Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Martin’

Shed no tears for Andrew Wiggins

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Wolves head coach Flip Saunders talks about Andrew Wiggins’ potential

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Don’t cry for Andrew Wiggins.

That’s the message delivered by the last two men who coached the No. 1 Draft pick. When the Cleveland Cavaliers finally shipped Wiggins — shunned by LeBron James since the day the King announced his return to Cleveland six weeks ago — to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love on Saturday, he joined Chris Webber (1993) as the only No. 1 picks since the NBA-ABA merger to be traded before ever playing a game for the team that drafted them.

A sad end to a long, strange summer for Wiggins? More like an eagerly anticipated beginning, says Rob Fulford, Wiggins’ high school coach at Huntington Prep in West Virginia.

“Andrew is such a good kid; he’s just a classy kid, very humble, very respectful,” Fulford, now an assistant at Missouri, told NBA.com this week. “I think this whole process with the trade rumors, he could care less. That kid just wants to play basketball. The fact that LeBron never reached out to him, Andrew could care less what LeBron James thinks of him.”

Throughout this saga in which the Cavs selected the Toronto-born Wiggins No. 1 and watched him flash his promising skills during the Las Vegas Summer League all the while trade rumors swirled and LeBron sweet-talked Love, Wiggins, 19, handled the enormity of the situation with graceful maturity always accompanied by a warm, playful smile.

It didn’t surprise Fulford, who saw such characteristics from the time Wiggins arrived at Huntington Prep to enormous fanfare to the day he left for Kansas as a McDonald’s All-American. His departure included a heartfelt thank-you note to the people of the Huntington community published in the local newspaper.

“You have to understand, this kid, the media circus was around from the beginning when he got here in August of his junior year in high school until he left Huntington in May of his senior year after graduation,” Fulford said. “It was just a circus. I think it prepared him for what was going to happen at Kansas and even now he’s used to it, and I think he’s handled it really well. With the parents that he has, both have been professional athletes, I think it helped that he’s been kind of groomed in that manner.”

All Wiggins wanted, he reiterated during several interviews over the last month, was a place to call home, a place where he feels wanted. And so Wiggins will not flank the game’s greatest player on an instant contender in Cleveland, but instead will embrace replacing the fed-up Love as the next great hope for the long-languishing Wolves.

Fulford keeps in relatively close contact with the long-limbed, 6-foot-8 phenom, typically through text messages. The message he’s received loud and clear is that Wiggins is excited to make his own name for a franchise in need of a leader.

“Andrew’s going to be a superstar,” Fulford said. “This gives him a platform from Day 1 to kind of be the guy, and he’s ready for that.”

Earlier this month, Wiggins’ former coach at Kansas, Bill Self, said nearly the same after telling reporters that Wiggins had told him he hoped Cleveland would trade him.

“Even though, in a weird way, everybody would love the opportunity to play with LeBron because you’re guaranteed winning, for the longevity of his career, he needs to develop that mindset to be the guy for him to be great,” Self told reporters. “And I think being in Minnesota will help him do that.”

For glum Wolves fans, the Love fiasco has the potential to yield a happy ending after all. The greatest fear for an organization is it will never come close to recouping equal talent when forced to trade a disgruntled All-Star. Wolves president and coach Flip Saunders has reaped a haul as strong as anyone could expect.

In the three-team trade, Wiggins heads to Minnesota with the Cavs’ 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett and Philadelphia’s consummate pro, Thaddeus Young, 26, a solid immediate replacement for Love at power forward.

They’ll join a cast that includes 23-year-old, potential All-Star point guard Ricky Rubio, veteran guards Kevin Martin and J.J. Barea, emerging center Nikola Pekovic, small forwards Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger, Wiggins’ fellow Huntington Prep alum and quick-learning 2013 first-round pick Gorgui Dieng, and high-flying ’14 first-round pick Zach LaVine.

The fit in Saunders’ up-tempo plans should suit the slashing Wiggins well. Fulford said Kansas’ high-low attack that included big man and No. 3 pick Joel Embiid didn’t always afford Wiggins the driving lanes he craves, turning him into a jump-shooter.

“He’s going to have more space to work with,” Fulford said. “And he’s extremely … I won’t say he’s impossible to guard in space, but he’s close to it.”

Love’s Wolves never made the playoffs, a six-year span that included exceptionally disappointing endings to the last two seasons. Nobody should expect a rapid ascension this season in the competitive West as the Wolves again transition, but young and athletic, Wiggins’ new team is stocked with upside and should be an exciting squad to watch grow.

“I don’t think there’s any question he’ll have a great rookie season. He’s groomed for this,” Fulford said. “In college he got better the year he was there, but he’ll be a better NBA player than he was a college player, and he was an All-American at Kansas, so sky’s the limit for him.

“It’s one of those things, him being on a team where it’s kind of really going to be his, I think, is a good thing for him.”

So shed no tears for Andrew Wiggins. Or the Wolves.

LaVine delivers more than dunks in Vegas

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rookie Zach LaVine from UCLA tore up the Samsung Summer League in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS – Zach LaVine jumps really high and talks really fast. He exudes a brash confidence like Russell Westbrook and plays with a chip on his shoulder the size of Bill Walton.

This latest UCLA product is headed either for a stunning rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves or cold, hard NBA reality.

“I’m a very confident person, I always hold myself to high standards,” LaVine said Friday after scoring 22 points with four assists in the Wolves’ sixth and final Summer League game. “You know, there’s a lot of doubters on me. I feel  always like changing peoples’ minds, you know, ‘He’s not NBA-ready, why’d he come out?’ and different things like that. So I just come out here and always try to prove my point. I think I fared well for myself.”

