NBA Finals rematch

It’s time to stop hyping up Cavs-Warriors matchups

After the Golden State Warriors’ 118-108 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday, it is officially time for the NBA to stop trying to make us care about regular season matchups between these two teams. Almost every NBA Finals rematch has simply not lived up to the hype the NBA has tried to stir up over the past three years.

This rivalry was forged in the fires of the NBA Finals. It wasn’t born of constant division clashes or bad blood between players. In fact, Cavs and Warriors players are almost always very nice to and complementary of each other and their play. Before the game on MLK Day, LeBron James literally hugged Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, the people he should hate the most on this Earth.

Since it was born on one of the biggest stages in sports, it’s hard to care about what these teams look like against each other until they’re back on that stage. The only exciting thing about these games the past three years has been the conversation about potential finals storylines. That’s a fine reason to watch a game during a random Wednesday in November, but it’s not good enough to justify the marquee matchups on the NBA’s most important days.

Recent history

Since Cleveland and Golden State first met up in the finals in 2015, the Cavs have won exactly one regular season game against them. It was an admittedly exciting and contentious one-point win on Christmas Day in 2016. But it is still only one game.

NBA Finals rematch

Kevin Durant dunks during Monday night’s game (Photo by David Liam Kyle/Getty Images)

To find another Cleveland regular season win during the rivalry, you would have to go back to Feb. 26, 2015. Even counting this one is a stretch, because this was before they had met up in the finals. The NBA didn’t even know it was a rivalry yet.

 

For the sake of sample size, let’s count those two matchups in 2015 towards this exercise.

Including the finals matchups, the Warriors have won 17 of the 26 games these two teams have played. That’s a win percentage of .654 over three-plus years. Considering the teams are in different conferences, that’s complete dominance. It seems even more dominant when you look at it under the microscope that the NBA has forced upon the games.

Not counting playoffs, the Cavaliers are 2-6 in eight tries in the regular season since LeBron returned to Cleveland. That’s not exciting. It’s not something the NBA should plan its entire Christmas Day slate around.

Points

In the regular season matchups, the Warriors have beaten the Cavs by an average of 18.3 points. The Cavaliers have won their two matchups by just 6.0 points.

NBA Finals rematch

Durant guards James during a Christmas Day game. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports)

Since Kevin Durant arrived on the West Coast, the Warriors wins are by an average of 15.3 points if the playoff matchups are included. The Cavaliers have won just twice (again, including playoffs), by an average of 11.0 points. However, that is a bit misleading, considering one of those wins was by 21 points in the finals game where Cleveland scored 49 points in the first quarter and had 86 at halftime.

What does this all mean? It means that when the Warriors win, which is most of the time, they’re almost always winning by over 10 points.

Sure, games can end up with a lopsided score during garbage time that makes them seem less competitive than they are. But with a sample size this large, these numbers don’t lend themselves to putting these games on days where fans are already watching the NBA (i.e. MLK Day and Christmas).

Solutions

No one can blame the NBA for wanting to use these games to boost viewership and sell ad time at a higher price. That’s business, and finals rematches are a proverbial cash grab in that respect. But people wanting to see these games isn’t the problem.

The thing that’s most glaring about forcing these finals rematches down our throats is that fans are going to watch these games. People who know and care about the NBA are compelled to tune in to see if they are going to be surprised by the outcome.

NBA Finals rematch

Curry and Durant celebrate during the NBA Finals. (Photo by Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports)

The real power that these games have are drawing in casual fans, and sometimes even non-fans. Those people are going to tune in on Christmas Day, regardless. So why not save your supposed “big guns” for late February or mid-March, when even hardcore fans might be yearning for something else to watch?

Another solution could be slating one of the matchups for very early in the season, October for instance, and then slating the other one for the spring. After the All-Star break and trade deadline, both teams will more than likely have the identity that they are going to carry into the playoffs. If the NBA is really concerned with giving the fans a playoff atmosphere, then let the Cavaliers, who like to build and fill in gaps through trades, finalize their roster.

