Thursday’s Thoughts – Nov. 14, 2019

Welcome to Thursday’s Thoughts, where I go over your need-to-know water cooler talk, provide some of my favorite upcoming wagers, and have a bit of fun with things I like and dislike. If you’re not a fan of sports, gambling, politics, pop culture, or fun, then still read it anyway because I do it for the interaction.

Welcome back everyone! After a nearly 5-month hiatus, moving across the pond, skipping over the NBA Draft, NFL Draft, MLB Playoffs (okay, fine – I wasn’t ever planning to write about baseball), and NBA and NFL season expectations, I’m finally returning to give you the content you know and love (read: tolerate). I have decided to change from Wednesday Weekly to Thursday’s Thoughts for two reasons: First, “Weekly” implies that I will write a blog every week, and that just seems disingenuous given my recent history in that regard. Second, I missed the Wednesday deadline yesterday, and I didn’t want to wait another week for my comeback. So there you have it – Thursday’s Thoughts it is. As this is my first week back, I went heavy into the Timberwolves, but there’s plenty here to enjoy for all you non-Wolves fans, too. Before I get into it, I will be starting a mailbag section at the end of each Thursday’s Thoughts starting next week. Please send in your questions/comments/topics to blogintherough@gmail.com or contact me directly.

And here. We. Go!

Timberwolves Update

There has been quite a bit of changes around the Timberwolves over the past 9 months, starting with the hiring of new President of Basketball Operations – Gersson Rosas. Modern in his approach to system and player development, candid with the press, and overall cheerful demeanor, you couldn’t find a more stark contrast of Tom Thibodeau than with Rosas. Despite striking out on acquiring D’Angelo Russell, Rosas has pushed the core message that the Wolves will be aggressive in trying to get star talent that fits with his (and Coach Ryan Saunders’) system.

The Rebuild
Finding a star is easier said than done while hampered by a salary cap that limited the Wolves free agency options. (Even the Russell acquisition would have required a sign-and-trade). Despite some good signings around the margins (Jake Layman for 3 years/$11M and Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell, Shabazz Napier, and Treveon Graham each for near-minimum 1-year deals), free agency was largely underwhelming, especially with a few key losses from last year’s rotation, most notably hometown favorite, Tyus Jones.

Culver 1.PNG

The draft was more flashy, but arguably less impressive, as Rosas traded away Dario Šarić to move up from the 11th pick to the 6th to (reportedly) draft Darius Garland. Unfortunately, the Wolves’ aggression was again met with disappointment as the Cavs selected Garland 5th, and the Wolves took Jarrett Culver, instead. Rosas had previously said they had a clear top 5 on their draft board before a steep drop, and Culver was included. (De’Andre Hunter, selected 4th, was not in that top 5). While the moves made sense, and began the move toward a new style of play, it wasn’t clear that the Timberwolves roster was any better (if not worse) than it was in 2018-19. And it definitely seemed like this wasn’t the season Karl-Anthony Towns would be paired with another star.

Wiggins Improvements
He’s never been consistently aggressive offensively, often settling for deep midrange shots, and he’s never shown even a remote interest in playing defense. What has always been frustrating with Wiggins is that he would show flashes of greatness that suggested he had the potential to be a top-tier NBA player. This led to his near-max contract in 2017 and the subsequent disappointment as he underachieved on that contract. Over the past two seasons, the flashes became increasingly rare, to the point his contract was considered one of the worst in all sports.

Wiggins 1

This season, he’s been different. He’s not an entirely different player, but rather (similarly to the Wolves as a whole) he’s improved along the margins. Just 11 games into the season, I’m willing to definitively say with 100% confidence that Andrew Wiggins, could, possibly, maybe, potentially, if things go right, become that other star. It would be easy to talk about him averaging career highs in points, assists, rebounds, blocks, and a career low in turnovers. But Wiggins problem has always been bigger than filling up the stat sheet. His shooting percentages have also been better, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen in stretches before. But where he’s made the biggest changes are in his effort, passing, and shot selection that in turn have led to those improved stats. His most notable improvement has been his shot selection. He’s taking a much higher percentage of his shots from 3-point and from within 10 feet. and a career low % of his shots from the midrange. And the difference is stark:

% of FGA by Distance
0-10 feet 10 feet – 3 point line 3 Point FG
Career 44.3% 35.3% 20.2%
2019 48.2% 20.4% 31.3%