There was little not to like about the 6-foot-5, 19-year-old’s debut in the Las Vegas Summer League. Everybody was aware of his athleticism coming in, but many were skeptical about his decision-making and the durability of his 180-pound frame..

“I definitely have to get in the weight room and let my body mature. But if they can’t touch you, you know, strength really isn’t a factor,” LaVine said. “I feel I’m a pretty physical person, just not the strongest yet, so I definitely have to get into the weight room. But I use my speed to my advantage.”

He averaged 15.7 points a game and more than five free-throw attempts per game in the Summer league. Twice he got to the line 10 times.

Fans mostly will remember a dazzling array of dunks. He’s already nominated himself for the dunk contest when February’s All-Star weekend props up its big tent in New York City.

“I’m definitely going to be in the dunk contest, know that,” LaVine said  “I haven’t lost a dunk contest for a long time, maybe since I first started dunking. So I have some dunks in my package.”

The Wolves are more intrigued by the 13th overall pick’s size at the shooting-guard position, his ball-handling and his higher-than-expected court IQ at point guard. He bounced between the two positions during Summer League.

He scored in double figures in all six games. In the final three games he averaged 19.3 points, 3.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds. He had two games with five turnovers, but averaged just 3.6 turnovers in 32.2 minutes a game, a good rate considering he was playing with little practice time and with unfamiliar teammates, most of whom won’t sniff the NBA.

“We knew he had talent, we knew he was good, but he exceeded all our expectations thus far,” Wolves assistant coach Sam Mitchell said. “He’s smart, he’s athletic, he can handle the ball, he can shoot the ball, he’s a sponge, he learns. We threw a lot at him. We’ve run a lot of NBA sets, we’re doing a lot of things defensively and he just picks it all up.”

The Wolves could have playing time available. Behind point guard Ricky Rubio is the diminutive J.J. Barea, who is in the final year of his contract and has seen his shooting percentages drop the last two seasons. Behind shooting guard Kevin Martin is young Russian Alexey Shved, who took a step back last season after a promising rookie campaign.

“I feel like I’m player,” LaVine said. “Wherever he [team president and coach Flip Saunders] needs to play me at; if that’s the 1, I feel like I can handle the ball and run the team, to a point where I’m still learning the position, but I feel like I can handle it. I like scoring the ball as well, so whatever he needs me to do, facilitate, shoot, defend, anything he needs me to do.”

There’s a chance LaVine could be one of two 19-year-old talents in Minnesota. If the Wolves deal Kevin Love to Cleveland for Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota could be set up with two tremendously gifted athletic wings for years to come.

For now, LaVine is headed back home to Seattle to train. The league will have to wait to see if he builds on his Summer League success. But Timberwolves fans should know that they will hear from their newest addition.

OKC’s Lamb waits through reduced role

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

Jeremy Lamb (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Jeremy Lamb (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Demotions stink.

There’s no way around it, no matter the line of work. It’s impossible not to take it personally. But hey, that’s life, and a team player, a professional, is expected to bite the bullet and keep on keeping on. It’s particularly true in the delicate world of pro sports.

Welcome to Jeremy Lamb‘s world. For 60 games, the coming-of-age Oklahoma City Thunder wing had served in a 21-minute-a-game role as a reserve. Averaging 9.5 points a game on 43.7 percent shooting and 35.1 percent from beyond the arc in those games, the 6-foot-5, long-limbed Lamb had received praise from most precincts as a valuable member of the Thunder’s strengthened bench.

Only Lamb’s mostly been tied to the bench since early March. Veteran small forward Caron Butler, signed as a free agent after being released by Milwaukee, immediately walked into 28 minutes a game. Butler, 34, can deliver rugged defense, rebounding and a reliable corner 3-pointer — he’s shooting 39.7 percent from deep, if only 36.8 percent overall.

Lamb before Butler Lamb post Butler Butler in OKC
Games 60 12 13
Minutes/game 21.7 14.1 28.0
Points/game 9.5 4.7 9.8
Rebounds/game 2.7 2.0 3.5
Assists/game 1.6 1.4 1.2
FG% 43.7 34.8 36.8
3FG% 35.1 33.3 39.7
FT% 83.9 33.3 85.7
FTA/g 0.9 0.5 0.5

Perhaps it’s just a case of bad timing for Lamb, who was mired in a shooting slump over the last two weeks of February, going 9-for-38 from the floor (23.7 percent) and 5-for-21 from 3-point range (23.8 percent) over a six-game stretch. In the 12 games he’s played since the rotation change, his minutes have plummeted, his overall shooting percentage is 34.8 (and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc) and he’s averaging just 4.7 points a game. An 83.9-percent free-throw shooter, Lamb’s missed four of the six he’s attempted since Butler’s first game on March 4.

“Of course it’s not easy, but it’s doable to try to stay ready because I don’t want to get in a game and let my teammates down and let my coaches down,” Lamb said last Tuesday before the Thunder played the Dallas Mavericks. Lamb didn’t get off the bench at all in that game, recording his only DNP-CD of the season. In fact, it is the only game this season he hasn’t appeared.

“I try to stay ready, try to stay on top of my game,” Lamb said. “Coach [Scott Brooks], he still gives me opportunities, he still trusts me, but Caron is on the team now and he’s been playing good. It’s all just a learning experience for me.”

That’s what Lamb, 21, thought last season was all about when he played in just 23 games after coming to Oklahoma City with Kevin Martin as part of the James Harden trade shortly before the start of the 2012-13 season.There’s also an added ego hit to this. Lamb, the 12th overall pick of the Rockets in 2012, has seen his reduced role come at a time when starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder’s top perimeter defender, is sidelined by injury. Defensive-minded rookie Andre Roberson, long and active at 6-foot-7, has started  the last nine games and averaged 17.6 minutes a game. He produces little offense, about only a third of Sefolosha’s 6.7 points a game, but in a starting lineup with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s larger need is at the other end.

