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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.

Report: NBA could play next season at multiple regional bubbles

Warriors star Stephen Curry
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Other than waiting for the coronavirus pandemic to subside – a possibility – the NBA faces MAJOR challenges next season.

The bubble is working for finishing this season. But that’s with just 22 teams rather than the full 30. And this is just for a few months, not a full season. Players are already bristling about how long they’re separated from their families.

Yet, what’s the alternative to a bubble? It looks like the only safe way to play professional sports.

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated

We’re a ways off from next season, but league sources have told me that the NBA is looking at options that include creating regional bubbles, should the COVID-19 pandemic still prevent normal business in the fall. Teams would report to a bubble for short stints—around a month—which would be followed by 1-2 weeks off.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Orlando is a consideration, and Las Vegas — a finalist for this summer’s restart — would reemerge as a possible site too, sources said.

This is an interesting possibility.

Smaller bubbles would reduce the odds of a coronavirus outbreak that undermines the whole league. But what happens if one bubble has coronavirus issues? Teams’ schedules could get significantly unbalanced quickly.

The shorter bubble lengths would allow players to spend time with family more frequently. But how many players would contract coronavirus while between bubbles? Look how many players got coronavirus during this last layoff.

There are no easy solutions amid this pandemic. This is one of many imperfect ideas that should at least be considered.

Report: NBA not bringing other eight teams to Disney World bubble

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The NBA bringing the “Delete Eight” teams to its Disney World bubble to train as other teams depart?

Like other plans for the Knicks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks, Hornets, Timberwolves and Warriors… it’s not happening.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBPA has no interest in that idea, sources said. It’s a non-starter. The inevitable solution for the eight teams left out of Orlando: The NBA and NBPA agreeing upon voluntary workouts in the team facilities, sources said.

The NBPA won’t agree to mandatory reporting for players on the eight teams outside of the restart but will eventually allow it on a voluntary level, sources said.

Bringing those other eight teams to the Disney World bubble was always a ridiculous idea. Why would the NBA jeopardize its highly profitable setup just so some lousy teams could train and maybe hold glorified scrimmages?

Voluntary team workouts are a reasonable allowance. Though it’s difficult to ensure players coming and going from a team facility won’t spread coronavirus, some players are playing basketball in groups, anyway. At their own facilities, teams can at least enforce protocols to increase safety. And players who’d rather be more careful wouldn’t be forced to participate.

There’s no reason to make anything mandatory. These eight teams’ seasons are over.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.