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 here at Foul Play-by-Play we cover the week's law-related, sports stories. So here are the cheats, cheap shots, and alleged criminals in sports for the week of May 28.
The Philadelphia 76ers launched an independent investigation into the Twitter usage of president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo on Wednesday after a report by The Ringer cited circumstantial evidence indicating Colangelo allegedly using anonymous Twitter accounts to defend his work and criticize his current and former players.
Tweets from those accounts alleged by a source cited by The Ringer to belong to Colangelo questioned Joel Embiid's ego, blamed Markelle Fultz's shooting woes on a former mentor of the No. 1 overall draft pick, pushed a theory that a possible Jahlil Okafor trade fell apart because he failed a physical, and called Nerlens Noel a "selfish punk."
Colangelo has denied the Tweets are his, going so far as to call Embiid to express his innocence. Colangelo’s wife has since been implicated as possible owner and operator of the Twitter accounts.
The mother of Zeke Upshaw, former swingman for Detroit Pistons’ G League affiliate Grand Rapids Drive who collapsed on the court and died two days later, has filed a lawsuit accusing the NBA and the Detroit Pistons of negligence.
Upshaw, 26, collapsed during a game in Grand Rapids on March 24 and died two days later of what a Grand Rapids medical examiner called a sudden cardiac death with cardiac abnormalities. Upshaw had a “slightly enlarged” heart, which is not entirely unusual in athletes and could be unrelated to his death, but the Grand Rapids team doctor was not at the arena when Upshaw collapsed on March 24, so life-saving measures were not attempted, no CPR initiated and no defibrillator used, but Upshaw died two days later.
Five former NFL cheerleaders sued the Houston Texans on Friday, accusing the franchise of paying the women less than the $7.25 per hour they were due, not compensating them for making public appearances and creating a workplace where the women were threatened with termination for voicing complaints.
This isn’t the first time NFL cheerleaders have sued their employers. I wrote a column about the Oakland Raiders’ cheerleaders who sued citing similar allegations back in 2014, I think, and spoke to their attorney who recommended NFL cheerleaders unionize. I think these NFL owners continually take advantage of these women because there will always be a cheaper body to objectify, even if there was a cheerleaders’ union.
Tampa Bay Rays’ outfielder Carlos Gomez alleges that Major League Baseball targets older players and Latino players for drug testing in an interview for a Yahoo! Sports podcast the day after Mariners’ All-star Robinson Cano was suspended 80 games. Gomez said, “One month into the season I got like seven drug tests. Something like that. Between five or seven. That’s not right. We have a guy on the team who for sure hasn’t had one drug test.” Three days after coming off the disabled list, Gomez was again drug tested.
MLB defended its drug testing policies in a statement made to the Tampa Bay Times: "Our Joint Drug Program, which is negotiated with the Players Association, is independently administered and has random testing procedures in place with no regard for a player's birthplace, age, or any other factor," the league said. "Every aspect of the test selection process is randomized and de-identified, and every player is included each time random selection is conducted. This results in some players being tested more often than others, but, as a whole, MLB players are tested more frequently than any athletes in professional sports.”
Like Gomez, the three Major League players suspended for failing performance-enhancing drug tests are from the Dominican Republic. Gomez wants MLB to prove to him the process is randomized, and won’t believe it is until they do so. MLB isn’t required to reveal anything, though, and probably insulates itself from any wrongdoing by outsourcing the testing to an independent firm.
Dishonorable mention: San Francisco 49ers receiver Victor Bolden Jr. has been suspended for the first four games of the regular season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Bolden is trying to make the team as a kick returner and has considerable competition.
Bronze medalist: Anthony Rizzo, last week’s Statistically Significant Foul Player for his uncanny ability to be hit by pitches, slid into the feet of catcher Elias Diaz of Pittsburgh to break up a double play. He was successful, as Diaz threw the ball into right field allowing two Cubs’ runners to score. While umpires on the field called it a clean play, reviewed it and upheld the call, Major League Baseball said the slide wasn’t legal. Rizzo clearly altered his path to contact the catcher, sliding late and well inside the baseline.
Silver medalist: Washington Capitals’ forward Tom Wilson blindsided Jon Marchessault of the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The hit came well after Marchessault had handled the puck, but Wilson, who has a history of questionable, physical play, avoided a suspension for the hit. Marchessault was unable to stay on the ice for the 4-on-4 that resulted from Wilson’s two-minute minor that should have probably been a five-minute major penalty.
