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Internal Improvement Candidates: Northwest Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA continues with the Northwest Division, which doesn’t feature markets that have traditionally attracted big-name free agents. In recent years, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Kevin Love have all departed the division on less than friendly terms. As a result, almost every team in the Northwest has committed itself to building through the draft, with varying levels of success.

The Oklahoma City Thunder represent the gold standard for that model. Not only have they built an elite team almost entirely through homegrown products, they have remained committed to the draft even as they contend for titles. The Thunder have seven different guys on their rookie deals and their ability to take the final step in the playoffs will depend in large part on how well those players can grow into bigger roles over the course of the season. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the Utah Jazz, who have six recent lottery picks on their roster but appear no closer to getting out of the basement in the Western Conference. Some have seen their games stagnate as they move into bigger roles while others have struggled to find a role that allows them to maximize their skill-set. Dante Exum might be the future, but he is still a 19-year-old who played high school basketball in Australia last season. 

Somewhere in the middle are the Portland Trail Blazers, who shot up the standings last season with a starting line-up better than the sum of its parts and the Denver Nuggets, who are still looking for an identity after dumping George Karl and falling out of the playoffs. The Minnesota Timberwolves, who are in the very beginning of a new rebuilding plan, can only hope that their path looks more like Oklahoma City than Utah in the next few years. 

- Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams

The scariest part about where the Thunder go from here is how much room they still have to improve. Over the last three seasons, they’ve been one of the best teams in the NBA while giving Kendrick Perkins 20-25 minutes a game. He has some value as a post defender and a guy who quarterbacks the defense, but imagine if they had a guy with more size and athleticism than Perkins back there who was not a complete non-entity on the offensive end?

Even if Adams never develops a post game, his ability to catch and finish around the rim makes him an upgrade over Perkins. He shot 50% from the field as a rookie, a number Perkins hasn’t matched since his time in Boston. He probably won’t start for another season, but as he improves on both sides of the ball and earns more playing time, the Thunder will be even better than they are now. Where will they be when Adams is at 30-35 minutes a night?

- Portland Trail Blazers: Will Barton

After two seasons on the fringes of the rotation in Portland, Barton could be poised for a breakout year in his third year in the NBA. With Mo Williams gone, there’s room in the rotation for a guard to assume a bigger role on the second unit, which has been one of the biggest weaknesses for the Trail Blazers over the last few seasons. Portland has three young guards on their bench - Barton, CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe - and one of them needs to step up. 

The key for Barton is his outside shot, which improved between his first and second seasons in the league. If he can consistently knock down the 3, his ability to get to the rim and find the open man will give him a leg up on the other two, who are more pure shooters. This is a big year for Barton - if he can’t crack the rotation, he’s probably not long for Portland, as few NBA teams keep second round picks on the end of their bench for four seasons.

- Denver Nuggets: Kenneth Faried

No player had a better summer than Faried, who followed a breakout performance in the World Cup with a $50 million contract extension. The move signals Denver’s commitment to Faried as they try to move forward in the post Karl era. Faried is the only under-25 player slated to have much of a role on the Nuggets roster this season, so their ability to move up the Western hierarchy will depend in large part on how much room he has left to grow.

The key question with Faried is how to build a team around him - is he better off with a shot-blocking center who can protect him on defense or a stretch 4 who can open up the floor for him? Coach K solved the dilemma by pairing him with Anthony Davis, but guys with his skill-set do not grow on trees. If Faried can improve as a perimeter shooter and a defensive player, he will give Brian Shaw more options in terms of how he deploys his frontcourt.

- Minnesota Timberwolves: Gorgui Dieng

After being glued to the bench for most of his rookie season, Dieng exploded in the final few months, taking advantage of an injury to Nik Pekovic to establish himself as a legitimate NBA center. Not only was he a nightly double-double threat, he displayed a skill-set that has been in short supply in Minnesota in recent years - a shot-blocking center who could anchor a defense while also providing quality play on the offensive end of the floor.