“His minutes have been a little up and down but it’s not that he’s going to be a forgotten man,” Brooks said of Lamb. “He’s going to get opportunities. He just has to stay ready and stay confident, and that definitely is difficult for any player let alone a younger player. There’s areas he’s going to be able to continue to work on. He’s not on the bench permanently, he’s just going to have to be ready when his opportunities come.

“There’s times where in anybody’s career if you’re not playing you still have to improve and find ways to get better, and we’re going to continue to work with him and prepare him for opportunities to play. And he’s going to get them.”

In the last two games, blowout wins over Sacramento and Utah, Lamb played 33 minutes and 22 minutes respectively. Against the Jazz his minutes were split evenly between halves. Against the Kings he played 16 minutes in the first half.

But he’s also logged seven minutes or less five times in the Thunder’s last 13 games, including the DNP-CD at Dallas. Eight times he’s been limited to 14:20 or less. That happened just four times prior to Butler’s arrival.

“I definitely talk to Jeremy. He’s a confident young guy,” Westbrook said. “You always got to be ready, that’s all I can tell him. Just be ready, work on your game everyday and you never know when your number’s going to be called. He’ll be ready. My job is to help him do that, to stay confident and think positive thoughts about himself and his game.”

The Thunder have nine games remaining in the regular season with a home date against San Antonio next on Thursday. There remains no certainty of Sefolosha’s return or how a rotation will shake out from there. For Lamb, there’s only one thing he can do.

“My teammates they always encourage me. I just try to work hard,” Lamb said. “Coach still communicates with me telling me to stay ready, keep going. That’s what I’m trying to do.”Stay ready.”

A 5-Horse Race For West Seeds 6 – 8?


VIDEO: Kevin Love has 33 points and 19 rebounds to lift the Wolves over the Nuggets

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – A five-horse sprint to capture playoffs seeds 6 through 8 could be the most heated Western Conference race of the stretch run.

At the top of the standings, Oklahoma City and San Antonio are battling it out for the top seed while the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston and Portland are jockeying for seeds 3 through 5.

At the bottom it’s an ever-tightening battle for survival, not just to get into the playoffs, but if at all possible to seize the No. 6 seed and go for broke against anybody other than the Thunder or Spurs.

Entering Tuesday night’s games, No. 6 Golden State and No. 7 Phoenix both have 24 losses and are separated by one game in the win column. No. 8 Dallas and No. 9 Memphis both have 25 losses and are separated by two games in the win column. Dallas has the same number of wins as Golden State  and Memphis has one fewer win than Phoenix.

Got it?

In simple terms, seeds 6 through 9 are separated by 1 1/2 games.

And don’t totally dismiss the No. 10 Minnesota Timberwolves just yet. Fueled by Kevin Love‘s breathtaking February and the return of Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin, the Wolves are making a desperate attempt to get back into playoff contention, but still remain five games behind Dallas.

All five teams have 23 games or fewer remaining. All have attractive stretches where they can potentially make up ground in a hurry, but all also have pitfalls where the dream can just as quickly come to a crashing halt.

Below is a breakdown of the five teams in contention. How many home games does each have? How many games against the West? The East? Against Indiana and Miami? Where must each team take care of business? And where must each simply survive?

Take a look:

No. 6 Golden State Warriors (36-24)

> Games left: 22 (13 home, 9 road)

> Next game: Tonight at Indiana (7 p.m. ET, League Pass)

> vs. West: 15 (7 vs. current playoff teams)

> vs. East: 7 (1 vs. Indiana, 0 vs. Miami)

> vs. winning teams: 11 (Indiana, Phoenix, Dallas 2, L.A. Clippers, Portland 2, San Antonio 2, Memphis, Minnesota)

> Moving time: Five-game homestand from March 18 – 30 (Orlando, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Memphis, New York)

> Must-haves: March 9 vs. Phoenix; March 11 vs. Dallas; March 28 vs. Memphis, April 1 at Dallas

> Must survive: March 9 – 16 (vs. Phoenix, vs. Dallas, at L.A. Clippers, vs. Cleveland, at Portland)

> Wild card: The offense has struggled, but can they rely on their No. 1 defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in the West to win pressure games?

==========================

No. 7 Phoenix Suns (35-24)

> Games left: 23 (9 home, 14 away)

> Next game: Tonight vs. L.A. Clippers (9 p.m. ET, League Pass)

> vs. West: 14 (10 vs. current playoff teams)

> vs. East: 9 (0 vs. Indiana, 0 vs. Miami)

> vs. winning teams: 12 (L.A. Clippers 3, Oklahoma City 2, Golden State, Toronto, Minnesota, Washington, Portland, San Antonio, Dallas, Memphis)

> Moving time: March 12-21 (vs. Cleveland, at Boston, at Toronto, at Brooklyn, vs. Orlando, vs. Detroit)

> Survival time: March 9 at Golden State, March 23 at Minnesota, March 28 vs. New York, March 30 at L.A. Lakers

> Wild card: Eric Bledsoe is practicing. Will he return and, if so, can he and Goran Dragic recapture their early-season magic?

