Posts Tagged ‘Timberwolves’

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.”

Derrick Williams Is Out Of Excuses


VIDEO: Derrick Williams talks about adjusting to his role with the Kings

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – There was the lob from Greivis Vasquez that became a two-hand dunk and his own alley-oop toss to Ben McLemore to finish a break and, finally, there also was the time he ditched defender Jared Dudley backdoor, rose along the left baseline, extended his right arm to the ceiling, controlled the ball one-handed inside the restricted zone despite Blake Griffin contesting the pass and in a single motion completed the slam as the crowd erupted.

All was right in Derrick Williams’ world. It was just one night, Friday at Sleep Train Arena against the Clippers. But he helped ignite the home fans and basked in the adulation with a featured role. He played small forward. And he played a lot, 32 minutes, including all but 22 seconds of overtime.

It was what he imagined the last two seasons would have been like, had he permanently been at the position he preferred or been given a chance at any spot by the Timberwolves. In his mind, he didn’t get one. Suddenly, Williams was a King, traded for Luc Mbah a Moute, and in his first game was throwing down multiple lobs, picking off defensive rebounds and pushing the ball downcourt himself on the break, generally turning Sleep Train wild.

Now all he has to do is come close to repeating that a half-dozen times a month or so.

For all the talk that getting out of Minnesota and away from the expectations that come with being the second pick in the 2011 draft, Williams knows the pressure is still on, maybe more than ever. He came to a team that wants to develop prospects, unlike with the Timberwolves aiming for the playoffs, and to a team that gave him a clear path to the opening lineup at small forward, unlike his previous home.

Minnesota didn’t put anything on a silver platter. But the Kings benched opening-night starter John Salmons and traded his replacement to the Twin Cities to get Williams. That was followed by Sacramento coach Michael Malone sounding like a man very conscious of building up Williams’ confidence.

Miss this chance and Williams may never get a better opportunity. Miss this chance and Williams will validate Rick Adelman and the Timberwolves and take away the I-never-got-a-chance defense.

“It’s on me,” said Williams, who followed up the thrilling debut with four points on one-of-three shooting, along with seven rebounds, in 21 minutes in the Sunday loss to the Warriors. “I really feel like I can help this team a lot. Just my style of play. But it’s put up or shut up. I really feel like I can make something happen here. That’s the main thing. For my career and helping this team, I really feel like I can do that.”

Besides, that whole never-got-a-chance thing isn’t based in reality. Before taking a seat near the end of the bench the first month of 2013-14, when every front office knew he was available in a trade, Williams appeared in 66 games as a rookie (the only Minnesota player of any experience level to make every game) and 78 games last season. He got in 97 percent of the games. He started 71 times, 48 percent of the possible starts. He averaged 21.5 and 24.6 minutes. He played small forward, his preferred position, alongside Kevin Love and played power forward when Love missed most of 2012-13 with a hand injury.

When Williams heard the news of the trade, he said, his reaction was happiness at a fresh start, which is fair, and that he was, “Excited to get back out on the court and finally get a fair shot,” which isn’t. He didn’t get to play true small forward as he had wanted, but the Timberwolves grew to see the Williams that concerned a lot of teams heading into the draft – he may be a classic tweener, unable to stick at either forward spot.

The Kings are willing to give him his shot. They have handed small forward to Williams, told him not to worry about looking to the bench with every mistake. He has this season and next to see if he turns into part of the solution in Sacramento or a test drive that didn’t work out. Now it’s up to Williams.


VIDEO: Derrick Williams finds Ben McLemore on the break

13 NBA Reasons To Be Thankful


VIDEO: NBA players give thanks for their communities and more

Before we dig into the turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie, here’s a baker’s dozen things on the NBA plate to appreciate on Thanksgiving Day:

Kobe Bryant: We get two more years — at least — of the most ruthless, relentless, never-show-a-weakness competitor the league and maybe pro sports has seen since Michael Jordan was chewing up the scenery and opponents in Chicago. In the wake of his signing a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension, we also got a slew of critiques about impact on the salary cap and physical limits of your average 35-year-old body that overlook his unquenchable thirst to play, his drive to get back onto the court for the Lakers. Love him or hate him, you’ll miss him when he’s gone.


