I’ve only just realized that I’ve never been a fan of any National Basketball Association (NBA) team, but simply a fan of fun basketball. The Minnesota Timberwolves helped me realize this by playing the least fun basketball I’ve ever seen on Friday night, while the Milwaukee Bucks repeatedly made me smile and laugh. My first love, basketball, has returned.
I gave up professional basketball for a long time after Michael Jordan retired a second time in 1999, but I never stopped watching Duke University men’s basketball. I’ve been a fan of Duke University men’s basketball for as long as I can remember. And I wasn’t a bandwagon fan like I was with the Minnesota Twins, with whom I took an interest because of a chubby, gleeful center fielder who carried his team to a World Series Championship in 1991.
Even though the Duke Blue Devils won it all in 1991 and got there on the back of Christian Leattner’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” I attribute by Duke fandom to my aunt’s indoctrination of me. She was a campus dispatcher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and hated it, so she sent me a postcard featuring an overhead look of the Duke University campus surrounded by the Duke Forest. I think I checked their academic standards and immediately wanted to attend after high school, but when I first witnessed the energy at Cameron Indoor on television, I was hooked.
I was a nerd who was always a better coach than player, so I appreciated the idea of smart kids beating the talented kids with schemes and heart. I was bringing up the rear in the top 10 percent of my high school class of 88 graduates, so I’m relatively smart given where I grew up. My best friends were the two smartest kids in the state. But when I watched the 1991-92 Blue Devils, it felt like I was meant to go there. I didn’t have a very good concept of my family’s fiscal situation, however.
So while I relentlessly rooted for the Chicago Bulls of the ’90s, it was because they were so fun to watch. They played my kind of basketball—above the rim and in the paint on offense, and physical on defense. That’s why I came back to the NBA in 2009, when Derrick Rose arrived on the scene as Rookie of the Year, then All-Star, then youngest MVP ever. But I didn’t come back because of Rose; I came back because the Bulls were holding teams to under 90 points with physical defense.
Besides Michael Jordan’s final game at Target Center, it was Tom Thibodeau who got me watching the NBA for the first time in six years. It was Tom Thibodeau who brought Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves and got me to spend money on a 10-game, season ticket package. And it’s Tom Thibodeau who now has me watching anyone but the Timberwolves.
I had already put down a $250 deposit to retain my season ticket package with the Timberwolves, but it wasn’t difficult to find 10 games I wanted to watch. In the NBA, there are enough athletic freaks to go around that aren’t playing for the Timberwolves and would be worth seeing. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one. Antetokounmpo alone, scoring just 15 points, made the $80 I paid to sit a little lower than I sat when Jordan played his last game in Target Center worth every penny. That and seeing Sterling Brown get into the game and score some points. His jersey was the first NBA jersey I ever bought, not for his play on the court, but because of the way he handled himself when questioned and then tased by Milwaukee police for parking in handicapped spaces. Despite a vast Milwaukee crowd, I was the only one in the building proudly sporting Brown’s jersey.
LeBron James is obviously another one of those athletic freaks worth seeing regardless of your team’s ability, and the Los Angeles Lakers visit Target Center twice this season. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are another two. Anthony Davis another. Joel Embiid is another. James Harden another. Kawhi Leonard. Kyrie Irving and his coach Brad Stevens make the list. Speaking of coaches worth paying to see scheme, Gregg Popovich is one. And with all the hoopla over Jimmy Butler’s trade request, the Timberwolves’ home opener against the lowly, LeBron-less Cavaliers was must-see. That’s 10 games worth watching regardless of whether Jimmy Butler or anyone else plays for the Timberwolves.
Now I’m even planning a basketball/ski trip to Utah during the first round of the NBA Playoffs. I don’t expect the Timberwolves to be playing Utah, and couldn’t care less who does. I like Utah’s game. They play pretty good defense. I also like the Lakers’ game. They score all the points they can in the paint and as fast as they can to make up for their collective inability to shoot the three. It’s exactly what the Timberwolves should be doing, but Tom Thibodeau’s in the way. I won’t let it stop me from enjoying my newfound love of fun basketball, and I don't even like the evolution of the game via the exploitation of the three-point line.
Each week at Foul Play-by-Play, we cover the law-related, sports headlines, including the cheats, cheap shots and alleged criminals in sports. Here are the headlines, "Historically Foul Play," “Statistically Significant Foul Player,” and Cheats of the Week for the week of May 18-25.