==========================

No. 8 Dallas Mavericks (36-25)

> Games left: 21 (12 home, 9 away)

> Next game: Wednesday at Denver

> vs. West: 18 (9 vs. current playoff teams)

> vs. East: 3 (1 vs. Indiana, 0 vs. Miami)

> vs. winning teams: 12 (Portland, Indiana, Golden State 2, Oklahoma City 2, Minnesota, L.A. Clippers 2, San Antonio, Phoenix, Memphis)

> Moving time: First four of a season-long eight-game homestand March 17 – April 1 (Boston, Minnesota, Denver, Brooklyn)

> Must-haves: March 11 at Golden State; March 12 at Utah; April 1 vs. Golden State; April 12 vs. Phoenix; April 16 at Memphis

> Survival time: Wednesday – March 16 (at Denver, vs. Portland, vs. Indiana, at Golden State, at Utah, at Oklahoma  City) and March 25 – April 3 (vs. Oklahoma City, vs. L.A. Clippers, vs. Sacramento, vs. Golden State, at L.A. Clippers)

> Wild card: Dirk Nowitzki, 35, will be solid, but can Monta Ellis, in the playoffs just twice in his career, elevate his game another rung?

==========================

No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies (33-25)

> Games left: 23 (9 home, 14 road)

> Next game: Wednesday at Brooklyn

> vs. West: 14 (6 vs. current playoff teams)

> vs. East: 9 (1 vs. Indiana, 2 vs. Miami)

> vs. winning teams: 13 (Chicago, Portland 2, Toronto, Miami 2, Indiana, Minnesota 2, Golden State, San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas)

> Moving time: Saturday – March 19 (vs. Charlotte, vs. Portland, at New Orleans, at Toronto, at Philadelphia, vs. Utah)

> Must-haves: March 15 at Philadelphia, March 19 vs. Utah,  April 13 at L.A. Lakers, April 14 at Phoenix, April 16 vs. Dallas

> Survival time: March 19-30 (at Miami, vs. Indiana, vs. Minnesota, at Utah, Golden State, at Portland)

> Wild card: Assuming 3s aren’t going to start falling from the sky, can Memphis keep turning up its defensive intensity? Overall, the Griz’s D ranks just behind the … Timberwolves?

==========================

No. 10 Minnesota Timberwolves (30-29)

> Games left: 23 (14 home, 9 road)

> Next game: Wednesday at New York

> vs. West: 13 (7 vs. current playoff teams)

> vs. East: 10 (0 vs. Indiana, 1 vs. Miami)

> vs. winning teams: 12 (Toronto, Dallas, Houston 2, Phoenix, Memphis 2, L.A. Clippers, Miami, San Antonio, Chicago, Golden State)

> Moving time: Wednesday – March 16 (vs. New York, vs. Detroit, vs. Toronto, vs. Milwaukee, at Charlotte, vs. Sacramento)

> Must-haves: March 19 at Dallas, March 23 vs. Phoenix, March 24 at Memphis, April 2 vs. Memphis, April 14 at Golden State

> Survival time: March 31 – April 11 (vs. L.A. Clippers, vs. Memphis, at Miami, at Orlando, vs. San Antonio, vs. Chicago, vs. Houston)

> Wild card: Can everybody stay healthy down the stretch run?

Sizing Up Love: Dunks, Data Or Victories?


VIDEO: Kevin Love executes perfect pass and dunk after practice in Phoenix

When taking the measure of an NBA superstar, what’s your preferred yardstick: Highlight videos or cold, hard analytics? Something visceral and dazzlingly in the moment, or something statistical, built on percentages and decimal points?

Minnesota’s Kevin Love had you covered both ways Thursday.

The fun stuff occurred after the Timberwolves’ practice in the Phoenix Suns’ gym at U.S. Airways Center, as the Wolves – after beating the Suns Tuesday, 110-101 – stuck around for a few days before heading to Sacramento for their game Saturday against the Kings. In an homage to LeBron James‘ impromptu dunk show after Miami’s practice on the same court earlier this month, a shirtless Love fired a ball off the side wall, caught it on the bounce and threw down a reverse, two-handed slam.

All of it, right down to the barechestedness, was just like LeBron. Only this time it was captured by teammate Ronny Turiaf on rookie Gorgui Dieng‘s cell phone.

Now it’s time for the math: The gap in the Wolves’ schedule allowed for some numbers-crunching that showed how much impact Love and his All-Star season has had on his Minnesota teammates.

If the 6-foot-10 power forward’s 26.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game aren’t enough, or his 38.4 percent 3-point percentage, a 28.3 PER rating, those 48 double-doubles (one triple-double) and 20 games scoring 30 points or more, consider how much better the other Wolves players are when Love is on the court with them than when he’s not.

Point guard Ricky Rubio, for instance, has an offensive rating of 109.8 and a defensive rating of 102.2 in the 1,603 minutes he has played alongside Love this season, a net rating of plus-7.6. In the 188 minutes Rubio has been out there without Love, those stats drop to 97.6 and 105.9, a minus-8.3.

Shooter Kevin Martin has had the same pattern: 107.1/102.8/plus-4.3 with Love, 100.7/108.2/minus-7.5 without him.

So has center Nikola Pekovic, at 109.7/102.8/plus-6.9 vs. 95.0/103.2/minus-8.1.

And Corey Brewer, 110.1/103.0/plus-7.0 vs. 95.2/101.7/minus-6.6.

And J.J. Barea, 105.3/100.1/plus-5.1 vs. 91.3/104.5/minus-13.1.

Love’s own on/off numbers for the Wolves: 113.8/104.8/plus-9.0 in 1,956 minutes played vs. 99.5/107.9/minus-8.4 in 784 on the side.

Love’s impact shows up in other ways. Martin, for example, has hit 43.9 percent of his field goal attempts with the big guy around to draw defenders but just 33.7 percent when he’s not. Rubio, Pekovic, Brewer, Barea and Chase Budinger also have shot better with Love on the court.

Only Turiaf of all the Wolves players, curiously, has been more efficient and/or productive with Love out of the game. Maybe that has something to do with some overlap in where they’re at their best.

