Cap-strapped Minnesota in tricky spot for summer improvement

Associated Press
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Timberwolves made major strides this season in ending their 13-year absence from the NBA playoffs after a franchise-altering trade for All-Star Jimmy Butler.

With cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in their early 20s and veterans Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague coming off productive debuts in Minnesota, there is a sturdy starting lineup in place around Butler to ideally take the Timberwolves deeper in the next postseason.

Advancement is easier stated than consummated.

The Wolves, even with coach Tom Thibodeau’s preference to give his first-teamers heavy minutes, need to add depth this summer with defense and 3-point shooting atop the skill-set wish list. There is no clear way to acquire more of it, though, after making the logical first moves by drafting versatile wing players Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop last week .

Wiggins will begin playing on his maximum contract in 2018-19, with a $25 million-plus salary that will account for more than 20 percent of the team’s cap and push the Timberwolves close to the luxury tax threshold. That means they won’t be spending aggressively in free agency, with the negotiation period set to start on Sunday. They’ll have to find some candidates on the market willing to sign for less, perhaps for the veteran minimum, to fill out the bench.

“With some players they may not have the deal that they initially wanted,” Thibodeau said, “but this may be the best opportunity in terms of the playing and the winning and then that sets it up for the following year.”

With Towns and Butler beginning the final year of their deals, salary cap management is going to be a challenge, too. Butler has to be convinced, too, that the cast in place will be strong enough for him to chase a championship with in the rugged Western Conference. Thibodeau said he’s comfortable if Butler plays the upcoming season without an extension in place, as several of the league’s stars did in 2017-18.

“Every day we work at it. We know how important he is, and we feel he’s one of the best players in the league,” Thibodeau said. “I know he loves living here. The winning is important to him, I know.”

Thibodeau said the Wolves have options for extending Butler, staying under the tax level and continuing to enhance the roster, but he predictably declined to be specific. So what about another headliner deal, using Wiggins to clear cap space and bring back some valuable players in return?

“Good players, they’re always going to be talked about as a possibility, but when you look at who Andrew is and what he’s accomplished at a very young age, we think he’s critical,” Thibodeau said. “So we’ll always talk to people, but we like Andrew a lot here.”

Nemanja Bjelica (restricted), Jamal Crawford (unrestricted) and Derrick Rose (unrestricted) are set to become free agents, leaving only Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones as reserves who regularly played last season and are assured of returning unless they’re traded. Given his history with Butler and Thibodeau, Rose could be one of those veterans the Wolves would court with a team-friendly contract.

Even if there’s more money to be made elsewhere, Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden spoke confidently this week of what they’re selling: a vibrant city, a winning track and popular teammates.

“We feel we’re in good position there,” Thibodeau said, “and we’ll have some good opportunities.”

Watch Bam Adebayo score 38, lift Heat to win over Wizards

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MIAMI (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored a season-high 38 points and the Miami Heat beat the Washington Wizards 110-107 Friday night.

Caleb Martin added 20 points and Kyle Lowry finished with 13 points while Tyler Herro had 11 points and 10 assists for the Heat, who won their second straight at home against Washington after their 113-105 victory Wednesday.

Adebayo’s two free throws with 1:37 remaining put Miami ahead 105-104 lead then extended the advantage on a short jumper with 38 seconds left.

“It was one of those things where my teammates gave me the ball and I was taking advantage of the mismatch,” Adebayo said. “They were shots (Washington) let me have.”

Adebayo has scored in double digits in all 18 of his appearances this season. He’s had double-doubles in half of those games; Miami is 6-3 in those contests.

“He had a lot on his shoulders, really the last several games with a lot of different lineups and everything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You need that stability from your leaders. I think at some point we’ll print up these shirts, `Mr. Reliable,’ and I’ll wear them, probably.”

Lowry also had eight assists, seven rebounds and a four-point play with 3:15 left for a 103-102 lead – the 11th of what would be 13 lead changes on the night.

And it was another close game for the Heat, who are already 4-3 in games decided by three points or less this season.

“That’s what’s happened really for, it seems like several weeks,” Spoelstra said. “It just feels like every single one of these games is going down to the last possession.”

The Wizards cut the deficit on Bradley Beal‘s dunk before Martin made two free throws with 12.5 seconds for the final margin, then hounded Beal defensively on the game’s last possession and forced the Wizards’ All-Star into a miss to end the contest.