VIDEO: The Starters talk about Kobe Bryant’s new deal

The Heat Wave: Never mind that the Celtics did it in 2008 with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the Celtics did it in 1980 with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the Celtics did all through the late ‘50s and 1960s with Bill Russell and an entire wing of the Hall of Fame and the Lakers did it with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. The Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami is just what the doctored ordered in the overreactive, hypersensitive age of social media — something to cheer, complain and obsess about. And, oh yeah, they’re damn good.

LeBron James: For all of the disappointment over not getting to the top in Cleveland, bad judgment and bad taste of “The Decision,” he took his talents to South Beach and has delivered on the promise. Would Jordan or Bird or Magic or Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell have stood up to the 24/7 scrutiny under which James has played his entire career? Be thankful you get to see him now, because 20-30 years from now you’ll be bragging to the grandkids that you did.


VIDEO: LeBron James is off to a monster start again this season

Riquickulous: It’s not just a clever TV commercial for Nike. On almost any night he laces up his sneakers, it never gets old to know that the game’s greatest ball handler and top point guard Chris Paul is quite likely to pull off a variation of the “the pull-back-hop-step-under-the-left-leg-behind-the-back-right-hand-two-dribble-half-pokey-crossover-between-two-defenders-drop-step-take-tweet-through-over-the-shoulder-pop-pass-into-the-sidestep-power-jump-stop-double-clutch-offhand-reverse-floater-layin.”

Anybody need me to repeat that?


VIDEO: Chris Paul puts a ridiculous move on the Rockets’ Jeremy Lin

The Spurs Way: They’re the often unseen lining on the inside of an expensive fur coat, the overlooked soles on the bottom of a pair of $1,000 designer shoes. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and all of the stability and professionalism they stand for in San Antonio prove that you don’t have to live in the headlines to be deserving of them.

John, Paul George & Ringo: Because of where they’re from, because of who they are, the Pacers will likely never be known as the Fab Four or Five, even if they’re lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. It’s a team-wide commitment to the task that has the Pacers steely-eyed and focused on the rolling up the best record in the league. But watching the growth and transformation of George from talented rookie into team leader and MVP candidate has been nothing short of breathtaking.


VIDEO: NBA Action takes a closer look at Indiana’s fast start to 2013-14

LaMarcus Aldridge: Another MVP candidate from another team with a geographical handicap that keeps the world of headlines and acclaim from beating a path to his door. The Blazers forward could have become discouraged and looked to bail out of Portland after three straight non-playoff seasons in the prime of his career. Instead he’s doing it all and having his best season in the NBA Go ahead, tell me you saw 13-3 coming.


VIDEO: The Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge has helped Portland start off solid

Gregg Popovich vs. Craig Sager: Those terse, contentious in-game chats on TNT between the acerbic Spurs coach and a guy wearing one of Secretariat’s old stable blankets are some of the most uncomfortable and hilarious bits in the history of television. Other sideline reporters have tried to horn in on the act, but this is Ali-Frazier of the genre.

Russell Westbrook: Yes, he’s wild, restless, unpredictable, flamboyant, stubborn and burn-down-the-house crazy at times on the court. But we watch him with our jaws dropped because of those traits. I know you expected me to say Kevin Durant, and I have nothing but respect for K.D.’s silky smooth, just-go-about-his-business approach to the game. But when it comes to the Thunder, you can’t help but be drawn to the lightning.


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook runs wild on the Nuggets in Oklahoma City’s victory

Love Story: Everybody knew he could rebound coming out of UCLA, but not like this. Everybody knew he could shoot and score and pass when he entered the NBA. But not like this. There are still general managers in the league who foolishly label Kevin Love as “unathletic” every year in their annual poll and you have to wonder how they keep their paycheck or any sense of credibility. The Timberwolves power forward is challenging LeBron in the early MVP race with a game that is deliciously well-rounded.


VIDEO: Kevin Love is leading the league in rebounding

Stephen Curry: Slender as a reed and maybe as frail as a snowflake, Curry is delicate yet dangerous, in some ways the 21st century version of George Gervin because he can shoot with such ease and from unexpected angles and barely ever looks like he’s breaking a sweat. It’s his propensity for injuries that makes you want to take in as much as you can see right now, just in case.

Andre Miller: He’s old and slow … and he’s been that way for what seems like decades now. But at 37 and in his 15th season, if you bounced him out of Denver right now and into Chicago, the Bulls would have just the smart, tough point guard they need to stay in the Eastern Conference race. There’s something about watching an experienced, heady veteran surviving and thriving that is satisfying.