With Pekovic likely to be the featured option in a post Kevin Love universe, it’s unclear how many minutes will be there for Dieng. Can he operate as a power forward in a Twin Towers configuration or will he be be siloed into a role as a backup center? One of the big questions for Flip Saunders is whether he can figure out a way to use Pekovic and Dieng together or whether he would be better off flipping one of his C’s to improve the rest of the roster.

- Utah Jazz: Trey Burke

There are a lot of guys who could be featured here, as there a number of talented young players in Utah who haven’t quite figured out who they are in the NBA. None will be more important to the team’s success this season than Burke, the second-year PG who will have to shoulder a huge burden on the offensive side of the ball. Not only will he need to figure out how to score more efficiently, he will have to be able to create easy shots for everyone else too.

As a rookie, Burke shot 38% from the field, struggling with the size and speed of the NBA game. At 6’0 190, he is one of the smallest PG’s in the NBA and he will need to use every bit of his offensive creativity to survive against the longer and bigger defenders he will face on a nightly basis. The key for him is becoming a knock-down shooter - a guy his size will have a hard time surviving in the lane and he has to take advantage of any opening he can create.

Top-5 Non-National Teams For 14-15

While we are still about a few weeks away from regular season NBA basketball, it seems like a fair time to start thinking about the teams and storylines that could dominate the landscape for the upcoming season. After years of writing the Non-National Games of the Week column for RealGM, I have a sense of what teams will be on my NNGW radar to start the year. My non-national teams have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

While I have removed teams with heavy national profiles from consideration for this column in other years, I made every team eligible this season and none of the chosen six play even thirty games on ESPN/ABC, TNT and NBATV.

Honorable Mention. Philadelphia 76ers: They will be absolutely terrible but Nerlens Noel made enough plays in Summer League to make Philly the early leader for my first quarter Eastern Time Zone team.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves: Unlike the Sixers, most of Minnesota’s fun young players should get at least some playing time this season and the team should be somewhat competitive. Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng have larger roles to play, but both Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine should get enough burn to make the Wolves worth paying attention to. Plus, any team with Ricky Rubio gets my attention, at least for now.

4. Phoenix Suns: The Suns came out of nowhere and ended up being my favorite League Pass team on the aggregate last season. They were fun to watch and played games of importance despite eventually missing the playoffs. While there are numerous factors which may lead to a more deflating campaign, Jeff Hornacek’s squad deserves this spot based on their large overall continuity.

3. Golden State Warriors: After deciding to keep their roster largely together despite some compelling offers that I am still not over, the Warriors did change their head coach and should have a much more effective and engaging offense to show for it. I also hope we get to see more of Draymond Green playing with Stephen Curry as well as a potential rejuvenation for Harrison Barnes after a wholly disappointing sophomore season.

2. New Orleans Pelicans: An absolutely huge test year for Anthony Davis. The Brow got muscle behind him in the form of one of the best defensive Centers in the entire league in Omer Asik. The full-strength Pelicans will be intensely fun to watch and give us a much better idea of what the next few seasons in New Orleans will look like. Plus, the three-headed PF/C monster of Davis, Asik, and Ryan Anderson causes matchup problems in each iteration and we may also see some minutes with all three sharing the court, which could lead to my favorite potential situation of the entire 14-15 season: Anthony Davis guarding Small Forwards. If Monty Williams puts Davis on Kevin Durant for 5+ minutes during some game, it would be must-see TV for basketball fans.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Amazingly, the Cavs get the #1 spot on this list for a second year in a row. Let’s hope it turns out better for them this time around. This year’s Cavaliers are the great experiment of this NBA season because their three best players were all better offensively than defensively last year and their only true rim protector on the roster has quite the injury history. Add in the intrigue relating to who starts at shooting guard and figuring out the SF/PF rotation and you have a team worth watching in both big and small moments.

