Posts Tagged ‘Ricky Rubio’

Blogtable: Stop Doing That, Please

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.


MVP: KD or LeBron? | A should-be All-Star? | Player’s flaw?



VIDEO: Stephen Curry talks about his big season to date

If you could get one player to stop doing one thing on-court – a habit, a particular pass or shot he keeps blowing, something he does too much and drives you nuts every time you see it — who and what?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comRajon Rondo letting an inbounded ball dribble and roll too long before picking it up and going. Don’t mean to pick on Rondo – he’s just one of many, including Ty Lawson, Kyrie Irving and a bunch of mostly point guards who have bought into this false economy. Sure, once in a while the ball is delivered in a way that it can be chaperoned for a few extra feet while keeping the game clock from starting. But often, it’s angled toward the sideline and losing its speed, so finally grabbing it and veering back on course eats up whatever seconds allegedly were saved. Meanwhile, it gives a defender an opportunity to pounce. It’s a Joe College move and the sort of false hustle/smarts that makes sliding into first base such a laughable MLB play.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comJ.R. Smith: touching the basketball.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: My first inclination is for Steve Nash to stop licking his fingers. So gross. But we haven’t seen all that much of Nash this season, so I’ll give him a reprieve. My other beef is with another crafty guard with an oral fixation. Hey Steph Curry, keep that mouth piece of yours where it belongs — in your mouth. He especially seems to love to dangle the thing after dropping a ridiculous 3-pointer and then incorporates the dangle with a half-crazed stare as he awaits the opponent at the other end.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: That habit a lot of top players have of getting hurt has become old. I’d like that to stop. I don’t have one player fixing one thing. I would like to see a lot of guys hit a mid-range jumper, even the guys who do well on 3-pointers. I would even take it beyond just players. I would like to see word come down from NBA HQ to make the game the thing, not a layer, even the top layer, in the entertainment experience.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comKevin Love needs to stop admiring his shot and get his butt back on defense. The Wolves rank near the bottom of the league in transition defense, in part because Love often stands idly by as the opponent is running down the floor

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I’m terribly uncomfortable whining about something like this, truly … players are entitled to their rituals and habits, I’ll take a pass over another dribble almost every time and nobody ever sets out to miss a shot on purpose. I made a resolution for 2014 to stop worrying and whining about things that don’t change the course of my day (or my life, for that matter) and this, my friends, definitely falls into that category. But since we’re going there, I need a player with Ricky Rubio’s talent to stop passing up open looks, wide-open quality looks, because he has no confidence in his shot. Rubio isn’t the threat he should be because he hasn’t fine-tuned his shooting stroke. He’s a brilliant passer and no one will dispute that, but there’s no way he maximizes his immense potential (and no way the Timberwolves get his best) if he cannot round out his game with a more aggressive approach and a more confident and polished stroke.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: From the beard to the range, I love nearly everything about James Harden. Except one thing — the way he flings his head back when driving to the basket in order to draw fouls. It wouldn’t bother me so much if Harden didn’t do it so often, jerking his head back almost every time he drives to the basket. The thing is, it’s hard to criticize someone for doing something that works — Harden shoots eight free throws a game, gets easy points from the line and keeps opponents in foul trouble. But just because it gets called doesn’t make it right.

Karan Madhok, NBA IndiaI scream at the TV set every time Pau Gasol settles for a mid-range jumper, and this has been happening for a few years now. Gasol is one of the league’s last standing big men with genuine sublime offensive post moves, and has the ability to create for himself and dish out beautifully under the basket or with his back to the basket. A quick look at his short chart says that Pau is a better-than-50 percent shooter under the basket and can hit the mid-range jumper in front of the basket, but the percentages start to fall in most shots taken from the mid-range from either corner. Plus, aesthetically, that jumper is an eye-sore, especially when I know how gifted he is when he drives in. Attack the basket, Pau!

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: I hate it when Rajon Rondo hides his mouth-piece inside his jersey. It drives me crazy, because I can’t understand why he does it. Why have a mouth-piece if you don’t intend to keep it in you mouth at the first place!

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: Is there any other possible answer here than erasing the 3-point shooting from Josh Smith? Just stay on the block, Josh!

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 18




VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Kobe’s return | Rondo returns | Durant explodes | Rubio’s thrill is gone | Red-hot Grizzlies

No. 1: Bryant has no intention of sitting out — It doesn’t matter that if his Lakers continue to plummet in the standings. It doesn’t matter if the team might be better off the long run — and for the end of his own career — by getting a high lottery pick and maybe a budding young star. It doesn’t even matter what legend Magic Johnson thinks. Kobe Bryant says he has every intention of returning to the court this season because, well, as he told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, he’s Kobe and that’s all he knows:

“The only thing I can afford to consider is getting better, getting stronger,” Bryant said before the Lakers’ 107-104 win over the Boston Celtics on Friday. “I can’t allow myself to think any other way. I can only think about the next step. To do anything else becomes distracting if you allow yourself, if you give yourself wiggle room to not push yourself as hard as you possibly can. To think about sitting out and this, that and the other, your motivation is all wrong. I refuse to think that way.”

