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The Wolves Take Another Shot at a Youth Movement, and the Five Most Interesting Teams in the NBA This Week

Plus: The Spurs defense clamps down, Myles Turner steps up for the Pacers, and more intrigue from around the league

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a nice long holiday break that allowed us to shift focus to stuff like the Christmas Day quintuple-header and predicting 2019’s most interesting NBA people, the time has come to get back to doing what I love most: talking about a handful of squads I find most compelling at the moment, for one reason or another. So let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the league for Week 13, starting with a midseason reset in Minneapolis …

Minnesota Timberwolves

Two months ago, the Wolves kicked off life after Jimmy Butler with a collective exhale, consecutive wins, and a reason to believe that the future would bring better things. The fun was short-lived, though; before long, Minnesota was back on the downslope, losing 10 of 16 to fall back toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings. The firing of coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau on Sunday gave the Wolves a second chance at finding a spark, this time under 32-year-old interim head coach Ryan Saunders. But sustaining it after a thrilling Tuesday win over the Thunder will require more than just exorcising the bad Footloose vibes of the Thibs tenure.

Saunders will get the back half of this season to prove that he’s the tactician who can make the most out of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The two former no. 1 overall picks and Rookies of the Year, in turn, get the balance of the campaign to try to push Minnesota back into the postseason for the second year and prove that they can still become the core of a perennial contender.

Once Minnesota gets Robert Covington and Derrick Rose back from their respective injuries, Saunders should have just about everything he needs to modernize Minnesota’s attack. As our Jonathan Tjarks wrote after the Butler deal in mid-November, a revamped roster dedicated to flanking Towns with shooters who have the size and length to switch screens has a chance to be pretty damn good. We just didn’t see a ton of that under Thibodeau; the foursome of Towns, Wiggins, Covington, and Dario Saric has shared the floor for just 55 minutes. That total won’t increase for a bit, with Covington working his way back from a bone bruise on his right knee. But whenever he returns, it’ll be interesting to see whether Saunders, who is 28 years Thibodeau’s junior and whose entire coaching career has been spent in an NBA moving toward pace-and-space, is more willing to downsize and spread the floor than his predecessor was.

The biggest challenge for Saunders—as it was for his father, Flip Saunders; Sam Mitchell; and Thibs—will be finding the magic words that will get Wiggins to more consistently provide the kind of aggression and activity that he displayed during Tuesday’s win in Oklahoma City, when he looked for stretches like the best player on the floor:

What made the performance so impressive is also what makes Wiggins so maddening. When you see him commit to attacking off the dribble, working his way to 18 free throws, you wonder why he doesn’t live at the line. When you see him use his athleticism and length to crash the glass for 10 boards, it just highlights that only 10 players his size in the 3-point era have posted a lower career rebound rate. When you see him actually looking to make plays, like blocking Paul George in the corner and the drive-and-kick for Josh Okogie’s game-icing 3, you can’t help but notice that he still notches assists on only 10.5 percent of his teammates’ baskets.

We know Wiggins likes Saunders; after helping the coach secure his first career NBA win, he said, “I’m proud of him. He deserves it. He’s been here a long time and this is rightfully his.” Now we’ll find out whether that’s enough to coax performances like that out of Wiggins more often. If it’s not, and if the Wolves again lose steam after their post-shakeup bump, it’ll be interesting to see where owner Glen Taylor might look for his next hire. Sacramento’s Dave Joerger, a Minnesota native, is in the midst of running a more thoroughly modern, fast, bombs-away offense with the Kings—one that, ironically enough, opened up with the addition of former Wolf Nemanja Bjelica, who skipped town after Thibodeau couldn’t figure out how to use him. Asked about the coaching change in Minnesota, Joerger has already called the Wolves job “interesting,” but reiterated his commitment to the Kings. Considering he once before interviewed with Taylor while under contract to coach another team, though, we’ll see whether that commitment is stronger than the pull of a chance to coach a generationally talented big man for a franchise that could soon be in the market for yet another fresh start.