Motor City Jerseys: OK, let’s not get carried away and see Kobe wearing “La-La Land,” Dwight Howard “H-Town” or LeBron “South Beach” across his chest. Detroit and the Motor City nickname has history, tradition, staying power. It really means something to a town that has taken its share of lumps and bruises through the years and a franchise with a long-standing championship pedigree. The Pistons in the Motor City jerseys are just, well, cool.

Derrick Williams Era Ends In Minnesota


VIDEO: Derrick Williams arrives in Sacramento

HANG TIME WEST – The Timberwolves’ patience with Derrick Williams officially ran out Tuesday as the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft was traded to the Kings for Luc Mbah a Moute in a move Minnesota hopes will also stabilize the defense and strengthen its playoff chances.

The highest selection in team history left town without ever coming close to paying off, a classic tweener who didn’t develop at small forward alongside Kevin Love or power forward when Love was hurt and averaged 22.6 minutes in two-plus seasons. Williams was at 14.7 minutes this season while appearing in 11 of 16 games.

Sacramento provides more than just a change of scenery. The original starter at small forward, John Salmons, lost the job and his replacement, Mbah a Moute, was just traded, creating a clear path for Williams if he is able to capitalize. Based on work to date, though, that’s obviously a big if.

Similarly, the Timberwolves are getting a player blanketed in the caution sign that the Kings moved him so soon after acquiring Mbah a Moute from the Bucks in the offseason for a pair of second-round picks and wanting him to be at the forefront of the latest new emphasis on defense. Minnesota takes him with the same hopes while 23rd in the league in shooting defense.

Swapping a veteran for a prospect is exactly the kind of move the Kings had in mind when NBA.com reported last week Sacramento was aggressively pursuing trade possibilities in hopes of adding young talent and/or draft picks. Williams was available, and has been for some time, because he was not producing, but the new Kings management sent word around the league that most every veteran was available in exchange for pieces that would accelerate the rebuilding process.


VIDEO: Wolves GM on dealing Williams, acquiring Luck Mbah a Moute

Howling Wolves Deal With Quiet Time


VIDEO: The Rockets beat the Timberwolves 112-101 on Saturday

Remember when the Timberwolves were something to howl about?

It was less than two weeks ago when the ball and the shots were moving through the offense like they were notes in a symphony.

You could pull on your parka and a pair of mukluks, then squint your eyes and imagine you were watching the Spurs North.

You could see Ricky Rubio spinning, darting and creating with only the edges of his imagination as a limit, see Kevin Love go down low to score in the post and then come outside and make it rain from behind the 3-point line, see Kevin Martin drop in all those improbable shots from all those impossible difficult angles.

The Timberwolves were 6-3 right out of the box and they were a team that could dance right off into the stars.

But now they have two left feet. All of a sudden, they can’t shoot, can’t defend, can’t muster up enough energy to take the floor and make their coach happy.

“You can look at stats all you want, but we didn’t have enough,” said Rick Adelman after their fourth loss in six games, a flogging by the James Harden-less Rockets. “I don’t know if it’s mental fatigue or whatever. We just have to do a better job and the schedule doesn’t matter.”

The schedule has turned brutal of late, serving up nine games in 14 nights, five in seven, including rising teams such as the Clippers and Rockets and next up are the East-leading Pacers.

“We play 18 games right off the bat this month,” Love said. “It’s tough. I think that’s really what it is. Plus we’re playing some really good teams. So it hasn’t been easy for us.”

One of the things that makes it hard has been the continuing struggles of Rubio to put the ball into the basket. For all of the wizardry that he uses to set up his teammates for easy baskets, the 23-year-old doesn’t seem to have a trick up his sleeve to help himself.

Rubio has made half his shots from the field only five times in the first 15 games, shooting just 34.7 percent. Now in his third NBA season, Rubio has scored 15 or more points in a game while making half his shots only nine times. The Wolves are 6-3 in those games. It’s just not that simplistic, but if Rubio could learn to shoot, the Wolves could take a big permanent step forward.

“It’s a lot easier when all your guys can make shots,” Adelman said. “He’s such a good passer and creator that if he’s making shots it makes it very difficult for the other team. They can’t go under screens, pick and rolls and things like that. It’s a process he’s going to have to go through.