Gold medalist: Wilson’s hit might have been the cheapest shot taken in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, but it wasn’t the most effective form of cheating used in the game. Vegas Golden Knight Ryan Reaves scored a game-tying goal in the third period as the result of a cross-check on Washington’s John Carlson. The goal was a quick response to the Capitals’ go-ahead goal scored just 91 seconds earlier, and swung the momentum back to the Knights.
Mel Bridgeman of the Flyers served 53 minutes in penalties in 1980 against the Islanders, the most by any player in one Stanley Cup Final. Chris Nilan of the Canadiens is next with 49 minutes in 1986. They play 60 minutes in a game if you’re unaware.
Vegas’s Erik Haula has spent 19 minutes in the penalty box during this Stanley Cup Final against the Washington Capitals, which is almost half as many minutes as he’s skated in the series.
Before the National Basketball Association (NBA) season began, almost anyone with any awareness of the NBA’s existence felt they knew which teams would be playing in each of the Conference Finals. Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics would meet LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors would play the Houston Rockets’ James Harden and Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals.
That’s exactly how it turned out, minus Irving, who barring injury, would be suiting up against his former teammate in a Conference Final I’d actually watch. Now, I’ll wait to see if Houston can force a Game 7 against Golden State before tuning into the NBA Conference Finals, and it took me betting on Houston to win it all to even have an interest in that series. Basketball’s predictability is the very reason I prefer the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Giant men wearing armor and wielding weapons in their hands and on their feet skate at immense speeds on an ever-changing playing surface chucking a rubber saucer at speeds even faster than their feet can carry them or baseballs are thrown while their opponents do all they can to get in front of that unpredictable projectile. Hockey is a most unpredictable sport, and that’s what holds my interest. The fact it hardly has any stoppages for commercial breaks, provides coaches with just one timeout, and requires live substitutions are all just big bonuses for the sport with the best postseason -- a postseason that can still be improved.
The NBA is also looking to improve its postseason, thankfully. Commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of eliminating the conferences for the postseason and simply seeding the top 16 teams based on record. This would result in less chance of a lopsided NBA Finals series. For instance, the series most of us believe to be the actual championship series between Houston and Golden State would actually be played for the championship. Houston and Golden State would be the first- and second-ranked NBA playoff teams, respectively, and would only meet in the NBA Finals under the proposed postseason alteration.
While travel concerns and the fact that the seeding of Eastern Conference teams would be skewed based on them playing half as many games against the more dominant, deeper Western Conference might thwart the NBA’s efforts to improve the postseason. But they shouldn’t. As long as there are no back-to-back games scheduled in the NBA Playoffs, travel shouldn’t be a concern. And the seeding of teams from different conferences could be based on their play against similar opponents. For instance, if an Eastern Conference team finished the regular season with a better record than a Western Conference team but lost both games to that Western Conference team, the Eastern Conference team could be seeded behind the Western Conference team based on its performance in head-to-head matchups.
The dominance and depth of the NBA’s Western Conference is forcing Silver to find a way to remedy the lack of intrigue in his sport’s predictable playoffs. A lack of competitiveness results in a loss of fans, which is exactly what has happened with elections due to partisan gerrymandering. Because elections have become so uncompetitive, fewer people vote, thinking their vote doesn’t matter, which, of course, is the intent of partisan gerrymandering.
The same is true of American capitalism. “Free” markets work for the consumer when there’s competition. But businesses want markets working for them. It’s why six companies own the majority of media in America or the means to deliver media messages. Hollywood called this “vertical integration” until the Supreme Court eventually forced movie studios to divest their interest in theaters.
But it’s happening again, and on a much more massive scale. Not only do media moguls own the media produced but the means of distribution. Comcast owns the “movies” it makes and the “theaters” that distribute them. The theaters are the cable, internet and mobile data arms of Comcast, so not only are they pulling revenue from ad sales of their shows, but they’re making two trips to the bank on just about every customer by being either one of two or the sole provider of cable, internet or wireless data in that customer’s area.
The increasingly deregulated capitalistic markets reward monopolistic businesses at the expense of the consumer. Mergers are great for big business, but they aren’t good for consumers. Sprint merging with T-Mobile would result in one less competitor in the mobile data and mobile phone markets, and with each fallen competitor the price for those services increases.
If you live in rural America you’re probably familiar with the price gouging that occurs because of a lack of competition, especially in the cable, satellite, internet service and mobile data industries. Verizon actually kicked Eastern Montana customers off their data plans because they used too much data. Many of those customers don’t have access to internet otherwise, so Verizon knows they’ll have to come back, and will pay more to do so.