Magic Johnson disagreed, as the former Lakers star questioned whether Bryant should come back at all this season in an interview with the Los Angeles Times this week.

“What is he coming back to? He’s not going to be able to stop the pick and roll, all the layups the Lakers are giving up,” Johnson told the newspaper. “He’s been hurt twice, give him the whole year to get healthy.”

In the same interview, Johnson called hiring Mike D’Antoni last season a “wrong decision.”

“Normally I don’t hear it until [the media] brings it up,” D’Antoni said, adding that he has never spoken to Johnson in person since joining the Lakers. “There’s voices everywhere, and it’s a hard job to do no matter what team you’re with. You do the best you can and you feel like every day is a new battle, and everybody has their opinion. There’s a saying about that. … So, that’s the way it is. You go on and do your job.”

Bryant, sidelined since Dec. 17 when he suffered a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee during the Lakers’ 96-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, said he will return this season so long as he is medically cleared.
“We’ll see where it’s at in February and see if it’s good to go,” Bryant said, pushing back his return timeline ever so slightly, with D’Antoni having recently said Bryant would be re-evaluated Jan. 27, at the conclusion of the team’s current seven-game trip while the Grammy Awards take over Staples Center.

***

No. 2: Rondo looks and feels good in first game of season — It was his first game in almost a year, but Rajon Rondo showed no ill effects of the surgery to repair his torn right ACL. Even though the Celtics let the Lakers close with an 11-0 run to win the game, the new team captain told A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com that overall conditioning in his biggest hurdle going forward:

“I felt pretty good,” said Rondo, who didn’t have any significant pain but knows that could change within the next 24 hours. “When I got back in the second quarter I got pretty winded, but that was expected. Other than that, I didn’t feel like I was limited to anything tonight.”

Rondo has reiterated time and time again that his conditioning, more than anything else, remains his biggest hurdle.
For the 19-plus minutes he played, Rondo didn’t appear to show any concern or apprehension on the floor relative to his surgically repaired right knee.

In fact, the biggest issue facing Rondo going forward doesn’t appear to be what he’s doing on the floor.
It has to do with what happens when he’s not on the floor for long stretches of time, something that will inevitably happen as long as he has to play with minute restrictions.

Prior to Rondo’s first game, head coach Brad Stevens said he would be limited to 18-20 minutes per game.
It is unclear how long he will have minute restrictions.
“Coach (Stevens) and I talked about my minutes, how we were going to spread it out, you know, five minutes a quarter,” Rondo said. “I think that’s the best way to do it.”

***

No. 3: Durant takes his game to new heights with 54 points — If there comes a times next May or June when Kevin Durant is raising the MVP award above his head, will this have been the night when he wrestled the trophy out of the grasp of LeBron James? K.D. took on the Splash Brothers Friday night and gave them a dunking with a career-high 54 points on just 28 shots and staked his claim in leading the Thunder past the Warriors. Berry Trammel of The Oklahoman says it was Durant’s best night ever:

“He’s a special talent, a superstar basketball player, an all-time great,” said Golden State coach Mark Jackson.
The game started as a sharpshooting duel between teammates. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who put the gold in Golden State, seemed to be playing a solitary game of H-O-R-S-E in the first quarter.

But by game’s end, there was no doubt who wore the crown. This was Durant’s finest offensive game as a pro.
Durant made 19 of 28 shots and virtually matched the long-range bombs of Curry and Thompson. The Warrior backcourt duo each nailed two 3-pointers in the first seven minutes and each nailed three treys in the first quarter.
Curry and Thompson finished with a combined 63 points. Curry had 37, making six of 10 3-pointers; Thompson had 26 points, making six of nine deep balls.

But Durant finished five of eight on 3-pointers. His 19 field goals tied a career high. The only two times he’s made more than 16 baskets in a game, he’s gone 19 of 28 overall. Friday against Golden State and Feb. 2012 against Denver, when Durant scored 51 points in a 124-118 Thunder victory.

But this performance was better. That Denver team included Andre Iguodala, one of the NBA’s few defenders capable of giving Durant a rough time, but Iguodala missed that game.

Now a Warrior, Iguodala played 29 1/2 minutes Friday night but was no match for Durant.

