How good can Minnesota be with Thibodeau?

When you have Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns to build around, the future of your team is very bright. Add in some unique talents like Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones and Zach LaVine and you have the recipe for a great team in the future. The Minnesota Timberwolves have all of these pieces in addition to the veteran leadership of Kevin Garnett. But on Wednesday, they may have added the most important piece of all.

Tom Thibodeau
Thibodeau had a winning percentage of .647 in Chicago.

Tom Thibodeau agreed to terms with the Wolves to take over as both head coach and president of basketball operations. This is something of a homecoming for the former Bulls coach, as he started his coaching career in Minnesota under Bill Mussleman back in 1989.

Thibs has a lot to bring to the table now though. He was an assistant for the Knicks toward the end of Patrick Ewing’s career, including the improbable run to the finals in ’99. He then went to Houston before landing in Boston as an assistant to Doc Rivers during the Celtics’ championship season. He then finally got his chance to take the top job in Chicago in 2010, where he won Coach of the Year in his first season.

Now that guy takes over in Minneapolis, where the Wolves haven’t made the playoffs in a dozen years. They have two former number one overall picks and a ton of potential. Thibodeau is tasked with forming this into a contending team in the next few years.

LeBron_James_and_Andre_Wiggins
Wiggins (#22) was the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

The first thing that he will overhaul is the defense. Thibodeau’s teams are always known for relentless defensive intensity. Four out of his five years in Chicago, the Bulls finished in the top three for opponents’ points per game and the top ten for defensive rating. Minnesota ranked tied for 23rd in points per game allowed and 28th in opponents’ field goal percentage. In addition to being the leader this young team needs, Thibodeau will fix this team’s reeling defensive efforts.

With a roster already dripping with potential, Minnesota likely has a top-five pick again this year, finishing the season fifth in lottery odds. If the Timberwolves enter the draft picking the fifth, they have a chance to add another high-end lottery pick to a roster already loaded with them. Buddy Hield, Dragen Bender or Kris Dunn all could be playing under Thibs next year and they all could be coming off the bench.

Thibodeau understands the importance of adding veterans and role players, which means I have no doubt he will build around the core he currently has.

The front office got another boost too with the hiring of assistant Spurs General Manager Scott Layden. You know, San Antonio. The team that has missed the playoffs once since 1989 and won five titles in a 15-year span.

The Wolves organization finally put talent in the front office and on the sidelines to match the future talent they have playing on the court right now. Give it about three years and this team will be a title contender. Sky is the limit with what Minnesota could achieve with Thibodeau at the helm.

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What if Cleveland hadn’t won the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery?

Andrew_Wiggins_2014The NBA draft lottery is always difficult to predict. The last time the team with the highest chance of winning the lottery landed the top pick was over a decade ago when the Magic won back in 2004. That pick turned into Dwight Howard and drastically changed Orlando’s fortunes for the next several years. Some teams have simply gotten lucky with the draft lottery. Cleveland ended up with the top pick in the draft three out of the past four years, including 2014, where the Cavs won despite only having a 1.7 percent chance. That is simply unprecedented. It makes you wonder what might have happened if the Cavaliers’ fortunes weren’t so great. Here is what would have happened if the Cavs did not win the 2014 NBA draft lottery.

First thing is first, Andrew Wiggins doesn’t go first overall anymore. Milwaukee wins the draft lottery instead and the Bucks made it clear they wanted Jabari Parker no matter what. Instead, Wiggins goes second overall to the 76ers, making Philadelphia a scary young team. What transpires after the draft drastically changes the outlook of the 2014-2015 NBA season.

With no elite bargaining chip, the Cavaliers are unable to pry Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Instead, Love is shipped to Boston in exchange for Marcus Smart, Rodney Hood and two future first round picks. With Love headed for the Celtics instead of the Cavaliers, LeBron James decides to opt into his contract with Miami. The King’s presence in South Beach means that Chris Bosh walks away from the Heat for a contract with the Houston Rockets. Bosh teams up with the aforementioned Howard and James Harden to form a new Big Three in Texas. Some other free agents change their decision as well. Pau Gasol joins Miami to fill Bosh’s void. The incredible amount of spending by the Heat means they cannot afford to add the young Hassan Whiteside, who instead joins Philadelphia now that Joel Embiid is not in the picture. And with Gasol bound for Florida, the Bulls hang on to Jusuf Nurkic rather than trade for Doug McDermott. Chicago also finds an incredible amount of cap space they use to lure Carmelo Anthony away from New York.