So which is it that impresses you more: The grainy dunk-show video in all its individual glory, or the hardcore data tied to teammates?

Or are you old school, focusing on Minnesota’s 28-29 record and dreary spot (10th) in the Western Conference standings and withholding your ooh‘s and aah‘s until Love makes his impact felt with a playoff berth? Fair enough.

Trust Binds Brooks, Young Stars To OKC


VIDEO: Take a closer look at Scott Brooks’ coaching style and strategy

OKLAHOMA CITY – Scott Brooks does a bad job of bragging. As he continued to redirect credit for Oklahoma City’s ongoing success to a meticulous organizational structure and its young stars, the Thunder’s coach, self-deprecating to a fault, spotted Wilson Taylor in the distance.

Taylor is the club’s 30-year-old manager of team operations. The morning shootaround had ended moments earlier and Taylor was busily attending to some normally behind-the-scenes tasks at the other end of the team’s sprawling, immaculately lit training facility eight miles north of downtown. Like Brooks and multiple members of OKC’s staff — general manager Sam Presti, superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, roster rock Nick Collison – Taylor’s been with the team since it opened shop here in the summer of 2008.

“People don’t talk about this, but Sam has done a great job hiring, not necessarily me, but everybody in this building,” Brooks said in an interview last week with NBA.com. “You talk to Wilson right there, he understands that his job is to get our players better. And we all have the same mentality, from our therapists, from our sports scientists, from our trainers, from our equipment managers; we all understand our job is to get our players better, and I take pride in all those guys.”

Still, Brooks, 48, is the coach. And he’s overseeing one of the most unique and potentially historic team-building processes in the modern, free-agent-frenzied NBA. From the start of his career, Brooks has been coaching a rising icon (Durant), a perennial all-NBA player (Westbrook) and a roster that boasts, even after Jeff Green and James Harden‘s departures 20 months apart, seven homegrown players and six who are 25 or younger.

In the last four seasons, the Thunder have challenged the Lakers in the first round, made the West finals in 2011 and the NBA Finals in 2012 before last season’s hope got short-circuited in the West semis after a Westbrook knee injury.

Now here they are again.

The bedrock for all this success lies deeper than shrewd drafting. It lies with the bond Brooks forged early on with his two divergent stars. That put the youthful crew on a developmental fast track and put OKC on the map.

On Sunday, Brooks will coach the Western Conference All-Stars in the 63rd All-Star Game in New Orleans because his Thunder sit atop the heated Western Conference with 42 wins in 54 games. Holler if you called that following Westbrook’s third knee surgery the day after he dropped a Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden.

The only team in the league to rank in the top five in offensive and defensive rating? The Thunder. They’ve popped East powerhouses Miami and Indiana by a combined 41 points.

This is arguably the deepest OKC squad ever and, assuming Westbrook resumes his season in the coming days, the Thunder are the favorite to win the West. (more…)

Free-Agent Barometer: Boom or Bust

Back in the hot fun of summertime, when there seem to be more dollars available than grains of sand, every free-agent signing is made to feel like a day at the beach.

Now, as we approach halfway mark of the season, it’s time to take the temperature:

GLOWING


VIDEO: Relive Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, Rockets — There are times when he is too passive and does not demand the ball enough from all of the inexperienced hands in the Houston lineup. But a healthy, happy Howard has been everything the Rockets hoped for when they forked over $88.5 million to lure him away from the Lakers. There is a bounce to his step and joy to his game that had been missing since the 2008-09 season in Orlando. With him in the middle and playing off James Harden, the Rockets are on track to eventually becoming a championship contender.

Andre Iguodala, Warriors — Don’t try to pigeonhole him or stick on a label as an elite defender or a greyhound that thrives in the transition game. He is simply a wonderful all around player that can do whatever is necessary in any situation. He was the spark that lifted the Nuggets a year ago to a franchise-best 57 wins and he’s moved to Golden State to become a difference-maker for the Warriors. For all of the (deserving) All-Star accolades to Stephen Curry and attention paid to Klay Thompson, Iguodala is the one that makes this fun and entertaining team truly dangerous.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — When it finally came time for the Hawks to cut the cord with Josh Smith, they went for his polar opposite. Not at all flamboyant, never trying to things outside his job description, Millsap comes to work every night and never leaves his team feeling shortchanged. His two-year, $19 million contract might have been the best free-agent bargain of the summer and he’s fit right in perfectly on the frontline in Atlanta. He’s blue-collar ways in the low post and on the boards has been needed even more since Atlanta lost Al Horford for the season.

Al Jefferson, Bobcats — One thing rookie coach Steve Clifford knew was that for the Bobcats to pick themselves up from their semi-permanent residence on the Eastern Conference floor, they needed a low-post presence to get some hard-fought points in the paint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp and started slow, but once Jefferson got his legs under him, he’s averaged 16.8 points and 10 rebounds. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte (16 wins) is a sure bet to surpass last season’s 21-win campaign.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavericks guard Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis, Mavericks — We won’t go as far as Dallas owner Mark Cuban to say that the jury is still out on whether Ellis or Howard is the free-agent catch of the season. After all, we’re pretty sure Cuban would make a 1-for-1 swap right now. As coach of the Warriors years ago, ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson called Ellis selfish. But the once shot-happy Ellis has reined some of his tendencies and found a comfortable home in Dallas. He’s averaging 5.8 apg and his upbeat production is keeping the Mavs alive in the West playoff race.

Kevin Martin, Timberwolves — Every team he’s played on throughout a 10-year NBA career has gotten efficiency and production. He’s one of those players who can give you 20 points a game on a minimum number of shots due to a knack for drawing free throws. There have been many things lacking for Minnesota during another underachieving run, but Martin has come through with the kind of numbers — 19.3 points per game — that were expected.