Of course, all of this is predicated on the idea that these two teams will meet in the finals again, which is hardly a guarantee this season. Having the games before the trade deadline could be a good plan because the Cavs can see what holes they need to fill to be competitive with Golden State in June.

One of the teams will be there, but we’ll have to wait and see whether or not these marquee matchups were just the final blow to Cleveland’s confidence, or motivation to not get embarrassed on the national stage yet again.

 

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Blow it up: Why the Clippers should embrace a rebuild

The Clippers are only one game back from the eighth seed in the West. Lou Williams is playing outside of his mind. Blake Griffin is back from concussion protocol and Patrick Beverley says he could potentially play again this year. Not to mention, they’re one of the most injured teams in the league, all around, and they still beat the Warriors on Wednesday.

So why blow it up? Why not keep getting healthier and make one last meaningful run at the title while everyone has written them off?

Easy answer to an easy question; They won’t win a title in the West. They can’t. Not with this roster in this conference with this level of competition.

The Clippers are already teetering on breaking their streak of six straight playoff appearances. So here’s why they should wave the white flag and lean into the disappointment.

Trade chips

Lou Williams’ value will simply never be higher than it is right now. He’s averaging 31.6 points per game off the bench in his last 10 contests. He’s a virtual lock for Sixth Man of the Year, although he’s pretty much playing starters’ minutes. And he dropped 50 points on Golden State on Wednesday night, which is significant because the name of the game for 29 teams in the Association is to beat the Warriors at all costs. That’s something to, at the very least, take into consideration while going over a shopping list.

Clippers

Lou Williams tries to score over Omri Casspi. (Photo by: Alex Gallardo/Associated Press)

The Clippers also have two of the premiere offensive-minded rebounders in the league in Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan.

At 28 and 29-years-old respectively, are both in that sweet spot where the Clippers can trade them away without an iota of seller’s remorse. Historically, big players have started to have a downturn in their numbers around 30-years-old. So, the Clips can say that they held onto Griffin and Jordan in their prime, tried their very best to make it work and can sell very high to teams in need of their production.

Also, if they keep Beverley off the court this year and maintain an air of mystery around what he is capable of, then they can sell high on his defensive potential during the off-season.

Coaching

Doc Rivers is a prolific players’ coach, and puts more stock in talent than schemes. This isn’t a knock against him in any way, and, in fact, it is what won him a championship in Boston.

The problem is that without transcendent talent on the floor, coaching has to be about schemes and patterns. Now that Chris Paul is a Rocket, Blake Griffin can’t seem to stay on the court for an entire season, and defensive wizard Patrick Beverley is probably done for the year, Rivers is not the right fit for the team.

Clippers

Doc Rivers yells at an official while Deandre Jordan begins to hold him back (Photo by: Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

Trading away talent for picks and placeholders is an easy way to phase out Rivers and begin again with a clean slate. His contract is up after next season, so if the team commits to the rebuild, then next year’s record should be pretty bad. That’s an excuse to let Rivers go find his next job and lets the Clippers pick a new direction.

The draft

The Clippers don’t have a wealth of draft picks this year. In fact, as of now they only have one pick. Obviously, if they trade away stars and want to rebuild, that will (or should) result in more picks.

The 2018 draft should be pretty balanced and should feature some franchise-altering talent in the first round. That leaves two ways Los Angeles can play this particular game.

They can stockpile picks and see what sticks and what doesn’t, a-la the Philadelphia 76ers. Or, they can bear hug the tanking philosophy after trading away Williams, Griffin and Jordan and aim for a high pick. Once that pick is secured, they can flip it for more chances at less-valued players, or go for broke and try to draft a star.

Either way is equally risky and equally viable, but it should all depend on what they can get for their on-court talent.

Clippers

Blake Griffin throws down a dunk. (Photo by: Harry How/Getty Images)

It’s not easy to say goodbye to Lob City. The Clippers were, genuinely, one of the most exciting teams in the NBA for a long period of time. They also successfully overshadowed a certain purple and gold clad team that shares their arena.

But with Chris Paul dropping dimes in Houston, an aging frontcourt and no real identity, it’s time to watch these players be great somewhere else. Steve Ballmer is, arguably, a top-10 owner in the league, so let’s all hope he won’t want to mortgage the future for another meaningless first round exit.