The season starts with plenty of crazy headlines. Orlando cannot wait to pair Embiid with Nikola Vucevic next season. The 76ers love their core of Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Andrew Wiggins and never send MCW to Milwaukee. Rajon Rondo could not be happier in Boston with another star present in the form of Love. Dallas is in desperate need of a point guard but with Rondo locked in for the Celtics, the Mavericks find themselves out of luck. Right around the trade deadline, with the playoffs essentially out of sight with Dallas, Oklahoma City and New Orleans all in front of them, Phoenix deals Goran Dragic to the Knicks in exchange for Tim Hardaway Jr. and Lance Thomas. The Suns also send Isiah Thomas packing but this time to Charlotte for Lance Stephenson and a couple of future picks.

When the playoffs roll around, the super teams in each conference, Miami and Houston, enter as the top seeds. Milwaukee and Dallas miss the postseason due to the trades that now never happen. The Heat matches up with the eighth-seeded Cavaliers in the first round as LeBron inflicts even more pain on Cleveland with a 4-0 sweep. Miami edges the fourth-seeded Celtics and beats out the talented Bulls for a return to the NBA Finals for a fifth straight year. They meet the Memphis Grizzlies after the Griz outlast Houston in the Western Conference Finals. Pau and Marc Gasol become the first brothers to face each other in the NBA Finals. It would be the elder Gasol who gets the last laugh as Miami snags its third title in five years.

LeBron_JamesThe following offseason, with his contract up and three rings to his name, James walks away from the Heat and joins the Cavaliers. Linking up with Kyrie Irving, James sets out to recruit either LaMarcus Aldridge or Marc Gasol to join him in Cleveland. Minnesota is still sitting with the worst record in the league after an atrocious 11-71 season. The Knicks and Lakers both join the Wolves as those among the bottom three in the league. All of this happens if a different ping-pong ball was picked back in May of last year. Instead of talking about Cleveland, all the hype would still be in Miami right now with the playoffs just getting underway and the MVP conversation would likely be over as James dominated the league once again. Who knows, maybe LeBron will still get that third ring anyway.

How good is Andrew Wiggins?

People have been talking all season about how good Andrew Wiggins has been in his rookie year. The kid as essentially run away with the NBA Rookie of the Year award. Wiggins has been the bright spot in a dismal season for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The real question is, is Wiggins really a dominant force, or is he just the favorite by default.

This has been a very weak rookie class so far. Only five players are averaging more than ten points per contest this season. Wiggins is the only one average more than 12 with his 16.7 points per game. (Jabari Parker was over 12 a night prior to being injured this season). Wiggins also ranks fifth among qualified rookies in rebounds per game this season. He also sits fifth in terms of steals per contest and sixth in rejections. Wiggins is shaping himself into a very capable all-around player.

One major knock against Wiggins despite all of his talent is his underwhelming assist-to-turnover ratio. He may only be a small forward, but with the amount of time Wiggins spends on the ball, (22.1% usage rating) it would be nice to see Wiggins as a distributor. He is one of only a few players that owns a ratio under 1 sitting at 0.91 assists for every turnover. In fact, he is the only small forward to play 30 minutes or more per game yet still post a ratio under one.

The kid out of Kansas is still young though and has a long time to develop that side of his game. It really should not be much of a concern. The overall athleticism he exudes though is tantalizing for anyone with interest in the Wolves. It might seem harsh to judge the kid on what he has done through just one season but I am curious to see how he stacks up with some of the other top picks in the past several years.

Already, Wiggins is in elite company. Of the top picks since 2008, five out of six have been named All-stars. Those players include Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis. The only one yet to live up his billing as the top pick is Wiggins’ teammate, Anthony Bennett. It is not really fair to compare Wiggins to the last small forward drafted first overall either, seeing as that was LeBron James. However, there are a couple of other star small forwards we can compare this budding superstar.

Carmelo Anthony was taken in the same draft as James. His numbers put up against Wiggins’ are superior although not by much. Anthony averaged 21 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 0.5 blocks per outing as a rookie playing for the Denver Nuggets. However, he also posted an assist-to-turnover ratio that was under one. Wiggins actually trumps Melo in shooting percentage though with 43.6 compared to 42.3.

Wiggins also stacks up pretty comparably with Kevin Durant’s rookie season. Obviously, the huge discrepancy in height makes this comparison a little tough but Durant averaged 20 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1 steal and 1 block per game. Durant has the edge in the scoring department but once again, Wiggins is shooting at a higher percentage, especially from behind the arc. Durant posted a 28.8 percent success rate from three his rookie year; meanwhile, Wiggins has drained 32.5 percent of his takes. Once again, Durant had an assist-to-turnover ratio below one.