The Most Interesting Bad Team of the Week: Atlanta Hawks

There’s something fun happening with the Hawks. They’re 7-9 over their past 16 games, and have been defending like a middle-of-the-pack outfit over the past month despite heavy minutes for rookie guards Trae Young and Kevin Huerter, sophomore big John Collins, and intriguing third-season wing DeAndre’ Bembry. (Bembry is one of only nine players this season who has totaled at least 300 points, 150 rebounds, 100 assists, 50 steals, and 25 blocks.) That quartet plus veteran center Dewayne Dedmon has outscored Hawks opponents by 13 points in 44 shared minutes during this little run.

Young is still flashing his preternatural passing gifts in the pick-and-roll, and his shooting has picked up; he’s hit just under 40 percent from deep over the past month. Huerter is showing that he’s got more than just a ratchet jumper in his bag, handling in the pick-and-roll, regularly making some slick passes, and dunking loudly. They play hard for first-year coach Lloyd Pierce; they took the Raptors to the final minute on Tuesday, and blitzed Brooklyn with a 38-point first quarter Wednesday before running out of gas on the second night of a back-to-back on the road, and they’re doing it without injured swingman Taurean Prince, arguably their best player. The Hawks aren’t close, but they might be closer than you realize.

San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio is the hottest team in the NBA, winners of 14 of its past 18 to catapult from the lower reaches of the Western Conference into the thick of the race for a top-four seed. Our Kevin O’Connor recently highlighted how the Spurs have married two different stylistic approaches to produce the league’s most efficient offense since the start of their run. But the NBA’s third-best defense—and the best, if you ignore the 147 points the Thunder dropped in Thursday’s double-overtime thriller—during that span has also helped Gregg Popovich’s club reach a new level over the past month.

That’s a remarkable turnaround from the season’s first 25 games. The Spurs couldn’t string together stops to save their lives after losing All-Defensive Second Team point guard Dejounte Murray to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Before kicking off a six-game homestand on December 7, San Antonio ranked 29th in points allowed per possession, 29th in opponents’ effective field goal percentage, 26th in opponents’ turnover percentage, and 21st in points conceded both on the fast break and in the paint. But maybe the Spurs just needed time to jell after an offseason of roster upheaval, and for Popovich to find the right rotations.

One big part of the Spurs’ defensive surge is a tactical change in how they play the pick-and-roll. After early-season struggles to contain ball handlers and prevent high-value looks—San Antonio ranked 15th in shots allowed in the restricted area through 25 games, with opponents shooting 64.8 percent at the rim—Pop switched back to a “push” or “ice” defense in the screen game. The goal: keep ball handlers away from their teammates’ screens, direct the ball away from the middle of the floor and toward the baseline, cut off the weak side, and try to force a tough, contested shot, ideally from the area between the paint and the arc.

The technique better suits the Spurs, who have looked more committed to staying in front of their men, more attentive away from the ball, and more active when closing out and getting a hand up:

So far, so good. Since the start of that six-game homestand, the Spurs are allowing the league’s lowest eFG%, and have risen into the top half of the NBA in the frequency with which they force turnovers, limit fast-break points and defend the lane. Nobody has allowed fewer shots at the rim than San Antonio since December 7, with opponents shooting nearly five percentage points lower on those attempts.

Derrick White has played a big role, too. After being reinserted into the starting lineup on December 9, the second-year point guard out of Colorado has provided both steady offensive contributions (11.2 points and 3.7 assists in 28.1 minutes per game on 55/38/86 shooting splits) and a needed injection of size on the perimeter.

At 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, White has what Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills lack: the length to hector ball handlers, disrupt passing lanes, and bother shots. Since Pop put him back in the starting lineup, White has 24 steals, 13 blocks, and a team-high 42 deflections, with more shots contested than any guard in the league. White has increasingly been asked to check opponents’ top perimeter options—he has matched up with Donovan Mitchell, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Lou Williams, Mike Conley, De’Aaron Fox, and, in a breakout performance on national TV, the departed Kawhi Leonard—and the 24-year-old has held his own.

So has nearly every other San Antonio defender. They’re fighting through screens, sliding to their help spots, swiping opportunistically, and communicating all the way. Whether they’ll be able to sustain this level of consistency and connectivity when their schedule starts to tilt remains to be seen; the annual rodeo road trip, which will keep them away from San Antonio for three weeks in February, awaits. But in just a month, the Spurs have already managed to change the tenor of their season.

