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With $32M on the line and Timberwolves needing him more than ever, Karl-Anthony Towns coming into his own

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DETROIT – Karl-Anthony Towns unknowingly walked up on Anthony Tolliver getting interviewed about Towns in the Timberwolves’ locker room.

“Hey, what’s up, man,” Tolliver said. “I’m not talking about you or nothing.”

Towns laughed. Then, as Tolliver returned complimenting him, Towns realized Tolliver made more than a random joke.

“Wait,” Towns said. “Were you talking about me?”

Towns urged Tolliver to change topics – to Towns’ flaws, to Tolliver’s own 3-point shooting, to anything else. Towns even jokingly threatened to throw fruit at Tolliver.

This is the Towns who earlier this season resisted being labeled of one of Minnesota’s most important players. He’s prone to just trying to fit in.

But Towns has special talent. The Timberwolves need him to assert himself.

Hope of Towns co-starring with Andrew Wiggins, the reigning Rookie of Year and previous No. 1 pick when Towns got drafted No. 1, has nearly completely faded. Wiggins has stagnated (at best) since signing a max contract extension two years ago.

Jimmy Butler temporarily commandeered the scene in Minnesota. While Butler was carrying the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance in 14 years last season, it made sense for Towns to defer. But Butler is gone, reportedly at Towns’ request (and definitely at Butler’s).

This team is now clearly Towns’ and Towns’ alone. He might finally be embracing it.

“There’s a lot on my shoulders, but good thing I’ve got broad shoulders,” Towns said.

In six games since a car crash he said could have killed him, Towns is averaging 34 points, 14 rebounds and four assists per game. Even for someone who has already established himself as a star, Towns might be turning the corner into superstardom.

The timing could be lucrative.

If Towns makes an All-NBA team this season, his upcoming extension will project to be worth $190 million over the next five years. If he misses the All-NBA teams an super-max eligibility, the extension projects to be worth $158 million – $32 million less.

Will Towns get one of three All-NBA center spots?

He appears to be in a six-man race with the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, 76ers’ Joel Embiid, Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and Magic’s Nikola Vucevic. Here’s how they compare in points, rebounds assists, blocks and steals per game and PER, win shares and real plus-minus:

Player PPG RPG APG BPG SPG PER WS RPM
Nikola Jokic 20.5 10.8 7.7 0.6 1.4 26.9 9.9 6.5
Anthony Davis 26.8 12.3 4.0 2.5 1.6 30.5 9.4 6.1
Joel Embiid 27.3 13.5 3.5 1.9 0.6 25.4 7.2 4.3
Rudy Gobert 15.5 12.9 2.1 2.2 0.8 24.3 11.0 4.6
Karl-Anthony Towns 24.2 12.2 3.3 1.7 0.9 26.6 9.2 4.3
Nikola Vucevic 20.6 12.0 3.9 1.2 1.0 26.0 8.3 5.5

Towns will have a tough time catching Jokic, who will get onto many MVP ballots.

Davis has already missed 16 games and will receive only limited minutes the rest of the season. The negative effects of his trade request on New Orleans should count against him. But his incredible production while on the court should also matter.

Embiid has missed 11 games and counting. How quickly and how well he returns from his knee injury will swing his candidacy.

Gobert wasn’t even an All-Star, but that was determined by Western Conference coaches, not the media who’ll pick All-NBA. Gobert’s All-Star snub generated a lot of publicity that might even help his All-NBA case. Defensive-minded players like him also tend to fare better with All-NBA than All-Star, because voters are also considering Defensive Player of the Year at the end of the season. Gobert is a leading candidate for that award.

Vucevic is in his first season playing on this level. If nothing else, there will be no voter fatigue with him.

Other players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Brook Lopez, Al Horford and Andre Drummond could also get All-NBA votes. In a close race, those could determine who actually lands on the All-NBA teams.

At minimum, Towns’ All-NBA window is open.

Towns earning the pay bump would further squeeze a team with at least a couple players on undesirable contracts – Wiggins (four years, $122,242,800 remaining), Gorgui Dieng (two years, $33,516,853 remaining) and arguably Jeff Teague (one year, $19 million player option remaining). But Towns playing well down the stretch would carry its own value.

“Karl deserves to be an All-NBA player,” Timberwolves interim coach Ryan Saunders said.

By traditional big-man standards, Towns – averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds per game – looks like a lock. But he knows better.

In the previous 40 years, 25 players averaged 24-12 (minimum: 50 games). Only one didn’t make an All-NBA team – Towns in 2017.

In a system that awards five points for a first-team vote, three points for a second-team vote and one point for a third-team vote, Towns landed just four voting points behind DeAndre Jordan for third-team center. If Towns had made All-NBA that season, he would have already clinched super-max eligibility. Nothing would have been on the line this season.

