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.
April 25, 2019, 1:55 pmSemi Ojeleye - F - Boston Celtics
Celtics' forward Semi Ojeleye has taken his training up a notch in preparation for his looming battle with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in their upcoming second-round series, and his teammates have noticed.
Ojeleye hasn't played much this season, but he and the team know that he matches up to Giannis the best physically. If the Celtics want to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, they'll need to get productive minutes from Ojelyeye. Buckle up, this series is going to be exciting.
Source: NBC Sports
April 25, 2019, 1:44 pmLuke Walton - Team - Sacramento Kings
The Kings and the NBA announced a joint investigation into the allegations made against Luke Walton on Thursday.
This story is heating up by the day and the team and NBA figure to dive quickly into the fact-finding process of this investigation. With this being such a delicate issue, we will continue to update as more revelations are made and more information is available.
Source: James Ham on Twitter
April 25, 2019, 1:36 pmEvan Fournier - G/F - Orlando Magic
Evan Fournier revealed that he and his wife will be welcoming a baby boy as first-time parents in a month.
Congratulations to Fournier and his wife. The Magic's season ended earlier than they would have hopes, but Fournier has a lot to look forward to. Fournier should resume his role as the starting two-guard for the Magic next season.
Source: John Denton on Twitter
April 25, 2019, 1:21 pmPaul George - F - Oklahoma City Thunder
Paul George said that he wasn't in much pain during the playoffs but he will address his shoulder situation soon.
Though he doesn't want it to be used as an excuse, George was clearly bothered by the shoulder through the end of the season and into the series with the Blazers. His shot wasn't the same and it showed in the first few games of the playoffs. George should be fully healthy entering next season and ready to be a to produce another top fantasy season.
Source: Royce Young on Twitter
April 25, 2019, 1:13 pmMike Scott - F - Philadelphia Sixers
Sixers coach Brett Brown said that he wasn't proceeding as if the Sixers will have Mike Scott (right heel bruise/plantar fasciitis) against the Raptors and it would be a blessing if they did.
This comes on the heels of Scott exiting Game 5 against the Nets on Tuesday and being unable to practice on Thursday. If Scott is unable to go, that will open up 20-30 minutes off the bench. The minutes are likely to be dispersed amongst any of T.J. McConnell, James Ennis III, Jonah Bolden and Greg Monroe depending on game flow and matchups.
Source: Tom Moore on Twitter
April 25, 2019, 1:00 pmMagic Johnson - Team - Los Angeles Lakers
Jeanie Buss mistakenly CC’d Magic Johnson on emails directed to GM Rob Pelinka that were critical of Magic.
And the drama continues. For a team that hasn’t reached the playoffs or 40 wins for six consecutive seasons, they sure know how to gobble up the headlines. The Lakers are full of dysfunction right now, and the only way to change things is to win basketball games. We’ll see what the rest of the offseason brings.
Source: NBC Sports
April 25, 2019, 12:51 pmKlay Thompson - G - Golden State Warriors
Klay Thomson admitted to looking past the Clippers on Wednesday night and towards a rematch with the Rockets.
This scenario is always speculated throughout sports and hardly admitted, but Thompson didn't hold back his truth. You never want to see this from a player, but since Thompson was man enough to admit it, we can give the slick-shooting all-star and his two-time defending champion Warriors a mulligan. Expect the Warriors to come out laser focused in Game 6 on Friday.
Source: NBC Sports
April 25, 2019, 12:40 pmMichael Carter-Williams - G - Orlando Magic
During the exit interview, Michael Carter-Williams said, "I love the guys on the team, I love the organization & Coach Cliff is great. I could definitely see myself here. I’m comfortable here & I can play my game. I’d love to come back.”
MCW proved to be a good bargain for the Magic and for really deep-league fantasy owners with 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in just 18.9 minutes off the bench. Those aren't eye-popping numbers, but for a backup seeing minutes in the teens, that was plenty valuable. Along with retaining Nikola Vicevic, PG will be a point of emphasis for the Magic this offseason.
Source: John Denton on Twitter
April 25, 2019, 12:20 pmMohamed Bamba - C - Orlando Magic
Mo Bamba (left tibia stress fracture), who has progressed to jogging and shooting jumpers in his rehab, hopes to be ready to play in the summer league.
Bamba showed his tantalizing fantasy potential in limited minutes during his rookie season averaging 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. Bamba has the ability to produce big man stats and hit some threes if given a full complement of minutes. With Nikola Vucevic heading into free agency and potentially leaving, Bomba has a chance to get there next season.
Source: Josh Robbins on Twitter
April 25, 2019, 11:58 amAndre Roberson - G/F - Oklahoma City Thunder
Billy Donovan said that Andre Roberson (left patellar tendon) is healing well.
"The healing has been good from what I’ve been told." Roberson missed the entire season after sustaining a setback while attempting to return from last year's awful injury. Another full summer of recovery should do the trick, so hopefully we see OKC's defensive stopper return to the court by opening night.
Source: Maddie Lee on Twitter