The NFL owners adopted a new national anthem policy despite an official vote never taking place, according to Seth Wickersham, which he tweeted is “atypical for such a major resolution.” According to Jim Trotter of NFL.com, there were eight to 10 owners who, before the meetings, expressed support for keeping the league’s anthem policy “as is.” They believed the protests were fading and the league should instead focus on community work being done by players.
Regardless, it seems the resolution has been adopted by the NFL, and players who choose to be on the field for the national anthem must either “show respect” for the anthem and flag or the team will be fined. The resolution is intentionally vague, allowing NFL owners and the commissioners to determine what qualifies as respect on a case-by-case basis. So standing for the anthem with a fist in the air like Chris Long did to show solidarity for his protesting teammates would be a finable offense. Team owners can pass those fines onto the players, which will allow them to control the players. While New York Jets chairman Christopher Johnson volunteered to pay all fines incurred by Jets players for violating the policy, other owners aren’t expected to be as tolerant. And if an owners says “this team will pay anthem protest fines as a team” not too many players will be protesting.
Well the NFL Players' Association is already telling players to save their money for a 2021 lockout, when they next negotiate with owners on a collective bargaining agreement, during which the players could demand a more preferred anthem policy. That works perfectly for me, because I intend to stop watching football if the Vikings don’t win a Super Bowl in the next three years, and not because of anthem protests. I’m tired of watching seven seconds of action followed by 25 seconds of inaction. I’m tired of watching kickers and officials determine the outcomes of games. I’m tired of NFL replay, which will now be used to review ejections. And I’m tired of coaches punting on fourth and inches. But at least a catch is a catch again.
Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors Smith is suing USA Swimming alleging a cover-up of her former coach's sexual abuse. Kukors Smith alleges that Sean Hutchison groomed her for sexual abuse when she was 13, started touching and kissing her when she was 16 and engaged in sexual activity with her when she was 17. Worse yet, she alleges the national governing body knew her former coach sexually abused her as early as 2005, when she was 16. The lawsuit alleges that officials did not report it to authorities and didn't protect Kukors Smith while shielding Hutchison and the image of USA Swimming.
It seems like a case similar to that of the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal, except we know multiple Penn State employees witnessed Sandusky’s behavior with underage boys. In this case, USA Swimming hired a private investigator in 2010 to look into rumors of a relationship between the then-21 Kukors and Hutchison, who was 39, finding no misconduct after the two and others denied the relationship.
The Houston Astros cut suspended minor leaguer and former top prospect Jon Singleton because he couldn’t resist smoking cannabis. As an advocate for cannabis legalization and former holder of a medical cannabis prescription, I understand Singleton’s struggle. While cannabis withdrawals are minimal when compared to say opioids or even alcohol because the plant isn’t chemically addictive like tobacco or alcohol, a psychological addiction can occur. It’s not unlike an addiction to gaming machines.
When something makes you feel good, like getting into the bonus on a reel game, it triggers a release of dopamine by your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. This release happens naturally all the time, even during exercise. Cannabis triggers a considerable dopamine release, so unlike nicotine, which is chemically and psychologically addictive, the cannabis user is addicted to good feelings achieved through cannabis consumption. So you and the cannabis user are actually addicted to the same thing. Only the triggers are different.
Just because it’s all in your head doesn’t make it easy to kick a psychological addiction, especially for those with addiction in their family history. I’m speculating here, but I’d bet that’s the case for Singleton, who substituted alcohol for cannabis after a stint in rehab following his second failed drug test -- the penalty for which is a 50-game suspension, unpaid. That’s almost $715,000 of Singleton’s $2 million annual salary, a figure considerably higher than what most minor leaguers make thanks to the Save America’s Pastime Act, which Major League Baseball snuck through Congress in 2016 to keep minor league baseball players exempt from federal minimum wage laws.
Most minor leaguers at the upper levels of the minor leagues like Singleton make $2,150 per month, according to a class-action lawsuit brought by minor leaguers challenging MLB’s minor league pay schedule. Given a 23-week regular season, that’s an annual salary of $12,362.50. A 50-game suspension for smoking pot would cost these players $4,415.18. As someone who’s lived on less than $8,000 a year, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you enjoy sweating through summer nights sleeping in your van, waking up wet in a borrowed tent failing miserably to withstand overnight thunderstorms, or living with your parents. But if you had to live on less that eight grand a year, I would recommend the van and then the tent over the parents. I don’t know your parents, and I’m sure they’re very nice people, but it doesn’t change the fact you’ll be sick of them within a week.