Towns said he thought he’d make All-NBA in 2017.

“It was a learning experience,” said Towns, who declined to elaborate on what he learned.

So many learning experiences lie ahead for Towns, who’s just 23. He has looked sharper on defense – by far his biggest deficiency – and improved passing out of double-teams. But there’s so much more room to grow. A reason Minnesota is just 30-35 is Towns’ defensive shortcomings.

Still, he brings so much offensively. Towns is the only player making 70% of his shots at the rim and 40% of his 3-pointers (minimum: 100 attempts each). He makes it look easy.

“He’s so talented,” Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson said. “There’s nothing in this league, in the game of basketball, that I doubt him in.”

Towns has 44.1 career win shares. Since Towns entered the NBA in 2015, only four players – James Harden (54.9), Stephen Curry (47.3), LeBron James (46.9) and Kevin Durant (46.0) – have produced more win shares. But Towns is way younger than those four.

Here’s everyone who played in the NBA the last four seasons, sorted by age this season and win shares over the last four seasons. Harden, Curry, LeBron, Durant (who’s hiding behind Curry) and Towns are pictured:

image

Russell Westbrook recently trash-talked Towns during a game: “Get to the f—ing playoffs before you speak to me.” The diss was particularly cruel because the Timberwolves made the playoffs last year. But they got rolled by the Rockets in five games in the first round, Towns fading into the background of the series. It was quite forgettable.

There’s still plenty of time for Towns to make a bigger impact. Though further advancement might require roster upgrades around him, he has the tools to eventually lead the Timberwolves back into the playoffs and make a lasting impression.

Will he embrace that challenge and the accompanying spotlight or shirk the responsibility?

“He wants it,” Tolliver said. “And you can’t really say that about everybody. Some guys, they might say they want it, but their actions don’t say it. So, I think that he’s kind of a rare breed.”

Pat Riley: Heat will pursue two max players in 2020

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In the 1995-96 season, the Heat traded for Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway.

In 2004, the Heat traded for Shaquille O’Neal.

In 2010, the Heat signed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Will Miami makes its next star splash in 2020?

Near-star Josh Richardson is locked into a relatively cheap contract for two more years. Bam Adebayo has two more seasons on his relatively low-paying rookie-scale deal. Justise Winslow, who’s maybe finding his groove, is guaranteed two more seasons on his rookie-scale extension.

That core could appeal to free agents in 2020, when Hassan Whiteside‘s, Ryan Anderson‘s and Goran Dragic‘s contracts expire.

Heat:

Heat president Pat Riley, in an interview with Jason Jackson:

We’re chasing a playoff spot when we’re young. And then we’re going to be chasing some players that can come in. If we can get one or two players to come in with this group, this young group, then I think the sky’s the limit for this team in the next couple years.

We’ve done this four times now, had a good group of players, young players, and then either through free agency or through trade brought the superstar in.

In 2020, we’ll have a lot of room. We’ll also have the possibility to have enough room to go after two max contracts. And we’re going to do that. So, we’re planning that 2020 will be the room year.

We’re very fluid. We’re very on top of it. And we are a destination place, Jax. The tax, the sun, the beautiful city. It’s a very progressive city, diverse city. So, we are a destination place. And we’re going to be moving in that direction.

That’s quite ambitious. But Riley has executed grand plans before. That will only embolden him to pursue this one.

It won’t be easy.

Miami projects to have just $34 million of cap space in 2020. A single max salary that summer projects to be $30 million-$41 million, depending on the player’s experience.

James Johnson ($16,047,100) and Kelly Olynyk ($13,598,243) have player options for the 2020-21 season. It’s difficult to see a 33-year-old Johnson or 29-year-old Olynyk declining those options. The Heat also owe Dion Waiters $12,650,000 that season.

Of course, there’s plenty of time to unload contracts. If this is Riley’s vision, keep an eye on those three players between now and next year’s trade deadline. Miami could also move its next two first-round picks to unload salary.

But even if the Heat clear double-max cap room, whom would the spend it on?

Anthony Davis is the big prize in 2020 free agency. After that, it’s slim pickings.

Most of this year’s All-Stars are already under contract for 2020-21. Several more – Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker, D'Angelo Russell and Nikola Vucevic – will be free agents this summer. While some could sign a one-year or 1+1 contract to return to free agency next summer, I wouldn’t bet on that. Dwyane Wade will be retired by then and is already in Miami. Dirk Nowitzki will also likely retire by then, but even if he doesn’t, he’s neither leaving the Mavericks nor commanding a substantial salary.