He’s replaced nearly half of his midrange shots with drives, floaters, and, most significantly, three pointers. This is a huge part of increasing his eFG% by an enormous 7.4% over last season. The other part comes from his newfound willingness to pass the ball. When Wiggins drives past a defender and gets stopped by the helping big man, he no longer hesitates before vomiting up bad turnovers, launches contested fadeaways, or pulls up early (as much). Rather,  has been finding open shooters or backing up a few steps to take a triple. This has led him to commit less turnovers and find more assists as well. These small tweaks (mixed with a few very clutch quarters of basketball) have changed his offensive game from a liability to one of the Wolves’ most effective tools. On defense, he still struggles, but he’s at least trying. His offensive success and increased role has been keeping him more engaged, and it seems to have translated to the other end of the court. I’ve been fooled by early stretches from Wiggins before, but these changes look more sustainable than what we’ve watched become the outliers. He might turn back into a pumpkin soon, but he’s been promising, and with the Timberwolves at 7-4 I have nothing to complain about. I still can’t help but feeling like I’m being set up though…

Charlie Brown Wiggins Meme.PNG

Top 5 of the Week

We might only be three weeks into the season, but there are some things that are becoming clear in that short time. LeBron is still LeBron; The Bucks are good again; The Knicks are bad again; Some things never change… But some things do. This week’s I’ll be going over the top 5 surprises of the NBA season thus far.

5. The Blazers in panic mode.

After back-to-back seasons outperforming expectations and finishing in the top 3 in the Western Conference, it appears the Blazers have lost their spark. This may be an overreaction to a team who is still missing their defensive linchpin, Jusuf Nurkić, due to injury (his return timeline is ‘purposefully vague’) and was just dealt another blow when they lost Zach Collins for at least 4 months to an injured labrum. But the Blazer just don’t look the part. Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Evan Turner were sizeable losses in free agency, but the additions of Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Tolliver, Kent Bazemore, and Mario Hezonja along with expanded roles for Anfernee Simons and Skal Labissière were expected to replicate enough of the production to remain competitive. Instead, we’ve seen a complete breakdown, and the Blazers are a top candidate to acquire a star. In an absolute gauntlet of a Western Conference, the Blazers better hurry up and find a trade partner (Kevin Love anyone?) or they’ll find themselves outside the playoffs for the first time since Damian Lillard’s rookie season.

4. The Suns are.. good?

Suns.PNG

 

The Suns are currently 6-4 and tied for 7th place in the West. This is a team that was expected to be the worst team in the West (as they were last season). Devin Booker has been incredible as usual, but inspired play by Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes, and Kelly Oubre has pulled this team from the gutter. This is all without DeAndre Ayton, who has been out on suspension for all but 1 game this season. The wins aren’t coming against a soft schedule either – the combined record of their opponents is 59-48. It would have sounded crazy a few weeks ago, but this team has a real shot at the playoffs.

3. Andrew Wiggins is an all-star?

See above. If this lasts, Wiggins will be in Chicago for the All-Star game.

2. Brandon Ingram is great, but the Pelicans stink

Brandon Ingram seemed like he’d be a decent role player on this team, but would need to fight for minutes amid a plethora of talent. Instead, he’s been one of the few bright spots on an otherwise dismal Pelicans team. He’s scoring at an elite clip (25.9ppg) while shooting lights out (46.9% from deep!) and taking on the primary scoring option for New Orleans. Outside of Ingram, they haven’t been able to hang their hat on much.

Brandon Ingram.PNG

I’m well aware that the Pelicans don’t have their (likely) best player yet, as Zion Williamson is out for a few more weeks. Even so, most people – myself included – thought this team was going to be near the top of the West and they’re sitting at 2-8, already 4 games out of the playoffs. After adding JJ Redick and Derrick Favors to a team that already loaded up on weapons (Ingram, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball, Jaxson Hayes, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker) from the Anthony Davis trade, New Orleans seemed like they had a deep, competitive roster. But unless Zion is even better than his sky-high expectations (not impossible; he’s dominated at every level thus far), New Orleans is in for another year of ping pong balls.

1. Luka Dončić is somehow even better than expected

Luka had one of the best rookie campaigns we’ve seen in the past decade, and everyone assumed he’d grow into a star. His skill set seemed to pair well with Kristaps Porzingis and I expected the Mavs to be formidable with a solid group around their duo of young stars. The Mavs have looked fine, and Porzingis has been solid in his return, but he’s been completely overshadowed by Dončić’s dominance. Dončić is one assist shy of averaging a triple double and posting an elite 55% efG% while being in the top 5 in the league in points (5th), assists (2nd), PER (3rd), and BPM (2nd).