The Most Trade-Deadline-Relevant Team of the Week: Washington Wizards

We see you, Wizards, now 4-3 and outscoring opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions since John Wall’s season-ending injury. But we kind of wish we didn’t.

Bradley Beal is now going nuts as Washington’s no. 1 option, averaging 28.1 points, 5.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game in Wall’s absence, while shooting more than nine 3-pointers a night. Otto Porter looks like someone just reminded him that he’s allowed to shoot (12.8 field goal attempts per game over the past seven) and that he’s really good at it (47/43/89 shooting splits). Six weeks ago, the Wizards were the apple of every fire-sale-watching fan’s eye; now, with Tomas Satoransky stirring the drink, they sit just three games behind Charlotte for eighth in the East, and are projected as a coin-flip proposition to make the postseason.

Given those odds, it seems more likely that general manager Ernie Grunfeld will keep the Wiz intact than proceed with a teardown. (Or perhaps even dangle draft picks in pursuit of another boost, which would make many D.C. fans light their hair on fire.) That’s good news if you’re interested in seeing Washington try to slink into the playoffs again. If you’ve been Trade Machining Beal and Porter into destinations all over the NBA map for the past two months and are hoping for some deadline fireworks, though, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed.

Indiana Pacers

Victor Oladipo gets the All-Star accolades, and Domantas Sabonis has earned more than his share of Most Improved Player hype with his strong start to the season. But Indy’s chances of building off last season’s 48-win campaign and advancing beyond the postseason’s opening round for the first time since 2014 rest with Myles Turner. First pegged to be Paul George’s no. 2, and now tasked with helping Oladipo elevate the Pacers, the fourth-year center has bounced back from an up-and-down 2017-18 to break out as one of the NBA’s most menacing interior deterrents, playing an integral role in an Indiana defense that is second in efficiency by cleaning up all kinds of messes around the rim:

Turner is blocking 9 percent of opponents’ 2-point shot attempts when he’s on the floor, according to Basketball-Reference.com, the highest share in the league and far and away the best mark of his career. He’s also snagging defensive rebounds at a higher rate than ever, and committing fewer fouls per minute than ever. Opponents are shooting just 56.1 percent at the basket when he’s the one defending, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, fifth best among bigs to contest five or more up-close shots a night. Overall, Pacers opponents shoot 7.6 percentage points worse at the rim, and 9.3 percentage points worse on “floater-range” non-restricted-area paint shots, when Turner patrols the lane than when he sits, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Though he’s still just 22 years old, Turner now has more than 250 career regular- and postseason games and 7,000 pro minutes under his belt. He’s played for much of this season like someone with an advancing understanding of where he has to be on defense, when he has to be there, what he has to do when he gets there, and perhaps even more importantly, what he doesn’t have to do.

After an offseason in which he followed Oladipo’s lead by trimming down and getting shredded, Turner is moving his feet better in space and covering more ground when tasked with playing up on the pick-and-roll. When positioned closer to the basket, he’s more aware of how the pieces move around the chessboard, and isn’t getting caught out of position as much to the detriment of Indy’s team defense. He’s staying down more too. He just seems calmer, more willing to wait, knowing that at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, he can afford to let drivers commit and still have the length to close the gap and contest their shots. When they take it all the way in, he’s destroying them, helping kick-start a Pacers attack that ranks fourth in points scored per possession after a turnover, according to Inpredictable.

He’s become the kind of rim protector who can flat-out shut down the basket for minutes at a time, as he did late in the fourth quarter of the Pacers’ visit to Toronto last month:

Indy wound up losing that game, but Turner made his presence felt. That game was just a part of a monster December—15.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, and 2.2 assists in 29.2 minutes per game, while shooting 53.5 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range—that helped the Pacers win 12 of 15 games to stay within striking distance of Toronto and Milwaukee at the top of the Eastern Conference.

They’ve wobbled of late, thanks in part to Turner getting injured. Indiana needed overtime to beat the scuffling Bulls in his first game after getting his nose broken, and he suffered a shoulder injury in that game against Chicago that has knocked him out of the past three games, including a Wednesday annihilation that saw the Pacers give up a season-high 135 points in Boston. That absence has underlined the value of his presence: For the Pacers to stand toe-to-toe with the East’s top teams, they’ll need Turner standing tall in the paint.