summer to provide defense and toughness. “If he said A to Z, we did A to Z every single game. And in practice, we did A to Z.

“That’s the only thing we’re trying to work out here now, have us work on things from A to Z. And sometimes you don’t want to do it, but you’re going to have to do it if you want to be successful in this league.”

Gibson didn’t pinpoint why the Timberwolves didn’t follow Thibodeau’s game plans as well as the Bulls did. Minnesota’s roster is less experienced and maybe lacking the defensive capabilities of Chicago’s. Joakim Noah won Defensive Player of the Year and Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler also made All-Defensive teams for Thibodeau’s Bulls. Gibson and Omer Asik were no slouches on that end, either. The only Timberwolves with notable defensive accomplishments are… Butler and Gibson.

And Thibodeau.

Thibodeau was expected to immediately overhaul the Timberwolves – install an impenetrable defense and lift them into playoff contention. He was an overnight success in Chicago, winning Coach of the Year and guiding the Bulls to 62 wins and the conference finals his fist season. Why couldn’t he duplicate that speedy ascension in Minnesota?

His first year there was bumpy, to say the least. The Timberwolves went 31-51 and finished 27th in points allowed per possession.

The common reaction: Pundits, in hindsight, probably overrated Thibodeau’s ability to instantly transform a moribund franchise. The failure to meet expectations was seen as a failure of those setting the expectations, not Thibodeau. Give him another year, and everything would turn out alright – especially once he acquired Butler.

Yet… everything is not alright. Not even close.

Minnesota (2-3) is allowing 114.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. No other team is close:

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Five games are a small sample, but it’s not as if the Timberwolves have faced a murders’ row of offenses. They’ve played the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs, Jazz, still-figuring-it-out Thunder, Pacers and Pacers.

“We’ve got to be better,” Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “It’s only five games in. We have a lot more time. But we don’t have that much time. It’s too damn much. We’ve got to be better.”

The Timberwolves were missing Butler (illness) for their worst two defensive performances of the season, Indiana and Detroit. When he returns, that will patch some problems. Not only is he the Timberwolves’ best defender, the strong wing unlocks small-ball lineups that allow Minnesota to handle more matchups.

At power forward, the 32-year-old Gibson sometimes looks too slow to handle smaller stretch fours. Butler was a masterful addition, but with a two-year, $28 million contract, Gibson is an expensive band-aid. Despite Gibson’s deficiencies, Thibodeau wanted the big’s reliability.

The real problem: Thibodeau can’t find that elsewhere – especially his franchise cornerstone younger players, Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Towns is a mobile 7-footer with ideal physical tools and improving defensive effort. Yet, his awareness lags far behind, as this play clipped by Dane Moore of Zone Coverage illustrates:

Like Towns, Wiggins, entered the NBA with high defensive expectations. Rangy and quick, Wiggins looked like he could hawk opposing wings. Instead, he has turned into a score-first player with limited complementary skills. He’s not nearly aggressive enough defensively even to tell whether he gets it.

The Timberwolves are lucky they fleeced the Bulls for Butler, because he covers what would have been major growing pains around Towns and Wiggins (and Zach LaVine, another minus defender). Minnesota has allowed an astounding 134.0 points per 100 possessions when Towns and Wiggins share the court without Butler.

“You need everyone committed to playing defense,” Thibodeau said. “It can’t be left upon one or two guys.

“If one guy is resting or taking it easy, it’s going to make the whole group look bad. I think that we still have to have an understanding of how hard we have to play and how hard we have to close out and challenge shots and get in the fight to rebound and things like that.”

Minnesota has been torched in transition, not getting back quickly enough and losing track of opposing players. The Timberwolves surrender steals only slightly more than average. Sometimes, they crash the offensive glass too hard, but they’re only middling at actually securing offensive rebounds. So, there’s no good excuse for getting beat down court as often as they are.

It hasn’t been much better in the halfcourt, where they’re slow to close out and plagued by miscommunication and poor angles against screens and handoffs.

“We’re better, but making mistakes that we made last year,” Towns said. “So, we’ve got to fix it.”

Russell Westbrook trade to Houston official, Thunder praise him on way out door

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Whatever their long-term intentions, after Paul George was traded the Oklahoma City Thunder changed focus. General Manager Sam Presti sat down with Russell Westbrook and his agent, talked about the future, what the former MVP wanted, then worked on trading him where he wanted to go.

That was Houston.

The Westbrook to the Rockets trade for Chris Paul — with Oklahoma City picking up two first-round picks and two pick swaps — is now official.

In announcing the trade, the Thunder praised the greatest player in their franchise history on his way out the door.

“Russell Westbrook is the most important player in the brief history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has left an indelible mark on this team, city and state,” Presti said in a statement. “None of us could have anticipated the player he has become, and we are all deeply proud of what he has contributed to the success of the franchise and to our community. Russell and his wife Nina, their three children, his brother and his parents will always remain part of the Thunder family. We wish them nothing but happiness and success in the future.”