SUNBURNED


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses where Andrew Bynum may end up next

Andrew Bynum, CavaliersSigning him to a two-year, $24 million contract (that was only half-guaranteed in Season 1) was supposed to make it a no-brainer for the Cavs. Of course, the no brain place continues to be between Bynum’s ears as he quickly alienated teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization. He had a pair of 20-point games with 13 and 10 rebounds. But his biggest positive effect was as a payroll-slashing trade chip that eventually brought in Luol Deng.

Josh Smith, Pistons — Don’t let Joe Dumars near your piggy bank. Four years ago, the general manager wasted a Brinks truck full of money to bring in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and put the Pistons into a deep hole. This time Dumars dug deeper with his idea that he could give $54 million for four years to Smith and put him into a super-sized front line with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith has clashed with coach Maurice Cheeks, found himself sitting on the bench at the end of games and still takes bad shots at a high rate. Is anybody surprised?

Chris Kaman, Lakers — The money spent by the Lakers — $3.2 million, one year — could probably have been scraped up out of the sofa cushions in the luxury suites at Staples Center. But no matter how you slice it, the thought that Kaman was going to return to L.A. and help the Lakers in their most trying season was laughable in hindsight. Kaman has never found a way into the rotation, has frequently expressed his displeasure with coach Mike D’Antoni and now spends more time lobbing verbal bombs in frustration than tracking down rebounds or shooting.

IN THE SHADE

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — With Jrue Holiday out of the lineup indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg and the team still reportedly trying to trade Eric Gordon, this would be the time when Evans can step up and really shine. He’s been far from a bust and doggedly fought to keep himself in the Pelicans’ lineup despite the fact that he keeps reinsuring a sprained left ankle. But that $44 million, four-year contract raises expectations for more than 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. At this point, the jury is still out.

Timberwolves Still Finding It Tough To Close The Close Ones


VIDEO: Kevin Love talks to the media after the Timberwolves’ loss to the Suns

Burdened by a failure rate in close games that soon might wrap itself constrictor-style around the team’s entire season — 0-10 in games decided by four points or less, 1-18 going back a full calendar year — the Minnesota Timberwolves might want to try something daring the next time they have a comfortable late lead:

If they find themselves up six or seven points and the game clock under, say, five seconds, they use a timeout to lay a red carpet around the 3-point line. Invite the other guys to hoist one final bomb, uncontested from long range, in the hope that they’ll hit it. Ideally, there won’t be enough time for the opposition to turn that last gasp into a serious comeback and the Wolves will let some air out of what’s becoming a burdensome dark cloud over their season.

It’s bad enough that Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and the rest of coach Rick Adelman‘s squad have been spinning their wheels like a Camaro in a Minnesota snownami – they’re 0-8 in their attempts to push over .500 since slipping below on Nov. 27. Now these repeated failures at winning the sort of tight games wannabe playoff teams need come April is threatening to fray more than just some postseason ambitions.

After Kevin Martin‘s veering layup dropped off the front rim Wednesday night at Target Center in the 104-103 loss to Phoenix, a cranky Love called out some teammates for their demeanor:

“We can’t have two guys sitting at the end of the bench that play good minutes just sitting there and not getting up during timeouts,” Love said, referring to the poor body language exhibited by veterans J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham in the fourth quarter. “We all need to be in this together. That kind of [ticks] me off. We’re supposed to be a team.”

The Timberwolves (17-18) are anything but a team right now. They are a collection of individual agendas tripping each other up as the franchise pursues its first playoff bid since 2004.

And:

“It’s two guys that we expect more from them,” Love said. “I think they expect more from themselves. I’m not trying to single anybody out and I don’t want to make it bigger than it is, but it’s just a team that we needed to beat tonight and we needed everybody in there, even guys that didn’t play any minutes. We need to have a team and a bench that’s really in it together.”

The tension is mounting. After the two-point home loss to Dallas on Dec. 30 – the game in which Shawn Marion‘s foul on Love’s game-tying shot wasn’t whistled until the following morning – the All-Star power forward criticized the bench for its five-point, 2-of-12, nine-turnover performance in 58 combined minutes. Five days later, it was Love bricking four free throws at the end of their 115-111 loss to the Thunder (with the bench again chipping in five points).

On Wednesday, the Wolves’ second unit won its matchup 29-27 but Love had a poor game (15 points, 4-of-20, 12 rebounds but just one assist). Minnesota got outscored 7-0 over the final 1:51 to yank that one out of its 17-8 “split” in games decided by five points or more.

So what is behind all the late-game gaggery? It’s dicey to allege that the Wolves are choking because “choke,” like its flip side “clutch,” are oft-challenged concepts these days in the sports world.

Another reason to tread lightly on what might be a mostly random occurrence is the belief that, if this were diagnosable, it would be correctable. An operation (like Minnesota or any NBA squad) deep in basketball wisdom and financial resources would find a fix before racking up this 0-10 mark.

What’s left, then, are largely theories, several of which the Wolves probably will poke and prod in search of answers. Such as:

  • Inexperience in such circumstances. Uh, 1-18 over a 12-month period seems like ample opportunity to learn something.
  • No proven go-to guy. Seriously? With Love and Martin on the floor?
  • Predictable play-calling in such situations. This is Adelman we’re talking about, folks, a Hall of Fame-bound coach with 1,019 victories and fat stack of kudos for his offensive wiles.
  • Nervous ballhandling. Minnesota did have four of its 12 turnovers vs. Phoenix in the fourth quarter, two in the final 46 seconds. Rubio threw the ball recklessly while in the air headed out of bounds with 24.9 seconds left. But as the Wolves’ primary ball handler, Rubio is not worse late in games (15.6 of his turnovers and 16.9 percent of his minutes come after the third quarter) or in close ones (51 percent of his turnovers, 50.1 percent of his minutes with margins of five points or less).
  • Lack of referee respect. Well, yeah, that one night. And the Wolves don’t have a glamour rep or, depending on what you think of Love, a marquee name like James, Durant or Anthony. But Martin merely dealt with the usual end-of-game traffic in the lane Wednesday.
  • Leadership. That’s it, the Wolves just need another traffic cop pointing and growling directions when everyone else’s heart is in his throat. Come to think of it, Love might need to seize that role more.

