By: Dan Slaubaugh
Yesterday I was listening to Bill Simmons’ "Kawhi-DeRozan Emergency Trade Podcast" on The Ringer. The show boasted intelligent NBA conversation on the Kawhi Leonard-to-Toronto blockbuster via the voices of Simmons himself, Shea Serrano, Kevin O’ Conner, Joe House, and Bill's dad. Here’s a link to it: you’ll enjoy it. While a quality hour-and-a-half listen, one thing struck me the wrong way.
There was no mention of the Timberwolves being playoff contenders last year, despite the 16-win jump they made a season ago.
Somewhere in the middle of the podcast, Simmons asked O’ Conner, one of my favorite national NBA writers by the way, to power rank the Western Conference. His answer:
“Golden State, Houston, that third spot hmmm... San Antonio? Utah? OKC maybe in there as well?” Simmons responded, “Is that our top five? I think the Lakers have to be in there.”
Shortly after, Simmons justifiably raves about how stacked the Western Conference is.
“I think the West is better this year. I don’t even think that’s a controversial statement. Golden State had 60 wins. Houston had 65. The Lakers go up. I think Utah goes up. I think the Spurs tread water and they’re right around where they were last year. OKC is slightly better. It’s a loaded conference.”
Then O’ Conner chips in: “We didn’t even mention Portland or New Orleans.”
I’m thinking, how can you not mention Minnesota or Denver in that conversation? Last year, the Timberwolves were the 3-seed for the majority of the year before Jimmy Butler tore the meniscus in his right knee. Finishing two games back of the Trail Blazers for the 3-seed, they likely would have clinched third place had their resilient leader not missed 17 games. The Nuggets were in the same boat, being one win (on the last day of the season) away from a playoff berth despite Paul Millsap, their big 2017 offseason splash, only playing 38 games.
Now, this doesn’t go without saying other playoff teams didn’t sustain injuries. Utah’s defensive monster Rudy Gobert only played 56 games and Kawhi Leonard chose to sit out the season in a New York hotel not wanting to risk further injury (or so we have been led to believe).
Yes, the West was loaded before the offseason began and it’s only gotten better. How exactly? Let me explain.
-Golden State did what we all thought was impossible and added another All-Star to the dynasty (although Achilles injuries can be incredibly tricky and tough to come back from).
-The Rockets have probably had the worst offseason in the West losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute in free agency but will still be most experts’ picks to finish second.
-The Blazers ceiling doesn’t raise higher than the 2nd round but with Lillard and McCollum’s ability to light nets on fire they are a near playoff lock.
-Utah’s defense is otherworldly with Rudy Gobert, 2017-18 Defensive Player of the Year, imposing fear into anyone who dares to enter the lane. Offensively, they’ll have a more materialized and established Donovan Mitchell to lead the way.
-Oklahoma City got rid of Carmelo Anthony and will get back stud defensive wing Andre Roberson back. Plus, they added Dennis Schroeder. They will be better.
-New Orleans added bruising big man Julius Randle to their already stealthy frontcourt rotation after unexpectedly winning a playoff series in April.
-San Antonio, like Simmons said, now has two All-NBA players that will suit up rather than avoid the team.
-Minnesota finally has a sense of continuity can build on a successful season with Butler, Towns, Wiggins, and co. all having one year under their belt with each other.
-The Nuggets took a risk signing Isaiah Thomas to lead their second unit but getting Paul Millsap for what they hope to be 75-plus games should improve their league-worst defense.
-The Lakers have LeBron and you can’t doubt any team in the world that has LeBron.
-The Clippers boast a plethora of quality veteran players who’ve been in the league for quite a while and know what it takes to win.
The teams unlikely to reach the postseason (Phoenix, Sacramento, Dallas, Memphis) are set up for bright futures and likely have more favorable title window timelines than the Minnesotas and Portlands of the world who are in win-now mode while the aforementioned rebuilding teams wait for Golden State to (hopefully) deteriorate.
You get the point. The West is stacked. There are legitimately 11 teams that could make the playoffs in the West next year.
With that being said, I am now beginning to see two recurring themes among NBA writers and fans.
1) People have forgotten the amount of parity involved in the West last year (just three games separated the 3rd-place Blazers and 9th-place Nuggets) and 2) how good the Wolves were before Jimmy got hurt.
On February 23, the day before the Butler injury, Minnesota sat 36-25 and in third place in a jam-packed Western Conference. That’s 61 games – basically ¾ of the season and a large enough sample size to have an educated grasp on where teams rank in the standings. The Wolves were rollin’, especially offensively, where they had the third-best offensive rating in the league at a blistering 111.2. As we know, the offense had to be good enough to make up for a woeful defense, and it was.
Then Jimmy got hurt. They went 8-10 in his absence, then 3-0 after his return. In total, the Wolves posted a 39-26 record when Jimmy Butler wasn’t in street clothes. They finished an impressive 34-18 against the West and defended home floor exactly how a playoff team should, going 30-11 under the roofs of a newly remodeled Target Center. Before ending the season with consecutive losses, they gave us the game we’ve been waiting for 14 years in a 121-105 smackdown over the Houston Rockets in the franchises' first home playoff game since 2004.