“I have a great deal of respect for Russell and there is no way to adequately describe our appreciation for what he has meant to Oklahomans,” said Thunder Chairman Clayton I. Bennett. “His legacy here is immense, and he will be honored by the team for all he has done. We wish he and Nina and their family all the best. While this era of Thunder basketball now comes to an end, I’m confident our talented team of people will once again position the Thunder for success in the future.”

While Presti and the OKC front office are still working on a CP3 trade, they are entering a rebuilding phase.

The Rockets are banking on Westbrook and James Harden being able to work out any fit issues — and finding a way to defend with both of them on the court — to keep them as title contenders.

Anthony Davis dances around question about re-signing with Lakers

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After the drama around his push to get to Los Angeles, league executives and other sources around the NBA expect Anthony Davis to re-sign with the Lakers on a max contract next summer.

However, Davis has paired up with LeBron James, and rule one of the LeBron contract playbook (and agent Rich Paul’s, too) is to keep the pressure on a franchise. Make the team improve and keep itself in title contention.

So it’s not a surprise that when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Davis about re-signing with the Lakers, he didn’t answer the question directly.

Nichols: You’re only signed through this season. Do you think you will be a pillar of the Lakers for years and years to come?

Davis: Honestly, Rachel, I’m just focused on this season. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have one year here, so I’m going make the best of this year. And when that time comes around in the summer or, you know, whenever the season’s over — hopefully, around, you know, mid-June, after we just had a parade, and I need a couple days to think — then we can talk about that. But until then, I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team win this year.”

That a well-handled scripted answer hitting all the talking points.

After the NBA summer we have just gone through (and continue to see with Chris Paul), nobody sane will say Davis would never leave the Lakers after one season. Cut to Kevin Garnett screaming “Anything Is Possible.”

However, he came to the Lakers to win rings (now and in the future), to take over as the face of the franchise when LeBron steps away in a few years, to get the kind of recognition and endorsements he felt were not coming his way in New Orleans, and ultimately to have his jersey up in the rafters with Wilt and Kareem and Shaq. That’s the plan. Which means AD will re-sign with the Lakers next summer.

He’s just not going to say that right now.

Kendrick Perkins: ‘Pelicans better lock Zion in the House’ because of great New Orleans food

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Zion Williamson‘s weight became a discussion point during Summer League.

The general consensus going into the draft was that Williamson would ultimately want to play a little lighter in the NBA than he did in college (but without losing his strength). Since then Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski came out and said the No. 1 pick was not in Summer League shape and should not have played. Some broadcast analysts said he looked heavy. In the hallways and behind-the-basket defacto meeting space of Summer League there was a lot of talk among league watchers about the Pelicans needing to get Zion with their trainers and dietitians to prepare him for the 82 game grind.

Kendrick Perkins warns that’s not going to be all that easy in the Big Easy.

As a wannabe foodie, let me just say that Perkins is spot on about the food in New Orleans. It may be my favorite food city in America, it is home to the ultimate comfort foods, and the portions are not small. From muffulettas to gumbo to po’ boys to fried every-kind-of-protein-you-can-name, New Orleans cuisine is both undeniably delicious and not the foundation of a healthy diet.

It’s going to take some discipline from Williamson, who also can afford his own chef now to keep the meals at home healthy and tasty. Then gumbo can be a splurge-day treat.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: ‘If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work’

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James Harden and Chris Paul worked reasonably well together on the court, but they played through a lot of tension.

Now, the Rockets are going to a new star backcourt that invites even more questions.

How will Harden and Russell Westbrook fit?

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni on The Woj Pod:

If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work.

To be able to win a title now, you have to get superstars together – and whether it’s two or three or how many else you can get. And then it becomes a chemistry. Because everybody’s ball-dominant. When you’re a superstar, you’ve been the main guy for sure. Now, you’ve got to make it work. And sometimes personalities, it doesn’t work. Sometimes, it works for a while. Sometimes, it’s hard to manage, sometimes. Again, if they’re not on the same page totally 100 percent, I think the organization has to look and see what’s best for the organization.

D’Antoni was asked about Harden and Westbrook. (Best I can tell, D’Antoni never named Westbrook on the podcast, which should allow the coach to avoid a fine.) But D’Antoni could have easily been describing Harden and Paul.

It seems Harden and Paul no longer wanted to make it work. Those two played better together than most people realized. The Rockets were one of the NBA’s best teams each of the last two years, and they had an elite offense. But Harden and Paul clearly grated each other.

Now, Harden and Westbrook will get a fresh start together. They sound eager to re-join forces after beginning their careers together with the Thunder.

D’Antoni is correct: Harden’s and Westbrook’s desire to make this work will go a long way.

But Harden and Paul were once enthusiastic about pairing, and that went south. An initial commitment to teaming up is important. It can also wane quickly.

It also can’t overcome every fit issue. Sometimes, stars just don’t match, no matter their intentions.

D’Antoni is also right about super teams generally require ball-dominant stars to sacrifice for the greater good. There are always diminishing returns on grouping stars.

But other situations have included stars with more complementary skills. So much of what Harden and Westbrook provide involves having the ball in their hands. The diminishment of returns will likely be greater in Houston.

Harden’s and Westbrook’s talent give the Rockets a huge leg up. Those two wanting to play together will push each to do his best to make it work.

It’s still far more complicated than that.