Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Martin’

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 29


VIDEO: The Daily Zap, a quick rundown of the 12 games played Dec. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bosh rises to sink Blazers | Smith lashes out at Cheeks | Clippers interested in Bynum? | Wolves back to .500

No. 1: Bosh rises to sink Blazers — On a night the Miami Heat were looking to avoid consecutive losses for the third time this season, LeBron James sat out with a groin injury and Dwyane Wade didn’t have it going. But there was the often overlooked member of the Big Three, Chris Bosh, an All-Star in his own right, standing by to save the day. The Heat’s power forward outplayed LaMarcus Aldridge, posting 37 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds to beat the Portland Trail Blazers, the West’s No. 1 team. In the final huddle Heat coach Erik Spoelstra drew up a play, but Bosh overruled it, wanting to take the 3, and Spoelstra smartly rolled with it. After Bosh drilled the shot, the Heat bench, including James, erupted and showered Bosh with a wild celebration that revealed how big that win was and how much Bosh’s teammates enjoy seeing him succeed.
Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report provides the details:

“My call at the end of the game was much more conservative,” Spoelstra said, after the Heat’s 108-107 victory. “I drew something up to get him on the move, and he said no, I want it for three.”

Bosh wanted the extra space, especially since he knew his momentum would take him away from the hoop anyway.

He wanted the extra point too.

“I told him I wanted to go for the jugular,” Bosh said.

“So he overruled it and became a prophet,” Spoelstra said. “Why did I even diagram something else for him? I mean, he already hit two threes. He was feeling it, he wanted it, and as soon as he said it, I said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ It was much better than what I had planned.”

It was. So much better.

Norris Cole inbounded to Dwyane Wade from the left side, with Mario Chalmers running Damian Lillard down the baseline from right to left, while Ray Allen occupied Mo Williams‘ attention on the left wing. It was similar to the previous play, in which Allen’s screen freed Wade for a slam.

Bosh set a brush screen—and this time, Aldridge left him to help Nicolas Batum chase down Wade.

“My job was to drive his man to me,” Wade said.

It went just as they planned.

“It didn’t really go exactly like that,” Wade said.

OK, it didn’t. Wade lost the handle briefly, before chucking the ball behind him on one bounce, fortunate that Williams didn’t budge.

“He threw a crazy pass a little bit, I’m not going to lie,” Bosh said. “But I was able to see it, nobody was in the vicinity, so I didn’t have to rush, and I was able to lock into the goal the whole time.”

Bosh collected it with his left side touching the three-point line, backing up, stepping in and launching from 26 feet with 2.6 seconds left.

With 0.5 seconds left, it fell through.

***

No. 2: Smith lashes out at Cheeks — The Detroit Pistons were on the verge of hitting .500, but have now lost four of five and two in a row, blasted on back-to-back nights by Orlando and then at Washington on Saturday. And now the Pistons have the first signs of internal conflict brewing with big free-agent acquisition Josh Smith unhappy about being benched for the entire second half and suggesting that coach Maurice Cheeks called him out for not playing hard. As David Mayo of MLive reports:

Josh Smith didn’t play the second half of a 106-82 blowout against the Washington Wizards, the second time head coach Maurice Cheeks has made that decision this season.

This time, Smith suggested Cheeks called him out for not playing hard, and that he took “real offense” to the accusation.

Smith also was benched the second half of a Nov. 12 game at Golden State.

“Like I told y’all before when we had this conversation, when you hit adverse times, characters are gonna be tested,” Smith said. “It’s either that we’re gonna come closer together and make it all one team, or are you gonna use a scapegoat to get away from what’s really at hand?”

What’s really at hand is the Pistons (14-18) have lost four of five, bombed in a two-game road trip against sub-.500 teams this weekend, and now have their first hint of internal upheaval.

How long it lasts remains to be seen.

Asked if Smith will start Monday’s home rematch with the Wizards, Cheeks replied, “I assume he will. I don’t know why he wouldn’t. We’ll wait until that next game gets there.”

Smith said he isn’t inclined to have a personal discussion with Cheeks about their disagreement before the next game.

“To me, it’s over with,” Smith said. “But you know, some people hold grudges longer than others. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not saying that he (Cheeks) does. I don’t know.

“But I’m not the type of person that really likes to go all the time in the coach’s office and have one-on-one sitdowns. I’m more of a team morale guy, worrying about what we can do, as far as teammates are concerned, to make ourselves more successful.”

***

No. 3: Clippers interested in Bynum?The former Lakers big man, troubled by knee injuries and possibly a lack of desire to play at the highest level, was suspended indefinitely by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday for conduct detrimental to the team. Reports have the Cavs eager to deal Andrew Bynum. The Clippers, in need of frontline support behind center DeAndre Jordan and power forward Blake Griffin, could be one team interested in trying to make it work with the troubled 7-footer who had not long ago put himself in the discussion alongside Dwight Howard as the league’s top center. Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times breaks it down:

The Clippers would have interest in Bynum if he was released by the Cavaliers, according to several NBA executives who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

But according to one Eastern Conference executive, the Clippers would have competition for Bynum because the Miami Heat also would have interest in the seven-footer.

The Clippers have the NBA-maximum 15-player roster and would have to waive a player if they were to sign Bynum, who is still only 26.

The Cavaliers signed Bynum to a two-year, $24-million deal over the summer. But only $6 million of Bynum’s $12.2-million contract for this season is guaranteed if he is waived before Jan. 7.

The Eastern Conference executive said it’s possible Bynum will be released by the Cavaliers in early January if they can’t trade him so the team is not on the hook for the last $6 million Bynum would be owed.

Bynum has averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20.0 minutes in the 24 games he has played with the Cavaliers. He had 18 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes when he started for the Cavaliers against the Clippers on Dec. 7

.***

No. 4: Wolves back to .500It had been since Dec. 10-11 that the Minnesota Timberwolves had won consecutive games. A team expected to make the playoffs this season following last year’s disastrous injury problems, the Wolves have yet to find any consistency and have lost late leads in multiple games. On Saturday night, they avoided a letdown on the second night of a back-to-back, blowing out woeful Milwaukee to get back to .500. They haven’t won three in a row since starting the season with three consecutive victories. They’ll get the chance to match their season-high win streak at home on Monday against the Dallas Mavericks, a team they handled twice in November. Kent Youngblood of the Minnesota Star Tribune has the story:

The message, at halftime, was something like this: Don’t let it happen again.

The Timberwolves were winning against the lowly Bucks on the road Saturday night, but Milwaukee was getting too many easy baskets and points in the paint. This was feeling a bit too much like last week’s game against the Lakers. Or the week before in Boston, when the Wolves had followed an impressive win with a listless loss.

Not to worry.

With Kevin Love leading the way, the Wolves scored the first 14 points of the third quarter and built their lead to as much as 31 late in the quarter at Bradley Center. That was enough to withstand some shoddy play by the bench to start the fourth quarter. The result was a 117-95 victory that ended a three-game road losing streak and put the Wolves (15-15) back at .500 with five of their next six games at home.

“We haven’t played great in the second night of back-to-backs,” said Love, who scored 33 points with 15 rebounds. He made four of six three-pointers and had six assists. It was his 10th consecutive game with 25 or more points, most in the league this season, and his fifth game with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds.

The Wolves, who won Friday against Washington, have won two in a row, sweeping both ends of a back-to-back for only the second time in eight tries this season. Love and center Nikola Pekovic (19 points, 11 rebounds) took advantage of a Bucks lineup missing 6-11 John Henson. Kevin Martin added 20 points and Corey Brewer had 12.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Deron Williams‘ season keeps getting uglier as Nets get crushed by superior Pacers … Knicks hope to get Carmelo Anthony back for tough Texas road swing. … Bradley Beal makes welcome return 24 hours after limping off the floor and helps Wizards rout of Pistons … Nets center Brook Lopez will undergo foot surgery next Saturday

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 23


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Sometimes Love isn’t enough | Stephenson spoils Indy return for Stevens | Pistons ride roller coaster | Wade’s Holiday surprise

No. 1: Timberwolves get monster effort from Love and still lose — Kevin Love has been toiling like this now for a while. He puts up monster numbers, epic numbers often, only to see his Minnesota Timberwolves come up short in seemingly winnable games. Sunday night was no different, with Love posting just the fourth 45-points on 65-percent shooting, 15-rebounds and 5-assist game since the NBA/ABA merger and the Timberwolves found a way to fumble away a late lead in regulation and lose to the Los Angeles Clippers in overtime.