Two good teams in Los Angeles is good for the Association, and good for the fans. If this happens, however, there will be two pretty bad teams in Los Angeles, for what is probably the very first time. But this is a Band-Aid that needs to be ripped off. They still have the Dodgers, after all.

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Making the case for every fringe playoff team

The NBA season is halfway over, which means it’s time to start evaluating potential playoff teams.

The top four seeds in each conference are virtual locks, due to overall talent and coaching. The fifth-seventh seeds will do some changing around as teams jockey for their playoff seeding. Although, close followers of the NBA probably wouldn’t be surprised if the Pistons or the Trailblazers fell out of the playoff picture after overachieving slightly in the first half of the season.

As with any sport’s playoff, however, the most interesting storylines are the ones involving the teams on the bubble.

With that in mind, let’s look at each conference’s eighth seed and first two teams on the outside looking in.

Eastern Conference

Indiana Pacers (21-19, No. 8 seed)

The Pacers have been just fine without Paul George. Victor Oladipo has been playing close to his ceiling, although they’re still overpaying for him. The other piece of the trade that sent George away, Domantas Sabonis, has also been playing nicely. He’s two rebounds shy of averaging a double-double, and will probably end up setting career-high averages in every meaningful category.

While their offense has been clicking, their defense is some of the most below average in the Association. Not awful, just very mediocre. Their offense alone can win the Pacers enough games to keep them in the 8th spot. Lack of defensive consistency will have been their downfall if they fail to make the cut.

Philadelphia 76ers (19-19, first team out)

Philadelphia is one of the most exciting stories in the NBA this season. The “process” seems to have finally come to fruition, and we are finally seeing glimpses of what this long and arduous rebuild has wrought.

Even though the 76ers are a .500 team, don’t be fooled. They’re currently first in the league in rebounds per game, second in assists resulting made field goals, and sixth in points. A rested and re-energized team could ride that kind of momentum to a playoff spot after the All Star break. Plus, their first overall draft pick hasn’t even played five games yet.

NBA Playoffs

Embiid scores on Whiteside. (Photo by: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

What will keep them out of the playoffs is their youth and inconsistency in their game to game performances. As the season drags on, the young players might start to slow down, which will only exacerbate their inconsistency issues. Those red flags usually mean a .500 team will stay a .500 team, but playing in a weak conference will definitely help.

New York Knicks (19-21, second team out)

The Knicks are a force to be reckoned with in the paint on both ends of the court. They are ninth in points in the paint and second in points allowed in the paint. Yes, we’re talking about the New York Knicks.

The team is huge, size-wise. Porzingis, O’Quinn, Kanter and Noah are all either over or close to 7-feet. That length pays dividends over a long regular season, but could actually be a problem if they sneak into the playoffs. The East is full of jump shooting teams, which will stretch New York’s strengths too thin to make them truly effective.

Western Conference

New Orleans Pelicans (20-19, No. 8 seed)

New Orleans might very well be a better team than their record indicates. They’re second in points in the paint thanks to Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. They’re also second in the NBA in assists per game thanks to some great guard play both from starters and off the bench. Not to mention they have the second toughest schedule in the NBA (according to 2016-2017 team records).

Team defense leaves a lot to be desired for the Pelicans. Bottom five in opponents points in the paint per game doesn’t make a lot of sense considering the front court they have. They also give up the third most points in the league per game.

NBA Playoffs

Davis and Cousins during a game against the Spurs. (Photo by: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

It’s an especially strange case on New Orleans’ part. The chemistry and coaching is clearly there, as evidenced by the assist totals. But the defense is nowhere near where it should be, in spite of Cousins and Davis. Remember that Alvin Gentry was brought on to be a defensive mastermind, and the roster has only gotten better since he came to town. Maybe look for a coaching shake-up if the Pelicans miss the playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers (18-21, first team out)

Doc Rivers’ team is hurting out west. The Clippers have been a staple of the Western Conference playoffs for the past six years, but the days of Lob City have finally come to an end. Chris Paul’s departure marked a culture change for the Clips, and the team has not found its stride just yet.