That leaves Ben Simmons, Kyle Lowry and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Simmons will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. Even if he doesn’t sign one, he’ll be restricted in 2020. It’s nearly impossible to see him getting away in free agency that year.

Lowry will be 34. The Heat showed interest in him before, but that was five years ago. As he leaves his prime, he won’t draw nearly as much attention.

Aldridge will become a 2020 free agent only if waived. His $24 million salary for 2020-21 is $7 million guaranteed. But if his team would rather pay him $7 million to leave than $24 million to stay, that’d say something about his value.

Other players will emerge. This is far from set in stone. But a little more than a year out, the 2020 free-agent class looks very weak.

Is that really the year the Heat want to splurge?

Riley has already once admitted he regretted saying he planned to go whale hunting. I wonder whether his 2020 plan will eventually inspire a similar evaluation.

Three Things to Know: Knicks snap 18-game home losing streak, Spike Lee finds out at Oscars

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Knicks snap 18-game home losing streak, Spike Lee finds out at Oscars. The key to the Knicks winning their first game in Madison Square Garden since Dec. 1 apparently was to have superfan Spike Lee on the other side of the country.

Lee was at the Oscars in Los Angeles, winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay for ““BlacKkKlansman” (and not being thrilled with the “Green Book” best picture win) when Samuel L. Jackson informed Lee the Knicks won.

Lee appears to yell back “We’re trying to tank,” which is just what Adam Silver wants for the league on a national broadcast. Not that the tanking has gone great suddenly, the Knicks have now won 2-of-3. Don’t worry about lottery though, the Knicks still have the second-worst record in the NBA, which means a 14 percent chance of Zion Williamson and a 47.8 percent chance of picking fifth or sixth.

Early on Sunday it didn’t look like the Knicks would win, they were doing very Knicks things.

Then things turned around as the Knicks got good games from guys who could be part of whatever future is to come in New York. Damyean Dotson led the way with 27 points, knocking down eight 3-pointers along the way. New point guard Dennis Smith Jr. had 19 points and 13 assists (plus a spectacular missed dunk), and Mitchell Robinson added 15 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 blocks.

Everyone talks about Sacramento and maybe the Lakers passing the Clippers for the final playoff slot in the West, but the Spurs are tied with the Clippers for the 7/8 seed and have lost 6-of-7 on the Rodeo road trip (with one game remaining, Monday in Brooklyn). They are the team in real danger of falling out in the West, although fivethirtyeight.com has San Antonio with an 85 percent chance of making the postseason. The Spurs remaining schedule is tougher than the Clippers and Kings, Gregg Popovich and company need o find some wins once they get back home.

2) Raptors fall to Magic, seem destined for the two seed… which may not be such a bad thing. Orlando is suddenly playing good basketball — they have won 8-of-10 and are now just a game out of the playoffs in the East. They have done it with the best defense in the NBA over the last 10, giving up just a point per possession, and the offense has been solid, resulting in a +13.6 net rating. Orlando has simply been good.

The latest victim, the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors — without Kawhi Leonard for the night — scored 98 points per 100 in Sunday’s game. Toronto just could not finish over Orlando’s length, shooting 46.2 percent in the paint for the night. While Marc Gasol (who started) showed some chemistry with Kyle Lowry, the big man the Raptors picked up at the deadline was wholly outplayed by All-Star Nikola Vucevic all game. The holes in Gasol’s game at this point in his career are showing up and being exploited.

Next up for the Raptors is Boston on Tuesday, that should be a real test.

With Sunday’s loss, the Raptors are two games back of the Bucks for the top seed in the East and seem unlikely to catch them. The Raptors are also 3.5 up on the three seed and hobbled Pacers, and 5.5 up on the four-seed Sixers. Which is to say, the Raptors seem destined for the two seed — and that could be a good thing, so long as the Pacers hold on to the three seed. If the standings stay in this order for the top five, the Raptors crush the Pistons/Hornets/Magic in the first round, while the Pacers get a gritty but beatable Brooklyn team, and the Celtics and 76ers have a brutal first-round matchup. In the second round, the Raptors would face the Nets/hobbled Pacers, while the Celtics/Sixers winner gets the Bucks. Suddenly the Raptors are through to the conference finals having avoided the most dangerous teams, they should be fresh. There are 23 (or so) games left and the standings can shift, but things could be lining up well for Toronto.

3) Ja Rule’s halftime show in Milwaukee did not go as planned. On the bright side, it went better than the Fyre Festival.

Ja Rule seems a pretty good get for Saturday night in Milwaukee and a far better option than most NBA halftime shows (not Gary The Amazing Sladek chair stacking good, but good). It didn’t work out that way.

