The Cleveland Cavaliers played the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.
Excluding the date, the same has been said at some point each of the past four seasons. This fact has frustrated some, especially the diehard fans looking for fresh faces and new blood to cap off each season. Some — I might include myself in this one — care more about the all the stuff in between, the “how we got to this point,” than the final product itself.
Still, some just want to see the Warriors and LeBron James.
But even for the die-hardiest fan of the NBA at large, four years in a row of the same team justifies a mild collective groan. Naturally, the players were asked about this the fourth time around.
LeBron probably gets the worst of it. His Finals appearances streak dates back to the 2010-11 season when he was with the Miami Heat.
So when asked about it last week, he gave the answer of someone who has been asked to discuss this topic a lot over the past eight years. He made an indisputable point.
“Teams have had their opportunities to beat the Cavs over the last four years,” James said. “Teams have had opportunities to beat the Warriors over the last four years. If you want to see someone else in the [Finals], then you gotta beat ’em.”
LeBron is right. The Eastern Conference has yet to display enough top-end firepower to give a LeBron-led team a successful go in a seven-game series. Meanwhile, the Warriors feature four Hall of Famers and have looked virtually unbeatable out West since the hiring of Steve Kerr.
The Minnesota Timberwolves? They haven’t even been in the conversation — not yet, anyway. Sure, they have a win over Golden State in every season dating back to the Warriors’ 73-win campaign three years ago. They nearly swept Cleveland this year and had one of their best home performances of the season at home against the Cavs.
But in reality, how close are the Timberwolves to being a team that can honestly compete with the likes of the Cavaliers or — more pressing due to conferences — the heavily-favored Warriors?
The short answer: It’s going to take a while, but there is hope.
No, a team featuring Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will not get you anywhere near a championship next season. Not as long as the Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green continue to share the floor with the same uniform on.
The Warriors have always had a high-octane offense, but pairing it with their consistently top-three defense is what’s made them the dominant force they’ve turned into the past four seasons. The main reason the Rockets became a real talking point for upending Golden State was their transformation defensively. Had the Rockets not turned themselves into a top-two offense post-All-Star break, the seven-game Western Conference Finals would have been a more surprising result.
But the Rockets nearly won it. Had Chris Paul been healthy in Games 6 and 7 — he was Houston’s best player in their latter two wins — we might have had a different story completely.
But the Timberwolves aren’t a top-three defense. They aren’t even a top-10 defense, nor a top-20 defense. For yet another year, the Wolves finished in the bottom-10 in defensive rating. They had a slew of problems that included Towns and Wiggins not fully “getting it,” as well as a bench that generally only had good defensive metrics when complemented mostly with members of the starting lineup.
One piece that was mentioned a lot towards the end of the year were the specific defensive struggles of Jamal Crawford, who reportedly opted out of his contract in early May.
With Crawford on the floor, the Timberwolves had, by far, the worst defensive rating in the NBA, a rating of 112.9 according to NBA.com/stats. Crawford played 20.9 minutes per game this season, a decent enough sample size to draw from considering he didn’t miss time due to injury.
With him off the floor — a greater sample size, of course — the Timberwolves had a defensive rating of 105.2. That’s good enough for 12th in the league.
Could a switch at that position, to even a league-average defender, bring some stability to the team’s defense? Is it possible that Crawford’s struggles were this extreme, to the point that it brought everything else out of whack on that end?
It’s unlikely that one player could have that great a negative impact in just over 20 minutes per game, but let’s pretend it’s the reason for a moment. Let’s say they were in a position to sign Avery Bradley — an elite perimeter defender with a history of solid 3-point shooting. He’d be perfect in every way — he can defend the perimeter with the best of them but doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective offensively. He could play well with Tyus Jones — or Derrick Rose — but also succeed next to Butler or Wiggins if the situation called for it.
Let’s say all this happened, and it improves the defense. How much would it impact the Wolves’ defense? In other words, how much could a 20-minutes per game bench player impact a defense?
Let’s say it puts them into 12th, the number at which the Wolves with Crawford off the floor. Even then, is that good enough to get past Golden State?
The tough answer: Probably not.
The Rockets were within a tenth of a point behind Golden State in offensive rating this year and were the superior defensive team for much of the regular season. But when it came down to playing them, as evenly matched as it looked to be at times — and keeping injuries in mind — the Warriors still got the better end.
A top-three offensive and a top-15 defensive Minnesota team will almost certainly not get it done, even if the improvements launch them to new heights next season.
In order for them to truly compete, the changes will have to come from what’s already there. Towns will have to grow into a player even more impressive than he already is today, especially defensively. Wiggins will have to find true consistent efficiency. Butler will have to find a way to be fully healthy for the postseason.
And even then, it might not be enough. Becoming a playoff team is one thing, and the team Tom Thibodeau has put together has a chance to be in the postseason for a while. But if they want to be part of changing up the fixtures at the top, there is more work to be done.
The good news is they do have Towns, whose improvement theoretically could skyrocket. Butler could find himself healthy in the postseason. Wiggins could finally utilize all the natural talent he has.
It might not be an NBA Championship roster, but the Timberwolves have pieces that could make things interesting if everything goes right. Very few teams have that.
In the meantime, enjoying the NBA Finals and greats already there is worth our time, even if we’ve seen it before.
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