Los Angeles still has a great 3-point game. Beverley, Williams, Rivers and even Griffin can all pull up from distance. They also have great personnel for man-to-man defense. Those two things are golden in NBA playoff basketball. But, yet again, team defense is going to be the main hurdle between them and their playoff streak.

Utah Jazz (16-24, second team out)

The new look Jazz are in a soft rebuild. After losing their number one scorer in Gordon Hayward, the Jazz were almost certainly take on a new identity. But picking up Ricky Rubio and finding a steal in Donovan Mitchell should have stopped the bleeding more than it has.

Their defense is some of the best in the NBA, all around. In fact, the Jazz are top 10 in almost every meaningful defensive category under Quin Snider. Against the trend, the offense is what will probably keep Utah out of the playoffs this year. Although, again, this is a new look team. And offense almost always comes together more quickly than defense. If they can keep up the defensive dominance, they won’t be out of the playoff picture for long.

 

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Donovan Mitchell

Why everyone is talking about Donovan Mitchell

Donovan Mitchell was truly torn between staying at the University of Louisville and declaring for the draft. It seems as if he’s made the right choice.

The rookie sensation is on his way to a special first season. He is a go-to scoring option, and he can hold his own on defense. There aren’t very many things he hasn’t shown the NBA he cannot do, and the season is not quite halfway over.

Here are some of the reasons why the NBA is officially on notice.

Rookie of the Year candidacy

Mitchell is tentatively in the top spot for Rookie of the Year. But why?

Ben Simmons collects more rebounds and dishes out more assists at a guard position. Jayson Tatum is shooting 45.3 percent from three and turns the ball over less in the exact same amount of time on the floor. In fact, the only category of note in which Mitchell safely leads his top two challengers is points per game at 18.2.

Defense

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell steals the ball from Nance Jr. (Photo by Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

Part of it might have to do with his commitment to improving his game on the defensive end of the court. He has commented on his own “perfectionist” nature when it comes to his defense and has said ex-Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s defensive expectations were one of the things that drove him to pick Louisville.

That commitment may not show up on the stat sheet, as his 1.5 steals per game and 0.5 blocks per game are not gaudy numbers. But they are only going to get better if Mitchell’s is as dedicated to improving as he says he is.

Also, it’s hard to deny when watching him play that he isn’t exerting the effort it takes to be a great defensive guard. Coach Quin Snyder has even lauded Mitchell’s ability to deny an offensive player the ball when they are racing to their spot. Keep in mind that anyone’s first year playing against the best scorers in the world is going to be an adjustment, period.

Offense

What will probably impress ROY voters even more, however, is Mitchell’s electric offense.

Again, he has 18.2 points per game, which leads all rookies at the halfway point on the season. He already has 16 games with 20 or more points, which puts him within spitting distance of the Jazz rookie record, currently held by another former Louisville Cardinal, Darrel Griffith. He’s sinking 3-pointers at an almost 36 percent clip, which is decent enough. Plus, his 43.8 field goal percentage is impressive considering he takes more jump shots than either of his top competitors.

The real story here, though, is his athleticism around and above the rim. He can get up, catch the ball in traffic and most importantly, slam it home. This brings us to our next point.

Dunk Contest

Donovan Mitchell’s dunks are fantastic. If he isn’t in the dunk contest this year, then the NBA might as well cancel it.

There’s no real way to describe a dunk using only words, so suffice it to say, he is exhibiting in-game feats of athleticism that one must see to believe.

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell throws down a dunk. (Photo by Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Mitchell told Michael Rapaport on his podcast that he would “love” to participate in the dunk contest over the All-Star break, but would be prepared to lose to Derrick Jones Jr. of the Miami Heat, if Jones were to participate. He went on to say that he’s probably lost to Jones in 12 out of the 13 dunk contests he’s been a part of, as they have competed against one another since they were young.

At only 6-foot-3, Donovan has already thrown down some dunks that will undoubtedly be in consideration for Dunk of the Year honors. This is helped by his tremendous jumping ability and having one of the most seasoned passers in the league, Ricky Rubio, at the point guard position.