Lower-level minor leaguers who test positive for cannabis wouldn’t be able to afford a van. Their average salary is $1,100 per month, and an A-ball season is less than 12 weeks long, so a 50-game suspension for smoking weed would leave these 18- and 19-year-old kids with a measly $873.53.
Because of Singleton’s perceived potential, he was lucky to hold onto the money he did. He was the Astros’ top-rated prospect after the 2011 season, according to Baseball America. But he struggled mightily in his first 114 games in the bigs, never getting his batting average over .200.
Finally, the kicker: had he stuck in the bigs, he could have smoked all the pot he wanted. He would have been required to pay a small fine for each failed test, but he wouldn’t have been suspended and he wouldn’t have lost a single game check. The MLB Players’ Association negotiated for that in the collective bargaining agreement, but the MLBPA does not represent minor league ballplayers.
So the reason for both the harsh cannabis policy and poverty-level salaries in minor league baseball is the minor leaguers’ lack of bargaining power, which they could remedy by starting a union of their own. So why haven’t they? There are far more of them than there are major leaguers, and a walkout would collapse the minor league business model because the owners of those teams don’t pay their players’ salaries. MLB teams do. Are 6,500 minor leaguers just keeping their heads down with hopes of realizing that major league dream?
I think if a kid wants to risk his shot at a career in Major League Baseball to smoke weed just let her do so. I understand the employers’ interests in protecting their investments, and that they have the right to do just about whatever they want with regards to drug testing. Hell, if they wanted to they could make every player take a breathalyzer test before each plate appearance or a urinalysis between innings. But being barred from a new profession for roughly two months is more damaging to a young prospect’s career than unwinding after a brutal roadtrip with a joint, or substituting weed for booze when the team goes out after a big win. This policy does not protect the employers’ assets; it turns them into liabilities.
If you’re going to randomly test your employees for drug use in the name of protecting them and the game, stick to the performance enhancers like amphetamines, cocaine, and steroids, and the real drugs of abuse that are physically addictive, like amphetamines, cocaine, opioids, and alcohol. If you’re worried about players playing the game stoned, you need not worry, because cannabis is a hell of a performance inhibitor.
Our intramural softball team in college was called Bozeman Toast because we all burnt bud before gametime. There might have been one or two sober softballers out there, but they weren’t any good sober, either. The rest of us were toasted, eyes bloodshot and feet barely under us. I don’t think we ever won a game. We allowed 15 runs in the first inning of a game once just kicking the ball around the infield and misplaying fly balls in the outfield. Once our collective buzz wore off, though, we got back in the game and lost by one. But an at-bat in slow-pitch, intramural, co-ed softball isn’t as scary as an at-bat in professional baseball. I imagine a 95-mile-per-hour fastball or 12-to-6 curveball would be the ultimate buzzkill. Your brain and body just aren’t prepared for that while stoned.
And that’s not even the worst cannabis-sports story of the week, either. High school football player CJ Harris dreamed of playing for the Auburn Tigers, but his recurring seizures threatened that dream until his cannabis medication stopped those seizures. Now that medication will keep him from pursuing his dream, because per NCAA rules, athletes are not permitted to have any tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive substance in cannabis, in their systems. The cannabis oil Harris takes for his seizures contains less than 0.3 percent THC, according to the label, which means it doesn’t get you high. This is something the NCAA can easily fix by changing the language to allow for the use of non-psychoactive cannabis medications. Whether they will is unlikely.
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell weighed in on the Supreme Court’s recent decision that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 is unconstitutional, opening the door for states to legalize sports betting.
U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, has been speaking the the NFL and is planning to introduce federal sports betting legislation. Goodell wants Congress to create uniform betting standards that, at minimum, include:
Unlike Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the Professional Golfers’ Association, the NFL has not expressed an interest in receiving a direct cut of legalized sports betting action. Instead, sources say the league is more focused on monetizing data and video rights, and for good reason.
While MLB, the NBA, and PGA Tour are lobbying for what was one percent of all money wagered on their games and have since lowered their demands to .25 percent of all wagers, the NFL is laughing at .25 percent because it amounts to Roger Goodell’s pocket change.