It makes you wonder if the Timberwolves are ever going to figure things out with this particular group … Rick Adelman in charge, Love and Ricky Rubio leading the way and Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and others as role players.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com ponders the thought:

It’s getting harder and harder to believe in Minnesota, even for those among us who were ready to anoint them as this season’s Warriors. It all looked so promising six weeks ago. The Wolves were quickly mastering Adelman’s read-and-react offense from the high post and perimeter, but could also bully opponents down on the block.

The defense wasn’t half-bad either. Through the end of November, the Wolves ranked 9th in defensive efficiency. They didn’t have a legitimate rim protector on the roster, but they had good size, Ricky Rubio’s pressure up top, Corey Brewer’s skills as a stopper on the wing, and a very large man in Pekovic who nobody wants to encounter in the paint.

The December schedule hasn’t been terribly friendly, but the Wolves have been terrible, their big home win over Portland last Wednesday the one strand of hope. The offense looks nothing like anything Adelman has ever presided over. Half-court possessions are labored affairs, slow grinds into post isolations for either Love or Pekovic.

Martin has battled a knee injury for much of the month and hasn’t looked like himself. As a linchpin of the corner offense, Martin is often a bellwether for Adelman offenses, and if he’s not producing, chances are the offense is dragging.

The Wolves’ 3-and-D guy, Brewer, is shooting 17.1 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, defenses willingly slough off Rubio, practically begging him to shoot. With his confidence waning, Rubio is still racking up assists, but is less a playmaker than a reversal machine, swinging the ball to the second side without truly challenging the defense.

Speaking of defense, the Wolves have given up 106.6 points per 100 possession, a mark that would rank 28th in the NBA. Asked to identify the specific problem prior to the game, Adelman said, “We’re not guarding anybody.” Those big bodies now just look slow. Whether it’s Martin or J.J. Barea alongside Rubio, the Wolves don’t get much defensively at the 2. Brewer has conceded that his wayward shot is affecting his defense.

***

No. 2: Stephenson’s triple double trumps homecoming for Stevens — So much for that storybook homecoming for former Butler and now Celtics coach Brad Stevens. The Indiana Pacers, particularly Lance Stephenson, were having no part of the Holiday cheer. Stephenson collected his league-leading third triple-double of the season as the Pacers trounced the Celtics. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t help but dance a little bit (something Pacers coach Frank Vogel could have done without) on his way to yet another stellar performance.

Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star explains:

Stephenson finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists and looked very much like a player deserving of his first All-Star berth. No other player in the NBA has more than one triple-double this season.

“I’m happy I did it,” he said. “It was in the flow of the game. My teammates helped me out. We played smart. It was easy because I know my teammates are going to knock down shots.”

Stephenson did get plenty of help, most notably from Paul George, who scored 18 of his game-high 24 points in the second half. Danny Granger, playing in his just his second game after returning from a calf strain, was 4-for-5 from 3-point range and had 12 points. Roy Hibbert had 15 points and 12 rebounds.

But his teammates acknowledged afterward that Stephenson provides them an emotional lift like no one else.

“He’s just starting the game off more aggressively,” George said. “In practice, he’s been great. We’ve seen it develop over time. Now, when he gets into the game, it’s second nature to him.”

Added veteran forward David West: “One of the biggest things for young guys in the NBA is that once you work your way into the rotation and you become a guy we rely on, that just fills you up. We give him a lot of room to go out and play his game. … He definitely keeps us on our toes and keeps things light. He’s able to just do something we’ll talk about on the plane. It’s just who he is.”

Vogel wasn’t thrilled with a couple of celebration dances Stephenson did after baskets, but didn’t have much else to complain about.

“He’s such a gifted passer and playmaker for us and a huge part of our team success,” Vogel said.

STEVENS‘The emotions are in coming back and seeing friends’

Stevens, the former Butler coach who left the school in July to join the Celtics, got a warm ovation during pregame warmups and his team kept it close for one quarter.

But after that, the Pacers (22-5) showed why they have the Eastern Conference’s best record. They outscored Boston 50-22 in the paint, got 40 points from their bench and held the Celtics to just 38.1 percent shooting (32-for-84) en route to an easy victory.

As the game ended, Stevens shook hands with Vogel, a rarity at the end of a NBA game. He also shook the hand of several Pacers players.

“It was just because we’re friends and we know each other well,” said Vogel, noting they also shook hands after the Pacers’ 97-82 victory in Boston last month. “I came down and told him he was doing a great job with that team.”

***

No. 3: Pistons’ roller coaster season confounds — If Maurice Cheeks had the answers he’d have pushed those buttons already. But he doesn’t and he hasn’t. And therefore, the curious ride of the Detroit Pistons continues as the coach and his staff try to figure out how to stop the roller coaster ride that is their season and stabilize things. That’s a lot easier said than done, however, as Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News points out:

The last two home games, losses to the Houston Rockets and Charlotte Bobcats on consecutive nights over the weekend, is a clear example of nobody knowing which team will step on the floor on a given night.

“You know we’re still trying to get better,” Cheeks said. “As I said to our players, there’s going to be some good nights and bad nights. Last night (Friday) and (Saturday) was not our best.”

Cheeks believes the Bobcats loss led to the poor showing against the Rockets. The Pistons blew a 20-point lead to Charlotte on Friday and looking almost apathetic on Saturday.

“I believe there could’ve been some carryover,” Cheeks said. “I can’t discount that because it was a tough loss.”

Losing five of six at home is an unexpected circumstance, although there isn’t much shame in losing to the Miami Heat in a game where the champions were intent on sending a message.

But blowout losses to the Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves are combined with come-from-ahead losses to the Bobcats and Portland Trail Blazers, mixed in with a win against the Brooklyn Nets that was tougher than it needed to be.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I guess that’s determined when we go up and down the floor a few times,” said forward Josh Smith, when asked about getting a pulse on the team’s energy before games.

.***

No. 4: Wade surprises Union with Holiday ring – Heat guard Dwyane Wade has no problem mixing business with pleasure. He used Heat boss Pat Riley‘s annual Holiday party as his impromptu engagement party after officially popping the question to longtime girlfriend Gabrielle Union before they arrived at Riley’s affair. The surprise engagement was announced via social media. But Union showing up with a huge diamond ring on her finger added an extra dash of flair to the festivities, upstaging Riley at his own gig in the process, not that anyone was complaining about that. In fact, Wade popping the question was a bit of a team effort, so says Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald:

Wade proposed to Union before the party at his home and then announced the engagement on Twitter and Instagram.

Wade said his children helped him pop the question.

“We asked her to marry all of us, not just me,” Wade said. “It was a package deal.”

Wade and Union have dated since 2007.

“She was ready,” Wade said. “She had the ‘yes’ in her back pocket.”

At the holiday party, Wade then surprised his teammates with green custom-made sports coats commemorating their 2013 championship. The blazers featured the players’ jersey numbers on the sleeves and white Heat logos on the front pockets.

Wade said his inspirations for the unique mementos were the Masters golf tournament and Rasheed Wallace. Wallace famously had pro wrestling-style replica championship belts made for his Pistons teammates for winning the 2004 NBA Finals. Wade liked Wallace’s idea but wanted something a little classier.

Said Wade: “You know me, I’m always trying to do something different and out of the norm, and I started thinking about what have previous champions done … and then it came to be me, because of fashion and because of the Masters and how amazing it is when they win the green jacket and all the previous winners come back and take pictures with the green jackets and how prestigious it is … so I got with my stylist and created this Masters kind of feel.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Thunder fell victim to the red-hot Raptors and the schedule in their first home loss of the season Sunday … Much like their NFL counterparts, the Dallas Mavericks are having no problems scoring. It’s the defense that they are struggling with these days … The Hawks have brought big man Lucas Nogueira to Atlanta for treatment of his ailing knees.

ICYMI Of The Night: Kevin Love put up the stat line of the night and delivered the elbow of the week, but Blake Griffin got the win, the knot on his forehead and the shine on Nightly Notable …


VIDEO: Blake Griffin gets the shiner (on his forehead) and the shine in the end

The Risk-Reward Of Russell Westbrook


VIDEO: Westbrook goes coast-to-coast

OKLAHOMA CITY – “Blessed.”

It’s the one word Russell Westbrook could summon. And maybe there is no other way to explain his bionic-like bursts to the bucket, his laser-beam thrust from the free-throw line to the rack.

So, blessed be he.

Westbrook (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

Russell Westbrook
(Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

“Yep,” Westbrook said following a recent practice. “Some of that’s just learning some kind of creativity. But some of that’s just been blessed. Both of my parents were athletic, fast. It’s a gift to be able to do some of those things. Some of it you can’t practice. You just have it, or you don’t.”

