August 16, 2018, 3:24 pm
The Minnesota Timberwolves paid a pretty price for Jimmy Butler in June 2017. Before the offseason was over, Paul George and Kyrie Irving, two other unhappy All-Stars in the thick of their primes, were traded for packages objectively less valuable than the one comprised of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, taken with the seventh overall pick sent to the Chicago Bulls in that blockbuster draft-night trade. Still, their play under Fred Hoiberg last season isn’t what’s made Timberwolves fans increasingly queasy about trading for Butler, and neither is the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder and Boston Celtics acquired players who the majority deems superior by surrendering fewer viable assets.
Minnesota’s bubblingly volatile summer and preceding performance in the first round of the playoffs has obscured what should be considered a successful regular season. Tom Thibodeau’s team was 36-26 after Butler suffered a torn meniscus on February 23, good for fourth in the Western Conference standings while owning the league’s eighth-best net rating. The playoffs were something close to a formality before Butler went down; a far more common question was whether or not the Timberwolves would be able to hang onto home-court advantage in the first round, after missing out on the postseason altogether the previous 13 years – the second-longest drought in NBA history.
It only ended when Minnesota, with Butler back in the lineup, won its last three games on the schedule, including a de facto play-in game against the Denver Nuggets for the regular season finale. Butler, six weeks after knee surgery, had 31 points, five rebounds and five assists in that dramatic overtime victory at Target Center, further re-staking his claim as the Timberwolves’ physical and mental alpha dog.
“We played whatever 48 plus five is,” he said in typically pointed fashion after the game. “We played that many minutes of basketball. I’m glad to see that, finally. Let’s keep it going. It’s no different now.”
Nobody expected Minnesota to give the Houston Rockets a scare in the opening round of the playoffs. The league’s top seed made history by becoming the first team in history to attempt more threes than twos during the regular season. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, ranked dead last by attempting 26.1 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, and making matters worse, assisted on just 55.3 percent of their scores, a bottom-five mark that played directly into the hands of Houston’s switch-everything defensive scheme. A five-game series in the Rockets’ favor seemed the most likely outcome, and was what ultimately came to pass, with Minnesota’s Game 3 win at Target Center sandwiched by a pair of Houston victories.
If there’s an indelible takeaway from the Timberwolves’ first playoff appearance since 2004, it was the inability of Karl-Anthony Towns to consistently exploit the size advantage granted by the Rockets’ constant switching. He averaged 15.2 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting in the series, and failed to compensate for his lack of production on the interior by splashing jumpers with his normal regularity. Posting up guys like P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon, or even Chris Paul, is far more difficult than the size discrepancies between them and high-scoring big men suggest, especially when help defenders have the freedom to cheat off their individual assignments to poke and prod at every dribble, confident they won’t be beaten from three.
Time and again, Towns passed out of opportunities on the block, beset by both his defender’s penchant for pushing him off spots and his teammates’ inability to make Houston pay for sending extra help. Still, he got 6.8 post-ups per game, according to NBA.com/stats, third-most in the playoffs, and averaged 1.12 points on those possessions – comfortably above his stellar regular-season number. Towns’ defensive struggles – Minnesota surrendered an eye-popping 24.7 points per 100 possessions more with him on the floor than the bench, an easy team-worst – certainly deserve mention here, and made it virtually impossible for the Timberwolves to hold a lead. He was clueless in conventional pick-and-roll defense, whether in aggressive drop coverage or retreating all the way back to the rim, and fared nearly as poorly switching onto ball handlers, an aspect once considered the most significant strength of his promising defensive profile.
Andrew Wiggins‘ first taste of postseason basketball, conversely, went about as expected. He was arguably the best player on the floor in Game 3, making multiple-effort plays on both sides of the ball and knocking down four triples en route to 20 points, five rebounds and five assists on 11 shots. But Wiggins was often invisible against the Rockets otherwise, and when he wasn’t, it’s because he gave into his most self-defeating habits: nagging penchants for hoisting difficult long twos and fleeting overall intensity.
Needless to say, Minnesota’s young stars hardly rose to the occasion of the playoffs. On the other hand, it’s not like Towns and Wiggins were the disasters versus Houston that hindsight – plus an awkward summer of subtweets from Butler – has made their play out to be. Anyone who thought the Timberwolves would have a puncher’s chance against the Rockets was setting themselves up for disappointment. Young players routinely labor through postseason debuts, and Butler, still getting his wind from a month and-a-half off, wasn’t the relentless two-way force Minnesota needed him to be to put up a fight.