So I don’t watch the NBA Playoffs for the same reason I despise American capitalism: a lack of competitiveness that results from monopolistic mergers, like Durant going to Golden State. Maybe when my Timberwolves actually win a playoff series I’ll give the NBA Playoffs my divided attention. But even with my Minnesota Wild eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I have and will continue to watch the NHL postseason, because there’s no telling what could happen.
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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I don’t enjoy writing the “fire the coach/GM” letter. I hope no one does. Calling people’s job performance into question publicly isn’t something I long to do. I’m not the current President. Firing people isn’t my thing. But when I feel a change is needed to improve the product for which I and my neighbors pay handsomely, I’m not going to bite my tongue and suffer in silence.
Twice I've written letters calling for sports executives to be fired, and in both instances they were. On Oct. 17, 2011, I called for Minnesota Twins general manager Bill Smith to resign. Less than a month later, he was dismissed. On July 14, 2016, I called for most of the Twins’ front office to be fired, including Smith’s predecessor and replacement, Terry Ryan. Four days later Ryan was fired.
It’s not that I think these “fire the coach/GM” pieces actually instigate change. I doubt they even reach the decision-makers. But they make me feel better and, hopefully, provide you some insight into the thoughts and feelings of a frustrated season ticket holder and the reasons for that frustration.
In the past, I wrote my “fire the coach/GM” letters in reactionary anger. They were fueled mostly by emotion, not logic. With Ryan, it was an inactive trade deadline that set me to punching the keys. With Smith, a slew of bad trades got me started down the same path (JJ Hardy, Johan Santana, Wilson Ramos). Only the Twins’ on-field success kept me from writing. But when Smith traded Delmon Young for Minnesota local, lefty Cole Nelson in A-ball and Lester Oliveros, I had had enough. I didn’t need to know both players’ careers would end three years later to know the trade was no good for the Twins. And while Delmon Young was hardly a hot commodity, he did go on to carry the Detroit Tigers to a World Series, winning ALCS MVP honors the following season -- a year after posting an 1.170 OPS in 21 plate appearances for the Tigers in the 2011 ALDS.
This time I’m taking a different, more reserved approach. I’ve been putting this off for months with hopes of Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau giving me a reason not to write this. He hasn’t, so I am.
I’ve been a supporter of Thibodeau’s since his first season with the Chicago Bulls. In fact, I hadn’t watched an NBA game since Jordan’s last in 2003 until Thibodeau took over in Chicago and installed an attitude instead of an offense. The Bulls’ physicality on defense was nostalgic in its ferocity, raising memories of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman frustrating the hell out of everyone they guarded. I always liked the idea of figuratively “punching opponents in the mouth” and literally hurting them with physical play on defense.
I enjoyed watching low-scoring games in which baskets were hard to get, and scars and bruises were just the price paid to play in the paint. I loved hard fouls, not because of the violence or the further potential for violence they sometimes instigated, but because I am a firm believer that if you’re the last line of defense between your opponent and the basket, and your opponent gets by you, it’s your job to make sure your opponent doesn’t hit a shot. And if you could put them on their ass in the process of fouling, you did your job, even if your opponent hits the foul shots. Now everything’s a flagrant foul and players on defense are more apt to shy away from contact rather than initiate it.
I so wanted Thibodeau to succeed while much of the league started exploiting the three-point line. I feel like it was the last chance to save basketball as I knew and loved it, and Thibodeau inherited a pretty good team when he left Boston for Chicago. The Bulls finished at .500 the season prior to Thibodeau’s arrival and were 11th in defensive efficiency but 27th in offensive efficiency.
Thibodeau made me look like a genius that first season, as the Bulls finished first in the Central Division at 62-20, 11th in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency. But was it Thibodeau who made me look like a genius or league MVP Derrick Rose? It certainly wasn’t Thibodeau’s offensive schemes, which boiled down to Rose playing in isolation, driving the lane, with or without a screen, and either dishing or finishing.
Not much has changed, except instead of Rose driving and dishing or finishing, it’s Jeff Teague dribbling and dribbling and dribbling until the shot clock expires. Teague can’t finish at the rim like Rose could, so defenders happily trap him under the basket where they know he can’t finish over them and an interior pass is difficult. Teague can’t hit the three, either, so defenders can play him closer to the rim, limiting the effectiveness of Teague’s dribble drive. It’s hard to beat a defender off the dribble when he’s so far away, and if there’s no help needed to defend against the dribble drive, there’s nobody left open to take a shot off Teague’s pass.