“This is the first year he’s had training camp since he’s been in the league. He’s been hurt or we had a short training camp. It’s going to take time. He’s playing well and hopefully he’s to going to make shots.”

They’re a team that has Love and Rubio back in the lineup after being plagued by injuries a year ago and they have small forward Corey Brewer back with the club after signing as a free agent over the summer. They have big man Nikola Pekovic doing all that he can in the middle and with Chase Budinger again sidelined by injury, they’ve sucked everything they can out of Martin as if he were a water hose in the desert.

“We were the worst outside shooting team in the league last year,” Adelman said. “So having Kevin opens things up. And having the other Kevin (Love) back opens things up too. Last year we were firing blanks. We didn’t really have a lot of answers. This year we have a few more.”

They are still a team that has less depth than a wading pool and could use former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams to be something more than a massive bust or Alexey Shved or Dante Cunningham or Robbie Hummel or anyone to step up.

“We’re a solid team,” Martin said. “We got some work to do. It’s a long season. Everybody goes through their tough stretches with a tough schedule…We feel like we’re right in there. We’ve got a lot of things to work on. Just got to weather the storm right now.”

Never Too Soon For Snap Judgments


VIDEO: Sixers begin season with strong start

 

So what if we’ll have to skip the clocks ahead again before we even finish the long grind of the regular season? Does it really matter that it will take more than seven months for somebody to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy? It’s never too soon to leap to conclusions about what we know — or think we know — one week into the 2013-14 regular season.

Heat – Nobody this side of Miley Cyrus gets more scrutiny, criticism and hyperventilating overreaction than the two-time defending champs. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade already have to talk over the alarm bells, trying to put out the fires of two losses in their first three games. They still have the best player in the game, still have a more than capable No. 2 man if he stays healthy and still will be the team to beat when the playoffs begin in April. That won’t stop the sky from falling on nearly a weekly basis. But you still want to pick them for next June.

Clippers – So much for the closing down of Lob City by the new mayor Doc Rivers. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are still running free and easy with the top-rated offense in the league (119.5), but we’re going to have to see more out of DeAndre Jordan and that unicorn defense before we consider the Clips to be true playoff contenders in the West.

Derrick Rose — The Bulls’ star will be right behind the Heat with the Chicken Little crowd that will fret and worry and complain with every missed shot and turnover. He’ll have the most scrutinized repaired leg in the league until Kobe Bryant returns. The good news is that Rose hasn’t shown any ill effects from the knee surgery and it’s only a matter of time until he regains the stroke and the confidence that make him an MVP candidate and Chicago a threat to push Miami and Indiana in the playoffs.

Advantage Howard – The 2-2 Lakers might be saying they’re having fun without the 6-foot-11 distraction, but Dwight Howard is healthy and living up to all expectations in Houston as both an inside force (15 rebounds per game) and solid veteran presence in the Rockets locker room. No longer suffering from back and shoulder problems, Howard is playing joyfully and stress-free for the first time in three seasons. He’s been accepting of instruction from coach Kevin McHale, willing to move out to guard power forwards as part of the twin towers tandem experiment with Omer Asik, and has the Rockets on track to their stated goal of getting home-court advantage in the West playoffs, at the very least.

Lakers – If they were in a swimming pool, the Lakers would be wearing an orange life jacket and just trying to bob their heads above the water line. It’s a two-part season that’s B.K. and A.K. — Before Kobe and After Kobe – and things just don’t look good for the long haul with Steve Nash struggling badly and a bench that provides as much real support as a, well, bench.

Sixers – Other than LeBron and Wade declaring that they were taking the season off to visit an ashram to find inner peace, could there have been a more shocking start to the season than a 3-0 start in always sunny Philadelphia? Michael Carter-Williams, Eastern Conference Player of the Week, is the real deal. But the Warriors proved Monday that the Sixers will eventually settle down to their real level in the Andrew Wiggins Derby, especially after GM Sam Hinkie possibly parlays the quick starts by Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and maybe Thaddeus Young into deals for more draft picks.