“The great players, you can play great defense and he can have numbers,” Jackson said. “It’s just a question of making him work. He hit some tough shots, some incredible shots. Give him credit.”

Durant now is averaging a career high 30.6 points a game this season. He was asked to carry a heavier load when Russell Westbrook underwent another surgery just after Christmas, and Durant has responded. He’s averaged 36.8 points the last five games.

***

No. 4: Rubio says he isn’t having any fun these days playing ballRicky Rubio says a lot of the blame for the Timberwolves disappointing 18-21 start to the season should be placed on his shoulders. The flamboyant point guard admitted to John Krawcyznski of the Associated Press that he just isn’t enjoying playing the game this season:

“I’m going to be honest. I’m not feeling comfortable out there,” Rubio told The Associated Press after a light practice on Thursday. “I’m not being myself and the team is noticing. I just have to be back where I was, be myself. I’m working on that. It’s something that’s missing. It’s tough for me, too.”

Rubio’s shooting numbers have never been great, but harping on that always seemed to be nitpicking for a player who sprinkled magic point guard dust all over the court — slipping passes through a defender’s legs for an open 3-point shot, picking a player’s pocket to start a fast break and seeing windows open before the defenders knew what hit them.

Even when he wasn’t starting his rookie season, the arena would crackle when he stepped to the scorer’s table to check in and his teammates’ eyes would widen in anticipation of a passes that came from impossible angles. It was still there last season when he returned from a torn ACL in December, even though his body took some time to ramp back up to the NBA’s pace of play.

“It’s basketball. I love it,” Rubio said. “But I’m just not having as much fun as it used to be. I know it has to be professional. But I just want to have fun. It’s hard to find it right now.”

***

No. 5: The Grizzlies are finally making their move –Just in case anybody forgot how important Marc Gasol is in Memphis, the All-Star center made a game-saving deflection to clinch a win over the Kings. The Grizzlies are now 3-0 since he returned to the lineup after a knee injury, have won five in a row overall and have crept back above the .500 mark and into the playoff picture in the West. Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal has the details:

Gasol said later that he got fortunate on a gamble. But nothing about the Grizzlies’ season-high, five-game winning streak could be reduced to a stroke of luck.

The Griz (20-19) moved above .500 for the first time since early December and now they can claim a steadily improving defense. Memphis trailed 86-79 with 5:19 left and allowed Sacramento just one field goal the rest of the game.
Gay’s putback dunk cut the Grizzlies’ lead to a point with 38.9 seconds left. There had been no movement in the score when the Kings received the ball with 15.1 ticks remaining.

The Griz were as disruptive on the final possession as they had been the second half of the fourth quarter. Gay had the ball slapped away twice as he tried to attempt a game-winner from 15 feet. The Kings never got a clean look at the basket down the stretch.

“We’re making the right decisions at the right time,” Conley said after scoring a game-high 25 points. “I told the guys that it’s good to have games like this where you have a little adversity and come back. Those are the ones you learn from the most.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: J.R. Smith shows signs of positive life in Knicks loss … DeAndre Jordan wants to be more than just a dunker Jimmer Freddette could be turning a corner with steady playing time.

Might Saunders See Timberwolves’ Answer In Mirror?


VIDEO: Wolves coach Rick Adelman talks about disappointing loss to Kings

Sometimes it’s the malaise that gets you, not the disaster.

When things go haywire for an NBA team – when the losses come four or five in a row, the locker room sours and both parties in the coaching/playing relationship hit the mute button – grabbing at a fix is relatively easy. You change up everything, or as close to that as possible, turning whatever dials and pulling whatever levers are available. Downside is minimal because desperation equals justification, and the alternative to trying anything is doing nothing, at which point a wink-wink about tanking becomes the last refuge of scoundrels.

Malaise is trickier. Malaise is less the presence of awful than the absence of OK. It’s that pervasive uneasiness, that general sense of something lacking in the strategy, on the roster or in their hearts. It is sputtering along two games below .500 almost halfway through the schedule, and burrowing back down each time they break the surface. It is the lack of legit winning streaks, and awkward losses to losers.

Malaise is offense without defense, talent without leadership, instructions without inspiration, velvet glove without iron fist. It is the Minnesota Timberwolves right about now.

Losing at home to Sacramento and slipping to 18-20 Wednesday night was merely the latest symptom of a season gone sideways. And as the Wolves face another challenge Friday in Toronto against the resurgent Raptors (7 p.m. ET, League Pass) and former coach Dwane Casey, the bright spot is that at least they’re not at home, where Minnesota has dropped four of its last six and, according to Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, things have turned – worse than hostile – apathetic.

Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic dribbled the ball a couple of times between free throws Wednesday night; the bouncing ball seemed to echo throughout Target Center.

“Wake up!” one fan yelled from behind the Wolves’ bench between those free throws in the fourth quarter.

The Wolves started the night by hitting the snooze button and trailed the rebuilding Sacramento Kings by 10 points entering the fourth quarter.

“It was dead,” Wolves guard J.J. Barea said. “Couldn’t hear anything out there.”

Flatlined is as flatlined does, and the Wolves are kidding themselves if they think a raucous home crowd is going to save them. If it’s cause-and-effect they’re seeking, it’s going to have to start with them rather than the fans. In the mirror rather than in the stands.

What was billed as a breakthrough season has been anything but. The purging of David Kahn as chief basketball executive was followed almost immediately by a bungled draft night that played almost as homage (the No. 9 pick parlayed down for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng). The guy the Wolves took and traded to Utah, point guard Trey Burke, has been better than both of them, and the equal of zestless Ricky Rubio, who has been playing as if his dog is lost, shrinking in lockstep with his shooting percentage.

A season in which Kevin Love‘s commitment to the franchise and to the market was supposedly reaffirmed, to hear new Wolves president Flip Saunders tell it, mostly has ground on, leaving Love in an emergency-exit row, window seat, for 2015. The roster is full of nice guys without much bark, never mind bite – despite Pekovic’s oft-noted “Bond villain” appearance – and the saltiest guy on board, the smallish Barea, wouldn’t scare a chessmaster.

As a result, the Wolves have been wandering through the hinterlands in January, jumper cables in hand, the battery in their jalopy pretty much dead. If head coach Rick Adelman has said it once – “I don’t know who we think we are” – he has said it a dozen times, a reasonable guess given his team’s 0-11 record in close games (four points or less).

The malaise, mind you, is starting to stick to Adelman, too. His methods haven’t noticeably changed any more than his postgame material, making him appear more detached from the situation than he might be. Benchings? A revised rotation? Less adherence to corner-3 tactics? A heightened commitment to defense – not just from Corey Brewer or Luc Mbah a Moute but by all five on the floor at any time, including two Kevins (Love and Martin)?

Adelman has more NBA know-how in his proverbial little finger than the Wolves franchise had for several years prior to his arrival in 2011. But his ongoing frustration – “It almost takes an act of Congress for us to go out and foul somebody. You have to get after people in this league,” he said after the Kings loss – is reminding folks that he re-committed late to this team last fall (after his wife’s illness last season). Adelman will turn 68 in June and the longer the Wolves bump along, the more out of sync they’ll look with their head coach’s timeline.

Which gets us to the elephant that recently squeezed through the door.

Adelman is one of the most accomplished coaches in NBA history. He has 1,020 victories and has taken his teams to the playoffs 16 times in 25 seasons. But he happens to have a boss in Saunders who won 638 games and took 11 of his 16 teams to the postseason. When Saunders was hired last spring, he said he no longer craved the sideline and he can argue persuasively that he not only has a better, safer job now but a less consuming one as well.

From the start, Saunders has said the right things: “I will be the general manager that most coaches want. Because I understand what it is like to sit in that seat.” But he also has a distinctly different, more enthusiastic personality than Adelman. Saunders isn’t big on confrontations or conflicts but he’s a closer when it comes to confidence. His willingness to sell, sell, sell came through in a recent Q&A with MinnPost.com’s Britt Robson:

Part of coaching is managing frustration. Unfortunately that’s we have to do. We have to continually get ourselves up the next day and present a front to the players, a very confident front, a front that we are not in a panic situation.

Until they are, anyway.

So Minnesota finds itself in a predicament that is more than vaguely familiar. Nine years ago, a Wolves team desperate to improve on its prior year’s performance meandered through the season’s first half. A skid of seven losses in eight games left them one game under .500 (25-26), at which point the team’s general manager (Kevin McHale), with owner Glen Taylor‘s blessing, reluctantly fired the head coach and took over on the bench himself. Minnesota went 19-12 under McHale the rest of the way but it wasn’t enough; the Wolves finished ninth in the West and still haven’t been back to the playoffs.

Back then, Saunders was the coach. This time he’s the “GM that most coaches want,” but with a tiny sliver of minority ownership and an impatience with what’s playing out right now.

It might not happen and, given the pitfalls inherent in breaking down that today vs. tomorrow wall between administrating and coaching, it probably shouldn’t. But it has to be tempting in the midst of a malaise.