“I take pride in trying to make stops,” Martin said. “Those are the types of situations you dream about, game on the line against a guy like Bradley Beal with the ball late shot clock. I just tried to make it as tough as possible.”

Beal and Kyle Kuzma finished with 28 points Kristaps Porzingis added 18 points for the Wizards.

“We did enough throughout the course of the game to put us in position to win,” said Beal, who returned from a one-game absence because of a quadriceps contusion. “We had several leads and ended up giving up those leads late. It was a matter of us getting stops at the defensive ends.”

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler (right knee soreness) missed his fifth straight game because of right knee soreness while shooters Max Strus (right shoulder impingement) and Duncan Robinson (left ankle sprain) also sat out.

The Heat rallied from a 12-point deficit late in the first quarter and cut it to 59-56 at halftime.

“Obviously, we had shots late that were makeable to keep them at bay,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said.

Another Hornets injury: Hayward out indefinitely with fractured shoulder

Philadelphia 76ers v Charlotte Hornets
Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images
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The basketball gods have not been kind to the Hornets this season. LaMelo Ball missed the start of the season with a sprained ankle, got back and played just three games before re-injuring it by stepping on a fan’s foot while chasing a loose ball out of bounds. Miles Bridges will not be with the team. Cody Martin had his knee scoped and is out, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out with a sprained ankle — and that’s just the guys out right now.

Now add Gordon Hayward to the list. He is out indefinitely with a fractured shoulder. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

Hayward has a long history of injuries and has battled shoulder issues all season. There had been hope in Charlotte that he could stay healthy long enough to contribute to some wins and build up some potential trade interest (his name came up in Russell Westbrook scenarios, for example). In the 11 games he played, he averaged 16.3 points and shot 38.1% from 3. Of course, a trade was always a longshot because Hayward is owed a fully guaranteed $31.5 million next season, no team was taking that on without sweeteners.

With him injured, a trade is out of the question (other than part of a salary dump).

Kevin Durant says ‘it’s cool to see’ LeBron break all-time scoring record

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LeBron James remains on target to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record, although with the games he has missed this season the target date now looks more like late February/early March.

Kevin Durant is excited to see it, as he told Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“To be the No. 1 in anything, there’s 8 billion people in the world, we just figured that out last week, so to be the No. 1 of all time at scoring the basketball, I’m sure it’s going to be a range of emotions for him,” Durant said at Friday’s shootaround, in advance of a game against the Indiana Pacers. “But to be in an era where we see this live is pretty cool as well. You probably can’t even describe the emotions and feelings him and his family and his friends are going to go through, but it’s cool to see it up close.”

Durant is currently 18th on that all-time scoring list (having just moved past Kevin Garnett), which is impressive in its own right even if he is not going to catch LeBron. LeBron’s feat has taken all of his 20 NBA seasons, and that is what impressed the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich.

“LeBron is taking care of himself so well that he’s been able to play a bundle of games for a lot of years. And that’s what he takes,” Popovich said before his Spurs took on the Lakers. “But he gets credit for taking care of himself and being able to be out there. The way a lot of players don’t even come close to. His commitment to the game and to what he has to do, has allowed him to be in this position.”

LeBron’s quest continues to generate a lot of buzz around the league. He just hopes it’s not the lone bright highlight out of this Lakers’ season, but his team has a lot of work to climb up to the postseason out of a 5-11 start.

 

Leonard, George both out for Clippers Friday, Jokic probable for Nuggets

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When Kawhi Leonard returned and was put in the starting lineup, the Clippers said it was time to buckle down and truly start their season.

Instead, how about another round of injuries?

Paul Goerge is missing his third consecutive game with a hamstring tendon strain, while Leonard has a sprained right ankle and this is his second game out.

Adding to the troubling news for the Clippers in this game, Nikola Jokic is probable.

The Clippers won the first three games Leonard was back, and they have a ridiculous +31.7 net rating in the limited minutes that George and Leonard are on the court together. But the question heading into the season — even among those backing the Clippers to come out of the West (*raises hand*) — was whether would they stay healthy enough to live up to that potential? So far, the signs are not promising.

Yet, the Clippers are 11-8 despite the injuries and just a game back of the top-seeded Suns in a West where no team has run away with it. They are not out of it, but they must find a way to get their stars on the court together for an extended period.