Since returning from last April’s meniscus tear in his right knee without a hint of drag on his unique capabilities as a point guard (he missed only three games at the start of the season), his game  — as aggressively unrefined as heavy metal, yet as complexly interwoven as a symphony — has been on full display. His Oklahoma City Thunder, owners of the league’s best record, are 21-4. They’ve won 15 of 16, eight in a row and rank in the top six in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency heading into Saturday’s showdown at 21-5 San Antonio (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).

In recent weeks, the 6-foot-3 Westbrook has played at his jaw-dropping best, dropping dimes at will, scoring points with drives and his patented, high-rising pull-up free-throw-line jumper, defending with purpose and rebounding like a power forward.

Still, no point guard in recent seasons has stirred such conflict over his mode of attack. Brilliant or befuddling?  Calculated risk or risky beyond reason? Enter Westbrook’s World: Eternally dissected and debated, at once lauded and scrutinized, awesome and blasphemous.

OKC’s second-round exit from the 2012 playoffs — with Westbrook watching from a suite high above the floor, crutches by his side — may not have solved such debates. But it certainly revealed Westbrook’s worth as the the Thunder’s engine and emotional firestarter, flaws be damned.

“Russell gives our team swag,” center Kendrick Perkins said.

Westbrook is averaging 21.0 points a game, but is shooting 41.6 percent; he is attempting more 3-pointers than ever before, but his percentage, modest as it was, is falling; he averages nearly as many shots as teammate Kevin Durant, yet is nowhere near as efficient; he is averaging 6.9 assists a game, down from last season, but turns it over 4.1 times a game, up from last season.

As he studied the playoff action unfolding below his perch as if in slow motion rather than in the millisecond-to-millisecond frenzy of the heat of battle, Westbrook had his own revelation. He made a vow to return this season a smarter player. The interpretation was that Westbrook had become enlightened to all those aspects — shot selection, decision-making, ball-movement — that make his critics palm their foreheads and moan under their breath. Russ being Russ.

“I think sometimes you people [the media] say that without saying what the person really wants to say because a lot of times they mean to throw it out to be negative,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We want Russell to be aggressive. I do not want Russell to play like I played. It would not look good. We want Russell to be aggressive. We’re a good team when he attacks, we’re a good team when Kevin [Durant] attacks. By attacking, it doesn’t mean being selfish. By attacking, it’s drawing attention to you that opens up some of the finishers that we have.”

With fears allayed that Westbrook will be schooled into a fundamentally sound, below-the-rim Brooks, is the three-time All-Star a smarter player?

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

“Yeah, definitely,” Westbrook, 25, said. “I’ve learned as this season goes along to pick my spots better, learning and seeing the game a lot slower than I used to see it. Seeing the game from a different view gave me a different point of view of each individual player, what they see and how they see the game as well.”

As with everything else about Westbrook’s game, the multitude of stats available, from traditional to advanced to the public debut of the SportVu tracking system, show two sides to the Westbrook coin. Even though Westbrook’s assists are down, the team is averaging a bit more than a half-assist more than last season. That’s due to Durant (4.9 assists a game) and the emergence of reserve point guard Reggie Jackson (3.4). Their assist ratio and assist percentage are basically the same from last season.

One of the Thunder’s goals this season is to get more points within the flow of the offense to complement the natural isolation that comes with having two supremely gifted playmakers in Westbrook and Durant. Is Westbrook creating such opportunities? Again, it’s up for interpretation. Westbrook ranks 18th in assist opportunities per game at 12.7. Chris Paul is No. 1 at 21.1. As for points created by assist per game, Westbrook ranks 13th at 15.8. Brandon Jennings ranks eighth at 17.9 and LeBron James is 14th at 15.7.

“I tell Russell and our team, to be a good passing team, it doesn’t mean your point guard has to be the only passer,” Brooks said. “You have to have everybody involved, and by doing that you have to have everybody understanding what the offensive set means, how we can get open, the spacing, and the hard, forceful cuts that help our passing.”

There’s also the interesting numbers found in the touches/possession category via SportVU. Westbrook ranks way down the list of players who touch the ball the most during a game. Westbrook falls behind 14 other starting point guards and is 16th overall. Yet, he’s also behind forwards Joakim Noah and Spencer Hawes in passes per game, a category headed by six point guards.

“We’re doing a good job of moving the ball around, moving the ball at a good pace and doing a great  job of just finding open guys,” Westbrook said.

In one of the most recognized statistical measures of an effective offense, OKC ranks sixth in offensive efficiency, averaging 105.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s down a bit from last season’s juggernaut that included Kevin Martin. But this Thunder team, with Jackson averaging 12.2 poonts on 48.2 percent shooting and Jeremy Lamb hitting 40 percent of his 3-point attempts off the bench, is closer than any version to having five players average at least 10 points apiece. Lamb, averaging 9.6 points a game, would be the fifth.

And just watch the games. The ball is moving, often whipping around. The Thunder amassed a season-best 34 assists in last week’s win over the Lakers. They had 26 assists on 43 baskets in Thursday’s win over Chicago to get to 13-0 at home.

“I don’t think our guys receive enough credit for being high IQ basketball players,” Brooks said. “They’re young and they’re athletic and they’re a fun group, and I think everybody kind of builds on that, ‘Ah they’re just alley-oops and isolations and crossovers and between the legs.’ You don’t win NBA basketball games doing that night-in and night-out.

“I think our guys have done a great job of moving the basketball. We have plays that they run that the offense scores for them, and then we also have plays where we use their athletic ability to break down and make decisions very tough on the defense. I think this year we’re definitely improving in that area, just with the experience that we’ve gained over the last three or for years.”

Over their current eight-game win streak, Westbrook has produced five double-doubles — four including assists and one including rebounds — and has averaged 21.5 points. He’s shot 50 percent or better in five games. He’s averaging 9.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds a game.

And, of course, 4.6 turnovers.

Russ being Russ.

Lamb Boosts Surging Thunder Bench


VIDEO: Jeremy Lamb finishes off the Thunder transition with the sweet left hand

OKLAHOMA CITY – Thunder coach Scott Brooks doesn’t get the sudden fuss over his bench.

“We’ve always played 10 guys. I’ve done it for many years,” Brooks said. “All of a sudden we’re all getting credit that we’re playing 10 guys. It’s baffling that we’re all of a sudden talking about it.”

The fuss isn’t so much over the number of guys coming off the bench, but rather the numbers those guys are putting up. For a team so reliant on its two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder bench is scoring more this season than at any time during the Big Three era with super sixth man James Harden, as well as last season when Kevin Martin replaced the Houston-bound Harden.

This Thunder bench (according to hoopsstats.com) ranks 11th in the league in scoring (33.8 ppg) and is statistically blowing away past incarnations in a number of categories: Sixth in rebounding (17.1), eighth in offensive rebounding (4.7), 11th in assists (7.2), third in field-goal percentage (47.4) and ninth in minutes (19.2). That’s a top-11 ranking in six key categories.

Last season’s bench ranked in the bottom 11 in five of those categories (field-goal percentage, 45.2, being the lone exception).

Outside of stalwart forward-center Nick Collison, this is largely a new-name bench. Third-year point guard Reggie Jackson has been excellent and his ascension from 14.2 mpg last season to 24.8 mpg this season was somewhat predictable after his 2013 playoff breakout as Westbrook’s stand-in. More doubts centered around 6-foot-5, second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb and his ability to handle a hefty bench role for the first time in his career. Averaging 9.8 ppg and shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc in 20.7 mpg, so far, so good.

Add 7-foot rookie center Steven Adams, OKC’s at-the-time unheralded 12th pick in the Draft, spot minutes for 2012 first-round pick Perry Jones and a still-healthy dose of court time for everlasting point guard Derek Fisher, and the Thunder’s bench is producing at previously unseen levels. Three-point percentage (33.9), ranking 20th in the league, is the only lacking category.

The emergence of Adams (4.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.0 bpg in 16.1 mpg) has allowed Brooks to limit starting center Kendrick Perkins‘ minutes to 18.1 a game. Jackson, averaging 12.2 ppg and 3.4 apg, and Lamb (plus Fisher’s 13.4 mpg), have kept Westbrook down to 33.0 mpg coming off knee surgery. That’s about two fewer minutes per game than last season.