Timberwolves Still Finding It Tough To Close The Close Ones


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


VIDEO: The Suns rally to overtake the Timberwolves in Minnesota

Rubio 2014 Resolution? Shoot More, Shoot Better

VIDEO: Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio reaches an assist milestone

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Hitting the new year a game below .500, the Minnesota Timberwolves (15-16) know the work facing them in 2014 dwarfs whatever they accomplished in 2013. Father Time hasn’t been kind in recent seasons to that franchise, and that New Year’s Baby will get whiny awfully quick unless the Wolves get busy and get better, fast.

The same goes for their point guard, Ricky Rubio.

Like his team, Rubio still gets talked of more for his potential than his production or overall play. In fact, the plateau onto which Minnesota appears to have settled owes much to the Spanish plain on which Rubio’s game rests these days. Were he playing better – specifically, posing more of a scoring threat to the opponents that are loading up on Kevin Love and Kevin Martin – the Wolves would be, too.

It’s disappointing enough that Rubio’s offensive game hasn’t grown. What’s worse is that it seems to be regressing. After making a mere 35.9 percent of his field goal attempts in his first two (partial) seasons, Rubio is shooting 34.5 percent in 2013-14. His 3-point accuracy (33.9) is about where it was as a rookie (34.0), after last season’s 29.3. But that means his 2-point prowess (34.7) is in decline.

And here’s the worst part: Rubio appears to be shying away from the very thing he needs to improve. As a rookie, he put up 9.5 shots per game. That dipped to 9.0 after he returned to the court in December 2012 following his ACL/LCL knee rehab. Now? The 6-foot-4 playmaker is averaging 8.1 FGAs, including just 17 in his last four games prior to Wednesday’s contest vs. New Orleans. (Per 36 minutes, the drop is greater: from 10.9 last season to 9.1.)

Look, most of us tend to avoid things we’re not good at or confident about. But this cries out for some sort of resolution for Rubio and the Wolves, maybe an intervention. It’s an impediment to his game individually and it’s a missing link in their attack.

Historically so, actually. Get a load of the NBA’s worst shooters of the past 37 years. Is it merely a coincidence that five of the 10 biggest rim-denters, per basketball-reference.com, played for the Wolves (Rubio, Keith McLeod, Eddie Griffin, A.J. Price, Darrick Martin)? Probably, sure. Then again, Martin was Minnesota’s player-development coach for a couple recent seasons.

The Wolves still cite Rubio’s knee injury in March 2012 for the hiccup in his improvement. He has played only 129 games in parts of three seasons.

“I think physically he’s OK. It’s just trying to get a feel for the game,” Minnesota coach Rick Adelman said last weekend. “He’s a young player who’s figuring out how to be effective in this league. People talk about how he’s not scoring and he’s ‘not doing this.’ But he’s in the top five in assists and in the top five in steals. Y’know, you’ve got to give him some time to get into the other things. It’s just going to take him a little bit longer, I think, because of the layoff at the end of the first year and the start of the second year.”

Adelman knows there is much work to be done. In the summer for Rubio, before and after practices, even in games. Assuming the coach is OK with some on-the-job shooting work.

“Definitely, any guard in this league, you’ve got to be able to knock down shots,” Adelman said. “If he can start knocking down shots from 15 or 17 feet… He’s actually shooting the ‘three’ better than he did last year but he’s got to be able to make that mid-range shot.”

Rubio’s ability to see teammates and make highlight passes ranks near the top in the NBA. But he admits he hasn’t been as aggressive as he needs to be in seeking his scoring chances.

“It’s something that I’ve been working on my whole career,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not. But it’s something that I have to keep my confidence up. Maybe it’s bad because I’m thinking more, as a point guard, to pass first and then my shot is the last thing I think of. It’s something that I have to do better and I’m trying to do that.”

In the chicken-or-egg dilemma between shooting better-and-shooting more vs. shooting more-and-shooting better, teammate Corey Brewer is a believer in the latter. Brewer’s no Kevin Durant but in his first three NBA seasons, he took 8.2 shots per game and made 40.8 percent. Since then, he’s attempting 9.7 and hitting 42.9 percent.

“You start learning how you can score and how you can’t score,” Brewer said. “Especially him, with the ball in his hands, it’s going to make him that much better.”

Rubio won’t turn 24 until October. He has time. But his PER of 15.0 means he’s merely average these days, not the franchise guy for whom Minnesota might have been reserving that special fifth year in a contract extension.