The best comparison for Wiggins though might be to a former Boston legend. Not many others have played better than Paul Pierce over the course of his career. Pierce is also the same style player as Wiggins, switching between a two-guard and a winger. Pierce had a very similar stat line to Wiggins when he first began playing for the Celtics back in 1999. Pierce tallied 16.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.75 steals and 1 block a night, however only in 48 games. Those are not too far off from Wiggins is doing now and Pierce posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of almost exactly one. If this means that Wiggins is destined to average 21, 6 and 4, I think fans in Minnesota will be more than content with that.

While it looks like he is running away with this years’ award, keep in mind that Wiggins still has a lot of growing to do before he can be considered an elite player. However, with him only at 19 and oozing with potential I don’t think the growth will be that hard to come by. Wiggins has the potential to be a perennial All-star in this league and maybe even make Minnesota competitive in a couple of years. With Wiggins at the center of a young core, it seems like the Wolves are off to a good start. His presence certainly makes it easier to forget the absence of certain Love Minnesota used to have.

NBA Cornerstones: Shooting Guard

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I will have a couple of parameters for this selection though I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think it should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope that you guys agree.

The selection: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Honorable mentions: Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson, Tyreke Evans, Victor Oladipo

This pick was a lot more clear-cut than my previous selection turned out to be. Not to say that there aren’t many good shooting guards, there is just one that stands out above the rest. James Harden is one of the best players in the league and he is having an MVP caliber season in Houston. He is only 25 years old and likely has another 8 or so years left in the tank where he can play at an elite level. While he is already an excellent player he is still improving, evident by his overhauled defensive play this year. The other thing that Harden brings to the table that very few others do is playoff experience. In his first five seasons, Harden played in 55 postseason games. He was part of the Thunder team that made it to the 2012 Finals after playing in the Conference Finals the year before. Harden actually hasn’t played a year in the association where his team did not make the playoffs.

All of that aside, Harden would still win for best two guard purely on his superior stat line. He is leading the league in scoring this year. Not just shooting guards, all players. He also has the most assists per game and the third most rebounds per game by a shooting guard. Defensively, he ranks fourth in blocks and first in steals among shooting guards as well. This decision is an absolute no brainer. He is clearly the best shooting guard in the league right now and that likely won’t change any time soon.

He can basically score at will with his 27.6 points per contest. Since becoming a starter when he moved to the Rockets in 2012, Harden has averaged 26.3 points per game. He also scores them fairly efficiently. Harden has turned himself into a much more consistent shooter over the last two seasons, hitting on roughly 45.5 percent of his shots. He has also been an above average three-point shooter, converting 37 percent of his attempts. The man who’s beard takes on a legend of its own has also improved his free throw shooting every year that he has been in the league and is now making almost 89 percent of his attempts from the line.

I mentioned his defensive stats this season being impressive and they are even more so because of his historical weakness on that end of the court. He is not an elite defender quite yet but the recent improvements provide some hope that there is potential for Harden on defense. This better defensive play also has Harden’s player efficiency rating higher than it has ever been previously. He ranks third behind only Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant among starters for the highest rating in the league. In the past, Harden’s overall efficiency was held back by his below average defensive play. Offense might still be where he excels but he has turned himself into a much more complete player.

Another knock against “The Beard” is his high number of turnovers, which sits at four per game this season. However, Harden has the seventh highest usage percentage in the NBA this year. He fits in right about where all of the six players in front of him do for turnovers per game. The reality is, when you handle the ball a lot in the NBA, you are going to have a much higher number of turnovers.

You can make the argument that Thompson is a better shooter, or that Butler is a better defender or that Wiggins has more potential but for the combined mix of talents James Harden brings to the table, it does not matter. Harden is probably one of the best all-around players in the league right now and could push himself into the conversation of being the best if his defense continues to improve. When he plays, he is involved in just about every facet of what happens on the court.
Despite how good of a supporting cast Harden has, featuring Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Terrance Jones most notably, Harden is still making the largest impact on the game. He leads the NBA in a stat called Win Shares, which calculates how much a player contributes to his team winning. The fact that Harden is tops in the league for that and has the highest value over replacement value of any player this season speaks volumes. Harden is a proven winner and while he may not have an NBA title to his name yet, he is definitely the shooting guard I want on my team to help me pursue one.

For previous Cornerstones selections, click here.