So, why have the Wolves been cast off into the over-looked section?
It certainly could be traced to the off court problems between Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Tom Thibodeau. If you are unaware of those rumored problems, Andy Grimsrud of "A Wolf Among Wolves" helped provide context in a great article ran last week. Because there are too many reputable sources reporting the current disconnection inside the Wolves franchise, it would be foolish to sweep those reports under the rug and act like there are no issues. But on the court, things are looking pretty good for the Wolves, especially if we go by the same criteria Simmons laid out to Serrano (well-known Spurs fan) in the podcast mentioned above on what makes a prominent NBA team.
From the podcast: “Shea, I know it’s a bleak day for you. I just want to point out that you have two All-NBA guys on your team -- two current reigning All-NBA guys. Only 15 guys make the All-NBA team. It’s a 30-team league and you have two of them. I feel like this is a triumphant day for San Antonio.”
If my facts are correct, the Wolves also have two current reigning all-NBA guys. In a league where high-end talent often wins out (which is where I think Bill was getting at), the Wolves have a 1-2 punch (Towns and Butler) better than every team in the West besides Golden State (Durant and Curry), Houston (Harden and Paul), and arguably Oklahoma City (Westbrook and George).
The Wolves clearly have some kinks to work out in the locker room, their defense sucked last year, Tom Thibodeau’s outdated defensive schemes and tactics lead me to believe it won't improve enough to reach contending status, and there are plenty of question marks surrounding the bench. At the same time, they belong in the same class as their Western Conference rivals not named Houston or Golden State for the 2018-19 season because of a lethal 1-2 punch and a plethora of quality role players. They are not the 15th best team in the league, as the latest ESPN power rankings suggest. That's hogwash, and stunning how they are being ranked so low. Ultimately, I guess it's just not attention drawing to keep your roster, more or less, as is during the offseason. Naturally, those teams that are adding players are going to be dreamy new contenders.
But make no mistake about it: The Wolves, with everyone healthy, are a top 10-team in the league and a top-6 team in the West.
Don’t confuse this team’s talent with the current tumult behind the closed doors of Target Center and Mayo Clinic Square.
By: Jake Paynting
Between the swirling rumors of Minnesota's core not functioning smoothly and the Timberwolves fan base's constant disdain toward head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau, the Summer League has been a nice escape from the Wolves' regularly scheduled madness.
The Summer League Timberwolves, who finished the tournament with a 3-2 record, features three players who are already apart of the real squad: Rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop and Jared Terrell, who earned himself a two-way contract after going undrafted. All three players have had their moments of brilliance in Las Vegas, but the standout for everyone in the Wolves camp was undoubtedly Okogie proving to be an off-season defensive juggernaut.
Throughout the five games, Okogie racked up nine steals (2.25 per game) and eight blocks (2.0 per game) and disrupted a bunch of plays, too. After averaging 18.2 points per game and shooting 38 percent from long-range in his final year at Georgia Tech, his offensive struggles (11 points per game on 30% shooting) have been slightly surprising, but he more than made up for it with his intense defensive work.
As you can see in the highlight reel below, Okogie was everywhere. He would apply the clamps to any opposition who tried to beat him off the dribble, sliding his feet beautifully and using his quick hands to poke away multiple balls. On the rare occasion where the 6-foot-4 guard did get beaten off the bounce, he would seemingly springboard off the hardwood to swat a would-be bucket, using his jaw-dropping 42-inch vertical the way it's supposed to be used. While all this was going down, you can bet your bottom dollar coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau was foaming at the lips in the stands.
Summer League certainly isn't the best indicator of success in the big leagues. In fact, previous Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards have been handed out to less-than-stellar players like Josh Selby, Kyle Anderson, and Glen Rice Jr. since its introduction in 2012. Nonetheless, skills like work rate and defensive IQ are usually the type of qualities that are easily translatable into NBA success.
Minnesota finished the season 22nd in defensive efficiency and last in defensive efficiency off the bench, so Josh Okogie's defensive exploits in Las Vegas are something Timberwolves fans will welcome with open arms. Rumors of the Wolves' youngsters not working as hard as expected may have floated around all summer, but Josh Okogie has hit the ground running in that perspective.
Long live the pocket-picking, shot-swatting first round pick.
While the jaw-dropping moves of LeBron James and DeMarcus Cousins will deservedly dominate the headlines for the foreseeable future, there has been a few minor moves in the Minnesota Timberwolves organization that may have slipped past your wondering eye.
Cole Aldrich's puzzling contract was waived - and likely stretched over three years - and 3-point gunner Anthony Tolliver joined the Wolves on a one-year deal $5.5 million deal. However, the most minuscule of moves came before the official free agency moratorium had kicked off, signing Rhode Island University guard Jared Terrell to a two-way contract. The 23-year-old averaged 16.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the Rams in 2017-18.
It took until the season was already underway before Tom Thibodeau signed Amile Jefferson and Anthony Brown to two-way contract's last season, so it's pleasing to see the Thibs, Scott Layden and the rest of the front office brass move quickly this summer. It will be interesting to see if they use the two-way guys any differently than last year, which consisted of four total minutes for Brown and zero for Jefferson, despite dominating the G-League in Iowa.
