Posts Tagged ‘Nikola Pekovic’

One Team, One Stat: No D in Minny

VIDEO: Schuhmann’s Advanced Stats: Minnesota Timberwolves’s John Schuhmann gets you ready for the 2015-16 season with a key stat for each team in the league and shows you why it matters. Today, we look at the Minnesota Timberwolves, who earned the No. 1 pick by playing the league’s worst defense.

The stat


The context

20151013_min_basicsShooting is the most important part of a good offense, and defending shots is the most important part of a good defense. The Wolves were the worst team at defending shots since the 3-point line was moved back (after three seasons at a uniform 22 feet) in 1997.

The Wolves’ defense ranked in the top 10 in opponent turnover rate and opponent free throw rate. But their success in those areas was trumped by how bad they were at keeping their opponents from missing shots…

… inside and on the perimeter. The Wolves ranked last in field goal percentage defense at the basket and 28th in 3-point defense.

To make things worse, Minnesota ranked last in defensive rebounding percentage. So when their opponents did miss shots, they allowed too many second chances.

Injuries, in particular to Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, were a factor. The Wolves allowed just 100.7 points per 100 possessions in 382 minutes with Rubio and Pekovic on the floor together. Kevin Garnett might have made an impact on defense when he was acquired in February, but played just five games after that.

This year’s Wolves are going to be fun to watch. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are special talents who are just just 19 and 20 years old, respectively. Both could be great defenders some day, too.

But the Wolves are probably going to struggle defensively again this season. In fact, through three preseason games, Wolves opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 57.9 percent.

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

Morning shootaround — April 4

VIDEO: All the highlights from Friday night


Magic’s Vucevic planning to stay | Curry stung by ex-coach’s MVP pick | Spurs as NBA’s old, married couple | Bulls flirting with disappointment?

No. 1: Magic’s Vucevic planning to stay — So what if Minnesota, even at full strength, is far from an NBA powerhouse and on Friday happened to be playing without its three best big men. Nikola Vucevic didn’t have to apologize to anyone for his career-high 37 points and his 17 rebounds. More important, the Orlando center doesn’t want to have to apologize to Magic fans after saying goodbye in a few years, abandoning the franchise’s long-term plans the way Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard did. The big man spoke recently with Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel about loyalty and the vision he has for his career and his team’s future:

“Yeah, I’m here for the long haul. I hope to stay here my whole career,” he told me. “I love it here. I really love the city. I’ve improved here a lot as a player. I’d love to stay for a long, long time and make something special happen.

“If it takes years, it takes years … I ain’t going anywhere.”

Vucevic is inspired by the loyalty displayed by Italian soccer superstar Francesco Totti. Totti, 38, has played his entire career for Roma.

“Totti could have gone to bigger teams, made more money, do whatever he wanted. He didn’t,” he said. “He stayed with that team. He’s pretty much a god to that team.”

Rather humbly, Vucevic doesn’t consider himself in the class of Shaq and Dwight – repeat All-Stars and No. 1 overall picks.

The list of great big men here is short, but Vooch is already the third-best center the Magic have ever had. Eight long years passed between Shaq’s departure and Dwight’s arrival. Vooch has cut the wait time considerably after Howard departed.

He gets it done differently. Although he’s nearly 7-feet and weighs 260 pounds, Vucevic isn’t as dominating and demonstrative as his powerhouse predecessors. But he is a rare double-double machine, running quietly and efficiently.

More steady than spectacular, he relies on finesse instead of force, having learned the game overseas in Montenegro. Vooch does have a shooting stroke that Shaq and Dwight would envy (and he can make free throws).

“Both Shaq and Dwight had great legacies while they were here. I want to achieve what they achieved,” he said. “When I’m done, I’d love to have people talk about me the way they talk about them. I hope to get to the same level.

“I want to get there.”