Thunder – OK, everybody kicks five bucks into the pot and the winner is the person who picks the exact time — day, hour, minute and seconds — when some knucklehead rips Russell Westbrook for being the kind of bad/selfish teammate that will never help Kevin Durant win a championship. The truth is, since GM Sam Presti’s benevolent giveaway of James Harden to Houston, Westbrook is Durant’s only chance of getting back to The Finals. No more Memphis getting past half a Thunder team. No more avoiding the toughest challenge in the West, Spurs. Yes, Durant is OKC’s best player. But Westbrook, healthy and with a chip on his shoulder, is the hard edge on the court.

Wizards – How many times can we wait on the revamped Wizards to have that bust-out season that propels them back into the playoff picture in the East? John Wall is fine, Trevor Ariza is averaging a double-double, they have a healthy center in Marcin Gortat and yet Washington is still 0-3 with a defense that is simply dreadful. Coach Randy Wittman still leads the race for first coach fired.

Warriors – They’re like the magician that has your eyes glued to his pretty assistant in the skimpy outfit that is their high octane, high scoring offense, while coach Mark Jackson’s team really wants to pull rabbits out of their hats with a defense that will get in your face and get after it. Andre Iguodala couldn’t have been a better fit if he’d been sewn into the lineup by a British tailor.

Love Is All You Need – Well, it would certainly help to have Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and the rest of the star-crossed Timberwolves remain ambulatory through the 82-game schedule. But if there were a Comeback Player of the Year Award for the first week of the season, it would have to go to Kevin Love, who’s been nothing short of a beast scoring and rebounding. This is why it was never rash to envision the Timberwolves Western Conference playoffs the past two seasons. If Love stays healthy, they make it even in a crowded race.

Nets – While losing two of their first three was seen as a sign of the apocalypse in Miami, that trendy, high-priced collection of talent in Brooklyn might be the real candidate for being oversold as championship contenders, a win over the Heat notwithstanding. It still remains to be seen if Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce can continue to produce like their old selves as they become older selves. In the end, it will all come down to whether Deron Williams can get himself back among the elite level of point guards. So far, the shot just isn’t falling.

Knicks – Like the buzz over Gangnam Style and Zero Dark Thirty, Carmelo Anthony and his friends are just so last year. In fact, since their blazing start out of the gate in 2012-13, the Knicks have been positively mediocre and there is no indication that things will change soon. They were laughably “all-in” for a championship run last season, came up way short and now the brightest news is Melo saying he’d like to retire as a Knick. Perfect. Looks like a lot of them already have.

Anthony Davis – The No. 1 pick from the 2012 draft has positively exploded with his growth in the league, almost doubling his scoring from 13.5 to 23.7 ppg, bumping rebounds up from 8.2 to 12.3 and blocks from 1.8 to 4.0. This the Davis who had everyone drooling over his potential at Kentucky and makes the Pelicans a fun stop when flipping channels on League Pass. Now, if only coach Monty Williams could find a way to put some zip into an offense that is only mediocre because they play at such a horridly slow pace in an up-tempo league.

Pacers — Let the Nets spend all the money, the Knicks suck up all the oxygen with talk of Melo’s free agent destination and the Bulls ride the frenzy around every peak and valley in Rose’s return. Meanwhile in the heartland, Paul George keeps getting better, Lance Stephenson keeps learning about consistency, coach Frank Vogel keeps cranking up the intensity on the league’s best defense and the Pacers happily keep playing in the shadows as the real top threat to Miami in the East.

 


VIDEO: The Beat crew talks about Westbrook’s swift return

Hello Again, My Name Is Kevin Love!



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

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Sometimes a reintroduction is necessary.

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

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

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

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

Love will be the workhorse, of course.

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

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

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

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


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

BWB Africa: Fulfilling The Dreams

Basketball Without Borders Africa

NBA players, coaches and others attended the Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg.

HANG TIME, Texas – It was just a few days after the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Kyrie Irving saw other dreams.

They were in one of the impoverished townships outside of Johannesburg. They were in classrooms where hungry minds craved answers for a better life. They were on the basketball courts where raw talent gathered to show their skills and sought a way out. They were on so many of the faces that crossed his path during the 11th edition of Basketball Without Borders, Africa.

“In my short NBA career, I’ve had lots of great experiences,” said the Cavs’ 21-year-old point guard during a phone conversation from South Africa. “Just being in the league, winning Rookie of the Year, playing against guys that I looked up to. But being here is an amazing experience in a completely different way.

“Kids are kids no matter where you go in the world and they’re always going to get a smile out of you and make you happy. But these kids that we’ve worked with here in the camps and the younger kids that we’ve met in the schools, they seem to draw even more out of you, because of the environment they come from.