A Superstar Is Not Enough Out West

Seven years after trading Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics, the Minnesota Timberwolves had to press the reset button again, sending Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a three-team trade for Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young and a future No. 1. Even though it’s as good of a deal as could reasonably be expected for a team in their position, they are still almost certain to extend their playoff drought to 11 seasons, the longest streak in the NBA. 

It’s a stunning record of futility, especially when you consider they had either Garnett or Love on their roster for the vast majority of that span. Players of that caliber don’t grow on trees, especially when you are a small-market franchise. Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick in one of the strongest drafts in recent memory and there’s no guarantee he ever becomes as good as Minnesota’s last two franchise players. The good news is he shouldn’t have to be.

The Wolves situation isn’t nearly as dire as it was seven years ago. The franchise had to start from scratch following Garnett’s departure - they won only 32 games in his final season and they didn’t retain any of the top-5 scorers from that team. Al Jefferson, the centerpiece of the deal with the Celtics, was the only real building block on hand. They would have needed to bat 1.000 on their next few lottery picks in order to avoid a long journey in the wilderness.

Love came the following season, but it was all downhill from there. They had four first-round picks in 2009, but only one - Ricky Rubio - ended up sticking and he didn’t come over from Spain for another two seasons. They drafted Wesley Johnson in 2010 and Derrick Williams in 2011 and they traded their first-round pick in 2012 for Chase Budinger. With so many misses at the top of the draft, it’s no surprise they weren’t able to build a playoff team around Love.

The Wolves won only 40 games last season, but they had a lot more talent on their roster than most below-.500 teams. They had a point differential of +2.7, better than both the 49-win Dallas Mavericks (+2.4) and 48-win Phoenix Suns (+2.6). The four remaining starters in Minnesota - Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Nik Pekovic - are hardly perfect, but they all are proven NBA veterans capable of contributing to a winning team.

Young can’t fill Love’s shoes, but he’s a good player who gives the Wolves a starting unit that can keep them competitive on a nightly basis. While that may not translate into many wins in a Western Conference that is as stacked as ever, it means Wiggins won’t be asked to do too much too soon, as opposed to Jefferson in 2008. With Martin and Brewer entrenched on the wings, Wiggins could start his career as a reserve, where he would be groomed into a bigger role.

Nor would he be the only high-upside young player coming off Minnesota’s bench next season. In his second stint with the franchise, Flip Saunders has already proven to be a better judge of talent than David Kahn and Kevin McHale. Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III have a chance to stick in the NBA while Gorgui Dieng, the No. 21 pick in 2013, and Zach LaVine, the No. 13 pick in 2014, could end up as the biggest steals in their respective drafts.

After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Dieng came on strong in the final month, posting multiple games with 17+ rebounds. At 6’11 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he has prototype size and athleticism for an interior defender as well as the ability to contribute in multiple ways on the offensive end of the floor. His per-36 minute averages last season - 13 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists and 1 steal on 50% shooting - mark him as a comer.

LaVine was one of the most polarizing players in this year’s draft, a walking embodiment of the “stats vs. scouts” debate made famous in Moneyball. He has about as thin a resume as any lottery pick in recent memory - in his only season at UCLA, he averaged 9 points and played only 24 minutes a game. Nevertheless, while he didn’t get many opportunities in college, he’s an electrifying athlete who doubles as a high-level shooter, passer and ball-handler.

Even as rookies, the combination of LaVine and Wiggins should form one of the most exciting second-unit duos in the league. They are both only 19, so there will be plenty of growing pains, but you could not ask for two better athletes to run the break and catch lobs from Rubio. Minnesota will have two different identities next season - a halfcourt team built around Pekovic and an uptempo team with Dieng protecting the rim and helping to trigger the break.

It’s a best of both worlds scenario for the Wolves, as they can grow a group of promising young players for the future without sacrificing wins in the present. LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng can all start their careers in small roles on a team full of veterans, instead of being forced to carry heavy loads on one of the worst teams in the NBA. And with those three on the roster, Minnesota is the rare rebuilding team that won’t have to sweat the results of the lottery too hard.