Earning respect

Along with earning his spot in ROY consideration, Mitchell is also earning high praise from some of the very best players in the NBA.

After a workout with Chris Paul and Paul George, Paul told David Gardner of Bleacher Report that Mitchell was “going to be good for a long time,” while also commenting on his obvious love of the game.

The biggest story here, however, comes from an Instagram comment of all things.

On Dec. 16, the Jazz visited Cleveland. Mitchell scored 26 points in Utah’s losing effort, while LeBron James notched his 60th career triple-double. After the game, Mitchell posted on Instagram about how excited he was to be able to play against the players he grew up watching. In a comment on the post, James called Mitchell “young king.”

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell tries to score against Wade. (Photo by: Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune)

This is significant. James has respect for all rookies, but he appeared to name Mitchell as a potential successor to his throne. That doesn’t happen every day. Regardless of whether it was in a press conference or on Instagram, this is James telling the world to keep an eye on this one.

Also, after that same game, Dwyane Wade lined up after LeBron and patiently waited his turn to give Mitchell a word or two of encouragement. Wade, one of the best shooting guards of all time, and a dynamic finisher around the rim in his prime, wanted words with Mitchell. Neither Wade or James had to to do these things. They were paying their respects to a first-year player. Make no mistake, that’s a big deal.

That is three potential Hall of Fame basketball players already touting Mitchell’s abilities and capacity to improve. And that’s without mentioning all the things that great players have said about him in press conferences after games against the Jazz.

All in all, Mitchell has the ability to be a true all-around player in the league. At the shooting guard position, that’s very impressive. He’s also managed to fill a Gordon Hayward-sized hole in the Jazz’s offense. It probably will not be enough to propel the Jazz to a playoff berth, or even a winning season, but he provides hope for a storied NBA franchise.

And no matter what team you may root for, the potential for another LeBron James should inspire that same hope.

 

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Isaiah Thomas return

Should the Cavs have waited to bring back Isaiah Thomas?

Isaiah Thomas said he had “no feel for the game right now,” per Dave McMenamin of ESPN after the Cavaliers’ 17-point win over Portland.

That’s interesting considering his 17 points were scored on 6-for-12 shooting in just 19 minutes. Not to mention those 17 points he scored was the exact margin of victory for the Cavs. Suffice it to say, if he doesn’t have a feel for the game now, may God help the Eastern Conference when he gets it back.

The problem here wasn’t with Thomas’ performance, it was with the team on the receiving end of said performance. Specifically, the fact that they weren’t wearing green and represented by a leprechaun.

The Cavaliers chose to make Thomas available for the game against Portland on Tuesday, eschewing the primetime matchup against his former team in Boston on Wednesday. The team did not want Thomas to play back-to-back games after his long awaited return from a torn labrum, lest they risk an injury to one of the big pieces of their playoff hopes.

So, why not just wait one more day and give the NBA the marquee, probable Eastern Conference finals matchup it has been waiting for? With both teams at nearly full strength, this would be a perfect opportunity for both squads to get a feel for what the other team’s game plan might be in the spring.

First, let’s argue for why he should sit.

Sit him

Very simply, the Cavs and Tyronn Lue may just not have a plan they are ready to execute for Thomas against Kyrie Irving and the Celtics.

Isaiah Thomas return

Isaiah Thomas warms up for his Cavs debut. (Photo by Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

Irving has the best handles in the league, and it won’t inspire confidence in fans, players or the media if Thomas keeps getting cooked by Irving every time down the floor. Not to mention hip injuries limit mobility, so if Lue does have a plan, who’s to say Thomas could even execute it well enough to justify the minutes?

Apropos to that last point, Lue may be playing some mind games with Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Perhaps purposefully not showing Boston what they can do against Irving in an effort to force them to change their defensive set pieces later on in the season.

Another obvious reason for him to sit would be concern over the physicality of a rivalry game. Considering these two teams will almost certainly meet at some point during the playoffs, this will be a chance for both teams to rough each other up to show them what they’ve got. What Boston might have for a 5-foot-9 point guard is a hard screen or a shoulder to the chest that sends him to the floor with a re-aggravated hip.