When the Thunder advanced to the 2012 Finals, Fisher was the most heavily used reserve guard beyond Harden. In the previous seasons, Harden was flanked by Eric Maynor (averaged 14.6 mpg in 2010-11) with Daequan Cook adding inconsistent minutes (and production) at shooting guard. This is the first time Brooks has trusted his personnel enough to regularly employ two young and athletic reserve guards.

“The trust came with all the work that he put in last season,” Brooks said of Lamb, who is shooting 48.7 percent overall. “When you don’t play as a rookie, you have a choice to make: either pout or get better. And he chose the one that we helped him choose. But it’s on him. He wanted to get better.”

No doubt that the 22-year-old Lamb was the wild card for a highly functioning bench. In Sunday’s win over Orlando, he played in his 23rd game of the season to equal his rookie total. He went 7-for-10 from the floor for 16 points, his 12th game in double figures and fourth in a row. He was 2-for-3 from beyond the arc, giving him 30 made 3s on the season, the number he attempted all of last season.

In his last three games, Lamb is averaging 15.0 ppg and is 6-for-10 from downtown. Even at his impressive clip, Lamb said he’s not happy with his long-range accuracy (30-for-73).

“I haven’t been hitting the 3 like I want to. I don’t know (a specific percentage), but I’ve missed a lot of wide open shots, some big shots. Those have to go down,” said Lamb, a 34.8-percent 3-point shooter during two seasons at Connecticut. “There’s been games where I’ve had open shots in overtime; open shots whether it’s the first quarter or overtime, I want to make them.”

Lamb and Harden are both 6-foot-5, but inherently different players. Lamb, lanky and with exceptionally long arms, is a pure shooting guard, while Harden, stockier and listed 35 pounds heavier than Lamb, is a rare backcourt hybrid. Harden possesses extraordinary skill to drive to the basket, and therefore to get to the free throw line. Still, Lamb is measuring up well to Harden’s rookie season with OKC when he averaged 9.9 ppg, shot 40.3 percent overall and 37.5 percent from 3-point range in 22.9 mpg.

With Lamb on the floor, the Thunder’s offensive rating is an excellent 110.1 (points scored per 100 possessions — only Portland has a team offensive rating better than 110.0; OKC’s is 105.9) and their defensive rating is a solid 99.0 (points allowed per 100 possessions — only six teams have ratings below 100.0; OKC’s is 98.0). When Lamb is on the bench, their offensive rating dips to 102.9 and the defensive rating is quite comparable at 97.3.

“Last year I had to change my mindset,” Lamb said. “I came in thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to get some minutes.’ But once I realized that I wasn’t going to get any minutes, I just tried to stay positive. I decided to keep working because I knew at some point I was going to get that chance, and when I got that chance I wanted to be ready.”

So, coach, that’s what the fuss is about.

Blogtable: Offseason Hits And Misses

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Down with divisions | Missing in Golden State | Offseason hits and misses



VIDEO: Monta Ellis’ nails game-winner vs. Blazers

Which offseason acquisition has been awesome? Which not so much?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comKevin Martin is doing precisely what Minnesota needed and sought, and doing it so well that he’s rejuvenated as a player too. You’d have thought a spot with the contending Thunder team might have brought out the best in Martin but the starts and minutes he’s getting with the Timberwolves, under familiar coach Rick Adelman, have him thriving (22.7 ppg, 6.5 FTA). Worst? Gotta give a group stink-bomb award here to the Brooklyn Nets’ not-so-big four of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko for reasons — injuries, yes, but worse — that have been chronicled ad nauseam.

Dwight Howard (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Dwight Howard (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comDwight Howard has made the Rockets a force, if not yet a true contender. The Rockets are still feeling their way along, have not yet found a consistent rhythm or plan of attack. Yet Howard is doing what he’s supposed to do in the middle, second in the league in rebounding and Houston is still 15-7 with much room for improvement. Runners-up: Andre Iguodala and Robin LopezOn the downside, Kevin Garnett: 6 points per game, 36 percent shooting. And I’m not sure there is a “yet.” Enough said.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comHard to argue with Eric Bledsoe in Phoenix. The Suns are 12-9 — who saw that coming? — and he’s averaging 18.6 ppg and 6.2 apg. Pretty heady stuff for Chris Paul‘s former backup. At the other end, here’s a two-for-one: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The good news is that it can’t get any worse. Right?

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comBest job: Dwight Howard, followed by Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis and Marco Belinelli in some order. Most people will want to put a helmet on Howard no matter what, but the production cannot be denied. Also, I’m not ready to put Michael Carter-Williams in the conversation yet, but I could see adding him at the end of the list if this production continues and his shot gets a little better (which everyone knew would be an issue). MCW is putting up some numbers that rank among all players, not just rookies. Not coming through: Kevin Garnett over Paul Pierce. No, wait. Pierce over Garnett. Let’s just make it a field entry. Boston to Brooklyn doesn’t seem like brutal travel, but they got completely lost along the way.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comDwight Howard is doing the best job. He’s not the same player he was in his Orlando heyday, but he’s still the best player among those who changed teams this summer and is still making an impact for the Rockets, who are among the most improved teams on both ends of the floor. I’m not including rookies for the second part (Hello, Anthony Bennett!), so Jared Dudley is my choice. I don’t know how your 3-point percentage can go from 39 percent to 32 percent when you go from playing for the Suns to playing alongside Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but Dudley’s has. And he’s not making much of an impact elsewhere. The Clippers have been better both offensively and defensively with him on the bench.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Monta Ellis is getting the job done in Dallas. There is no doubt about it. He might have been the last big name free-agent to get his deal done, but he’s been far more productive than most of his critics imagined he’d be in a system that demands much more defensively than he was used to giving in either Golden State or Milwaukee. He’s not a candidate for the All-Defensive Team or anything, but he’s making strides. And he’s taken a ton of pressure off of Dirk Nowitzki at this critical stage in his career. Kudos to the Mavericks for taking the risk and cashing in … early on here. Injuries have prevented Al Jefferson from making the impact I thought he would in Charlotte. But that’s a good thing, in a roundabout way, because that means a solid team could get even more from the big man who was supposed to provide that low-post threat and presence on a nightly basis. Big Al hasn’t come through in that way just yet. He can, however, and probably will as the season progresses. And that’s a great thing for the Bobcats, who need to keep their early-season playoff groove going in the wilted Eastern Conference.

Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: It’s funny that you don’t hear that much talk about him, at least like we did last season, but Dwight Howard has been pretty great for the Rockets. He’s scoring 17 a game, grabbing 13.2 rebounds per game, and the Rockets are 15-7 overall. More relevantly, we don’t have to listen to endless rumors about what the future holds for Dwight. As for a guy we’re still waiting to break out, Andrea Bargnani has been pretty disappointing in New York I don’t think anyone expected him to come in and turn into Wilt Chamberlain, but I expected more than 14 and 5 per game.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: I really like how Brandon Jennings is playing right now. He has paired wonderfully with Rodney Stuckey in the Pistons’ backcourt and has already made an impact as the team features in the 6th spot of the East. I am between him and Dwight Howard, who has regained his dominance in the key. As for “Superman,” the most interesting number is “22”. Out of 22. Meaning that he has played in all of the Rockets’ games. When he is healthy he can be an instant game-changer. As for the player who has not come through yet, I have to go with Paul Pierce, who is struggling with career-lows in points and field-goal percentage.

Karan Madhok, NBA India: Over in Dallas, Monta Ellis is turning heads and breaking ankles as he seems to be as comfortable as he has ever been in his career. Ellis is putting up his most efficient season in years, meshing in well with his new coach and teammates. He is averaging team highs in points, assists, and steals, and has the Mavericks off to a respectable start. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Celtics-turned-Nets Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who – after all the hoopla – have had a nightmare start to the season and need to get their bearings soon to help their new team get back to winning ways.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Apart from Iguodala, who meshed perfectly with the Warriors’ core from the start, I love the jobs that Nate Robinson and Paul Millsap are doing. Both have clear job profiles that fit their style of play, and they execute the gameplan to perfection. Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin and J.J. Redick also deserve to be mentioned. On the negative side, I think Josh Smith is the front-runner with Tyreke Evans a close second. The Pistons’ roster just doesn’t fit together very nicely, and Evans’ start in New Orleans has been derailed by injury.

Timberwolves’ History, A Tale of 5 Kevins


VIDEO: Minnesota history, in five guys named Kevin

– San Antonio vs. Minnesota, in Mexico City, Wednesday night (9:30 ET) on NBA TV –

Surnames are for plaques and record books. Nicknames are for broadcasters. But first names are for the fans, in a familiarity bred across years.