And just as the Wolves aren’t content with being League Pass darlings anymore – entertaining across 82 but done when the networks take over in the postseason – Rubio can’t be satisfied by the highlights he logs on NBA arenas’ videoboards. The points he puts next to them, on the scoreboard, matter too.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

PG: Paul

SG: Curry

SF: Damian Lillard

PF: Eric Bledsoe

C: Ricky Rubio

Bench: Tony Parker, Ty LawsonMike Conley, Jrue Holiday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making A List, Checking It Twice …

We’re making a list, checking it twice. On Christmas Eve, it’s time to remember who’s been naughty or nice in the first two months of the 2013-14 season:

Naughty — Nets — There isn’t enough coal in Newcastle to fill up the deservingly drooping stocking that hangs over a forlorn and underachieving mantle in Brooklyn. Why would anyone think it would make sense to trade for 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 36-year-old Jason Terry as part of $102 million-payroll and put the whole thing in the hands of a guy who had never coached a game in his life? Then Jason Kidd gets extra naughty by intentionally spilling a drink when he doesn’t have a timeout against the Lakers. They have a mediocre offense and the 29th-rated defense. Now they lose Brook Lopez to a broken foot. So it won’t be a Happy New Year either, Billy King.

Nice — LaMarcus Aldridge — From Damian Lillard to Nicolas Batum to Robin Lopez to coach Terry Stotts, there are many contributors to the rousing start to the season by the surprising Trail Blazers with the best record in the league. But no one has done more to elevate his game and his team to the elite level than Aldridge. He labored faithfully through seven seasons with a roster that virtually fell apart around his ears, listened to so much talk of trades and has come back to deliver a magnificent season that has him firmly in the MVP conversation.

Naughty — Knicks — Remember when they used to play basketball in New York? The Manhattan edition of the NBA can’t shoot, doesn’t rebound and Carmelo Anthony is saying the Knicks’ troubles are all in their heads. Would that be the heads of the players and the coach who can’t think to call a timeout in the final seconds to set up a shot? If things don’t turn around fast, Mike Woodson’s going to be the fall guy even though there have been enough injuries to fill an ER and the myth of the Knicks as true playoff contenders entering the season was no more real than a team of flying reindeer pulling a sleigh across the sky.

Nice — Suns — If you went to a Las Vegas sports book during training camp and plopped down a sizable lump of cash on the Suns to beat the over/under prediction of 21.5 wins, you’d probably be only a week or two away from returning to book a penthouse suite with your winnings. First-year coach Jeff Hornacek has his club riding the backcourt pairing of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic with a rotating cast of other contributors to a 17-10 record and a spot right in the thick of the tough Western Conference playoff race. When the Spurs were in town last week, the entire Phoenix roster had played the same number of NBA games in their careers combined as 37-year-old Tim Duncan.

Naughty — Ricky Rubio — Sure, it’s fun to sit in front of the big screen TV and keep hitting the rewind button on the DVR to replay all of those behind-the-back, no-look, over-the-shoulder, through-the-opponent’s-legs, thread-the-needle, oh-my-gosh, how-did-he-do-that, head-on-a-swivel, slicker-than-a-greased eel passes that get his teammates easy layups and dunks. But come on, two years plus into your NBA career, you’ve got to be able to knock down a wide open jump shot when teams give them to you. Which they do and which you don’t. Which is a big part of the reason why your Timberwolves are healthy and still underperforming.

Nice — Kevin Love — After missing 91 games over the past two seasons to injury, Love’s return to good health and a nightly spot in the lineup has been a sight sweeter than sugar plums dancing in the Timberwolves’ heads. How does a guy who is always a threat to score 30 points and pull down 20 rebounds get better? He becomes a better passer, nearly doubling his assists to 4.2 per game. Outside of The King down in South Beach, there’s just nobody in the league you can count on more every night.

Naughty — Grizzlies — There are more excuses than places to hear the blues in Memphis. But the bottom line is that even before Marc Gasol was sidelined with a knee injury, the Grizzlies were going south. They simply haven’t bought into new coach Dave Joerger, still can’t shoot from the perimeter and Zach Randolph seems to have lost his inspiration. The Grind House was a fun place while it lasted.

Nice — LeBron James — Maybe the only thing that stops him from winning MVP No. 5 — and third in a row — is boredom. Not his. Ours. He’ll never completely win over the entire public the way Michael Jordan did simply because of the times in which we live. The age of social media allows critics to throw stones and pick nits. There has simply never been anyone this big and this strong and this fast and this complete with still such a large part of the meat of his career ahead of him.

Naughty — Westbrook critics — Now that Russell Westbrook has recovered from two surgeries, returned to the Thunder lineup and shown not the slightest loss of his swagger, is there anyone who still thinks Kevin Durant and the OKC franchise would be better off without him?