Ja Rule came out on the court wearing a Bucks’ Ray Allen throwback jersey… and after that things got weird. When he wanted to start he turned to his DJ and said “Are we ready?” Then, when the music didn’t start, “I guess not.”

Later, Giannis Antetokounmpo came out and was taking warmup shots while he was still performing… this wasn’t exactly players racing out at All-Star to see J Cole perform.

When Timberwolves official Twitter chimed in, Ja Rule cursed them.

Not sure Ja Rule’s curse is anything worse than what Jimmy Butler already did to the Minnesota franchise this season. And he’s wrong about Karl-Anthony Towns, at least for a long while — KAT’s five-year max extension starts next season. He’s locked in for a while. Now, if Ja Rule could get Andrew Wiggins out the door….

Jayson Tatum bombs way from half court to All-Star Skills Competition title

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s about how you finish.

Boston’s Jayson Tatum trailed in all three of his Skills Contest races on All-Star Saturday night, none worse than against sharpshooting rookie Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks in the championship matchup. Young beat Tatum through the court, lined up his three, and while he did Tatum bombed away from half court on the run and… he called bank so it counts.

Tatum is your 2019 Skills Contest champion.

“The previous two rounds, the guy was ahead of me. Figured I’d let him get a shot attempt so I could get closer to the three-point line,” Tatum said. “I didn’t want to give Trae a chance. I honestly didn’t know I was going to hit the shot, but I had to give myself a chance, throw it up there, and it worked out for the best.”

Tatum dropped 30 for Team USA in its win in the Rising Stars Challenge Friday night, then gets the win Saturday in Skills. It’s been a weekend for Tatum.

Did he plan to fall behind in every race just for the drama?

“No, that was not the plan,” Tatum said. “I couldn’t get the pass down on the first try, but I was trying. I wanted to win.”

The competition was fairly entertaining from the start.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped with the random matchups, and that led to one first-rounder everyone wanted to see: De’Aaron Fox vs. Trae Young. Fox led the whole way, by quite a bit as Young struggled with his passing into the tire, but when Fox missed his first three it allowed Young to shoot the long-range running three, and he drained it for the win.

In the other first-round matchups, Nikola Jokic beat Nikola Vucevic, Mike Conley had a comfortable lead over Jayson Tatum but couldn’t hit the three and when Tatum got there he drained his for the win, and Doncic his three before Kyle Kuzma for the win.

In the second round, Tatum was behind again but beat Jokic by draining his first three, and Young had a comfortable win over Luka Doncic.

That up the Finals showdown that ended with a long-range bomb.

LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo pick All-Star teams — then trade Simmons for Westbrook

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This is exactly why this needed to be done live last year… or at least live on tape, which is how it got done this time around (because LeBron James has a game tonight).

LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo picked their All-Star teams playground-style on Inside the NBA Thursday night — and then made a trade. Which Shaq, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson on Inside the NBA approved, and that feels more official than the league office, so it’s done.

LeBron and Antetokounmpo were the top All-Star vote-getters from each conference, so they were the captains who got to choose the teams. That starts with them picking from the pool of starters (voted in by the fans, media, and players), then the reserves (chosen by a coaches vote), then the two special additions put on the roster by Adam Silver, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki.

LeBron picked first and chose Kevin Durant — for the second straight year — followed by Antetokounmpo taking Stephen Curry.

When it got funny came with the reserves. Antetokounmpo chose first and went with his Milwaukee teammate Kris Middleton. Next LeBron picked Anthony Davis and Ernie Johnson asked, “You sure you want him to be your teammate?” But the best part was the Greek Freak calling for tampering.

Then they moved on through the reserves, but Antetokounmpo took LeBron buddy (they share an agent) Ben Simmons, which prompted LeBron to cuss on air.

After all was said on done, LeBron proposed a Simmons for Russell Westbrook trade. Antetokounmpo had fun with it, then relented and accepted it.

Then the jokes flew, starting with Barkley.

Here are your All-Star teams:

Team LeBron (coached by Mike Malone)
Starters
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Kyrie Irving
Kawhi Leonard
James Harden

Reserves
Anthony Davis
Klay Thompson
Damian Lillard
Ben Simmons
LaMarcus Aldridge
Karl-Anthony Towns
Bradley Beal
Dwyane Wade

Team Giannis (coached by Mike Budenholzer)
Starters
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Stephen Curry
Joel Embiid
Paul George
Kemba Walker

Reserves
Kris Middleton
Nikola Jokic
Russell Westbrook
Blake Griffin
D’Angelo Russell
Nikola Vucevic
Kyle Lowry
Dirk Nowitzki

The NBA All-Star Game will be played Feb. 17 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte. You can catch it on TNT starting at 8 p.m. ET.