Finally, the Cavs don’t want to look like they were just sitting on their hands regarding Thomas’ return until he could come back and burn his old team. That is a bad look for an organization that has pretty much dominated the Eastern Conference for three straight years.

Now, why should he start in a potentially dangerous back-to-back?

Start him

The first and most glaring reason for starting Thomas is for the fans. If it’s a forgone conclusion that these teams will be meeting in the playoffs, (which it is, barring some sort of major collapse), then the fans deserve the full playoff atmosphere. With every player that can suiting up and showing us what we’ll get in May.

Isaiah Thomas return

Isaiah Thomas makes his season debut against the Trail Blazers on Jan. 2. (Photo by Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

That’s without even mentioning the great storyline that could have been if Thomas suited up for his first game against his former team that he believes heavily devalued him. But, since he played against Portland, that storyline is less sexy than it had the potential to be.

Regarding playoff atmosphere, why wouldn’t Lue want his best players and best scorers in the game as much as possible? The Celtics are a top-tier team. They can score and suffocate teams defensively. A guy who scored almost 29 points per game last year would be a logical play if points will be at a premium.

Lastly, it makes sense to test Thomas’ hip in tough back-to-backs when the season is not even at its halfway point. Thomas will have the entire All-Star break to rest and rehabilitate. Another injury to that hip is frightening, especially when it cost him nearly eight months. But a full tear is unlikely, and it would be a calculated risk considering the opponent.

Regardless of all of that, the decision has been made. He did not play.

Thomas was not drilling 3-pointers while a man a foot taller than him stumbled to get his hand up. He was not flexing his defensive capabilities against one of the most invaluable point guards in the league. He was also not passing it to the human fountain of youth that is LeBron James.

But, for everyone’s sake, especially the Cavs, let’s all hope he will be by May.

 

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Timberwovles

How the Timberwolves can carve out a niche in the West

THE PUZZLE

The Timberwolves have an identity crisis.

It’s gotten so noticeable that Kenny Smith didn’t really have an answer for Charles Barkley when he was asked about the team’s direction going forward during the Wolves-Lakers Christmas night game on TNT.

Here’s the kicker, though: They’ve lost their starting point guard since then.  And with Jeff Teague out, the Timberwolves need to find and hone in on their strengths now more than ever.

It’s not a five-alarm fire just yet, as the Wolves would be the No. 4 seed at 22-14 if the playoffs started today. But don’t forget, Minnesota is trying to shake the longest playoff drought in the NBA (2004), and the third-longest active drought in American professional sports (behind the Buffalo Bills at 17 years and the Seattle Mariners at 16 years). When a team has been dealt that particular hand, things like this have to be treated with a certain sense of urgency.

THE PIECES

Let’s look at the pieces of this puzzle:

First and foremost we have Karl-Anthony Towns. Now, Towns can do everything on the court, including shoot 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip on the season as a 7-footer. He does everything well, and he will be a super-elite player within the next 3-5 years in the NBA, the only problem is, he cannot do everything alone. Towns needs whatever holes he brought with him to the arena on a given night to be stopped up by role-players, which is a small nit to pick, but not out of bounds considering the nature of this exercise.

Andrew Wiggins is wildly athletic, and can slash to the basket as well as anybody in the NBA. But the jump-shooting woes will inevitably start conversations about whether or not he was worth the $150 million price tag. If he is only going to shoot 43.2 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from distance (as this season’s numbers show), then he needs to be collecting more than 3.9 rebounds and dishing out 1.7 assists per game. His strength is his quickness, and he needs to be using it to find lanes to the basket with more frequency if he wants to catch defenses off-guard when he does shoot a jump shot.

Jimmy Butler is a premier player in the NBA. His spot-up shooting ability, defensive prowess and on-court presence is something all 30 teams would like to say they have in one package. Alas, Jimmy can only play for one team, and it’s the one coached by his former Bulls skipper, Tom Thibodeau. He has had to serve as more of the defensive anchor on a young team (because he knows Thibodeau’s system), but if the load on that end of the floor can be lifted in the future, watch out, because Jimmy loves to fill it up.