$1.7 billion was bet on both college and professional football at Nevada sportsbooks last year. Half of that is $850 million, and .25 percent of that is $2.125 million. The NFL doesn’t get into bed with anyone for a couple million dollars. But there’s billions of dollars to be made selling analytical information to gamblers gambling on games that are decided by fewer and fewer points each year.
According to research by Eldorado, the 2015 NFL season had the lowest median margin of victory in history. Games nowadays are more than twice as likely to be decided by three points than games played from 1922 to 1973. Over at marasoft.com, you’ll find that almost 24 percent of all NFL games played in the last 20 years were decided by three or fewer points, and roughly half of all NFL games are won by underdogs. So the sport can be a nightmare for even the savviest of sports bettors, and gamblers will take any bit of information they can get to gain an edge.
So many elements go into determining the outcome of a football game that having a means of producing and distributing gambling-related information is way more valuable than a quarter of one percent of all money wagered on games. So while MLB, the NBA, and PGA Tour are negotiating over what amounts to Roger Goodell’s pocket change, the NFL is looking to exploit the vast amount of data its sport produces by owning the method or math it chooses to turn that data into information it can sell to clueless gamblers as a subscription service.
This was a big deal when it came to determining the legality of fantasy sports betting. Fantasy sports gamblers who win most often aren’t simply luckier than the losers. They employ an algorithm that considers all the things they feel affect the outcome of sporting events. The NFL, I think, aims to own the algorithms and sell the answers those algorithms provide.
After being arrested with 126 grams of cannabis and $92,000 in cash two months ago, former Boston Celtics forward and NBA champion Glen “Big Baby” Davis was again arrested last Friday for felony assault with intent to cause great bodily injury. According to TMZ, after almost hitting a man with his car, Davis allegedly slammed the man on to concrete when confronted.
Milwaukee Bucks' rookie Sterling Brown was stun gunned by police back in January. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was worried about the video’s release this week and potential public backlash that could result because Brown was not combative prior to being tased.
An officer who was doing a business check at a Walgreens stopped to question Brown about a parking violation at about 2 a.m. on Jan. 26. Brown gave his name and showed an identification card. The officer called for assistance, and half a dozen squad cars responded...for a parking violation. Eight officers ended up on the scene...for a parking violation; three were disciplined, with the first on the scene reportedly being suspended for a full two days. Two supervisors who later arrived, escalating the situation, were suspended for 10 and 15 days, and several other officers were reprimanded.
Brown's arrest did not result in criminal charges, and he played in a game later that day with bruises on his face. Brown intends to file a civil rights lawsuit against the Police Department, which is something that most Milwaukeeans involved in similar situations couldn’t afford to do. I guess it’s a good thing those Milwaukee cops don’t watch Bucks basketball, because had this happened to anyone else, we probably wouldn’t have heard about it.
The saddest thing about this is that there are so many unjustified shootings by police of black men and women that I’m just glad this officer reached for a stun gun instead of a real gun, and the thought that “at least they didn’t kill him” has even crept into my mind is troubling to me. Wyatt Cenac has been doing some great work investigating police brutality for his show Problem Areas on HBO. One episode looked at the importance of providing police with and reinforcing the use of non-fatal means of ending confrontations. But you also have to combat the training to which police officers are subjected that instills a sense of them being at war rather than at one with their communities. To remedy this, a good place to start would be requiring police officers in training to communicate with non-police minorities prior to earning the privilege of carrying a badge and a firearm.
With all the bad news out of the way, let’s for a minute consider how lucky we are to be alive for this era in sports, because we’re seeing things that haven’t been seen in generations. The Vegas Golden Knights are playing for a championship in their inaugural season for the first time since 1950, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship in their inaugural season. And that’s not even the most historic story in sports, because Los Angeles Angel Shohei Ohtani is serving as both a formidable starting pitcher and hitter for the first time since Babe Ruth did it roughly a hundred years ago.
I know you and our listeners want to hear some Ruthian stats, so here they are, in a segment we call “Historically Foul Play,” because these numbers are so unbelievable their most reasonable explanation is foul play.
So not only is Ohtani doing something unseen for 100 years, he’s arguably doing it better than Ruth did. While he’s never going to pitch almost 25 percent of his team’s total innings on the season like Ruth, he is going to get more than 20 starts and is on pace to get a similar number of plate appearances as Ruth did at the same age. If he stays healthy, the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball might end up the new Babe Ruth of Major League Baseball.