Nevertheless, Terrell will feature for Minnesota in the Summer League, and can spend up to 45 days on the NBA roster throughout the season, so he is worth keeping tabs on.
The 6-foot-3 guard will hope to make his name by continuing to connect on triples the same way he did in senior year at RIU, where he nailed 41.4 percent of his 5.3 long range shots per game. He is a willing gunner from deep and if he can hit them at a reliable clip in the big leagues he has a chance to stick on a roster, whether it is the Timberwolves' or elsewhere.
Despite his stature, Terrell built like a brick wall and uses that strength to bulldoze his way to the rim at a serviceable level, that knack for getting inside buckets helps create space for his sweet shooting stroke as well. This kind of scoring guard fits the mold of a Thibs guy, much like Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague, although obviously not at that level.
Problems definitely arise for Terrell when projecting his fit in the NBA. In an ideal world, he would slot in as a small shooting guard, thanks to his below average playmaking, but he lacks the size and length to compete with NBA wings. This leaves him as a point guard who doesn't pass at an NBA level, essentially a dog without a bark.
Even at the one-guard position, Terrell will need to show more than he did at Rhode Island on the defensive end if he wants to make hay with the defensive mad scientist we call Tom Thibodeau. The 23-year-old has quick hands and a knack for getting into the passing lane, but he is far too lazy and disinterested when it comes to one on one defense and often doesn't even bother to rotate at the ring to provide some sort of defensive help.
If the former Ram can show some sort of summer improvement during his time under John Lucas' team in Las Vegas, he might have a chance to grab some minutes in the Timberwolves rotation. However an injury to Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose, Tyus Jones or Josh Okogie would likely have to occur to create that path. Either way, he should be a solid piece of the Iowa Wolves G-League squad and another fresh face with a chance in Minneapolis.
Keep an eye on Jared Terrell in the Las Vegas Summer League, which kicks off on Friday!
Follow Jake on Twitter here.
7/2/2018 2 Comments
By: Dan Slaubaugh
The Minnesota Timberwolves Monday signed an old friend. According to Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania, Anthony Tolliver is returning to the Twin Cities on a one-year, $5.75 million dollar contract.
Tolliver, 33, is expected to fill the role Nemanja Bjelica, whose qualifying offer was consequently withdrawn from the Timberwolves, played last year for the Timberwolves in 2018-2019. Tolliver, however, could give the Wolves something Bjelica struggled providing -- consistency.
A career 38-percent three-point shooter, the 6-foot-9 forward put together one of the better campaigns of his career with Detroit last season, where he averaged 8.9 points across 22.2 minutes while knocking down 2.0 three-pointers at an impressive 43.6 percent clip -- 7th best in the NBA. He' shot at least 3.5 attempts per game every season since 2012-2013, hitting between 36-44 percent every year.
This will be Tolliver's second stint with Minnesota after playing a key bench role from 2010-2012. The sharpshooter was relied on to provide floor spacing and perimeter shooting for the Timberwolves then. Eight years later, his role will be identical, but rather on a team with two perennial all-stars and a stealthy supporting cast.
The former Creighton grad has some old-school ball in him. He’s tough, not afraid to dive on the floor for loose balls, and possesses a knack for making winning plays. He’s the definition of a "Thibs guy".
How can you not love those high, geeky-looking socks?
Not only is Tolliver just a good basketball player, but also a great veteran presence in the locker room, and a player who’s appeared to be loved by everybody on the team wherever he’s been. With 18-year NBA vet Jamal Crawford on his way out, Tolliver will bring much-needed leadership to the locker room with his esteemed character.
The signing suggests Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau wants to play more small ball next year as Jimmy Butler, Anthony Tolliver, and Keita Bates-Diop are able to guard both 3’s and 4’s. Successfully defending the perimeter is vital in the modern NBA, and the Timberwolves will be improved in that area after adding length and versatility in those positions. As a result, this will allow Tom Thibodeau to give Taj Gibson more rest next season after averaging a career-high 33.2 minutes per game at 33 years of age.
In the hopes of taking the next step as a franchise (meaning advancing past the first round of the playoffs), the Timberwolves have been active through the first two days in free agency bringing back Derrick Rose on a one-year, $2.1 million deal, and now Anthony Tolliver. This leaves them with roughly $3 million left to spend in free agency, in what we expect to go towards another wing shooter. Among names the Wolves have reported having interest in: Wayne Ellington, Dante Cunningham, Vince Carter, and Corey Brewer. Inking any of the listed names would be the icing on the cake in an offseason the Timberwolves weren't supposed to be highly active in.
“Versatility is sort of the buzzword now, “Thibodeau said before June’s NBA Draft. “You need guys who can play multiple positions and fit into a team.”
After acquiring the likes of 6’4 Josh Okogie, 6’9” Keita Bates-Diop, and 6’9” Anthony Tolliver, Tom Thibodeau has successfully delivered plenty of said "buzzword" to the Timberwolves so far this offseason.