You can rough out a pretty rich history of the NBA sticking entirely to some of the greatest players’ first, or given, names: Wilt. Oscar. Elgin. Willis. Julius. Kareem. Moses. Larry. Earvin. Dominique. Charles. Isiah. Michael. Karl. Shaquille. Kobe. LeBron. Carmelo. Amar’e. Dwyane. Dwight.

It helps when the name is exotic, the game is transcendent or, ideally, both. But that’s not always necessary. Consider the Minnesota Timberwolves, where a pretty strong timeline can be drawn entirely through a handful of fellows named, simply, Kevin.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that moniker. A noble line of Kevins has populated the league , from Duckworth, Grevey and Johnson to Porter, Willis and Loughery, not to mention Restani, Kunnert, Edwards and Ollie. There’s a star player in Oklahoma City well on his way to appropriating the name entirely, making Kevin his own the way Kleenex glommed onto facial tissue.

But what are the odds that one franchise could largely trace its heritage across a quarter century through that name? Take Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with a pebble-grained twist, and you have Five Degrees of Kevin, Minnesota style:

KEVIN HARLAN

Harlan (right) with Garnett, 2004

Kevin Harlan (right) with Kevin Garnett, 2004
(David Sherman/NBAE)

The challenge for any expansion team is to make games entertaining even when the team isn’t. Entering the league in 1989 with the Orlando Magic, the Wolves didn’t always manage that (the NBA home-attendance record they set and still hold was based on novelty and the expansive Metrodome seating capacity that first season). But the team’s radio broadcasts were something special, thanks to a 28-year-old “voice of” in his first big-time gig.

Kevin Harlan was one part play-by-play announcer, two parts carnival barker in the Timberwolves’ early, raggedy days. He embraced the role.

“The success of the team in those early years was almost secondary to selling the NBA, selling Michael Jordan, selling the Celtics, selling the return of the league to the Twin Cities,” Harlan said recently by phone, on the road again for a Thursday night TNT doubleheader. “After awhile, it wasn’t the new flashy car anymore. Now the car had some miles on it and it was still getting the same [poor] gas mileage. They had some pretty dark days in there.”

Harlan, son of former Green Bay Packers president Bob Harlan and a one-time airline pilot wannabe, logged his miles for nine seasons as the Wolves’ radio (and occasionally TV) announcer. Strapped with a sputtering basketball operation that lost 60 games or more in five of its first six seasons, Harlan, game host Tom Hanneman, sidekicks such as Quinn Buckner and Trent Tucker opted for irreverence over irrelevance.

They cracked wise on the air, concocted timeout and halftime video bits, conspired to drop “words of the night” into broadcasts for their own amusement, turned the team mascot Crunch into a cult hero and put Twin Cities notables such as music producer Jimmy (Jam) Harris and wrestler-turned-politician Jesse Ventura in guest headsets. When local legend Kevin McHale came aboard after his Boston Celtics career, the antics – and the basketball insight – jumped considerably.

Kevin No. 1, meet Kevin No. 2.

“We knew the team rarely was going to win, and it was on the personality of the broadcasters we had. Certainly McHale,” Harlan said. “He was the kerosene on the fire. He was funny, yet biting and honest – he had everything. He was incredibly insightful and he had the name.

“He really did not care what anybody thought. The league would call our front office and complain about what Kevin was saying, whether he was getting on an official or making fun of a player. It wasn’t like a college frat party, but we knew the address.”

Harlan stuck around long enough to see McHale promoted into the front office and Minnesota make the first two of eight straight playoff appearances. As the team improved, the broadcasts added heft, but Harlan’s personality never waned. He literally would rise out of his courtside chair on some calls. Some of his catchphrases – “No regard for human life!” – linger 15 years after he left for greener network pastures.

“I don’t know if there’s anyone who has the passion, and is so upbeat, as he is every day,” said Flip Saunders, arguably – with owner Glen Taylor – one of the two most important people in franchise history not named Kevin. “Even when they were getting their [butts] kicked here, it was going to be ‘better the next day.’ He’s always been extremely positive in what he’s done and that’s why he’s one of the best in the world.”

Harlan would growl J.R. Rider‘s name. He’d lose it sometimes on Tom “Googly-oogly-otta, baby!” But the one that stuck best was hanging “The Big Ticket” on Kevin Garnett.

“Always electrifying,” Garnett said of Harlan the other day. “No matter what he’s going through, it always seems like he’s in the same playful mood. Refreshing is the word I would use. Not only great to work with but great to be around. A true sense of a friend and a breath of fresh air.”

So you’re good with the “Ticket” thing?

“Absolutely. It’s who I am.”

KEVIN McHALE

Kevin McHale, 2009

Kevin McHale, 2009 (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

The second-most famous son of Hibbing, Minn. – Bob Dylan, after all, calls it his hometown – wanted little more after his Hall of Fame NBA career with the Celtics than to come home, hunt, golf and keep a hand in basketball. A native of the state’s Iron Range and a Big Ten star at the University of Minnesota, McHale initially worked with Wolves big men and soon took a seat next to Harlan.

The team’s worst nights, when the two would largely ignore the game and banter on air between fistfuls of popcorn, often were the best, too.

Then the Wolves nearly got sold to New Orleans in the spring of 1994. Taylor, a billionaire businessman from Mankato, Minn., swooped in to rescue the franchise and persuaded McHale to take the title of assistant GM to Jack McCloskey. By May 1995, he was vice president of basketball operations. For most of the next 15 years, he was the organization’s primary decision-maker on personnel matters

McHale’s first move was a masterstroke. He and Saunders, holding the fifth pick in the 1995 Draft, attended the invitation-only workout of a Chicago high school player trying to become the first preps-to-pros success in 20 years. McHale went for the kid named Garnett.

He courted savvy vets such as Terry Porter and Sam Mitchell, added to the locker room by subtracting trolls such as Rider and Christian Laettner and, in his second draft at-bat, made the right move again by trading Ray Allen‘s rights for point guard Stephon Marbury. For two seasons, Marbury and Garnett were a budding Stockton & Malone or Payton & Kemp.

“I came to Minnesota out of respect to Kevin McHale,” said Porter, now a Wolves assistant on Rick Adelman’s staff. “He was trying to start something and he just gave me the plan: ‘We’ve got some young talent but they don’t know how to win yet.’ He’d been part of a championship pedigree and I’d been a part of really good teams, so a lot of stuff he talked about was changing the culture here.”

With McHale upstairs and former college teammate Saunders on the sideline, Minnesota made eight playoff appearances in eight years and reached the Western Conference finals in 2004 when they gambled by adding mercenaries Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell.

Seven of the postseason trips were one-and-done cameos. The Marbury move backfired and so did other drafts (Ndudi Ebi, Rashad McCants), trades (Ricky Davis, Marko Jaric) and signings (Troy Hudson, Michael Olowokandi, Mike James). What McHale got in return for Garnett in 2007 (Al Jefferson and Celtics discards) got portrayed by some as a sweetheart deal for old Boston pal Danny Ainge. And don’t forget the Joe Smith fiasco, in which McHale at least fell on his sword for the franchise in a 1999 salary-cap violation that cost the Wolves three forfeited first-round picks in four years.

Twice McHale took his turn in the coaching tank, replacing Saunders in February 2005 and Randy Wittman in December 2008. He went a combined 39-55 but showed real enthusiasm for working with players and real acumen for exploiting mismatches and playing to his talent.

Most who knew him as a player and an exec never figured him as an NBA head coach, but he liked it enough to snag, in 20-11, the job vacated by Adelman in Houston. Heading into Wednesday’s schedule, McHale’s Rockets had gone 92-75 and 13-6 this season. They went to the playoffs last spring, while Minnesota’s drought has reached nine years.

“You’ve got to find your team’s strengths, you’ve got to go to that, and I think he’s done that very well,” Adelman said.

McHale’s tenure as Wolves VP has been polished up a bit lately, too. Four seasons of David Kahn in that role – Kahn dumped him as coach in June 2009 – made McHale, in numerous ways, look good. Two of Minnesota’s three core players, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, were acquired by McHale (and were underappreciated by Kahn because of it).

“What can I say about Kev?” Love said. “Mac’s the best. He’s a lot of fun on and off the court. Guy who always kept it light, always kept it interesting. I still look at him as one of my mentors.”

McHale’s best move, of course, remains his first.

KEVIN GARNETT

Rookie Kevin Garnett, 1995

Rookie Kevin Garnett, 1995 (Dale Tait/NBAE)

He’s got a glare most often seen in the moments before a prizefight’s opening bell. Lately, he’s been glowering in a widely circulated headphones commercial, shutting out a world where loudmouths and loyalty do not mix.