Thibodeau has done very little on the offensive end to adapt to the players he has and the skills they possess. It’s still isolation plays in a spread offense with virtually no movement away from the ball except the occasional high pick and roll. He’s not putting his players in a position to find success or even an open shot. Phil Mackey crunched some numbers at NBA.com, and the Wolves take more contested shots than any team in the NBA and take the second fewest wide open shots. A team that struggles shooting like the Wolves needs all the open shots it can get.
Thibodeau has long been known to be a defensive guru, but his offensive schemes leave much to be desired. The Timberwolves didn’t hire him to improve their offense, though. It was already ranked 12th in efficiency before he got there, thanks to an effective facilitator in Ricky Rubio, whom Thibodeau traded for Oklahoma City’s 2018 first round draft pick and cap space to sign Teague. Thibodeau blew up a successful offense to add a score-first point guard on a team with its three top scoring options already established. It seems Thibodeau thought he could just assemble five effective scorers and not have to worry about designing offensive schemes for them. If they can all create their own shot, there’s no need to run a play, right? But this time he didn’t have a 22-year-old Rose to hide his lack of offensive ingenuity behind highlight reel finishes at the rim.
So Thibodeau made the move that sold seats at the newly renovated Target Center and gave Wolves fans reason for hope. He traded for Jimmy Butler -- a trade that already looks like Chicago won despite almost everyone in the sports media agreeing the Wolves had fleeced the Bulls on draft day. Regardless of who won the trade, the Wolves won my money. I became a season ticket holder because Butler was coming to town (and the seats at Target Center were comfortable). He was my favorite player in the league at the time because, again, he plays defense, and does it better than almost anyone. Since he’s been gone, we’ve all seen how truly invaluable he is. Before Butler went down with a torn meniscus, the Wolves had the eighth best net rating in basketball (2.6). Since Butler’s injury, the Wolves are 19th in net rating (-1.0).
Butler was Thibodeau’s way of covering for his weak defenders until they learned how to play defense. Correcting poor footwork takes time. You can’t blame Thibodeau for the poor defense of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Expecting him to turn Towns into the young Joakim Noah (4.2 DBPM in 2010-11) and Wiggins into Ronnie Brewer (3.2 DBPM in 2010-11) in two seasons is unfair. Noah was already an elite defender before Thibodeau arrived (3.3 DBPM in 2009-10, his third season after four years in college), and Brewer was already trending up in his fourth season (1.6 DBPM in 2009-10). Wiggins is also trending up on defense in his fourth season, albeit from a lower starting point. His -1.5 DBPM this season is a vast improvement on the -2.9 and -2.5 DBPM he posted the two previous seasons. Towns’s 1.0 DBPM is better than positional peers Kevin Love (-1.5), Channing Frye (-1.0), Tristan Thompson (-0.7), Tyler Zeller (-0.6) and Robin Lopez (-0.2).
Both Towns and Wiggins have the offensive ability to make up for their subpar defense, though. So if they aren’t scoring -- a lot -- they’re a liability. With Butler gone, they’re the top two scoring options -- just like they were last year. Towns gets the touches on offense to cover for his defensive shortcomings. He had 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting for a +10 rating in Denver, Thursday night.
Wiggins doesn’t get those dedicated touches Towns demands in the paint, however. He has to settle for Teague’s desperation passes when his dribble drive fails to draw a helper on defense, which never leaves Wiggins an open shot and forces him to shake a defender before settling for a contested jump shot at the end of the shot clock. Wiggins is at his best when driving to the basket, but you don’t see too many high pick and roll plays called for him. In fact, it’s as if Thibodeau’s spread offense has gone and made the Wolves’ best athlete into a spot-up shooter, and a bad one at that. Wiggins had nine points on Thursday night on four-of-12 shooting, and the Wolves allowed 13 net points while Wiggins was on the floor. He needed to score 22 to avoid being a liability. If the defense isn’t there yet, the offense must be, or there’s no reason to have Wiggins on the court. The Wolves were 11 net points better with Jamal Crawford and 24 points better with Rose on the court. They scored nine and four points, respectively, but were buoyed by their defensive ability.
Minnesota doesn’t have much time to rebuild their chemistry with Butler, but they’ll immediately be better thanks to Butler guarding the opposition’s best player whenever possible. What’s worrisome is that Butler’s addition doesn’t seem to be showing itself in the numbers. Minnesota’s defense was 27th in efficiency last year, and the Wolves remain the 27th-ranked team in defensive efficiency after adding one of the best two-way players in the game. Butler’s DBPM is just .1 this season, a career low and way down from the 1.1 he posted last year. His defensive rating is also at a career low this season, so Butler is having a down year on defense, and his offensive numbers are understandably down having gone from a team where he was the scoring option to a team with ample scoring options.