More likely, at this stage, they need something cool, the way Joe Montana lifted pressure off hjis 49ers teammates late in Super Bowl XXIII when they trailed Cincinnati 16-13 with 3:20 left in the game.

Longtime Minnesota sports fans might recall what the MLB Twins went through in the mid-1980s, when alleged closer Ron Davis got into an ugly run of pouring gasoline on ninth-inning leads. A collective mental block seemed to develop, certainly a bad case of group pessimism, and after blowing a 10-run lead to Cleveland in late September 1984 to crater out of a division race, third baseman Gary Gaetti famously said: “It’s hard to throw with both hands around your neck.”

That ball club was a frazzled mess by the end, unable to exhale. This Wolves team is headed that way, with six of its next nine on the road and 29 rivals convinced that, when facing Minnesota, merely staying close is the surest path to victory.


VIDEO: The Suns rally to overtake the Timberwolves in Minnesota

Wolves Better Than Their Record Says


VIDEO: Kevin Love leads the Wolves over the Sixers

The List

Biggest difference, Pythagorean wins vs. actual wins

Team Wins Losses Win% PWins PLosses Diff.
Minnesota 17 17 0.500 23 11 6
Toronto 16 17 0.485 18 15 2
Golden State 24 13 0.649 26 11 2
L.A. Clippers 24 13 0.649 26 11 2
Atlanta 18 17 0.514 19 16 1
Orlando 10 24 0.294 11 23 1
Sacramento 11 22 0.333 12 21 1
Denver 17 17 0.500 18 16 1
Chicago 15 18 0.455 16 17 1

Pythagorean wins = Number of games a team should have won based on its point differential.
PWins = PTS^16.5 / (PTS^16.5 + OppPTS^16.5)

The Context

The Wolves have the point differential of a team that’s 23-11, a mark which would be good for fourth place in the Western Conference. But they’re 17-17 and 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. No other team comes close to matching Minnesota’s differential between their Pythagorean wins and actual wins and only two teams – Oklahoma City and Houston – had a bigger differential over 82 games last season.

How did the Wolves manage to underachieve so much in 34 games? By going 1-9 in games decided by five points or less and 8-1 in games decided by 15 or more. In the last two weeks their four wins have been by 22, 22, 12 and 31 points, while their two losses have been by two and four. After Monday’s blowout of the Sixers, the Wolves’ average margin of victory is 16.9 points and their average margin of defeat is 7.4.

So the Wolves are a better team than their record says they are. And though they’re 0-7 when trying to get back over .500 (since falling below on Nov. 25), their point differential says they should win 32 or 33 of their final 48 games. That would give them a total of 49 or 50 wins and, likely, a playoff spot.

Strength of schedule has to be taken into account. And it bodes well for the Wolves’ future as well. Of the 10 West teams at .500 or better, Minnesota has played the fourth toughest schedule. Eighteen of their 34 games have been on the road and they’ve played seven games with *a rest disadvantage vs. four with a rest advantage.

A rest disadvantage is when a team is playing the second night of a back-to-back against an opponent that didn’t play the day before. Only one team – the Clippers (4-5 in those games) – has played more games with a rest disadvantage than the Wolves (1-6). Cleveland (3-4), New Orleans (2-5) and Orlando (2-5) have also played seven such games.

Of course, while success or failure in close games is mostly arbitrary, the Wolves’ record in close games can’t be dismissed as just bad luck. Yes, a foul should have been called on Shawn Marion at the end of the Mavs’ 100-98 win on Dec. 30. And yes, Kevin Love doesn’t usually miss three free throws (that he was trying to make) in a row, like he did at the end of Saturday’s 115-111 loss to the Thunder.

But the Wolves have also had the league’s worst clutch-time defense, allowing their opponents to score almost 120 points per 100 possessions in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five points or less. When the game has been on the line, they’ve been unable to get stops.

In that Dallas loss, the Wolves gave up 11 points in the final five minutes. In the OKC loss, they gave up 17. And only two of those 28 total points were a result of an intentional foul in the closing seconds.

Overall, the Wolves rank 13th in defensive efficiency. But in clutch time, they’ve forced (far) fewer turnovers, fouled (a lot) more, and rebounded (a lot) worse.

Minnesota defense

Timeframe DefRtg Rank OppEFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
Overall 102.4 13 52.1% 29 75.3% 10 17.2% 3 .210 1
Clutch time 119.5 30 49.6% 30 65.1% 26 12.5% 18 .576 27

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
OppEFG% = Opponent effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5*3PM)) / FGA
DREB% = Percentage of available offensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = Opponent FTA / FGA

So, while the Wolves can take some solace in their point differential, they still have things to clean up if they want to perform better in close games.

The Video

The bottom of the list

The team that has overachieved the most is the team the Wolves blew out on Monday. The Sixers are 12-23, but have the point differential of a team that’s 8-27, having lost 10 games by 15 points or more (four by more than 30). The Jazz also have a differential of four games and should be 8-29 instead of 12-25.

Next on the list are the Lakers (with 11 Pythagorean wins and 14 actual wins), the Nets (11 and 13), and the Cavs (10 and 12).

