NEW ORLEANS – Unleash the Timberwolves! On Saturday night in New Orleans, Minnesota rallied from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the Pelicans and stand alone in the Western Conference, 9-3. His resume is not without quality: five wins against four teams in the last two NBA Finals.
That puts Minnesota in stark contrast to other teams in the same position early in the season: “win-now” rosters that, um, aren’t winning that much. Most important in the Timberwolves’ case is not just the pick Utah picked up from the Rudy Gobert trade, but the luxury-tax situation looming a year later as a major obstacle to keeping the team together.
As you will soon see, they have plenty of company. The underlying theme of this season so far has been one of teams reaching a point in their payroll history where they can prove why they should stick around.
Let’s stick with Minnesota for a minute, where the postgame vibe in the locker room is pure. The Colts seem more confident now that they are getting to know each other after several key players were thrown together a year ago. Gobert rounded out Lobs again and owned the paint for a top-three defense, while Karl-Anthony Towns snapped a slow start with six straight 20-point games.
Offensively, Minnesota hasn’t been very impressive so far. The chatter among the players in the locker room was about the different sets they felt comfortable running late in games, leaving opponents to rely on Anthony Edwards’s Isos to press on them. The shot can come around; Towns led Minnesota from deep on Sunday, going 31 of 80 from 3 overall.
With Edwards gone, Minnesota had to turn to Towns for the game-winner, a shot that was made by a) the ultra-right-handed Towns shot left and then b) somehow eluded defender Jeremiah Robinson-Er for an offensive foul. Well, the Wolves’ social media team did my job for me by posting both Towns’ shot and his response to my question about the shot.
ISO KAT… and the rest was history. pic.twitter.com/OQtRGBVjIb
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 19, 2023
It all stood in stark contrast to my journey two weeks ago when Bulls coach Billy Donovan walked into Denver’s postgame news conference and made clear the difficulty of building a superior offense around three players who really don’t want to. But don’t get too far into the rim to hit more 3-pointers.
Chicago is 5-9 after beating Miami in Sunday’s rematch — a game in which they were outscored 22-1 midway through the first quarter — and it may be a little early to hold a funeral for the Bulls’ season.
Nevertheless, the handwriting on the wall seems perfectly legible to all involved. The Bulls are 26th in offense and 29th in 2-point shooting and have only missed three man-games out of their top 9 in effective field goal percentage. Any hope this season may have rested on the clash between 22-year-old forward Patrick Williams and 23-year-old guard Coby White, but White couldn’t shoot (48.3 true shooting percentage) and Williams was unspeakably bad. For reasons that elude me.
With 34-year-old forward DeMar DeRozan heading into his free agent year and the Bulls going nowhere fast, trade talk has heated up around Chicago’s other key players, especially star guard Zach LaVine. Call them anti-wolves; Suffice to say, the Bulls haven’t earned the right to keep the team together in a decisive year.
Billy Donovan of the bulls will face the heat of the fans and the face of the franchise
This brings us full circle to the league’s other interesting decision points: Dear, the current winners hold a third of the league’s points and can only guarantee their survival by accumulating wins. Two of those things are clear: Denver certainly has earned the right to continue working despite having a roster that will be tax-efficient for the next several years. Ditto for Boston.
But what’s surprising is how many teams have reached a decision point on old or expensive inventory and face many ambiguous answers about the way forward. Take the LA Clippers, for example, who just traded for James Harden in 2011. It looks like they’re waiting and waiting to extend the contracts of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, who are owed money through 2029 but are 30-something tentpoles. They fell to 4-7 when they tried to integrate Harden, and of their top three players, only George played like an All-Star.
Steve Ballmer can throw cash at this team for eons, but at some point, it’s not even about the money; The new CBA makes any meaningful transaction with such a second-apron list very difficult. That roster building bottleneck has made it easier than ever to get to the point where exiting is the only viable option.
Or dare we say it, what about the Golden State? The league’s most expensive roster faces the possibility of a six-game skid if it can’t beat Houston tonight. The Warriors have a clear luxury-tax cheat code in their pocket as they can waive Chris Paul’s non-guaranteed deal after the season, but even this is worth keeping together on the rest of the still-expensive roster.
Said assumption is taking a serious beating. In particular, the notion that 33-year-old Klay Thompson warrants a contract extension is questionable. He is averaging 8.9 ppg on 52.0 percent true shooting, the highest turnover rate of his career. Surprisingly, he wasn’t their worst starter (raise an arrow, Andrew Wiggins). Meanwhile, the increasingly dynamic Draymond Green played in seven fourth quarters; He was fired, suspended or injured by others. Stephen Curry’s brilliance and a rebuilt bench are the only things keeping this team afloat, but the parts that make this team valuable are all woeful. Even Curry will be 36 in March. It may be time to start asking some tough questions.
The Clippers and Warriors are not alone. In New Orleans, where I was this weekend, the issue hanging over the organization is whether the Brandon Ingram-Zion Williamson pairing is the right one going forward. Williamson is talented but unreliable and a strange player to build around due to bad defense and a lack of shooting, and Ingram’s reliance on a 17-dribble Tough 2 tango again proved limiting against the Wolves in the fourth quarter.
Like the Clippers and Warriors, New Orleans is currently both under the luxury tax and under .500. Unlike the other two, Pells doesn’t shoot money out of fire hoses as a general operating principle. The good news here is that the Pelicans have enough future draft equity and enough future salary-cap flexibility to navigate this scenario without a tear.