All that said, after the season, regardless of outcome, Thibodeau should step down as the Timberwolves head coach. I don’t have much faith in his ability to act as president of basketball operations, either, but he did bring me Jimmy Butler, and for that I am forever grateful. For that, he should remain the president of basketball operations. I don’t even mind him serving as a defensive coordinator on the coaching staff, but the best thing he could do as president of basketball operations is go out and hire the offensive Yin to his defensive Yang. The Timberwolves could have avoided giving Thibodeau so much control and just hired David Blatt like Joseph Gill recommended at SB Nation’s Canis Hoopus back in January of 2016. But Thibodeau can make it up to them by hiring Blatt himself. It would be a classy move and allow Thibodeau to focus on team-building and management, so Minnesotans have a quality basketball team worth watching for years to come.
If Thibodeau fails to win a playoff series, he isn’t going to be on the hot seat. But the Tweeters are rumbling and the word “fire” is being thrown around the Internet. That’s the spark that leads to letters like these being sent to ownership and published online, and then as letters to the editor in newspapers (although getting this down to 700 words will be a challenge).
You have to give Thibodeau some props, though. Despite running his players into the ground under an avalanche of minutes, potentially shortening Derrick Rose’s and Joakim Noah’s careers, and being known for having an abrasive attitude, his former players love and defend him. Without Thibodeau, the Wolves wouldn’t have Jimmy Butler or a shot to make the playoffs, so despite me calling for the end of his head coaching career, I’m just like one of his players. I love Thibodeau for giving me a reason to watch professional basketball again, and I’ll defend his ability to build a winner, but I can’t defend his offensive strategy anymore. 1953 called, Tom. It wants its pace and playbook back.
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The best days of the Minnesota sports year are here, and I’m not just saying that because Target Field opens its gates for baseball on Thursday. The Minnesota Twins are, as of this writing, playing their home opener against the Seattle Mariners on Thursday afternoon.
Even if the foot of snow the Twin Cities received Tuesday doesn’t melt by game time or more rain and snow moves into the area forcing a postponement, at least Minnesota sports fans will have two more games to watch later that night. Both the Minnesota Wild and Minnesota Timberwolves play games that could affect the postseason, and both play at the same time, which is frustrating and frankly, should be illegal.
Thursday is going to be the best day of the Minnesota sports season. That is until Saturday, April 14, when four professional sports teams in Minnesota could all play on the same day for the first time ever. We know the Twins and Minnesota United FC (MNUFC or Loons for short) will be in action. But with the NBA Playoffs set to begin that same day, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs also underway, Minnesota sports fans could watch their home teams for up to 11 consecutive hours on April 14. The Twins host the Chicago White Sox at 1:10 p.m. CDT and MNUFC’s match in Portland kicks off at 9:30 p.m. That leaves plenty of room in the television schedule for both the Wolves and Wild.
These really are the best days of the Minnesota sports year, and they’ll continue for as long as the Wild and Timberwolves allow. Here’s the potential schedule for the best days of the Minnesota sports year. You’ll notice this is not a complete schedule of upcoming sporting events featuring a team from Minnesota. Days during which just one Minnesota sports team plays a game are not included. Each day listed has the potential for at least two games to be played by a team from Minnesota. All times are Central. Asterisks indicate a potential game not yet scheduled. Check back for updates.
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The Minnesota Timberwolves are a mess without Jimmy Butler, and the question isn’t whether Butler will be able to return for the playoffs, but if the Wolves can make the playoffs without him.
Karl-Anthony Towns did everything he could to carry his Wolves to a win in Portland to no avail on Thursday night. He scored 34 points on 11-of-19 shooting, went 11-for-12 from the free throw line and grabbed 17 rebounds, which was still only good enough for a -6 plus/minus. But a -6 plus/minus is better than not having Towns on the floor.
Towns followed Thursday’s performance with an ejection in the closing minutes of the first half the following night in Utah -- a game in which his plus/minus was +6 and replaced by the -2 of Gorgui Dieng, who scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in 19 minutes. Towns couldn’t have picked a worse time for the first ejection of his career.