Nice —Kendrick the Bouncer — It had to bring a smile to the face — if not a tear to the eye — of every old school scrapper who’s ever laced up a pair of sneakers and just gone after it when Kendrick Perkins unceremoniously ran Joakim Noah out of the Thunder locker room. That’s enough of the 21st century touchy-feely, we’re-all-buddies atmosphere that persists these days. Not enough get-outta-my-face growling between rivals. A team’s locker room is its castle and the only thing that could have made it better is if Perk dumped him into a moat.

Naughty — Omer Asik — Let’s see. For two seasons in Chicago you were averaging just 13 minutes per game and getting relative peanuts. The Rockets signed you to a free agent contract that pays $25 million over three years and last season you started all 82 games and averaged a double-double. That’s nice. But then they signed All-Star Dwight Howard in July. He’s much, much better. You’re still getting your $25 million. Didn’t you read the line about you better not pout? So we’re making our list, checking it twice and — ho-ho-ho — you’re definitely on it.

Curry Makes Biggest Impact Offensively


VIDEO: Stephen Curry lights up the Mavs and hits the game-winner

The List

Biggest on-off-court differential, OffRtg

On floor Off floor
Player Team MIN OffRtg MIN OffRtg Diff.
Stephen Curry GSW 744 112.0 370 86.5 25.5
Kevin Love MIN 748 109.5 313 86.0 23.5
John Wall WAS 755 104.6 230 83.9 20.6
Paul George IND 809 106.2 252 89.1 17.0
Klay Thompson GSW 872 107.1 242 91.8 15.3
Marcin Gortat WAS 691 104.3 294 89.4 14.9
Luol Deng CHI 656 101.3 324 86.6 14.7
Corey Brewer MIN 748 107.0 313 92.5 14.6
David Lee GSW 774 108.1 340 94.0 14.2
Ricky Rubio MIN 716 107.3 345 93.3 14.0

Minimum 300 minutes on the floor
OffRtg = Team points scored per 100 possessions

The Context

Last season, the leader in this category was Damian Lillard. The 2012-13 Blazers scored 11.5 more points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the floor than they did with him on the bench. Right now, Curry’s differential is more than twice that.

With Curry on the floor, the Warriors have scored 2.5 more points per 100 possessions than the best offense in the league (Portland). With Curry on the bench, they’ve scored 7.2 fewer than the worst offense in the league (Milwaukee).

Curry is one of the most dangerous weapons in the league and a unique challenge to defend, because he’s one of the league’s two or three best shooters, but also has the ball in his hands to start most possessions. He leads the league with 15.8 pull-up jumpers per game, including 5.1 from 3-point range.

Curry not only gets buckets himself, but the threat of him pulling up clearly creates openings for his fellow perimeter players. Klay Thompson has shot 7.4 percent better from the field and 9.9 percent better from 3-point range with Curry on the floor, while Andre Iguodala has shot 31.1 percent better from the field and 43.7 percent better from beyond the arc.

The Warriors have not only shot better with Curry on the floor, but they’ve turned the ball over 6.1 fewer times per 100 possessions. Both Nemanja Nedovic and Kent Bazemore have turned the ball over on more than 20 percent of their possessions.

Iguodala’s absence is certainly a factor in the offensive drop-off when Curry steps off the floor. Iguodala, who is the team’s back-up point guard in addition to being the starting small forward, and who also has a tolerable turnover rate, has missed the last 10 games with a hamstring injury.

But before Iguodala’s injury, the Warriors were still pretty bad offensively with Curry off the floor and Iguodala on, scoring only 93.7 points per 100 possessions over 195 minutes. They were strong defensively, however, and that’s where Iguodala’s absence has been felt most. Golden State has allowed 104.1 points per 100 possessions over the last 10 games after allowing just 96.5 over their first 13.

Even when Iguodala returns, backcourt depth will be an issue. Mark Jackson hasn’t been able to trust Nedovic and Bazemore, who have played a total of 114 minutes over the 10 games that Iguodala has missed. Curry, meanwhile, has played 40-plus in eight of the 10. Both Curry (11th) and Thompson (seventh) now rank in the top 11 in minutes per game. They’re young, but that’s a heavy burden to shoulder.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Golden State has been included among the teams interested in trading for Kyle Lowry. What they’d have to offer the Raptors is the issue. They don’t have much of value beyond their top six players.

The Warriors have played a tough schedule, with 14 of their 23 games on the road and 19 of the against the Western Conference. But their lack of depth has become a real concern. Nobody can come close to replicating what Curry gives them when he’s on the floor, but they need somebody who can at least keep their offense from falling completely off the map.

The Video

Here are Curry’s nine 3-pointers against the Clippers on Oct. 31, here are his 15 assists in Memphis from Saturday, and here’s his game-winner against the Mavs on Wednesday.