Hard to believe, then, that when Garnett arrived on the NBA scene in the fall of 1995, he was a hoops version of Ernie Banks. Or Magic Johnson 2.0. His game didn’t click for half a season, but his personality was a plus from the start for a team that had relied too long on its narrator.

“I had a couple years with Garnett and for whatever reason, we just connected,” Harlan said. “He brought such hope, and with hope comes enthusiasm, and that certainly came out in the broadcast. You knew this kid was going to be something and that Kevin and Flip had a handle on things and it was an ascending situation.”

The joy of basketball was evident in Garnett’s smile, in his words, in the spring in his coltish game.

“I think when he first came in, he was just so happy where he was in life,” Harlan said. “He was on an NBA floor with Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan. It was fun for all the right reasons.

“Once he began to win, I think he looked around the league at other people who won and he saw serious people. He saw Jordan, he saw serious-minded people who felt every night was a war.”

Some would say Garnett felt pressure living up to the $126 million extension he leveraged after just two seasons (and from the blame it got for triggering the 1998-99 lockout). Others saw frustration from all those first-round exits and McHale’s inability to put a supporting cast around him like Tim Duncan had in San Antonio.

While his demeanor changed, Garnett’s game abided. He strung together 20-10-5 seasons, six of them from 1999 to 2005, while earning one MVP (2004) and arguably meriting another (2003).

Garnett logged crazy minutes and played hard at both ends. As the disappointments mounted in the team’s post-playoffs, too-many-coaches-and-teammates period, he kept media and fans at arm’s length and started checking out of bad seasons early, some minor ailment cutting short his last two Wolves seasons.

He fought the trade to Boston almost to the end, his sense of loyalty out of sync with the business of sports and even his own best interest. What he wound up with was an instant living-well-is-the-best-revenge tale, winning his long-sought championship in his first season out of Minnesota.

Garnett, 37, now is in Brooklyn in what has been a miserable six weeks. He remains the greatest player in Timberwolves history.

“I’ve never been around anyone who has the passion that he has to play,” said Saunders, back now as Wolves president of basketball operations. “He’s such a perfectionist … he’s one of the few guys you can put into a locker room and he’ll change the whole culture of a team.”

In Brooklyn’s recent visit to Target Center, Garnett and Love battled all night, the former Wolf picking up a technical for whacking at the current Wolf’s arm. Love’s team won and he posted the better stats line, but he said afterward he was happy not to catch Garnett (who had dominated their matchup two years earlier) in his prime.

“Garnett is another guy I grew up watching,” Love said. “Obviously I tried to emulate him but being 7-foot-1, as big as he is, that’s definitely tough to do. He’s a Hall of Fame player who, as far as effort goes and passion for the game, a lot of people should look up to.

“When he really locks in on defense, there are very few who can match that. Most of the time, he’s going to play better defense than you’re going to play offense. He’s that good.”

The fellow speaking, if you’re counting, was Kevin No. 4.

KEVIN LOVE

Kevin Love, 2008

Kevin Love, 2008 (David Sherman/NBAE)

People might forget that Love broke the news of McHale’s ouster on Twitter back in June 2009. “Today is a sad day…” the young forward Tweeted, fresh off his rookie season.

He and the man who dumped McHale never saw eye-to-eye on much after that. When Love’s $61 million contract extension in January 2012 was capped at four years, rather than the five for which he was eligible, what was left of a smoldering bridge between Kahn and Love was ablaze again.

Then there was Kahn’s – and to be fair, others’ – assessment that, if Minnesota were going to become a legit title contender, Love would need to be the team’s second- or third-best player. Even if that was meant to highlight the Wolves’ need for a go-to shot creator, it seemed to patronize his spectacular abilities as a scorer and rebounder, along with his burgeoning 3-point game.

Love, for his part, found the backhanded compliment within.

“Have they not looked at the guys who are the third-best player on championship teams?” he said. “OK, that’s Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, perennial All-Stars. You look at Boston [recently], that’s Ray Allen and Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett. And what, [All-Star point guard Rajon] Rondo‘s the fourth link?

“I think that’s overrated. To win at a high level, especially to compete for a conference title or an NBA title, of course you have to have great players. Right now, we have to be more of a Dallas from 2011, a team where it all comes together. But I do look at myself as the leader of the team. I like having that on my shoulders. It’s something I always wanted. But now I think we have the personnel to really make some noise.”

Love twice has been an NBA All-Star. He earned an Olympic gold medal in London in 2012 and he’s been in the early-season conversation among MVP possibilities (23.7 ppg, 13.6 rpg). But the opt-out in his contract after next season already has rumors circulating and Minnesota fans fearing the worst. Every national media mention is vetted for signs that Love will be looking to play elsewhere in 2015.

But Saunders isn’t Kahn. And he isn’t worried.

“Kevin is extremely vested in where we’re at,” he said. “He’s one of the top five or 10 players in the NBA, and the most important thing is to have your best player committed to what you’re trying to do. I’d say that us being able to [achieve] that is as important as anything, since I came in here.”

An inveterate schmoozer, Saunders has sought out Love’s advice on matters big and small, shared plans about arena renovations and a proposed downtown practice facility and picked up a bunch of lunch tabs between the two. He likes the Wolves chances of building around Love, even as the team’s first-best player.

“Two years, in the NBA, is an eternity,” Saunders said. “All we can do is put our organization in a position where free agents are attracted here, by the personnel you have and the facilities you have. And you have relationships.”

After Love’s injury-marred 2012-13 season, Adelman has challenged him to boost his assists totals, perhaps not to Garnett levels but beyond the 1.9 he averaged through five seasons.

“He’s giving up the ball,” the Wolves coach said. “I think he’s matured as a player. Two years ago, he was scoring big and rebounding big. But we need him to do everything. We need him to pass the ball and be a facilitator too, and we need a consistent effort defensively. So I think he’s changed a lot. Probably being hurt last year gave him some drive this year.”

A foe-turned-teammate has noticed.

“You see the work that he puts in and just his feel for the game,” shooting guard Kevin Martin said. “He puts up scoring numbers that I haven’t seen since Kevin Durant. And rebound numbers? I’ve never seen a guy rebound like that.”

Don’t get confused here. Durant plays for the Thunder. Martin is the Wolves’ Kevin No. 5.

KEVIN MARTIN

Kevin Martin, 2013

Kevin Martin, 2013 (Jordan Johnson/NBAE)

The Timberwolves’ history, as far as free agency, generally has been what the team could do for the player rather than the other way around. Saddled with the league’s, er, most challenging climate and the lack of any championship tradition, Minnesota often has missed out on top talent and overpaid (in years or dollars) what players it has signed.

That’s why Martin’s decision to join up on a four-year, $27.8 million deal was so significant last July. The 30-year-old guard is a professional shooter with 3-point range and a career 17.8 scoring average through his first eight NBA seasons. He had been swapped a year earlier by Houston in the James Harden trade, fitting a little awkwardly into what had been Harden’s instant-offense role off the OKC bench.

For a Wolves team that had leaned on the likes of Wes Johnson, Alexey Shved and Malcolm Lee at shooting guard, Martin was a serious upgrade. A franchise once so barren that it touted its play-by-play man now could surgically add a key basketball piece.

“I wanted to bring in players that were gonna make Love, Rubio and Pekovic better, not players that those guys would make better,” Saunders said. “The way Kevin [Martin] plays, he was going to make those guys better.”

At 23.2 points nightly, while hitting 44.1 percent of his 3-point attempts, Martin is producing at a level unseen since his final year in Sacramento (2008-09). It helps that he’s back with the coach who had him, both with the Kings and the Rockets.

Said Adelman of Martin: “He went through the year last year where he was more of a role player. I think he feels better about his situation [now]. He’s getting opportunities that he didn’t have because of [Russell] Westbrook and Durant there, and I think he’s enjoying it, being a starter again and having responsibility on his shoulders.”

Love called Martin an “easy fit” in personality and in game.

“It feels like it’s been a perfect fit for me since Day 1,” Martin said. “That’s why I decided to come here. Just playing in the system and playing with K.Love, seeing his game grow, which I knew it would.

“With Kevin and Ricky and big Pek coming along, and coach Adelman – that’s another big reason – it’s a more interesting team now. Bringing in a guy like Flip who has won at the highest levels. It’s a great place.”

Not always. But not bad if your name is Kevin.

Spurs’ Bench Propelling Hot Start


VIDEO: Spurs bench players Marco Belinelli and Matt Bonner connect for a nice play

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Spurs’ starting lineup was a big part of their defensive improvement last season. It was the best defensive lineup in the league and outscored its opponents by 18.1 points per 100 possessions in its 364 minutes.