No. 2: Curry stung by ex-coach’s MVP pick — Unlike his team’s runaway atop the Western Conference, Golden State’s Stephen Curry likely is going to find himself locked in a tight race for the NBA’s Kia Most Valuable Player award. Some voters probably won’t submit their ballots until the deadline on Thursday, April 16, the day after the regular season ends. But that won’t stop others – those with votes and those without – from floating their opinions sooner, and one who did was ABC/ESPN analyst Mark Jackson, Curry’s former Warriors coach. Jackson’s choice of Houston’s James Harden caught Curry off-guard, as evidence by his reaction. But Golden State teammate Andrew Bogut rushed to his point guard’s defense vs. Jackson, as reported by’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss:

ESPN analyst and former Warriors coach Mark Jackson said Wednesday on the “Dan Patrick Show” that while Curry, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, are all worthy candidates, he’d give his MVP vote to James Harden of the Houston Rockets.

“If you twisted my arm today, I would probably vote for James Harden,” Jackson said. “The reason why is because he single-handedly has put that Houston Rockets team in the position that they’re in today.”

The comments come as a stark contrast to the way Jackson had previously championed his former charge as a superstar in the league, while he was coach of the Warriors.

“It’s his opinion obviously,” Curry said. “He’s probably been watching the league. People are going to ask what he thinks, especially his ties to the Warriors organization and myself specifically. Surprised me he said that. But, it is what it is.”

Curry had been vocally supportive of Jackson prior to the coach’s dismissal last offseason, something the Warriors point guard made mention of Friday.

“Obviously I wasn’t shy about trying to defend him last year when things were rumbling outside of our locker room,” Curry said. “But for him to … it’s kind of a different situation, but it is surprising that he didn’t.”

On Thursday, center Andrew Bogut, who had a less friendly relationship with Jackson, made light of his former coach’s opinion.

“Well what’s his name said no,” Bogut joked. “What’s that guy’s name? Mark? Mark? I don’t remember his name.”


No. 3: Spurs as NBA’s old, married couple — If you’re an NBA fan of college age or younger, you probably can’t remember a season in which the San Antonio Spurs did not win at least 50 games in a season. Their remarkable streak at that level stretches 16 years now, a testament to the staying power of coach Gregg Popovich and his Hall-of-Fame-bound core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Our man Fran Blinebury wrote about the uncommon professional and personal relationships that have produced all that success, and here’s a taste to whet your appetite for more:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half the marriages in the United States are over by the eighth year, which makes the union of the Spurs and consistent excellence — at twice that length — an accomplishment of tolerance, dedication and bliss.

By defeating Denver on Friday night, the Spurs have now won 50 games for 16 consecutive seasons, extending their NBA record half a decade beyond the next longest strings. The Los Angeles Lakers (1980-91) are in second place with 12.

“Think about it. There’s not many marriages that last 16 years,” said ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy. “Think about working that closely together in a relationship, under that pressure and scrutiny and still enjoying each other’s company.

“What they’ve done is sustained greatness. I think that’s much more telling than five championships. First of all, it’s something that nobody’s done before. Winning 50 and having a plus-.500 road record all that time, to me that’s incredible.

“I am totally against the whole mindset that everything is about championships when it comes to evaluating players, evaluating teams. ‘Did they win a championship?’ Really, is that all you’ve got? I’m telling you, sustaining greatness is much harder than a one-, two- or three-year greatness.”

The Spurs’ run has been much like their style of play — more of a steady hum than a loud roar.


No. 4: Bulls flirting with disappointment?Pau Gasol showed emotion near the end of the Chicago Bulls’ victory beyond his normal veteran’s range, yelling and mugging as a release after his offensive rebound and putback against Detroit’s formidable Andre Drummond secured a victory Friday at United Center. But it was Gasol’s more measured comments afterward that ought to get a rise out of Chicago fans, because he speaks from experience when talking about championship teams and the edge they need in the postseason. The Bulls, in Gasol’s view, still are searching, according to the report filed by’s Nick Friedell:

The 14-year veteran, who earned two championships as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, knows what it takes to win a title, and that’s why he’s a little concerned by what he has seen from his new team, the Chicago Bulls, over the past couple of games. After a poor performance on Wednesday night in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Bulls followed up by sleepwalking through the second half and almost blowing a winnable game against the Detroit Pistons on Friday night. Like the rest of his teammates, Gasol is still convinced the Bulls have time to turn around their bad habits, but unlike most of his younger teammates, the All-Star center understands that time is running out.