“I’ve traveled around a bit and taken part in some UNICEF programs in the past. You think you’ve seen some situations that are bad. But the poverty in Africa is overwhelming. There are levels of poverty that I’m not sure we can understand as Americans without actually having been here.

“Some of the kids knew my name, who I was, where I played in the NBA. Others didn’t. All they wanted was somebody to be with them and be there for them. That’s the way we have to approach it — help one kid at a time.”

Basketball without Borders is the NBA and FIBA’s global basketball development and social responsibility program that aims to create positive social change in the areas of education, health, and wellness. To date, there have been 36 BWB camps in 21 cities across 18 countries on five continents.

The program has featured more than 150 current and former NBA/WNBA players and nearly 140 NBA team personnel from all 30 NBA teams as camp coaches and mentors.

The inaugural BWB camp was in July 2001 led by former NBA players Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc, for 50 children from five nations of the former Yugoslavia. In 2013, BWB were held in three countries on three continents: Argentina, Portugal and South Africa.

FIBA and local federations help identify 50 to 65 of the top basketball players 18 and under from countries across the related continent to attend.

BWB has featured over 1,700 campers from over 120 countries and 28 BWB campers have been drafted into the NBA. There are currently 11 BWB alumni on NBA rosters: Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors/Lithuania; Donatas Motiejunas, Rockets/Lithuania; Enes Kanter, Jazz/Turkey; Greivis Vasquez, Kings/Venezuela; Omri Casspi, Rockets/Israel; Luc Mbah A Moute, Kings/Cameroon; Danilo Gallinari, Nuggets/Italy; Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers/France; Marco Belinelli, Spurs/Italy; Marc Gasol, Grizzlies/Spain; Andrea Bargnani, Knicks/Italy.

Four former BWB campers were drafted in 2013: Sergey Karasev, Cavaliers/Russia; Kelly Olynyk, Celtics/Canada; Gorgui Dieng, Timberwolves/Senegal; Arsalan Kazemi, 76ers/Iran.

Other NBA players in South Africa were: Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Hasheem Thabeet of the Thunder, Jerryd Bayless of the Grizzlies; Bismack Biyombo of the Bobcats, Luol Deng of the Bulls, Al Horford of the Hawks and NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo.

NBA coaches took part, too, including Tyrone Corbin (Jazz); Luca Desta (Mavericks); Mark Hughes (Knicks); BJ Johnson (Rockets); Jamahl Mosley (Cavaliers); Patrick Mutombo (Nuggets); Monty Williams (Pelicans) and ex-Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins.

The BWB program has been a favorite of Dikembe Mutombo, who attended the first in Johannesburg more than a decade ago.

“The biggest difference that I see from when we held the first camp here is the level of play,” Mutombo said. “Back then, a lot of guys were just lucky to be able to get into the gym and show a little bit. Now they’re getting coaching, getting direction and they are giving themselves a real chance for a better life.

“We all know that it is a long shot for anyone to make it into the NBA, even more when you’re coming from the background of Africa. That’s why the real goal for a lot of these kids is to come here and attract attention and maybe get an opportunity to come to the United States for a high school education, to play basketball and then maybe to attend an American university.

“To me, that’s how we make the world, and Africa in particular, a better place. We lift these kids up, educate them and hopefully many of them will return to their countries and try to make things better.”

Irving recalled that he had learned about apartheid in schools while he was growing up, but that had not prepared him for an up-close experience with people who had lived through it.

“To me, Steve Biko and Hector Pieterson were names I read in books,” Irving said. “But here I’m walking where they walked and talking with their people. It’s had more of an impact. It makes me know that I want to come back to Africa and do what I can in the future.”

The 47-year-old Mutombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rarely misses an opportunity. He had spent millions of his own dollars building a hospital in his mother’s name in his homeland and has spent more to erect dormitories and classrooms during his many BWB trips to South Africa.

“On the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, I took time to stop and think,” Mutombo said. “I have achieved so many blessings in my life after a childhood of poverty. I achieved a dream of working and getting noticed and getting myself an education.

“I realized a dream of playing basketball for a living and having the NBA doors open for me. I realized a dream of making a fortune and being able to use it to go back home and help my people. I realized a dream to build a hospital in my country.