Rewind back to the All-Star break, though, when Butler sat out Sunday’s main event to rest his weary body before getting injured the following game, and a far rosier portrait of the Timberwolves’ 2017-18 emerges. How much differently would their campaign be appraised if Butler had stayed healthy and they earned home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs? They went 3-1 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who eventually earned the four seed, in the regular season, and split four matchups with the fifth-seeded Utah Jazz. It’s not a stretch to say Minnesota could have taken any prospective playoff foe other than Houston and the Golden State Warriors to six or seven games in the first round, let alone beaten them.
The Timberwolves, when fully healthy, were arguably the third-best team in the Western Conference last season, but you wouldn’t know it by a sizable majority’s perception of Minnesota as training camp fast approaches. At least some semblance of that standing, to be fair, is entirely justifiable. Towns regressed defensively in his second season under Thibodeau, while ultra-talented peers like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid further established themselves as transcendent stars – the type capable of leading a team to a title.
No player wins a championship by himself, of course, which is why the Timberwolves garnered so much acclaim as basketball’s scariest young team as recently as the end of 2016-17. Wiggins’ slow-moving development, to put it nicely, has tempered expectations for Minnesota as much as anything else, but still warrants context. He took several small but important steps in his third season, before Butler arrived, most notable of which was connecting on a career-best 40.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples, over five points higher than last season. If Wiggins can bump his long-range accuracy back up a few points, it will go a long way toward juicing an offense that finished third in 2017-18 despite obvious complications gleaned from integrating ball-dominant veterans like Butler and Jeff Teague, not to mention Thibodeau’s outdated preference for playing two traditional big men.
There’s also the possibility Thibodeau reorients his attack to foster Wiggins’ growth, however much of it may remain. It was always foolhardy to believe he’d seamlessly settle into more of a supporting role offensively than one of a fledgling alpha dog. He won’t assume the latter again, not with Butler around and playing near his peak, but shifting some additional ball-banding responsibilities back to Wiggins is probably the Timberwolves’ surest route to scraping their collective ceiling. Either way, it would be remiss to write him off entirely as a fit next to Butler and Towns after just a single season as third option.
Time, believe it or not, is still on Minnesota’s side. Butler’s arrival accelerated its clock toward legitimate contention, which is one of the reasons why some never approved of the trade in the first place. Who’s beating the Warriors over the next two or three years, assuming they stick together? Towns and Wiggins are just beginning the earliest stages of their primes, and were never going to be good enough to dethrone Golden State until realizing their utmost potential anyway – a hopeful hypothetical that was never going to materialize before Butler, whose injury history continues to lengthen, was on the wrong side of 30.
The disparate timelines of their stars is why many believe the Timberwolves might be spurned by Butler in free agency next summer. No matter how much he loves playing for Thibodeau, it’s hard to imagine the maniacally-competitive Butler wasting the remainder of his prime on a team that can’t separate itself from the Western Conference morass trying to keep up with the Warriors and Rockets. Heading east might be his best chance at a title.
But Minnesota has a full season to convince Butler to stay, and as much room for internal improvement as any other playoff contender in the West. If Towns makes major strides defensively and Wiggins, finally enjoying some sense of on-court continuity from year to year for the first time in his career, refines the many rough edges of his game, the Timberwolves could begin living up to the expectations that no longer burden them. Is that a likely outcome for 2018-19? Probably not, but it’s still a greater possibility than their increasing number of detractors believes.
July 15, 2019, 5:49 pmGoga BitadzeC, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have announced the signing of first-round pick Goga Bitadze.
Bitadze's visa issues prevented him from playing in Summer League, but he has a chance at cracking the rotation in his first season. He will be playing behind Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, however, which means it's unlikely he receives significant playing time. Bitadze's versatile game warrants attention in dynasty formats but he could require some patience.
Source: Indiana Pacers
July 15, 2019, 5:44 pmKyle AlexanderC, Miami Heat
The Heat have signed Kyle Alexander to an Exhibit 9, 10 contract.
An Exhibit 9 contract is for one year at the minimum, and they cannot be signed by teams until there are 14 players on the roster already. In essence, it's the sort of contract that can help hard-capped teams (like Miami) in the case of preseason injury, where a similar injury to a player on a different contract would have larger cap ramifications. An injured player's salary becomes fully guaranteed until he recovers, while an Exhibit 9 player can be waived at a cost of $6,000 to the team. Alexander averaged 4.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in Summer League. Look for him to spend his season in Sioux Falls.
Source: Ira Winderman on Twitter
July 15, 2019, 5:37 pmBrandon ClarkePF, Memphis Grizzlies
Rookie Brandon Clarke has been named the 2019 Summer League MVP.