“There’s not a magic button here,” Gasol said. “What you see in the regular season is what you’re going to get in the playoffs. So we have to try to be more consistent in the last six games that we have and that’s going to determine what we’ll see probably in the playoffs. Now every game, it’s meaningful, and that we have to be aware of that because you can’t expect things to click when it’s crunch time, when everybody is on. So you just got to do whatever you have to on a daily basis to put yourself in the best place regularly so you get to the playoffs and maybe try to turn it up like everybody else.”

The good news for the Bulls is that they found a way to win on Friday night. So often during this up-and-down season they have found ways to lose games like this — to weaker teams that don’t have the same level of talent. But as the Bulls get set for what they hope is a long run in the postseason, veterans such as Gasol and fellow championship club member, Nazr Mohammed, know that the great teams have to play better than the Bulls are playing right now.

“We just got to keep getting better,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “We got to understand what we’re playing for. We’re playing for a lot at stake right now. It was good to see guys like Naz [Mohammed] and some of our veterans speak up tonight and understand how crucial this win was.”


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Portland guard Wesley Matthews long trek back from a torn Achilles is getting serialized by The Oregonian. … Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic also is facing issues – and surgery – on his aching right foot, and sounds a little concerned about his future both on and off the court. … Hall of Famer John Stockton is helping as an assistant coach with Gonzaga Prep’s girls team, lending his hoops wisdom and getting valuable father-daughter time with Laura Stockton. … Kyle Lowry wants to play again before the playoffs, but the Toronto Raptors point guard also wants to be cautious with the back spasms that have sidelined him. … Boston’s Jared Sullinger came back Friday earlier than expected from a stress fracture, and he has lightened the load on that foot by 20 pounds. … Sounding more like part of the problem than part of the solution in Miami, Heat guard Mario Chalmers says he doesn’t know his role these days.

Shed no tears for Andrew Wiggins

By Jeff Caplan,

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 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.

Morning Shootaround — March 15

VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 14


A “defining moment” for the Heat | Warriors talk it out | Lillard becomes a leader | Beal goes down in Wizards’ win | Lakers can move on without Jackson

No. 1: A “defining moment” for the Heat — When they won their first six games after the All-Star break, we thought the Miami Heat had flipped the switch in preparation for the playoffs. But they’ve since lost five of their last six, falling to the below-.500 Denver Nuggets at home on Friday. There’s still a month left in the regular season, but LeBron James believes this is a “defining moment” for the champs, as Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald writes:

This shrine of basketball on Biscayne Bay hasn’t known tedium for some time, but a little bit of that stuff has crept into the cracks of the hardwood in recent days. The Heat (44-19) has lost five of its past six games and is 3-5 in March.

“A tough loss at home, and we just have to figure it out,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s not the way this streak started. Sometimes, it just happens to you in this league where things turn and moment changes and you find yourself in a hole you feel like you can’t get out of. Obviously, we’ll be able to get out of it. When? We don’t know.”

Said James: “We’ve been here before. It has been a while, but we’ve been here before, and this moment will either define our season or end our season. … We always have one defining moment, and this is it right here for us.”


No. 2: Warriors talk it out — The Heat weren’t the only good team to suffer an embarrassing loss at home on Friday. The Golden State Warriors gave up 68 points across the second and third quarters in a 103-94 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s not acceptable for a team that has mostly won with defense this season. So the Dubs aired it out in a post-game meeting, as Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News writes:

Mark Jackson took extra, extra time to come out to speak to the media and spoke about as harshly as he has allowed himself to during his Warriors tenure–so the mood was clearly a little different.

Why? This season has been built on defense, and the Warriors built a huge early lead and then got shredded by a bad Cleveland team, which is just about what Jackson said.

Then, after Jackson’s presser, maybe 30 minutes after the game ended, the locker room was opened to the media and players were noticeably still talking to each other – not at all heatedly, but with nods and solemn expressions.

One player stood out – Stephen Curry was still in uniform and walked up to Jermaine O’Neal, Andrew Bogut and David Lee (among others) and had long one-on-one discussions in the locker room corridors.