Trivia question

The Knicks led the league with 87 second-chance 3-pointers last season (25 from league-leader Carmelo Anthony). This year, they rank 11th with only 23 (Anthony has just six). What team has 13 more second-chance 3-pointers than any other team in the league?

More Wolves notes

  • The most important thing you can do defensively is defend shots, so it’s pretty amazing that the Wolves are an above-average defensive team (points allowed per 100 possessions) while ranking 29th in opponent effective field goal percentage. Ten of the 13 teams with an opponent EFG% over 50 percent are below-average defensive teams. The other exceptions are the Heat (who rank 24th in opponent EFG% and ninth in defensive efficiency) and the Hawks (18th and 11th). Miami is actually below average in defensive rebounding percentage and opponent FTA rate as well, but has forced more turnovers per 100 possessions (18.8) than any team in the last 15 seasons.
  • The Wolves are the third most improved offensive team in the league this season (behind only Portland and Phoenix), having scored 5.1 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season.
  • But they’re still a poor jump-shooting team. Last season, they ranked dead last in effective field goal percentage from outside the paint at 42.3 percent. This year, despite the additions of Kevin Martin and a healthy Love, they’re only slightly better, ranking 27th at 42.7 percent. They rank 30th in mid-range field goal percentage, 29th from the corners, and 11th on threes from above the break.
  • In games played between the 10 West teams at or above .500, Minnesota has the worst record. They’re 4-11 against the other nine, having gone 2-10 since a 2-1 start. Six of the 11 losses have come by four points or less.

Trivia answer

The Blazers lead the league with 53 second-chance 3-pointers, ahead of the Hawks (40), Warriors (33), Lakers (33) and Sixers (29). Damian Lillard and Kyle Korver are tied for the league lead with 14 apiece, and Lillard’s teammate Wesley Matthews ranks third with 12.

Injuries Open Spots, But Picking All-Star Guards Won’t Be Easy


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook will be out until after the All-Star break

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kobe Bryant is going to win a starting job on the Western Conference All-Star team. A second round of returns has the Lakers star well ahead in votes among the West’s legion of worthy backcourt candidates. Bryant has played in just six games and although he could return from a fractured knee in time to play in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game at New Orleans, let’s assume that he will not play.

NBA All-Star 2014Oklahoma City’s injured point guard Russell Westbrook was well on his way to a fourth consecutive selection as one of seven reserves to be picked by Western Conference coaches until Friday’s stunning announcement that he underwent a third surgery on his troubled right knee. Westbrook will not be back in time for the All-Star Game.

That leaves (potentially) two backcourt spots up for grabs.

But first, ink Chris Paul in as the starter at point guard. He’s second in fan voting and in all likelihood won’t come close to relinquishing that spot as an automatic starter. Golden State’s Stephen Curry, last season’s sympathy case as the most notable snub, is third in fan voting and should start at shooting guard.

Now comes the difficult part for the West’s coaches: There’s so many worthy point guards — just point guards — that you could select an All-Point-Guard All-Star team even without Westbrook. Check this out:

PG: Paul

SG: Curry

SF: Damian Lillard

PF: Eric Bledsoe

C: Ricky Rubio

Bench: Tony Parker, Ty LawsonMike Conley, Jrue Holiday

OK, so it takes some of imagination there, but you get the idea how deep the West is at the quarterback position. Then you’ve got the shooting guards to consider. James Harden figures to be a lock for a second consecutive selection. And what about Klay Thompson, Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford, who felt he got dissed last year? Even 36-year-old Manu Ginobili can make a compelling case.

There’s plenty of basketball to go before fan voting ends on Jan. 20 (the starters will be announced on Jan. 23) and until the reserves are announced soon after, so selections could become more crystallized by then. But probably not.

So of five guards to get a 2014 All-Star nod, here’s my early locks: Paul and Curry as the starters with Harden as a reserve. That leaves two spots open.

Let’s begin with the power of elimination. As strong as they’ve been, apologies to Martin, Dragic, Matthews and Crawford. Holiday was an East All-Star last year and benefited from Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose being hurt, and even though he’s a hometown Pelican, I’m not seeing it. Rubio has gone from the magician everybody wants to see up close to standing in the back of the line.

Onto the rest. This is going to be tough and there could be not one, not two, not three … but even more deserving guards taking the snub.

Here’s a brief comparison of a few of the backcourt candidates that I don’t consider to be locks (in no particular order):

>Parker, Spurs – Scoring (17.8 ppg) and assists (6.0) are down, but he’s the irreplaceable team catalyst, San Antonio is rolling and it’s hard to see him not making it

>Lillard, Blazers – As clutch as any player going, the reigning Rookie of the Year is averaging 21.1 ppg, 5.8 apg and is shooting 43.1 percent on 3s for a team that’s taken the league by storm

>Bledsoe, Suns – A fearless competitor, has meshed beautifully with Dragic while averaging 18.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.3 rpg and is shooting 49.2 percent overall for arguably the most surprising team in the league

>Ellis, Mavericks – He’s turned analytics on its head, averaging an efficient 20.7 ppg — highest since 2007-08 — and 5.8 apg, and he’s as exciting swooping to the cup as anyone

>Lawson, Nuggets – He’s slowed a bit as the team has struggled recently, but still putting up 17.5 ppg, 7.9 apg and 3.4 rpg in a new, slower-tempo system

>Thompson, Warriors – The other half of the Splash Brothers, he’s scoring 19.6 ppg on 43.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc, plus 2.7 apg and 3.3 rpg.

>Conley, Grizzlies – He’s been garnering greater respect for a few seasons now and while the team has struggled, especially without fellow All-Star Marc Gasol, Conley’s averaging 17.0 ppg, a career-best, and 6.2 apg