Doncic 1

Trae Young is averaging 28.0ppg/8.7apg/4.3rpg/1.6spg and shooting .464/.402/.803 splits and it’s still obvious the Mavs won the trade giving up Young plus a first round pick for Dončić. After last season, I expected Luka to compete for a All-NBA spot. Instead, he’s competing for the MVP.

Weekly Wagers

2019-20 NBA Record: 0-0-0
2019 NFL Record: 0-0-0
2019-20 International Soccer Record: 0-0-0

Okay people, don’t worry about that last inclusion – I won’t be writing much about international soccer, and I will (almost) exclusively be betting on Ireland. I know absolutely nothing about how good they are, but I obviously need to be betting while watching/attending matches.

International Soccer

Ireland (-350) vs. New Zealand

Based on the odds, Ireland is a heavy favorite. Plus this will be the first match I attend in Dublin, so they’re definitely going to win. Bet the house!

*Update* – I wrote this before the game and forgot it would be over before this was submitted. Ireland won in a blinding 3-1 performance. I’m counting it as a W.

NFL

Minnesota -10.5 vs. Denver

The Broncos have a terrible offense, and the Vikings have an excellent defense, especially at home. This one feels like a blowout. Minnesota has a defensive score and 3 takeaways. 27-7 Vikes.

New England -3.5 at Philadelphia

As much as I hate betting against home underdogs, I hate betting against Belichick after a loss even more. Considering the Patriots have won every game but 2 by at least 14 points, I’m hammering them this week.

NBA

Los Angeles Clippers -4 at New Orleans

As mentioned above, the Pelicans have not been good this season. Even with Kawhi (likely) sitting out on the back end of another back-to-back, this Clippers team is just better. Paul George might return in a limited capacity, and Brandon Ingram might still be out. Either of those happens, and this is a slam dunk bet – the line would jump a few points immediately. Even if Ingram plays with Leonard and George sitting, I think the Clippers handle business easily.

Chicago +11.5 at Milwaukee

The Bulls are not the same team as they were last season. They’re roster has improved with additions of Tomáš Satoranský, Thaddeus Young, and Coby White and development of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter. Still this team is clearly outclassed. 11.5 is a huge line though, and Bulls fans travel very well to Milwaukee. I’d expect the Bucks control the game throughout, but it never becomes a blowout.

Things I Like and Things I Don’t Like

I like

NBA Parity. After 9 seasons of having 1 or 2 teams as prohibitive championship favorites entering the season, it’s nice to finally see a wide group of contenders. As of now, I’d estimate there are 10 teams that could (realistically) win the Finals. The NBA is awesome no matter what, but this season seems to hit a bit harder knowing there’s so many elite teams with realistic championship ambitions. Wait, Timberwolves too – 11 teams. (Stop laughing).

I don’t like

Load Management. I understand why Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and other megastars in the league take nights off for rest. It’s been proven successful time and time again. Especially for a player like Leonard who has a chronic injury in a time when injuries seem more and more common, rest is important to stay healthy. But the DNP – Rest games have become too common, and the NBA has done an awful job at compensating fans. There should be rules in place around when rest is allowed, and harsh penalties when the rules are broken. For example, resting stars during away games should carry suspensions or giant fines ($50,000 isn’t going to cut it for a multi-billion dollar franchise). Away games are usually the only times fans from another city can see certain star players – sitting out an away game while healthy  is one of the most selfish things a player can do. Additionally, those fans who paid a premium to see those players aren’t warned about missing out on the star player or compensated accordingly. I’m not arguing teams shouldn’t utilize rest, but the NBA needs to do a better job of curating the opportunities for rest to better suit the fans.

I like

Gordon Hayward’s re-emergence. I wrote before the 2018-19 season that “when he comes back next year, he’s going to make everyone who suggested trading him look foolish.” Well, that turned out to be incredibly wrong. He had arguably his worst season since his rookie year, and he definitely wasn’t back to full strength. This season, however, is right in line with my prediction (albeit a full season late). He looks explosive again, he’s posting career-bests – or very close – in nearly every category. He’d be a top candidate for comeback player of the year, except…

I don’t like

Injuries. Hayward broke his hand and is out for 6 weeks. What terrible luck for a guy who is tough not to root for. Steph Curry is out for at least 3 months, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson might not play at all this season, De’Aaron Fox is out for at least a month, and Victor Oladipo, DeMarcus Cousins, and Zion Williamson have yet to see the court this season. Injuries have always been commonplace, but I can’t remember a season when so many teams have been ravaged by injury as early in a season as this. It’s been tough to see.

 

That’s it for Thursday’s Thoughts, and don’t forget to send in your mailbag questions/comments/topics to blogintherough@gmail.com to be answered next week!

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