No. 3: Lillard becomes a leader — Speaking of locker room meetings, the Blazers had one after Wednesday’s loss in San Antonio, their fourth straight. And it started with Damian Lillard, who doesn’t want to settle for having just played hard. He wants results and Jason Quick of The Oregonian writes that the point guard’s speech may have been a turning point for the Blazers:

“Hold on,” Lillard said.

And from there, a passionate, pointed and spontaneous flow of emotions and leadership came from Lillard. His interjection, and subsequent soliloquy, sparked a team meeting. The players and coaches want the details of the meeting to stay in house, but Lillard said the essence of his speech was that it was up to the players, not the coaches, to step up in crunch time, and to not accept the “we competed hard” as a pacifier for losing.

“He took control,” said Dorell Wright, who is in his 10th NBA season. “It was a big step for him.”

Added Wesley Matthews: “It showed he’s grown. He’s one of those guys who has always led by example, and he put it on himself. He was tired of losing so he voiced his opinion. It was good.”


No. 4: Beal goes down in Wizards’ win — The Washington Wizards came back from six down in the final 65 seconds of regulation to win in Orlando on Friday. But Bradley Beal turned his right ankle in overtime, meaning that the win may cost the Wizards in the long run. They play a big game against the Nets – with whom they’re tied in the standings – in Washington on Saturday. Michael Lee of the Washington Post had the story from Orlando:

The night didn’t end without a brief scare. On the next possession, Beal forced rookie Victor Oladipo (15 points) into missing a driving layup and rolled his right ankle when he landed. Beal hit the floor, weeping in the hardwood, thinking that he had broken his ankle, as his concerned teammates gathered around him. Kevin Seraphin and Otto Porter Jr. eventually had to carry Beal to the locker room but he walked out of the arena on his own power.

“I was just hoping it wasn’t broken. That’s always a player’s first instinct — hope and pray it’s nothing too too serious and fortunately, it was only a sprain,” Beal said. “We just keep going, keep attacking. You’re not always going to stay hot all the time. You’re not going to make all your shots. For us to get this win up underneath us is a great feeling.”


No. 5: Lakers can move on without Jackson — It’s been almost three years since Phil Jackson left the Los Angeles Lakers, but only now can the franchise finally have some closure. Lakers fans may still want Phil, but he was never going to get what he wanted (full control) in L.A. Ramona Shelburne has a good read on the Jackson story from the Lakers’ perspective:

Over the past three years, he’s been neither coach nor consultant. His fiancée, Jeanie Buss, is the one still receiving Laker paychecks, not him. But in his absence, Jackson’s presence has only grown larger among the Lakers and their fans. By remaining in the shadows, his enormous shadow has hung over the franchise. The “We want Phil” chants still ring out at Staples Center from time to time.

People got used to it that way. It was comforting to know Jackson was still there, close by. Just a tweet away. That also made it hard for other things to grow, but it was better than the alternative.

When legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss passed away last February, Jackson was still the one subsuming that patriarchal role in this very strange, dysfunctional saga. The Lakers and their fans never really had to stare into the abyss in front of them.

Now they do. That it took a full week for Jackson to formally sign on as the Knicks president after word of their serious mutual interest leaked only prolonged the torture for Laker fans.


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: In a response to an Op-Ed by agent Jeff Schwartz, Chris Paul detailed the NBPA’s search for a new executive director … In an up-and-down season, Jonas Valanciunas had a big night against the Grizzlies … Nikola Pekovic couldn’t play through ankle pain on FridayThe Nets have signed Jason Collins for the remainder of the season … and O.J. Mayo is out of the Bucks’ rotation.

ICYMI of The Night: Lillard backed up his words, scoring 27 points (including 16 in the fourth quarter) in Friday’s win in New Orleans:

VIDEO: Nightly Notable: Damian Lillard

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.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 29

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


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


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 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

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:


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, 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.


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, 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, 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.