“We all have to dream because big things are possible, especially in a world that has gotten smaller with things like cell phones and Facebook and Twitter.

“I tell these young players that come here that we’re all connected. What Dr. King was talking about fifty years ago was not African-American dreams or American dreams. These are human dreams all over the world and every time I come here see a young player like Kyrie with his eyes wide open on his first trip, I feel like we can fulfill more.”

Summer Dreaming: Comeback Player

HANG TIME, Texas – Officially, the NBA has not recognized a Comeback Player of the Year since the 1984-85 season.

But these are the dog days of August, this is just an exercise in summer daydreaming and that means, well, we can pretty much do whatever we want.

Besides, it’s so rare that we have so many big name players on the mend, several with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.

So grab a seat in the shade and let’s run my top candidates for a make-believer honor — the 2013-14 Comeback Player of the Year:

Kobe Bryant, Lakers – Yes, it’s still all speculation at this point, and even Bryant has said that he’s not sure he’ll be ready yet for opening night. But if, at 35, he somehow gets back onto the court less than a year after tearing his Achilles’ tendon and manages to come close to being the beast of his former self, Kobe will have eclipsed Adrian Peterson as a modern medical marvel and raised his already considerable legacy way past Michael Jordan‘s “flu game.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets – Can a guy who averaged 17.1 points and led the league in rebounding (12.4 rpg) last season really be considered a comeback candidate? He can if he’s this guy, who could only have taken more abuse if he’d played every game with a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of his jersey. A return from back surgery and an in-season shoulder injury contributed to Howard’s lost season in L.A. A healthy and happy season in Houston could produce fireworks.

Derrick Rose, Bulls – He hasn’t played in an NBA game since April 28, 2012 and he may not return immediately to his old MVP form on opening night. But there are reasons to expect that Rose will want to use this season to make a loud statement about himself as a competitor and warrior. First of all, he is both of those things. Second, he heard all the sideline critics complain that he was soft or afraid or something less than a team player by not returning at the end of last season. If anyone has a point to prove about who he is, it’s Rose.

Kevin Love, Timberwolves – Flip the calendar back 12 months and there was so much for Love to anticipate in the year ahead, especially coming off his success at the World Championship. Not the broken right hand in training camp. Not breaking it again in January. Not the surgery on his left knee that ended any chance of a late return. Love averaged 18.3 points and 14 rebounds in the 18 games he played. Teammates Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger all suffered injuries in a lost season for the Wolves. Now it’s Love who’s champing at the bit to lead the comeback that could get Minnesota into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Rajon Rondo, Celtics – When he gets back out onto the court, should we start calling him “Domino?” After all, think of all the dominoes that fell after he tore his ACL and had to be shut down for the season in January? That’s the way former teammate Paul Pierce views it. Rondo’s injury ended the Celtics’ real hopes of being playoff contenders or at least spoilers. Rondo’s injury likely led to the trading of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets. Rondo’s injury led to coach Doc Rivers wanting out of a rebuilding project. Rondo’s injury brought rookie coach Brad Stevens to Boston. Now Rondo gets to be the big dog who runs his own show and there’s no doubt he’ll bark loud.

Danny Granger, Pacers – On a team that already pushed the Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals and is feeling more confident from the experience, how much of a boost could they get if the former All-Star forward can return to form? Granger played only five games last season after having surgery for patellar tendinosis. He said he expects to be back in the starting lineup. But even if he winds up coming off the bench, a Pacers team that sometimes had trouble putting points on the board will welcome the help.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder – Sure, it happened in the playoffs. Sure, he had never missed a single game in his NBA career until that night when he had the run-in with the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley. That doesn’t make it any less significant. The loss of Westbrook ended any real hope of the Thunder getting back to The Finals and maybe it quieted some of the carping complainers who love nothing more than to pick at the flaws in his game. Will the torn meniscus slow down any of his freakishly physical play or seemingly superhuman sorties to the rim? Doubt it.

Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers — With all the attention focused on free agent Andrew Bynum and No. 1 draft pick Anthony Bennett, the return of Varejao to the Cleveland lineup could be just as critical at making a run at the playoffs. The 30-year-old was averaging career highs of 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds in 25 games last season before tearing a quadriceps muscle in January and then requiring further surgery when a blood clot developed in his lung. Coach Mike Brown says the perpetual motion machine might start at power forward and that could get him back to making a run at his first All-Star berth.