The bottom of the list

The Pacers have scored 14.7 more points per 100 possessions with Ian Mahinmi on the bench (106.5) than they have with him on the floor (91.8). Yeah, there’s still a big drop-off when Frank Vogel goes to his bench, but the reserves do their jobs defensively, Luis Scola has given them more offense than Tyler Hansbrough did, and Roy Hibbert‘s minutes are up from 28.7 per game last season to 30.7 this season.

Just ahead of Mahinmi is the Lakers’ Steve Blake at -14.6, and I wrote last week how L.A.’s bench has been so much better than their starters. Ahead of Blake are the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard (-13.8), Vitor Faverani (-13.4) and the Pacers’ Orlando Johnson (-12.7).

Trivia question

What player has scored the most points without a single one coming from outside the paint? Hint: He’s a Western Conference big man who was once a top 10 draft pick by an Eastern Conference team.

More on-off-court notes

  • The presence of three Warriors in the top 10 further illustrates their lack of depth. Also in the top 10 are two Wizards, and when you take defense into account, John Wall has the largest on-off-court NetRtg differential. Washington has outscored its opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions with Wall on the floor and has been outscored by 24.1 with him on the bench. That Eric Maynor addition hasn’t worked out too well.
  • It’s also interesting to see Luol Deng on the list. We understand how important Deng is to the Bulls’ defense, but it’s now clear that, without Derrick Rose, they desperately need Deng offensively. With him out over the last three games, Chicago has scored a brutal 79.8 points per 100 possessions against three bottom 10 defensive teams (Detroit, Milwaukee and New York). And no, D.J. Augustin isn’t going to help much.
  • At the top of the list defensively? Nate Robinson. The Nuggets have allowed 15.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Robinson on the floor than they have with him on the bench. Seems crazy, but the Nuggets have been just awful defensively in the first six minutes of games, allowing 121.2 per 100 possessions, more than 20 over the league average of 100.9 during that time. That has forced them to play catch-up when their reserves enter. Nate for DPOY!

Trivia answer

Andrew Bogut, who has 164 points, all from the paint (150) or from the free throw line (14).

Cheeks Wants Jennings To Step Up On ‘D’


VIDEO: Detroit at New Orleans, Dec. 11, 2013

NEW ORLEANS — Brandon Jennings filled up the hoop with 25 points, grabbed five rebounds and dealt out four assists.

As usual, that wasn’t the issue.

The Pistons have now lost three consecutive games and went down on back-to-back nights in large part because the middle of their defense might as well be a landing strip.

Brandon Jennings

Brandon Jennings (Dan Lippitt/NBAE)

On Tuesday night, the Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio ransacked The Palace by doing almost anything he pleased. Barely 24 hours later it was Jrue Holiday along with Tyreke Evans (on a tender ankle) who took apart the Pistons with dribble penetration.

There is room for all of the routine excuses — the Pistons are the fourth-youngest team in the NBA, they have so many different new parts still learning about each other and how to play together. But Wednesday night they played a Pelicans team that was without its best player in Anthony Davis and overcoming a horrid 6-for-18 shooting night from Ryan Anderson – and they still found a way to get past Detroit.

Mostly that way was straight down the middle.

A Pistons team that should have a stifling front line of the sizable Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith has a defense that is ranked 19th in the NBA for a variety of reasons. Much of the problem begins at the top where opposing guards are usually able to run as free as colts in a meadow.

It’s enough to make Detroit fans long for the days of the Bad Boys and a couple of good forearm shivers.

That’s why coach Maurice Cheeks is looking for his point guard, Jennings, to take on his share of the defensive burden.

When he was asked whether he might “hide” Jennings in a run of three straight games against high powered point guards Holiday, Deron Williams (Nets) and Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) by switching the assignment to rookie Kentavious Pope-Caldwell, Cheeks threw down the gauntlet.

“Yeah he’d be up for the challenge,” Cheeks said of the rookie. “But if you’re going to be good, and I’m going to say this again, a good point guard, I don’t like the word ‘hide’. I want the guy who’s guarding the ball, who’s running my team, to guard that guy, if you’re going to be good.”

Since he popped in 55 points as a rookie with the Bucks, Jennings has been all about his offensive ability. But in a league where point guard skill is more abundant than ever, if Jennings is going to get back into the headlines and crack the upper echelon, he’ll have to stop relying on his big men to cover up for his mistakes and lack of commitment on defense.

Cheeks, who was one of the best on-the-ball defenders during his 15-year NBA career, wants his point guard to take the challenge personally.

“I think Jennings has a chance to be very good,” Cheeks said. “I keep talking about steps. “You take steps, you get better at defending your position. That’s how you become one of those elite players. You don’t become elite by having someone else guard your guy.”

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.