In a best-case scenario, Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng form the core of a playoff team in a few years time, with Saunders filling the PF spot either though the draft or dealing one of the remaining vets. If he can land someone like Kentucky freshman Karl Towns, a two-way 7’0 who can protect the rim on defense and play on the perimeter on offense, the Wolves could have a future starting five of under-26 players who can excel on both sides of the ball. 

Of course, there will be plenty of bumps and bruises along the way and there are no certainties when it comes to projecting young players. Rubio has to become a better shooter, Dieng only has a month’s worth of good games under his belt and Wiggins and LaVine have proven nothing at the NBA level. There’s a lot we don’t know about each of them and the Wolves don’t exactly have a great track record of developing prospects over the last decade.

However, after years of failed lottery picks, they finally seem to have a front office capable of finding talent in the draft, the most important asset for a rebuilding franchise in the modern NBA. If a lost decade in Minnesota has proven anything, it’s that no player, no matter how talented, can single-handedly carry a franchise into the playoffs out West. Andrew Wiggins is a good start to a rebuild, but he’s far from the only thing Wolves fans have to be excited about.

The Law Of Small Numbers

While taking a quick glance at the market for Kevin Love around draft day could have led to confidence for the Warriors, any concept that letting the string play out would be to their advantage would be deeply misguided.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

With the Cavaliers, Bucks, 76ers, Magic and Jazz owning the first five picks, we can begin to examine what will go into the decision-making process of the the first 14 selection.

Identifying What Late 1st Round Big Men CAN Do

You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6í10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Mason Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers in college, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling.

The Utter Nightmare Of Minnesota's 2011 Draft

A bad draft can happen in a variety of ways: poor selections, bad trades, or taking options off the table for no reason. All three hit David Kahn and the Wolves at the same time.

The Western Conference At The Deadline

The Western Conference is highly competitive this season, but that didn't carry over to a deadline in which Steve Blake was the most important acquisition after the Rockets were unable to cash in their Omer Asik chip.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Top-10 Lottery Teams That Could Make The 2014 NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans, Raptors, Pistons, Wolves, Cavaliers, Blazers, Wizards, Mavericks, and maybe even the Kings and Bobcats could find their way into the playoffs if a number of things go right.

Top-Five 2nd-Favorite Teams

In an NBA so rich with talent and intriguing storylines, how can you limit yourself to just one team? These five squads deserve second billing in your hearts and remote-holding hands.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

How Many Players Teams Acquire At Each Trade Deadline On Average

The Kings, Knicks, Rockets, Thunder and Cavaliers have been the most active teams at the deadline over the past decade, while the Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Lakers and Pacers have made the fewest deals.

The Uncertain NBA Career Of Derrick Williams

Derrick Williams isnít just a reserve forward for the Timberwolves, he is only 18 months removed from being the second overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft and that makes the first 80 games of his career so enigmatic.

Kirilenko's NBA Departure And Return

Andrei Kirilenko talks to RealGM about his experience with CSKA, winning the bronze in London, the impact of Mikhail Prokhorov on the Russian game and his initial days with the Wolves.

Leroux's 2012-13 NBA Tier Predcitions

While the drop-off from the Heat to the rest of the Eastern Conference is severe, the Lakers, Spurs and Thunder have quick company in the second and third tiers.

Leroux's 30-Team Offseason Review

The Nuggets, Lakers, Heat, 76ers and Nets were amongst the teams with great offseasons, while the Bucks, Magic, Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers and Bulls were in the bad column. Here's how all 30 teams have fared in the 2012 offseason.

Team-By-Team Gold Medal Winners

The Jazz and Thunder have had the most Gold Medalists since the USA began bringing NBA players in 1992, while Duke leads amongst colleges. How do the other 29 NBA teams rank?

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