This season, that same starting lineup hasn’t been too good It’s been pretty bad offensively (with Tim Duncan shooting less than 40 percent) and has actually been outscored by four points in 99 minutes. Yet the Spurs are 13-1 and rank in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency, because they have the best bench in the league right now.

While the Spurs’ starters have basically broke even, all other San Antonio lineups have outscored their opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions, playing great on both ends of the floor.

Spurs efficiency

Lineup GP MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Starters 10 99 95.8 93.5 92.7 +0.8 -4
Other lineups 14 572 97.2 108.3 92.2 +16.1 +173
Total 14 671 97.0 106.1 92.3 +13.9 +169

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

There are two aspects to having a great bench, and neither have to do with how many points the players off the bench score. You just have to go back to the 2010-11 and 2011-12 Chicago Bulls for an example of a great bench that didn’t score a lot of points. That group built on leads because they were great defensively.

Building on leads (or decreasing deficits) is obviously the most important trait of a good bench. But keeping your starters fresh is also critical (and obviously related to how well you build leads). Through Tuesday, every player on the Spurs is averaging less than 30 minutes a game and the five starters have played just 52 percent of the teams total minutes. You couldn’t ask for a better start to the season from a roster.

No other contender in the Western Conference has had the bench success that the Spurs’ “Foreign Legion” crew has had, but some have done well with their reserve minutes.

Note: Before the season started, six West teams would have been considered as “contenders.” Portland has been added to this group, because they’re off to such a hot start and also because their bench was their primary issue last season.

Efficiency from lineups other than starters

Team GP MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Golden State 15 532 98.3 97.8 97.2 +0.6 -1
Houston 15 665 100.4 106.4 101.5 +4.9 +36
L.A. Clippers 15 448 100.4 107.1 105.9 +1.2 +10
Memphis 14 513 91.8 99.4 104.0 -4.6 -47
Oklahoma City 12 483 99.6 106.0 96.1 +9.9 +81
Portland 15 442 97.1 106.9 101.6 +5.2 +64

Note: This includes lineups with 1-4 starters on the floor. It also includes lineups that started games when regular starters weren’t healthy or before a coach (Kevin McHale) made a lineup change.

Each team is its own case. Some have had their starters healthy for every game, some have not, and one – Houston – has already made a major change to its starting lineup.

Golden State

The Warriors’ starting lineup – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut – has been ridiculously good offensively, scoring 118.8 points per 100 possessions in 192 minutes together. Combine that with solid defensive numbers and they’ve been the league’s best lineup (minimum 75 minutes) thus far.

Bench units (which include lineups that have started games that Curry and Iguodala have missed) have been strong defensively, but weak offensively. When Curry has been off the floor, the Dubs have scored an ugly 87.5 points per 100 possessions.

Breaking even will do when your starting lineup is so good, and the Warriors are in good shape if they’re healthy. But it’s clear that Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry will be missed if injuries keep popping up.

Houston

The Rockets moved Terrence Jones into the starting lineup just seven games ago and have been without James Harden in three games since then, so their optimal starting lineup has played just 69 minutes together and their numbers above include lineups that have started 11 of their 15 games. That set includes lineups with both Dwight Howard and Omer Asik that we know were bad offensively.

So it’s difficult to gather much from these numbers. We do know that the new starting group, with Patrick Beverley and Harden in the backcourt, has been terrific so far. And we do know that the Rockets have been strong defensively – allowing just 95.7 points per 100 possessions – with Asik on the floor without Howard. So that’s a good sign for their bench … at least until Asik gets traded.

L.A. Clippers

As we all expected, the Clippers’ starting lineup has been great, especially offensively. It currently ranks as the fifth best lineup in the league. But the five starters have played over 68 percent of the team’s minutes, the second highest mark among the seven teams we’re looking at here.

Last season, when the Clippers had a great defensive second unit, that number was 51 percent. This season, they’re suffering on both ends of the floor when they go to their bench and though their starters have been solid on defense, they currently rank as a bottom 10 defensive team.

A healthy Matt Barnes will help, but a defensive big off the bench is needed. Lamar Odom was exactly that for them last season and you can understand why the Clips are monitoring his progress as he works his way back into shape.

Memphis

The Grizzlies’ starters weren’t what they were last season, when they outscored their opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions after the Rudy Gay trade. This season, they were just a plus-0.8 in 169 minutes together. But losing Marc Gasol (out indefinitely with a sprained MCL) is obviously a huge blow.

The new starting group (with Kosta Koufos in Gasol’s place) was an encouraging plus-12 in 33 minutes against the Spurs and Rockets. But the impact of Gasol’s injury might be felt most in the bench units, which have been poor already. Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, two guys who are supposed to bring offense off the bench, have shot a combined 32 percent.

Oklahoma City

We thought that, in the wake of Kevin Martin‘s departure, bench production was going to be a problem for the Thunder. But OKC’s bench units have been terrific, ranking second to only the Spurs in terms of NetRtg. The Thunder have outscored their opponents by an amazing 17.7 points per 100 possessions with Reggie Jackson on the floor.

The issue with the Thunder is the starting lineup, which has been outscored by 12.4 points per 100 possessions in its 97 minutes. Of the 27 lineups that have played at least 75 minutes together this season, that ranks 25th, ahead only the original starting lineups of the Kings and Jazz. In those situations, both coaches have already made changes.

Scott Brooks will surely have more patience with his group, which was excellent (plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions) last season. The starting group has basically been bad in three games (minus-31 against the Pistons, Wizards and Nuggets) and OK in three games (plus-7 against the Suns, Mavs and Clippers). And the success of the bench units has far outweighed the starters’ struggles. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on going forward.

Portland

Last season, the Blazers’ “other lineups” got outscored by 5.2 points per 100 possessions. No team suffered more offensively when a particular player stepped off the floor than Portland did when Damian Lillard sat down. So the bench, along with better defense from their center position, was the focus of their summer moves.

So far, so good, as the Blazers’ bench units have basically turned that number around, outscoring their opponents by that same 5.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve scored a solid 103.5 points per 100 possessions when Lillard has sat, and he doesn’t have to lead the league in minutes this year.

The issue is that those bench units still include a lot of minutes from the starters. Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez account for more than 72 percent of the team’s total minutes. It’s obviously a younger group, but compare that with the 52 percent the Spurs’ starters account for.

Wolves, Wizards On Different Paths




VIDEO: Kevin Love is all smiles after a win over Cleveland

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – In an effort to soften the blow, we put our sunglasses on when scanning back at our preseason predictions for this season.

There are so many hits and misses, it helps to have a little shade to work with for the ugly misses. For every prediction we hit out of the park (thank you Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves), there is a prediction that seems to go horribly wrong (there’s that mess in Cleveland and, of course, that wobbly start from John Wall and the Washington Wizards).

The BluBlockers are needed for tonight’s Timberwolves-Wizards matchup tonight in D.C. (7 p.m. ET, League Pass), a duel between teams on very different paths early on this season. Both teams are loaded with young talent and have quality depth. But the results have been vastly different for the two teams that are inextricably linked — Wizards coach Randy Wittman used to be Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman while the boss in Minnesota, Flip Saunders, once coached the Wizards.

While Wall and the Wizards have struggled to an ugly 2-7 start, including their current four-game losing streak, Love and the Timberwolves have shown themselves to be an exciting and aggressive crew.

At 7-4, the Wolves are living up to all of the hype, internal and otherwise. Love, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, J.J. Barea and Co. have managed to take on heightened expectations and handle them appropriately. Throw in that Chase Budinger is back and practicing with the team and Minnesota is looking even better.

Love is in the MVP mix, coach Rick Adelman‘s got his supporting cast thriving and the roster’s balance and depth is finally paying dividends. The Wolves are in the midst of back-to-back grueling stretches of five games in seven nights, a mettle-testing, early-season grind that will could serve them well months from now.

Tonight’s game kicks off a monster week that will see Adelman’s team face off against the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday night at home and the Brooklyn Nets Friday at the Target Center. Then comes a road date in Houston with the Rockets on Saturday and they’ll finish this stretch up in Indiana on Nov. 25.

Happy Thanksgiving!

“I don’t know if [the league schedule-makers] know that we’re almost to Canada and Houston’s almost all the way to Mexico,” Adelman told reporters Monday.

When your team is top three in the league in scoring and set to get another boost whenever Budinger returns to the rotation, none of the teams you are blindsiding will grant you any sympathy.