And while we’re at it, where’s Memphis? The Grizzlies have operated with an abundance of cap flexibility for years, but that will change a year from now when Desmond Bane and Ja Morant’s extensions put this team under the luxury tax. This makes 3-10 years a bad time to start. The Memphis situation contains several injury warnings in addition to Morant’s absence, and owner Robert Pera’s net worth could write tax checks. However, as the Grizzlies’ once-enviable depth turns into a shambles, the handcuffs of the tribute roster construction come. Once this list becomes expensive next year, it will instantly add another watch.
Even places like Dallas, Cleveland or Atlanta where things are a little better aren’t immune to questions hanging over this season. Are the Mavs really worth cutting tax checks if it’s a one-and-done in the unforgiving West? Does the need to keep Luka Doncic happy force their hand anyway? Likewise, are the Cavs’ best case (but expensive!) long-term supermax Donovan Mitchell and senior Evan Mobley good enough to clinch the top three in the East? Do they need to shed Jarrett Allen for another perimeter player down the road? And in my Atlanta home, is it still good enough to be not good enough for the Hawks to keep this core intact? Or are they pot-executed regardless of the 2025 and 2027 dues owed to San Antonio for future picks?
This is to say nothing of the places where these issues will be discussed openly and urgently because of the upcoming free agency. Philadelphia, at least, seems to have answered questions about the original’s viability despite nearly all of them being free agents after the season. The Sixers have earned the right to continue with the dynamic duo of Joel Embiid-Tyrese Maxey; The only question is what to put around it.
On the other hand, Toronto…what does that last game look like? Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are pending free agents, Scotty Barnes is emerging, and the team…. Well, maybe. But is it enough to keep pushing chips around what my colleague Eric Corey calls “Project 6-9″? Especially when the siren song of Barnes and the spot of the floppy hat lie behind door number 2?
The Lakers and Heat, in other ways, are birds of a feather: struggling enough but not making anyone think a 2020 Finals rematch is imminent. Both are taxing, and both reap the benefits of abundant beaches and sunshine in the age of free agency and player incentives. However, each of their transfers currently sit in the awkward position of not being good enough to fulfill their ambitions – even with veteran star centers healthy and delivering.
As we head into December and the trade season winds down, sit back and take a look at some of the league’s most expensive and/or difficult details through this lens. To some extent, all these clubs are fighting for their right to continue as they are now. Some, like Minnesota, are making the case clear. Others may lead to an enjoyable winter.
Rookie of the Week: Jordan Hawkins, SG, New Orleans
I got a good look at the back-to-back Hawkeye this weekend in New Orleans, where he played 62 total minutes and scored 22 points as the Pils split back-to-back games against Denver and Minnesota. The lanky sharpshooter from Connecticut was a divisive prospect entering the draft, with an undeniable skill set to bomb on the move but persistent questions about how much he could deliver in the game.
So far, it’s a Rorschach test: no matter what you think going in, there may not be enough evidence to change your opinion.
‘Fearless’: Pelicans rookie Jordan Hawkins is on track to become the NBA’s next great shooter.
However, on balance, I’d say the evidence in favor of sticking as a rotation player is more likely. First, the Captain’s obvious part: He’s now a rotation player, as a rookie in his first month in the pros, and has hit double figures in nine of the 11 games he’s played at least 24 minutes.
While his overall numbers weren’t great and injuries in the Pelicans’ backcourt forced him into action sooner than expected, his core skill set is as advertised: Hawkins is making 12.4 3-point attempts per 100 possessions, which ranks 11th. League between players who have played at least 200 minutes. His influence would be greater if he could break down a few; So far, he is at 36 percent, shooting a second-highest 38.8 percent for defending national champion UConn.
Even at this point, Hawkins has left money on the table at times and can approach 15 per 100 3-point attempts. For example, here is a “scratch of the record” from Saturday’s shooting and when it might have been. Dyson Daniels is more shot-ready as he passes. Instead, Hawkins failed to get the upper hand on the dribble and nickel Alexander Walker knocked the ball off his feet.
A minute later, with the same defender and the same distance away, it’s Splash City. Notice here how Hawkins gets great height on the jumper and gets rid of it quickly. I’ve included the second clip to show that he has plenty of room to take the footage in the first clip.
However, basketball is not darts, and concerns about Hawkins being too athletically limited haven’t entirely gone away. Even his shot can’t justify being a late lottery pick (14th overall) if he wants to be Troy Daniels 2.0. On that front: Hawkins hasn’t blocked all season, rarely touches the paint offensively and is mostly stuck with the opposition’s least threatening offensive player.
Even with those limitations, one way Hawkins can improve his value is by using his shooting threat to create more passes for his teammates. On that front, it was an encouraging weekend; He has eight hits over the two games and has nearly two dimes for each season.
Still the work remains. For example, here’s the brutal play where Daniels ends up with the ball and two panicked Wolverine defenders run toward him, thinking he’s going to take a last-second 3 near the end of the quarter. Their quick reaction leaves Cody Zeller open under the basket, and Hawkins picks up the dribble to drop the ball… somewhere else.
Want to see the best version of what it looks like? Here’s a different scrimmage where Hawkins runs over the break to beat Kyle Anderson to the offensive board and immediately sets up for Ingram for a 1-and-1:
For the season, Hawkins shot more times to average 21.4 points per 100 possessions, and his shots were third in the Archie. He didn’t get to the rim in the half court, but he showed an ability to pull one or two into effective shots when opponents chased him off the line, which hit hard against Minnesota in the second half.
Overall, the 3-ball is a good foundation to build upon as the rest develops. He’s also only 21, and his body has a lot to fill out in an NBA strength program (and… right?), making him a more logical defensive option than a “hide at all costs” guy. If Hawkins does that and continues to make further improvements in the other non-shooting phases, his outside stroke should keep him in the league for the next decade.
(Stephen Curry top photo: John Hefty/USA Today)