Jeff Teague is another slasher with streaky shooting ability. The difference between he and Wiggins, however, is that Teague is always simultaneously looking for his shot and looking to distribute the ball. 7.3 assists per game this season is not super flashy, but factor in the 13.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, and you have yourself a piece that is going to be sorely missed. All initial reports on his sprained MCL suggest he’ll be sidelined 2-4 weeks, so the question is: Will Tyus Jones mimic Teague’s trademark aggressiveness, or take a back seat to Butler and Towns? Either scenario could help and hurt the Wolves in different ways.

Taj Gibson, another of Thibodeau’s old Bulls, has finally found his stride. Every one of his important statistics are up this year: Points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and he’s been working on his 3-point game as well. An odd story for a 32-year-old defensive-minded power forward, but a welcome presence in the starting five.

Minnesota’s bench plays less minutes than any other bench in the entire league, at only 13 minutes per game. They are 27th in PPG, 26th in APG and dead last in RPG. These numbers sound bad because they are bad, but what they are not is unsalvageable.

Thibodeau is a player’s coach, and has never been shy about putting in the players he think will him the game. The problem is, that this translates into leaning too heavily on his starters, when his bench is full of decent role-players.

Aaron Brooks is a pure shooter who will give you points if you give him minutes and an open spot. Jamaal Crawford is one of the most historic sixth men of all time, and can still bury his shot with a hand in his face. Nemanja Bjelica is your prototypical European big man with decent feet and a better long-range game. Gorgui Dieng is a fine true center with length and mobility to clean up the glass and give the team some putbacks. He also has championship experience from his days at Louisville, which is always something to take into account when determining a player’s value.

THE PICTURE ON THE BOX

Now that we have all of our pieces together in front of us, let’s try and solve the puzzle.

It’s no coincidence that the Wolves have been marred by fourth quarter collapses so far during the season. The latest of these coming at the hands of the Bucks on December 28. Antetokounmpo and his squad erased a 20 point third quarter deficit on their way to a win in Milwaukee.  So, let’s not overthink this one.

Fixing the fourth quarter yips is as simple as getting the starters off the floor. If Thibodeau starts believing in his bench more, instead of making his starters play 35 minutes per game, then they can be rested for the home stretch. A tired KAT is better than no KAT, but a rested KAT beats both of them.  Case closed.

This does not fix the identity crisis, however. Should the Wolves adopt the run-and-gun style of the Houston Rockets? Probably not, they don’t have the shooters that Houston does. Should they thrive on quick offense and turnover defense like the Warriors do?  No, the quickness is lacking and the Warriors feast on opponents who try to play their game.

The team they should emulate is none other than the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs play to their strengths, and shake up lineups constantly to cover up their weaknesses. They ask each player to do the thing at which they are best, and play within the system otherwise. True, NBA fans and non-NBA fans alike have called their style “boring” since 1999, but all their “boring” style has done is win them six conference titles and five championships.

Kawhi Leonard is a terrific talent, and they still have pieces to make a playoff run. But even with the best coach in the NBA, their glory days are behind them. Whether they rebuild or reload is irrelevant to the Wolves, however. The Timberwolves have the pieces now. And now is the time to emulate and tweak the Spurs’ style, and ride it to a potential championship.

Laid out above are the strengths of the key players on the team. Instead of throwing the starters at the wall to see what sticks, Thibodeau should mask the weaknesses by highlighting these strengths. Imagine Teague (when he returns) and Crawford at the guard spots chucking it down to Dieng and Towns when the opposition is playing small.  When they figure that out, throw in Butler, Brooks and Bjelica and pull the rip-cord on the 3-point game. When those stop falling, substitute for Wiggins and let him provide a one-man slashing exhibition.

The point is, Minnesota finally has the talent, the coach, and the superstar to break the drought. That will be good enough for now.  But no team’s goal is to fold in the first or second rounds. That is why the Wolves need to start implementing a system that will pay dividends down the road. Implement it now, and in earnest to see what the shopping list will be before the All-Star break or next summer.

Besides, it’s about time we see some lime green jerseys in the finals.

 

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