The Wizards, meanwhile, could use a little sympathy … and anything else they can get right now. When their owner, Ted Leonsis, used every opportunity in the lead up to the season to tout his team as a legitimate playoff contender in the East, he surely did not envision this humbling start.

Signing Wall to an $80 million maximum contract extension in August was supposed to be a sign of the commitment Leonsis was making not only to the young face of the franchise, but to the future. Wall was not only going to be the change agent for the Wizards on the court, his extension was also supposed to serve as the symbolic change in the way the Wizards did business going forward.

Veterans would see that the organization was serious about putting the resources in the right places and taking that next step from playoff pretender to contender. But it didn’t take long for reality to set in. As sound as the plan looked on paper, the Wizards simply didn’t have the right mix.

As talented as Wall and his backcourt mate, Bradley Beal one of a handful of early candidates for the league’s Most Improved Player award — surely are, something is still missing.

As my The Beat colleague and TNT’s own David Aldridge pointed out in The Morning Tip, Wall does not shoulder the burden of the Wizards’ slow start on his own. They’re not the same defensive monster they were a year ago, not with Marcin Gortat taking Emeka Okafor‘s place in the lineup.

A top-10 defensive unit last season, the Wizards are now a top-10 scoring team but falling woefully short on the defensive side. As DA pointed out, the slightest tweak to the Wizards’ rotation and chemistry has altered the product on the floor dramatically:

Nene, whose antipathy for banging in the post was well-known, was especially good with Okafor. The quintet of Nene, Okafor, Martell Webster, Bradley Beal and Wall was one of the league’s best defensive fivesomes last year. It’s not that Gortat is a horrible defender. He tries. But opponents, according to the league’s player tracking stats, are shooting 56.7 percent against him on shots at the rim. (By comparison, opponents are shooting 31.4 and 31.5 percent, respectively, on shots at the rim against New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez.)

“March has done a good job for us,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said Saturday. “No question, ‘Mek was solid back there for us, the last line of defense for us, with his basketball knowledge. I think what March brings, though, is that big guy who can challenge at the rim. He’s also got a very good IQ. Defense is a matter of getting your knees dirty each and every night. It’s not a fun thing, but it’s a valuable thing. That’s where we have to get back to, understanding how valuable that is for us to be a good team.”

A good team?

How about a playoff team?

After all, that’s what we all predicted for the ‘Wolves and Wizards this season. But as of right now only one of these teams is living up to that expectation.

Blogtable: Westbrook Speeds Things Up

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


New and for real | Westbrook’s speedy return | Bynum’s impact on Cavs, East



VIDEO: The Beat: Westbrook returns

With Russell Westbrook back from injury this early, care to revise your look at the Western Conference?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: No revision necessary. I had Oklahoma City as one of my top three teams in the West, jockeying with San Antonio behind the Clippers, all ahead of the trendy Golden State forecasts. Getting Westbrook sooner rather than later clearly helps them with every extra game he plays, but he’ll likely have a rust curve to navigate and the others on that roster (minus Kevin Martin now) face pressure to put up their 45-55 points per game, assuming Durant-Westbrook is good for 50.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Not really.  I picked SA and OKC 1-2 in the West by a narrow margin.  I’ll still give a healthy Spurs team a narrow edge because the Thunder still don’t have a suitable James Harden substitute.

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook (Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Why would I? I picked OKC to win it all. My only concern continues to be if the Thunder will have enough beyond Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I’m good. The surprise is that Westbrook is back this soon, not that he is back. I had the Thunder third in the West, behind the Clippers and Spurs, so OKC was always going to be a serious threat, whether its point guard returned in November or January. All that mattered was that when he did return, it was with good health. If the knee issue persists, then we’ve got an issue. But if Westbrook has ramped up to 100 percent by the second half of the season and the playoffs, then it’s the rest of the league that has a problem.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: No. The timing of Westbrook’s return (to the lineup or to 100 percent) was never my concern with the Thunder. My concerns were their ability to make up for the departure of Kevin Martin and the ineffectiveness of Kendrick Perkins. Time will tell if their new bench can prove itself reliable, if Scott Brooks is willing to play small more, and if the Thunder can count themselves as one of the West contenders (along with the Spurs) without obvious flaws. The West is wide open and it could be a mid-season trade or two that helps sort things out.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comNot at all. I picked the Golden State Warriors to come out of the West this year and I feel really good about that pick after watching them work so far this season. Russell Westbrook’s return does make things a bit more interesting, it certainly pushes the Oklahoma City Thunder right back into the middle of that mix. Still, I would have picked the Warriors whether Westbrook was healthy or not, whether he came back as himself or something less than what we’re all used to. When I look at the depth and balance of all of the teams out West the Warriors, in my eyes, are the most sound. All things being equal, meaning everyone’s major players remaining healthy (or as healthy as possible) for the duration of this season, I’m sticking with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Mark Jackson and the crew. If anything, I’d like to revise my Houston Rockets pick and push them a little higher up the food chain. But I need to see more of them before doing anything of the sort.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: No. I still think the Clips are the team to beat out West. At the same time, I’ve been saying all along that the Thunder did not need to make any knee-jerk moves at the start of the season without Westbrook, that they could tread water long enough without him to be a factor in the West. I had a sneaking suspicion that Westbrook would be back sooner than anyone thought, considering that before this injury he’d never missed a game, dating to high school. His presence teamed with Durant makes them a factor. But being a factor is different from being the best team in the West, and to me the Thunder just don’t have the depth to outlast a team like the Clippers.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com Greece: I believe that we are living the days of the Thunder. Forget Tom Cruise. This one stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the best 1-2 punch in the league. They are the favorite for taking the West, meaning that we found them exactly where we left them prior the injury of “RW”. Unless a  former teammate (Harden) has his say.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA.com Deutschland: Didn’t I have the Thunder as my Finals pick coming out of the West? Yeah, I did. So no, my prediction stands.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com Italia: Since I had the Thunder winning the West and trying to beat Miami in the Finals, my prediction won’t change. Westbrook is a fundamental addition to the Thunder’s system, providing a lot of leadership and another awesome offensive. The problem for Oklahoma City is that Westbrook and Durant are, at the moment, their only offensive weapons

Hello Again, My Name Is Kevin Love!



VIDEO: All-Access look at the Wolves’ season-opener

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Sometimes a reintroduction is necessary.

For Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star power forward Kevin Love, who went off for 31 points and 17 rebounds in his team’s 120-115 OT win over the Orlando Magic Wednesday night, the season-opener was a reintroduction and a reminder that he’s among the NBA’s best players at his position and overall, too.

Love has been a forgotten man of sorts in the lead up to this season. When injuries limit you to just a combined 73 games in each of the past two seasons, you are the mercy of the what-have-you-done-lately crowd. Aside from some stellar post-work for the gold medal-winning U.S. Team at the London Olympics, we haven’t seen a ton of the Love we saw against the Magic.

The fierce rebounder, inside-out scorer and clutch performer who was on display at the Target Center is a different monster than the Love we saw a couple of seasons ago. He’s older (if 25 counts as older), wiser and much more in tune with not only his own game but with the Timberwolves will need from him if they are going to give serious chase to the playoff bid they’ve been talking about in the Twin Cities all summer.

The supporting cast finally looks solid with Ricky Rubio, Dante Cunningham, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, Derrick Williams, Alexey Shved, Corey Brewer and J.J. Barea, to name basically the entire core group, helping fight the playoff-chase fight.

Love will be the workhorse, of course.

But he’ll need each and every one of those other guys to deliver the Timberwolves from the lottery perch they have occupied for years. Because if we’ve learned anything from observing Love and his All-Star peers in recent seasons, we’ve learned that it takes a small village of stars and quality role players to raise a franchise out of the abyss.

It’s funny, though, how quickly people tend to forget. After the 2011-12 season, there was a healthy debate about whether Love, the L.A. Clippers’ Blake Griffin or the Portland Trail Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge — all of whom are All-Stars — would be the best young power forward in the game by now. They have all accomplished a great deal, individually, the past few seasons, solidifying their positions at the position for the foreseeable future.

But I’d argue that Love, when healthy, eases ahead of both Griffin and Aldridge with a complete game that the other two are still working to polish. He rebounds better than both, scores in more ways (courtesy of range that extends well beyond the 3-point line), while stepping up in clutch situations like a player who has spent twice as many seasons in the league than he actually has.

As long as Love stays healthy, the Timberwolves’ playoff dream lives on!


VIDEO: Kevin Love and the Timberwolves handle the Magic in overtime