Let’s keep the statistical analysis going and find a player whose stats indicate foul play in a segment we call ‘Statistically Significant Foul Player.’
Foul Play-by-Play, its hosts, nor its partners practice nor condone the accusatory promulgation of foul play by athletes for the sake of the hot take. Cheats are innocent until proven guilty. That said, in this case of the statistically significant foul player, I’d like to admit into evidence the following significant statistics indicating foul play.
Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is third amongst active players in hit by pitches with 106 over his seven plus seasons. He’s led the league in hit by pitches twice, taking 30 for the team in 2015 and wearing 24 last year. There’s a 2.6-percent chance a Rizzo plate appearance ends with him on first base with a bruise.
Rizzo is just one reason why umpires should enforce the rule that players have to make an attempt to avoid a pitched ball. I mean, a lot of those free bases should probably be called balls and the at-bat continued. I’m not calling the defendant a cheat. I’m just sayin’ the statistics are significant indicators of foul play. I trust the jurors will make the right decision and find the defendant guilty of foul play given the evidence. I rest my case.
Bronze medalist: Infamous NFL bully and Pro Bowler Richie Incognito allegedly threw a tennis ball and a dumbbell at someone at a Florida gym on Wednesday and was placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold by police, according to TMZ Sports. The alleged victim claims Incognito was rambling about the government and screaming at him to “get off” his “bleeping playground.” That’s just rich coming from a man who lost a job for bullying a teammate. He makes this list because he was also named the second dirtiest player in the NFL by The Sporting News in 2012.
Silver medalist: Admitted steroid user and former Mets and Phillies star Lenny Dykstra was arrested early Wednesday in New Jersey while possessing cocaine and ecstasy. The arrest was the result of an Uber ride gone bad. The Uber driver told police he picked up Dykstra and when he refused to change the destination Dykstra initially requested, Dykstra allegedly brandished a firearm, pointed it at the Uber driver’s head and threatened to kill him. The Uber driver said he sped into a parking lot next to the Linden police station, honked the horn and fled the vehicle. Dykstra, 55, was charged with making terroristic threats and a number of drug offenses.
Gold medalist: Chicago White Sox catcher Welington Castillo has been suspended 80 games for testing positive for erythropoietin, a performance-enhancing drug that stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. The resulting rise in red cells increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, in turn, increasing the endurance of the user.
The NBA Playoffs tipped off over the weekend, and the results of every Game 1 gives us a glimpse of what we can expect in the first round. Here’s what we learned from every NBA Playoff Game 1.
If Klay Thompson keeps shooting like he did on Saturday, the Warriors won’t need Stephen Curry in the first round. He was 11-for-13 from the floor and hit five of six three-point attempts to lead the Warriors. All the Warriors’ starters had positive plus-minuses, though, so Thompson could have an off day and Golden State would still give San Antonio fits.
Dejounte Murray was the only Spurs’ starter with a positive plus-minus on Saturday. In fact, only two Spurs finished with a positive plus-minus. LaMarcus Aldridge was terrible, going five-for-12 from the field for 14 points, and the age of Manu Ginobili (-15) and Tony Parker (-17) showed, especially on defense.
You don’t need to see it to know it -- Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s collective reputation precedes them. They struggle in the playoffs, and they struggled in Game 1, especially in the first half. But Serge Ibaka scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in support, as the Raptors won a Game 1 for the first time in 11 tries.
These new Raptors can win when Lowry and DeRozan struggle shooting because of their new “all hands” offensive approach. They’re seeking the most open shot, regardless of shooter, which is why DeRozan could finish six-for-17 from the floor with 17 points against the Wizards and the Raptors still won Game 1. DeRozan also had six assists, and Lowry added nine, mostly on open three-pointers. The Raptors hit 16 of their 30 three-point attempts.
Ben Simmons was a rebound away from scoring a triple-double in his first playoff game, and the Heat couldn’t contain JJ Redick or Dario Saric on the perimeter. They both went four-of-six from three-point range. Hassan Whiteside was a non-factor, playing 12 minutes. The Heat couldn’t even contain Marco Belinelli or Ersan Ilyasova, a couple of late-season waiver claims. They scored 42 minutes combined. How the Heat became the most popular pick of analysts to score an upset in Round 1 is mind-boggling.
