Minnesota has Karl-Anthony Towns locked up. Can it finally build a team around him?

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

If there was one truism of the modern NBA drilled home in 2019 it was this:

If your team has a superstar player, the clock is always ticking.

Minnesota has its superstar, Karl-Anthony Towns. Already one of the game’s top centers at age 23, he averaged 22.4 points a night on 51.8 percent shooting last season, hit 40 percent from three (taking 4.6 shots a night), plus pulled down 12.4 rebounds a contest. He’s an All-Star and All-NBA level center who has another gear or two he can reach, and when he does good luck slowing him down.

Minnesota has Towns locked up — his five-year, $190 million max contract extension kicks in this season. Towns says he’s happy in Minnesota and plans to stick around, and he has a strong relationship with coach Ryan Saunders. This is not a disgruntled superstar trying to push his way out the door.

But the clock is always ticking.

Minnesota won 36 games last season — despite the fact Jimmy Butler torpedoed the team and Tom Thibodeau’s job during trading camp — and is projected to be in that same ballpark this season (the Westgate line in Las Vegas is under/over 35.5 wins).

If Minnesota beats the Vegas projection — and on the high end flirts with a playoff spot in the deep and brutal West — it will be because Towns took steps forward. Again. Saunders plans to get Towns more touches by using him in more of a Nikola Jokic role as an offensive facilitator at the elbow, something Towns has craved. Minnesota had an 112.2 offensive rating when Towns was on the court last season (that would have been sixth in the league) and that number could go up. If Towns also becomes more of a consistent force on the defensive end — he has done it for stretches but not night in and night out — that’s another way Minnesota improves. Robert Covington in Towns’ ear every night helps on that front.

However, Minnesota’s improvement would not come from the roster around Towns — and that’s what keeps the clock ticking. Minnesota has yet to put a strong roster where the pieces fit well together around its young star.

New head of basketball operations Gersson Rosas knows it, and knows he has a couple of years to build something around Towns that keeps his superstar happy. To his credit, Rosas tried this summer and was in the running to land D’Angelo Russell (a good friend of Towns) before the Warriors swooped in. Minnesota needs more of that kind of aggressive thinking.

Rosas needs to figure out who will be the No. 2 star next to Towns? Thibodeau thought it would be Butler, but that blew up spectacularly. Right now there is no answer.

Right now, this is a roster that needs work. A lot of work.

Robert Covington is Minnesota’s second-best player heading into the season — a guy who shot 37.8 percent from three last season and, if healthy, could get into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation — and he’s locked up for two more seasons after this one. Covington brings much-needed shooting and a defensive mindset. But he’s not a No. 2 option on an elite team, he’s just the best Minnesota has.

After that… things get a little slim.

Andrew Wiggins is being paid to be that No. 2 guy but instead is the anchor weighing down rebuilding this roster. He has four years left on a max contract and while he puts up empty calorie points (18.1 per game last season) his shooting percentage drops every season (here are his percentages the past four years: 45.9, 45.2, 43.8, 41.2). His lack of efficiency, the fact he doesn’t really get rebounds or assists, his casualness towards defense, it all just drags the team down. The Timberwolves would love to trade Wiggins — expect to hear rumors about it — but the four-years, $122.3 million he is still owed makes him one of the hardest players to trade in the league (maybe only John Wall would be harder to move at this point). Minnesota likely has to throw in a sweetener, but Wiggins gets easier to trade next summer and beyond as the years left decrease.

Josh Okogie enters his second season with a lot of promise but what exactly is his ceiling? The Timberwolves drafted Jarrett Culver at No. 6 and are betting he can be part of the future in Minnesota. Both youngsters have potential, but a lot to prove still.

Jeff Teague is a solid point guard but is in the last year of his contract and is not the future at that spot. Gorgui Dieng is a good enough backup big but will make $33.5 million over the next two seasons in that role. They got Jordan Bell on a steal of a deal to soak up some frontcourt minutes off the bench and bring energy. Jake Layman is a nice pickup as a rotation guy. Shabazz Napier is a fine backup point guard.

Is that a playoff roster? Probably not this season, not in this tsunami of a Western Conference. Even with Towns taking a step forward.

Which is why the clock is ticking.

It’s still in the distance, there’s time to build a quality playoff roster around Towns, but Rosas hears it. He knows if things don’t change in the next couple of years it’s only going to get louder and louder.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
63

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,325

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors
Feb. 13 at Trail Blazers

When is LeBron projected to break the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 9 at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, although a hot game on Feb. 7 against the Thunder could make that game a possibility.

How long has Kareem held the scoring record?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the all-time scoring record — to far less fanfare than is happening with LeBron — on April 5, 1984, when he scored his 31,420th point, breaking the record which had been held by Wilt Chamberlain. This was the height of the Showtime Lakers era and the team made the Finals that season but lost in seven games to Larry Bird and the Celtics. The Lakers would win the NBA title three of the next four years and Kareem would keep adding to that point total and his legacy until he retired after the 1989 season.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron scored 26 points and added seven rebounds and seven assists on Thursday night. He also gave the Lakers their first lead of the game on a 3-pointer with 2:35 left, and the Lakers held on to beat the Pacers 112-111. LeBron shot 11-of-19 from the floor and 2-of-5 from 3 for the game.

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”

Watch altercation that leads to Donovan Mitchell, Dillon Brooks ejections

Memphis Grizzlies v Cleveland Cavaliers
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
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Donovan Mitchell was already having a rough night — six points on 2-of-11 shooting — but at the end of the third quarter it got worse.