Q&A: Timberwolves’ Love Clears Mind, Timeline To Focus On ‘P’ Word

VIDEO: Mike Fratello breaks down Kevin Love’s shot selection

MINNEAPOLIS – The top of Kevin Love‘s head has been in fine shape so far in this 2013-14 NBA season. His affability, at least as far as a lot of Twin Cities media folks are concerned, has been less so, because they mostly have been getting, well, the top of the Minnesota Timberwolves forward’s head.

Love’s postgame session after a home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was said to be typical: A ring of reporters standing, Love sitting in the middle, looking mostly straight ahead. He fielded questions as they came – if they really were questions – and answered each one. But he did so almost in monotone, with little emotion or animation and even less eye contact.

For one of the league’s great conversationalists, it seemed forced, a little stand-offish. But it turns out, it might just be a handy coping mechanism. Love wants to keep things almost entirely in the present. He’s not willing to rehash the trials and tribulations of a forgetting 2012-13, when a twice-broken hand, inconsistent play in the 18 games he did make, Minnesota’s injury epidemic and sagging record, and alleged rancor between him and former Wolves president David Kahn led to some of the hardest criticism Love ever has heard. Nothing productive there, though, for the here-and-now.

Nor, for that matter, is Love much interested in jawing about the future, since invariably questions hone in on the summer of 2015, when he can opt out of his four-year, $60.8 million extension with a year left and hit free agency. And who can blame him: The Wolves’ future – at least ending a nine-year playoff drought – is now. Love’s individual accolades and achievements, from his 30-15 games to his Olympic gold medal, all would snap into sharper focus if things started to sizzle in his day job.

So that was the context for what wound up being his in-the-moment post-game media session. It was like stepping outdoors, eyes closed, letting the rain splash down or smelling the flowers, all the what-was and what-will-be giving way to what-is.

What is, lately, is pretty good for Love – he went into Monday’s game at Indiana No. 4 in scoring (24.9) and No. 2 rebounding (13.6), an early-season MVP fave. So after an off-day workout last week, the five-year veteran and two-time All-Star talked at length with Everyone is asking and we have to, too. How do you do what you do so well in spite of your limited natural ability? [Love was the No. 1 pick of NBA general managers for making the most of allegedly meager athletic ability.]

Kevin Love: I don’t feel like I have “limited natural ability.” I guess I can’t jump to the top of the square every time. But I have soft hands, I have great footwork. I can shoot the ball, I can rebound, I can pass. So where does that impression come from, do you think?

Love: Gee, If I had to guess, it would be that I’m white. I mean, what do you think? I do remember how Christian Laettner, heading toward the 1992 draft, used to sneer when reporters would mention Larry Bird in straining to make comparisons. He felt it was done only because he was white. So now you hear it, where instead of people comparing your outlet passing to Wes Unseld…

Love: They compare it to Bill Walton instead. Right. People compare “like” to “like,” I guess. I don’t know what it is. What explains your fast start?

Love: I’m just at peace on the court. Feel great. Off the court, feel great. I’m loving playing with this team. Locker room’s gotten better. Coaching staff. I feel like we all know exactly what they want out of us, so that’s great as well. And yeah, getting into a good rhythm right off the bat is always nice. I saw the “all present, no past or future” outlook on display last night. How did that come about?

Love: I’ve always wanted to think like that and focus on carpe diem and seize the day and living in the present. I finally spoke it into existence. I don’t want to dwell [on] or be happy about – whether last year or years before – how things went for me, on the court or off the court. But don’t want to focus on the future either. Just want to focus really day-by-day and the [next opponent] at this point. Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders told me in October about have a very “Zen-ful” summer, then some early frustrations led to an embarrassing nightclub incident and an injury. nner peace isn’t always easy to come by.

Love: Off the court, with my family and close friends, everything’s really going great. So that allowed me to focus on playing basketball. Had a great summer working out – didn’t talk to you guys at all [laughs]. The only time I really did media was at USA Basketball.

A big part about it was, I changed a lot of my contacts up. People weren’t able to reach me. I kind of like that – I was able to work hard, focus. Every night I’d go home, just rest, chill, read a book, watch TV. I like to live a little bit as a recluse and a shut-in so I get to focus on what I love most, and that’s my family and friends and my basketball.