Anthony Davis has picked up his game in the absence of DeMarcus Cousins. He scored 35 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and scored four blocks, and despite being just +1 on the night, his supporting cast was just good enough for the Pelicans to steal Game 1 in Portland. Nikola Mirotic hit four of his 10 three-point attempts to lead New Orleans in plus-minus (+13), and Jrue Holiday made half of his shots to finish with 21 points (+12).
Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard struggled shooting inside the three-point line, going six-for-23 from the field but four-of-nine from three-point range. CJ McCollum didn’t offer much relief, going seven-for-18 from the field despite shooting four-of-10 from three-point range. Davis defended the rim effectively, and the Pelicans made the Blazers win on the perimeter. They didn’t, shooting under 31 percent from beyond the arc.
Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were good enough for Boston to beat Milwaukee in Game 1. And they can be enough to carry the underdog Celtics without Kyrie Irving over the East’s seventh-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who turned the ball over a ton. Horford was huge for Boston in Game 1 and is capable of carrying this team into the Eastern Conference semifinals, but he won’t.
Milwaukee’s defensive adjustments late in Game 1 got them back into the game, and should get them a win in Game 2. They finally started forcing turnovers to make up for the 20 they lost, and although the Bucks lost in overtime, Boston showed its susceptible to losing in front of its home crowd. Once that happens, the Bucks just have to win their home games.
The Indiana Pacers are really good. Victor Oladipo looked like a superstar in Game 1, and Lance Stephenson did what he does when he’s right, holding LeBron James to a -13 plus-minus despite scoring a triple-double with 24 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. Every Pacers’ starter had a plus-minus of at least +14 while James was the only Cavalier starter in double figures.
LeBron James lost a Game 1 in Round 1 of the NBA Playoffs for the first time in his career, and it happened on his home court. Even King James might not be able to carry these Cavs into the NBA Finals. Even if it’s not Indiana that eliminates Cleveland, Philadelphia very well could. The Cavs have already lost their home court advantage in Round 1 and won’t likely have one in Round 2.
Paul George scored 36 points and finished the night +3. Russell Westbrook scored 29 points but was -1, and Carmelo Anthony scored 15 points to finish +1. The Thunder pulled away from the Jazz when their bench was on the floor, despite Utah’s bench outscoring the Thunder bench 34-17. Alex Abrines led the Thunder in plus-minus (+14), Jerami Grant was second (+12), Raymond Felton was third (+9), Patrick Patterson was fourth (+6), and Terrance Ferguson tied George for fifth on the team in plus-minus.
Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau might lack an effective offensive strategy, but his defensive strategy against Houston seemed to be “make James Harden beat us.” He did, but it took 44 points and 58-percent shooting, including a seven-of-12 effort from beyond the arc. Harden was simply brilliant, but Houston can’t expect him to keep shooting damn near 60 percent from the floor. Once the Wolves locked down Clint Capela, who had 20 of his 24 points in the first half, the Rockets needed every one of Harden’s points to hold off Minnesota.
Is this the recipe to beat the Rockets? Sunday was the closest the Timberwolves have been to beating Houston all season. They lost all four regular season games against the Rockets -- three by 18 points and the final game by nine points. Harden was +10 in that nine-point victory, scoring 14 of his 34 points from the free throw line. Despite 44 points on Sunday night, the Rockets were just +5 with him on the floor. Had the Wolves gotten anything out of Karl-Anthony Towns, they would have stolen Game 1 in Houston. We’ll see if they can steal Game 2 instead, which would be the biggest surprise of the NBA Playoffs.
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The Minnesota Timberwolves were fourth in the NBA’s Western Conference after a comeback win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Minneapolis on Monday, but there are glaring problems with the wolfpack that could derail its playoff hopes.
Tom Thibodeau, unsurprisingly, is overworking his starters. All five of his starters are averaging more than 33 minutes played per game. That’s right, Taj Gibson is averaging 33 minutes a night because he has the highest on-the-floor/off-the-floor plus/minus of anyone on the team (+23).
In Thursday’s 23-point win over Sacramento, which was a 24-point Timberwolves lead entering the fourth quarter, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins played 36, 35 and 34 minutes, respectively. That’s just one minute less than their average for the season. With two minutes left and a 20-point lead, Wiggins and Towns were still on the floor. That’s just creating risk where there is none.