Clarke put the Grizzlies through to Monday's championship game with a game-winner in Sunday's semifinal matchup, and he'll look to put the finishing touches on his strong debut with another trophy tonight. He's averaged 14.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.2 steals and 1.6 blocks on .570 shooting across five games so far, all in only 21.4 mpg. Clarke has increased his stock as much as anyone in Vegas, though the presence of Jaren Jackson Jr. could make it hard for him to carve out huge minutes from the jump. Still, there's a chance that Clarke puts himself on the standard-league map and he can be considered a late-round flier in competitive formats.
Source: NBA on Twitter
July 15, 2019, 5:32 pmMitchell RobinsonC, New York Knicks
Mitchell Robinson, Jarrett Allen, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Brandon Clarke and Kendrick Nunn have been named to the Summer League First Team.
Robinson averaged 13.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in only 25.2 mpg in Vegas, and the hype train will continue to roll. Allen had a slow start to his Summer League but came around to dominate as a player of his caliber should. Alexander-Walker and Clarke showed out for the rookie class, with NAW finishing third in scoring at 24.3 points per game. Nunn put up 21.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.5 steals in his summer session and will look to crack the backcourt rotation in Miami this year.
Source: NBA on Twitter
July 15, 2019, 5:27 pmRui HachimuraPF, Washington Wizards
The 2019 Summer League Second Team is comprised of Rui Hachimura, Lonnie Walker, Anfernee Simons, Jaxson Hayes and Chris Boucher.
Of the bunch, Hachimura looks the most likely to be fantasy-relevant this season. He's going to have a great chance to log minutes for a Wizards team that's short on depth at the forward spots. In three games in Vegas, Hachiumra averaged 19.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Walker is looking to crack the rotation after an injury-plagued rookie season but might have a hard time outplaying San Antonio's capable guards. Simons could slot into the Portland backcourt with the departure of Seth Curry while Boucher is the reigning G-League MVP and Hayes looks like an interesting long-term prospect next to Zion Williamson in New Orleans.
Source: NBA on Twitter
July 15, 2019, 5:21 pmJR SmithSG, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Lakers should be considered an "unlikely destination" for J.R. Smith, according to Adrian Wojnarowski.
The Lakers are the only team that's really been tied to Smith, so that's not great for him. L.A. has done a decent job filling out their roster and no longer has a need for Smith, and his market figures to be fairly limited. Rebuilding teams are unlikely to see him as a typical veteran presence considering the Cavs told him to go home rather than sulk around their young players, and he has a lot to prove after last appearing in a game on November 18.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter
July 15, 2019, 5:18 pmD'Angelo RussellPG, Golden State Warriors
Bob Myers says that the Warriors did not sign D'Angelo Russell just to trade him.
Saying otherwise would surely draw the ire of the league and players association, so Myers' hands are sort of tied here. It's already been reported that the Warriors will try and move Russell when Klay Thompson returns, and that makes plenty of sense. That uncertainty is something to keep in the back of your mind when fantasy drafts open, but Russell is still going to come off draft boards in the middle rounds with a great opportunity in front of him while Thompson is out.
Source: Nick Friedell on Twitter
July 15, 2019, 5:14 pmChristian WoodPF, New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have waived Christian Wood, per Shams Charania.
Wood was a dominant force in Summer League last season and that carried over into the G-League, where he averaged 29 points, 14 boards and two blocks. He burst onto the scene with some big games for the Pelicans late in the season, ending up with 16.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 0.9 steals and 0.8 threes in 23.6 minutes per night across eight contests with New Orleans. Unfortunately for him, the Pels added Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes to the frontcourt mix. Wood will be a name to watch in deep leagues on the chances that he lands in a favorable situation.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
July 15, 2019, 5:09 pmMiye OniPG, Utah Jazz
The Jazz have officially signed rookie Miye Oni to a contract.
Oni was the 58th overall pick in the draft and figures to spend most of his year in the G-League, though he did have a few strong moments in Summer League, averaging 8.2 points, 2.8 assists and 2.0 rebounds in 25.4 mpg. The Ivy League Player of the Year is only a target in deep dynasty formats.
Source: Utah Jazz
July 15, 2019, 5:07 pmJosh OkogieSG, Minnesota Timberwolves
Josh Okogie (left ankle/shin contusion) is not facing a serious injury, though there's a chance that he sits out Monday's Summer League title game.
Okogie had played well throughout the summer schedule but sat out Sunday's semifinal game. The Wolves already have a good idea of what they have in him and there's no need to push him into action. Okogie is a deep-league source of cash counters but he could be worth a pickup depending on the validity of the rumors about Robert Covington's trade availability.
Source: Darren Wolfson on Twitter