Minnesota nearly pulled off a comeback without Towns, but things spiraled out of control in the fourth quarter -- as usual -- culminating in Jeff Teague lowering his shoulder into Marco Rubio, sending him into the seats with 5:20 to go and the Wolves down nine. It was the first time in franchise history the Timberwolves had two players ejected in the same game. Head coach Tom Thibodeau also earned two technical fouls. While the Wolves’ struggles on defense and scoring in the fourth quarter without Butler were evident on Thursday, their collective frustration and lack of leadership was ever present on Friday.
The Timberwolves might be leading the NBA’s Northwest Division despite the consecutive losses in consecutive nights, but they are not a lock to make the playoffs let alone win the division. The Denver Nuggets, the eighth seed in the Western Conference currently, are just two games behind the Wolves in the standings. Utah is just four games back after its win on Friday, and things only get tougher for Minnesota.
The Wolves play 10 of their remaining 16 games against teams with records above .500 and another against a young, running Laker squad that gave the Wolves trouble when Butler was on the floor. The Wolves probably don’t have to worry about the Los Angeles Clippers taking their spot in the playoffs. While the Clippers are just a game and a half behind Denver for the eighth seed in the West, they play 16 of their final 21 games against teams over .500.
The Jazz are most likely to replace the Wolves in the playoffs. They play nine of their 20 remaining games against teams above .500. So not only do the Jazz have four games in hand to gain ground on the Wolves, but they play an easier schedule, despite three back-to-backs to Minnesota’s two.
It wouldn’t be unrealistic to see Minnesota lose its next six games, which would make for an eight-game losing streak. The Wolves’ current three-game losing streak is the longest of the season, but they host Boston and Golden State, visit the Wizards and Spurs, and then host the Rockets and Clippers -- all teams above .500. A single win during that stretch would be a huge lift for a young team struggling to manage its emotions in the face of adversity.
During the same stretch, Utah has already beaten Sacramento and get to face Orlando, Indiana, Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, Phoenix, Sacramento again, and the hapless Hawks. If the Jazz can win just four of those eight remaining games, and Minnesota goes winless, Utah would be just half a game behind Minnesota in the West, and Butler would still be out at least another five days.
Butler had surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee on Sunday, Feb. 25. The expected recovery time is four to six weeks, which keeps him out until March 25 at the earliest. You can be sure the moment Butler is physically cleared to play, he will play. That’s just his nature, which is probably why he and Thibodeau are inseparable. They’re both old-school ballers.
Given the best case scenario, Butler could return in time to get his feet under him during the Wolves’ final eight regular season games. But the Wolves won’t likely be able to extend Butler the courtesy of easing back into the game. The Timberwolves need Jimmy Butler just to make the playoffs. By the earliest time Butler can play, Minnesota could be 39-35 and no longer in control of its postseason destiny. While Minnesota has the Knicks to recover from the grueling stretch of their schedule and end a potential eight-game losing streak, the Wolves play in Philadelphia the very next day.
Luckily, the Jazz enter the tough stretch of their remaining schedule during Butler’s potential return. After playing in San Antonio, the Jazz travel to Golden State and then play host to Boston and Memphis before an April 1 game in Minnesota that will be bigger than anyone could have imagined when the two teams met in Minnesota’s home opener of the renovated Target Center on Oct. 20. If the Jazz win the games they should and lose to Indiana, New Orleans, San Antonio, Golden State and Boston, they’ll enter that game in Minnesota 41-35.
If Butler can’t return in four weeks, the Wolves can take some comfort in their schedule while they wait. Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas fill the schedule prior to the April 1 meeting with the Jazz, giving Minnesota a chance to gain some ground on Utah. Wins in all three of those games would put Minnesota at 42-35 -- a half game up on Utah.
Regardless of where the Wolves sit in the standings come April 1, winning that game would give them the tiebreaker over the Jazz. A loss wouldn’t eliminate Minnesota, though. Utah has to deal with the running Lakers twice, the Clippers, the Warriors and the Trail Blazers to finish the regular season. The Wolves also visit the Lakers, but get Memphis at home and Denver twice to close the regular season.
If it takes Butler the six weeks to be physically cleared to play, the Wolves will have him for two games at home against Memphis and Denver. Whether he returns at all will depend on where the Wolves are in the standings at the time, but odds are they’ll be fighting for their playoff lives rather than resting their legs for the playoffs. Without Butler, the Wolves are the worst defensive team in the NBA, according to Chris Hine of the Star Tribune. With him, they have the 11th best defensive rating in the league. They have five days off to prepare for the visiting Celtics on Thursday in a nationally televised game.