Andrew Bynum, Cavaliers – If any player ever needed a comeback, it’s the big man who was a key part in the four-team trade between the Lakers, Magic, Nuggets and Sixers in the summer of 2012. Those chronic knee problems that had always made his future a big question mark in L.A. kept him on the sidelines but not out of the limelight all last season in Philly. He showed off flashy hairstyles. He went bowling. He just didn’t play. Now that Jan. 7 cutoff date to be on the Cavs roster that guarantees the other half of this season’s $12.25 million contract should be some real motivation.

PREVIOUSLY: MVP | Coach of the Year | Sixth Man of the Year | Defensive Player of Year | Most Improved Player | Rookie Of Year

D’Antoni Drinking From Kobe’s Full Cup

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HANG TIME, Texas – It turns out Kobe Bryant isn’t the only one thinking the experts will be eating crow when he and his teammates report for duty in the playoffs next spring.

While he isn’t quite cackling on national TV with Jimmy Kimmel, coach Mike D’Antoni insists that the Lakers can improve on their 45-37 record from last season. At least that’s what he told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

“I don’t see why not,” he said. “I think we can be better because I don’t think we reached our potential last year. Our lack of defense came mostly from lack of energy from guys that didn’t feel right in their place on the team. Defense is energy, concentration and the desire to do it.

“If something is sapping that energy — distractions, injuries, not feeling good about the team — then you’re not going to put your heart and soul into it and it comes out on the defensive end. They just didn’t feel each other.”

It’s a simple recipe, really. You simply subtract a seven-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time NBA rebounding leader — including last season when he wasn’t fully fit — and the kumbaya spirit of cooperation lifts the entire boat.

Of course, D’Antoni didn’t mention Dwight Howard by name and we think that’s a good thing, since there has been far too much dredging up the pains of the past by everyone in the Laker organization from team president Jim Buss down to the valet parking attendants at the Staples Center. It is time — way past time, in fact — for the Lakers to move on and part of that has to be adopting the old Stuart Smalley from the long ago days of Saturday Night Live: “We’re good enough.”

Can the Lakers be good enough in a Western Conference where they had to go to the final night of the regular season in 2012-13 to finally secure the No. 7 spot in the playoffs and where Houston (with Howard) and Golden State (with Andre Iguodala) would clearly rank ahead of them now in the pecking order. Then there’s the matter of teams such as Minnesota, Portland and New Orleans coming up from behind. The Timberwolves are rebounding from a season fraught with injuries, while the Blazers and Pelicans have made moves to improve their talent.

The Lakers still have the biggest question mark in the league on their side of the ledger, wondering when — and really if — at age 35, Bryant can return to his Black Mamba form. Until that time, they must rely on 39-year-old Steve Nash and 33-year-old Pau Gasol  to carry the load with aging bodies that both broke down last season. D’Antoni’ said he believes that Nash and Gasol will be 100 percent healthy heading into training camp, but this is certainly a time, for their own good and that of the team, that their minutes will have to be monitored closely and likely limited. The defending Western Conference champion Spurs have been able to get away with fewer minutes from Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili because young guys such as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are rising through the pipeline. That’s not quite the case with the Lakers, whose offseason additions have been Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman.

D’Antoni says he’s not going into the season looking over his shoulder in terms of his job security, especially after surviving a summer of blood-letting in the NBA coaching ranks.

“I’m sure it’s out there. If you don’t win, it’s there,” he said. “If you’re coaching in Fort Wayne, it’s going to be the same thing. I think the Lakers are a special case because they’re the No. 1 team that’s on ESPN. You just do the best job you can do and go on. If you get caught up in what they’re saying, you can’t do your job.”

Then he mentioned his peers in what was a surprisingly cranky, impatient off-season.

“Look at what happened to coaches this year. Eleven get let go. And three or four of them had the best years the franchise has ever had,” D’Antoni said. “So who am I to say they’re treating me bad? What about all those other guys?”
D’Antoni never feared for his job security despite the first-round playoff flameout.

“No, because Mitch [Kupchak] and Jim Buss were really supportive and great,” he said of the team’s front-office executives. “I couldn’t ask for anything better from the staff and franchise. I don’t want to be flippant, but you also have to have an attitude of, ‘To hell with everything. Concentrate. Go forward.’ You can’t get distracted by the noise.”