With a little less than six minutes left in the third quarter, the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks drove the lane and went right into the body of Michell, knocking him back. Brooks went up to shoot, but the Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley slid in for the block and knocked Brooks to the ground. The ball bounced to Mitchell, who started to go the other way when Brooks swung his arm and — it looked like intentionally — hit Mitchel in the, um, family jewels. Mitchell fell to the ground, threw the ball at Brooks, and then the two had to be separated.

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

While Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff complained that what Mitchell did was a justified reaction — and it was the reaction most of us would have had — throwing the ball at another player then trying to go at him is an ejection every time. After the game, Mitchell said he would appeal the flagrant and any fine, saying he should be able to defend himself.

Both Mitchell and Brooks can expect to hand over some of their next paychecks to the league.

The incident initially sparked a little run from Ja Morant, but then the Cavaliers picked up their offense and Cleveland pulled away for a 128-113 win behind 32 from Darius Garland.

 

Embiid, Morant, Lillard headline list of All-Star Game reserves

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers
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Joel Embiid was a lock. Few others were.

The fans made their voice heard and selected the five All-Star game starters from each conference. Embiid was the odd man out in the East frontcourt (there was going to be a snub no matter who was left off), and we can debate if Zion Williamson has played enough games to deserve being named a starter, but there were no egregious choices.

The brutal selections are always the last couple of reserves — there are more deserving players than spots — and that choice falls to the league’s coaches, who vote to pick the seven bench players from each conference (three frontcourt players, two guards, and two wildcards).

Here are the 2023 All-Star Game reserves.

WEST

Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento Kings)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
Lauri Markkanen (Utah Jazz)
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies)

West Biggest Snubs: Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox, Anthony Edwards

EAST

Joel Embiid (Philadephia 76ers)
DeMar DeRozan (Chicago Bulls)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Jrue Holiday (Milwaukee Bucks)
Julius Randle (New York Knicks)
Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana Pacers)

East Biggest Snubs: Trae Young, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Jalen Brunson

Here are some thoughts and notes on the selections:

• This is the first All-Star game for Gilgeous-Alexander, Jackson and Haliburton — and they all deserved it.

• For my money, the biggest snub is Pascal Siakam of the Raptors. While the team has disappointed, Siakam has played not just at an All-Star level but at an All-NBA level averaging 24.9 points, 8 rebounds and 6.2 assists a game, plus solid defense. He is a top 15 player in the league, let alone top 24.

• Davis and Booker not making the roster must be solely a matter of games missed for the coaches, because both are deserving.

• Jaren Jackson Jr. making it may be the biggest surprise — he’s an elite defender and solid offensive player, but he also missed the first 14 games of the season and defense-first players have a hard time getting the nod for a fan exhibition. The coaches voting in Adebayo from the Heat over Butler was thinking along the same lines, the coaches appreciate the defense and well-rounded game of the Miami big man.

• The coaches put one Heat player and one Knick on the team, balancing the scales for two teams who could have made a case for two players.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks) and LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) will be the team captains this season (as voted by the fans), who will select their starters from a pool consisting of Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets), Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers), Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans), Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors), and Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks).

• In a change to the format this year, James and Antetokounmpo will pick their teams on the court — playground style — just before the All-Star Game. They will choose from a pool of starters, and then the backups from the group of reserves above.

• The Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla will coach Team Giannis, while the Nuggets’ Michael Malone will coach Team LeBron.

• The All-Star Game will take place Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City. The entire weekend of events will be broadcast on TNT.

• As it has been the past few years, teams will play the first three quarters somewhat traditionally (although the winner of each quarter individually raises money for its team charity). Then the clock will be turned off for the fourth quarter and the first team to reach a target score — 24 points (in honor of Kobe) higher than the total of the team leading after three quarters. Meaning simply, if team Giannis leads 100-99 after three quarters, the first team to get to 124 wins.

Anunoby hottest name at trade deadline… or would be if Raptors decide to trade him

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
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The Knicks are standing at the front of the line, but if the door opens Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans will be among the teams trying to push their way through the door.

O.G. Anunoby trade rumors are maybe the hottest topic around the league in the run-up to the trade deadline, something sources have told NBC Sports but is not breaking news at this point, recent reporting by both Zach Lowe of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have detailed exactly that. Lowe said on his podcast that the “entire league” is interested in the young wing. Teams are calling Massai Ujiri about Anunoby, but the Raptors have yet to tip their hand about whether they will be sellers at the deadline, stand pat, or become buyers.

Anunoby has not publicly or privately asked for a trade, but would “embrace a change of scenery” Haynes said on the podcast (it should be noted there are similar rumblings about a number of dispirited Raptors this season, the losing has worn on them). Haynes added that part of the motivation for the Grizzlies and Pelicans in this case is to keep the other team from landing him.

The Knicks are reportedly offering three first-round picks for Anunoby, and while it’s up for debate which of the seven first-round picks they control are in the mix — and how protected they are — that is now the floor for an offer to interest the Raptors. Lowe said Anunoby could draw a Donovan Mitchellsized trade package.

There are obvious reasons the league is calling, Anunoby is an All-Defensive Team level wing averaging 16.9 points per game, can finish at the rim and hit threes. It doesn’t hurt that he is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million.

Everybody wants to talk about Anunoby, but it’s all moot until Ujiri and the Raptors do.