It’s not as if Butler, Towns and Wiggins are playing more minutes than anyone ever has. But all three are in the top 15 in minutes played per game this season. No other team has three players in the top 15 in average minutes played.
The result has been multiple collapses late in games. The Timberwolves were torched by Ben Simmons back-cuts over and over again in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia on Tuesday at Target Center. A nine-point lead with 6:06 left evaporated in less than four minutes.
The Timberwolves led by 13 over the the Wizards at home with 9:51 to go in the third quarter. By the end of the third quarter it was a one-possession game. They lost. They led by six with 9:04 to go at Phoenix and lost by eight. And they led by 11 with 9:57 to go against Detroit at home and lost by three.
All told the Wolves have lost three games by one possession, one in overtime, and one more by four points. This was a big problem for Minnesota last season. The Wolves logged a .391 winning percentage in close games in 2016-17, fifth-worst in the league. They’re 14th with a .545 winning percentage in close games this year, so things are looking up. But as the minutes add up, the fourth quarters get tougher and tougher.
How to fix it: Give Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng more minutes. Thibodeau finally played Crawford in the fourth quarter of Monday’s game against Portland, resulting in 23 minutes played. Crawford played all 82 games for the Clippers last year, averaging 26.3 minutes per game. He’s averaging 17.7 minutes per game this season, and his numbers don’t indicate a falling off. Both his offensive and defensive ratings are actually better than they were last year. The legs of Minnesota’s best defender, Butler, would be grateful for Crawford’s minutes in the fourth quarter. Butler also benefited directly from Crawford’s presence on the floor in the fourth.
Dieng has seen his minutes nearly cut in half from last season, from 32.4 to 17.7 per game. He hasn’t been quite as effective, but he was playing power forward last season. He’s still capable of more than 17.7 minutes per game at center, which would keep Towns fresh for the fourth quarters.
The Timberwolves finished five of 29 from beyond the arc against the 76ers last Tuesday, and had made five percent of their shots from beyond the arc until Jimmy Butler hit consecutive threes late in the fourth quarter that allowed the Wolves to force overtime. They were missing their best perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica, though.
Even with Bjelica, the Wolves are 20th in three-point percentage and third to last in three-pointers attempted. They lack shooters, and given their defensive struggles, keeping up with the Rockets and Warriors will be a challenge. Scoring 107.7 points per game just won’t cut it against the West’s best.
How to fix it: Trade for Tony Snell. This should thrill Thibodeau, who has been trying to get the Bulls band back together. Snell is fourth in the league in three-point percentage, ahead of Klay Thompson, but he’s missed time with left patellar tendinitis. Assuming he’s healthy and his 70-point increase in his three-point percentage from last year is no fluke, he’s exactly what Thibodeau and the Wolves need, but the Bucks will want a lot in return. Snell would likely require a player and a draft pick.
The Bucks need a center and the Wolves have four on the roster. Dieng could end up being one piece they seek, which would clear some money for the Wolves, but leave them with 17 minutes going to Cole Aldrich, unless Justin Patton is ever able to play. A backup center can be had for less than $14 million, though. Kyle O’Quinn and his $4 million salary could be brought in from New York for a second-round draft pick, or Dewayne Dedmon of the Hawks could be a short-term solution at $6 million.
The Wolves’ bench has been atrocious. Only the Pelicans have been worse, so it’s not as though Thibodeau needs to make up a reason for giving his starters minutes. Luckily, adding depth prior to the trade deadline is always a possibility. Besides Crawford, the Wolves don’t have bench players who can create their own open shots. Tyus Jones is barely a facilitator, and Bjelica is a spot-up shooter.
How to fix it: Adding a guy like O’Quinn would be a boost given his box plus/minus of five points above average per 100 possessions, and that’s mostly due to his defense. Dieng’s is .8.
Acquiring Ersan Ilyasova from Atlanta would improve Minnesota’s bench, too. His offensive and defensive ratings per 100 possessions this season are the best in his career and would be even better if he was playing fewer than the 23.5 minutes per game he’s currently averaging.
So while there are many problems with the Minnesota Timberwolves, they can be fixed through trades. Acquiring bench players at the deadline will at least give Thibodeau options that will save his starters’ legs, but Thibodeau still has to be convinced the team would benefit from his starters playing fewer minutes.
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