Surprising development: Timberwolves’ defense still lacking teeth

Tom Thibodeau doesn’t yet have the Timberwolves playing sound defense. (AP)
Tom Thibodeau doesn’t yet have the Timberwolves playing sound defense. (AP)

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Consider the least likely things you would expect to see on an NBA floor. Stephen Curry struggling with his shot. Kyrie Irving unable to dribble. A Tom Thibodeau-coached team with a leaky defense. The first is rarely true, the second is never true and the third … well, for the last season-plus the third has been way too true. That’s right: After finishing last season with the NBA’s 27th-ranked defense, Thibs’ Timberwolves are once again playing bottom-five defense.

It’s startling. Last season could have been excusable. It was Thibodeau’s first season in Minnesota, he was presiding over one of the NBA’s youngest rotations, and he was trying to break the team of old habits that were part of the reason he was hired in the first place. This season the Wolves are a year older, a year wiser and the roster has been fleshed out with Thibs-friendly veterans (Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson) who know his system. The result: A leaky D that ranks dead last in key categories like opponent field-goal percentage (49.8 percent) and transition defense (15.6 fast-break points allowed per game).

Chalk Minny’s defensive woes up to a few reasons. Decision-making, for one. The Wolves lack defensive discipline. They crash the boards when they should sprint back and routinely get caught out of position. “Whether you go forward or you go back, whether you sprint or you have to backpedal, those are the things we have to work on,” Thibodeau said. And for the young players, technique remains sloppy. “How you trace the ball, how you pressure the ball, how you challenge shots, that’s important,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve been high deflections, [but] we haven’t finished our defense as well as we should. There has to be more physicality to what we are doing.”

Minnesota was a trendy pick to finish top four in the West and throw a scare in someone in the first or perhaps the second round. The offense has clicked and the new vets have been as advertised. But sloppy defense has been at the root of each of the Wolves five losses this season, from the expected (a 125-101 road loss to Golden State) to the surprising (a 118-110 clipping by Phoenix). Can Thibs clean it up? Minnesota’s status as a viable playoff contender depends on it.

The redemption of D’Angelo Russell
The Lakers will tell you they are fine with the deal that ended D’Angelo Russell’s L.A. experience after just two seasons. They got Timofey Mozgov off the books, got a pick that ensured they could draft rookie wunderkind Kyle Kuzma, and the financial flexibility that comes with Brook Lopez’s expiring contract. Plus, the landing was cleared to hand the keys over to Lonzo Ball. Yet watching Russell early in his run with Brooklyn, it’s easy to see how L.A. might cringe down the road on this one.

That’s right: Russell is rapidly developing into a star. His scoring has spiked (20.9 points), his assists are up (5.7 per game) and his per-36 numbers dwarf conference peers like Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker. He’s in the top 10 in the NBA in usage rate (33.5 percent), ranking ahead of Russell Westbrook. His turnovers are up and his 3-point shot still stinks, but these are minor flaws in what has been an All-Star-caliber first month of the season.

Part of Russell’s success has been Brooklyn’s willingness to slow play his development. There is no pressure: The Nets are bad, they expect to be bad, and success is measured less by wins at this point than how their collection of young players progress. Nets coach Kenny Atkinson — who has brought a strong reputation for player development to Brooklyn — has empowered Russell, who has embraced the Nets’ structured atmosphere.

There is a long way to go, of course. Racking up numbers on a rebuilding team is a long way from producing on a winner. Russell, Nets officials say, must continue to progress as a leader, both on the floor and in the locker room, and his sloppy play — eight turnovers in a recent loss to Denver, for example — needs to be cleaned up. But the draft-pick-devoid Nets have been hunting for cornerstone players, and early in his Nets run, Russell, 21, sure looks like one.

Yes, the Knicks have a franchise player in Kristaps Porzingis. (Getty Images)
Yes, the Knicks have a franchise player in Kristaps Porzingis. (Getty Images)

The rise of Kristaps Porzingis
The Knicks lost to the Cavs on Monday night, and it was far from Kristaps Porzingis’ best performance: 20 points, seven rebounds and a place on the viral video of LeBron James burying a step-back 27-footer that gave Cleveland a three-point lead it would not surrender.

It was a minor speed bump for Porzingis, who at 22 has become an offensive monster. His scoring has jumped to 29.5 points per game, he’s connecting on an absurd 41 percent of his threes, and in the aftermath of the Knicks’ divorce from Carmelo Anthony, Porzingis has embraced his role as the face of the franchise.

Porzingis has cited tweaks to the Knicks’ offense to explain his early-season success. Phil Jackson is gone, which has freed coach Jeff Hornacek to run a more free-flowing offensive system. “This year you can feel that Jeff has more, he’s running his own stuff without anybody coming in and telling him what to do or how to do it, so I think from the top down you can feel that there’s more confidence in what we’re doing,” Porzingis told ESPN Radio. “It’s a better feeling this way.”

Around the Knicks, there are a lot of good feelings. The Anthony Era needed to end, along with Jackson’s brief time as New York’s president, too. Jackson’s war with Anthony sucked the life out of the Knicks locker room last season and the limbo the team lived in — divided between trying to win now as opposed to trying to rebuild the right way — wasn’t healthy. This season, New York has a top-10 offense with young stars Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. (17.2 points per game) leading the way.

It’s everything the Knicks hoped for. Throughout Porzingis’ feud with Jackson — including Porzingis’ hasty exit from New York at the end of last season, which fueled speculation the star wanted out — the Knicks knew where Porzingis wanted to be. The spotlight of New York never bothered Porzingis, and his inner circle understood what being a Knick could mean to developing a global brand. The offseason overhaul has firmly established Porzingis as the face of the franchise, and he in turn has embraced it.

They’re baby steps, though. The Knicks aren’t banking on Porzingis being a 40 percent 3-point shooter — high 30s will do — but a 25-point-plus scoring average isn’t out of the question. His beefed up body has made Porzingis tougher to push off spots in the post, and scouts have remarked that Porzingis has attacked switches more quickly this season. In a woebegone Eastern Conference, the Knicks suddenly are in a strong position to make the playoffs, with Porzingis on track to make his first All-Star appearance — and perhaps a lot more.

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