We are all here for Minnesota Timberwolves Kahn-tent.
The site is named Canis Hoopus, not Pelecanus Hoopus or any other non-canine, non-wolf animal in Latin for that matter. And yet, when we look at the confounding puzzle that is our very own Minnesota Timberwolves, we miss the forest for the trees. In order to understand where the Wolves stand, we need to figure out the rest of the pieces that surround them. We need to find the rest of the puzzle pieces of the NBA.
This is not a Banjo-Kazooie-esque adventure, but we’ll be taking a look into the happening of the rest of the Western Conference and the National Basketball Association at large with some regularity for those of you who want a summary of the chaos of the court. Welcome, friends, to “In the Loopus.”
Curse of the Wemby-Go: Spurs Taking Victor Out of the Saddle
Let’s start a fitting place for our first entry with the first pick. San Antonio Spurs forward Victor Wembenyama has brushed right up against expectations and has only been stuck below that waterline because of how stupidly, obscenely, immensely high those standards were set. Victor has already had so many plays that make zero sense and look wrong according to the laws of physics. Here’s my favorite:
The absolute absurdity of jumping from outside one side of the paint to a reverse dunk is disgusting. These are the type of plays we’ll get used to, maybe some of you already have. But what was rarest about this play so far this season was a clean, effective entry pass once Victor gained post position. We’ll get into that but before you ask, yes, Wemby is good enough for us to start criticizing his teammates already.
While the developmental stories of Keldon Johnson, Tre Jones, and especially Devin Vassell have been impressive, the Spurs need to do a better job of facilitating for Victor. When Jeremy Sochan — good player, great passer for his position — is playing spot point guard minutes because he’s the only one generating assists, you have a problem. Tre Jones, specifically, should be getting so much more run, and the fact that he’s not is insane to me. The Spurs don’t have many problems for a rebuilding team: they have a great coach, a franchise altering talent, and quality role players and fringe stars on fair contracts, but this is something I’m keeping my eye on.
Cam Thomas and Ben Simmons: Breakthroughs on Either Side
My hot take for this year in our annual Canis NBA Predictions, I made the claim that Ben Simmons would return to form as “the most impactful version this player can be, all while scoring under fifteen points per game.” So far, that prediction isn’t all that wrong. Ben Simmons is leading the Brooklyn Nets in rebounding (by three a game over Nic Claxton) and assists (by nearly four a game over Spencer Dimwiddie). The counting stats won’t show his defensive impact, they never do, but the full court transition, kick-out finding version of Ben Simmons is back, and he’s been great at being a great role player for a fun Nets team finding contributors from all over.
One of those contributors is the unsurprising scorer of Cam Thomas. Absolutely no one should be surprised that he’s scoring. Everyone should be surprised that coach Jacques Vaughn is finally trusting him. So what’s changed? Thomas is averaging a whopping thirty-three points per game, doubling last year’s average in minutes, and shooting a career-low from three despite increased shot attempts and touches. So again, what changed? It’s not any improvements in rebounding or assisting or even defense, which Vaughn stressed as an important development last year. No, Thomas has finally begun scoring near the rim.
Thomas has boosted his shot frequency within ten feet from 35.1% of his diet to 47.1%. To add to that, he’s finally making a large percentage of those looks. Thomas has yet to miss a shot within three feet this season. He’s shooting over 70% from within ten feet. For Thomas to continue getting the touches he got in spurts last year, this needs to continue. Simmons and Thomas have created a frightening, defense twisting offense (with obvious, large contributions from Mikal Bridges) that finds the rest of a roster filled with shooters with comparatively easy jobs. How long can this go on? No clue, but seeing these two once-one-dimensional players add to their play styles to better fit and amplify the team around them is great.
Scoot Scuttlebutt: A Guard Aside
Scoot Henderson — known around these parts largely for his appearance in Karl Anthony-Towns mock trades this offseason — has been disappointing, to say the least, for a No. 3 overall pick. After a stellar summer league debut was shortened by a shoulder injury, his preseason was enjoyable to an extreme and seemed to protect against this type of start. His 22-point, four-rebound, four-assist outing showed off the flexible overall player with high-end orchestrating upside I think he can be. I am not above hyping up what I saw during those few games.
But, that player is struggling to shine through. The G League Ignite product has 22 turnovers to 21 assists. That is not good for a lead guard. We must add that Anfernee Simons, who is arguably the team’s best overall player, is out with a thumb and will continue to be so for the next four-to-five weeks. It’s also worth adding that Deandre Ayton is rebounding monstrously... and scoring meekly. But, before we toss excuses on Scoot’s teammates, let’s examine Scoot a bit more by looking at his predecessors.
Let’s look at some highly drafted point guards in recent years, namely Cade Cunningham, LaMelo Ball, and, pivotally, Darius Garland. Through his first four games, Cade had eleven assists to thirteen turnovers as a first-overall pick. Ball arguably has the best marks of the three at 14 assists to 11 turnovers, but averaged a similar 10 points-per-game to where Henderson sits. Garland is the outlier of point guard development that everyone will point to in a similar manner to what we’ve seen with Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen’s third-year jump. Garland was arguably the worst big minute player in the NBA throughout his rookie year, shooting 37% from the field and 33% from deep through his first four games.
Yes, Scoot is playing worse than these options, but point guard development in the NBA, especially throughout the first season, is the least linear track of any prospect. Had I hoped that the time in the G League would help buoy him against the improved athleticism and speed of play? Absolutely. Is it time to panic? Not even remotely.
My Personal Hell: Chris Paul and the Warriors Are a Match Made in Heaven
The Golden State Warriors swapped the shot creation and single-handed scoring runs of Jordan Poole for the shot creation and singly generated scoring runs of Chris Paul. And it’s working. And I hate it.
Paul has immediately settled into the Warriors system as a smart player making the right reads, as he always has, and annoying me to no end. What’s worse is that not only is Paul fitting in well with the Warriors starters, but he’s taking the Warriors’ biggest weakness in the Steph Curry-less minutes and dragging them kicking and screaming into the positives. Most notably, it was Paul feeding a personal favorite second-rounder Trayce Jackson-Davis to an early career-high thirteen-point performance in a win against the Pelicans where all of his points, save a couple of free throws, came from CP3 passes. Paul’s averages of eleven points per contest and eight assists are life-changing for a team that haven’t had a cohesive bench unit since 2016. That’s not to say they haven’t had good bench players or units since then, but this level of unification is absurd for a player who’s been here for a few months.
And as a lifelong beef holder since the infamous “Tuck Game,” I could not be more annoyed.
Big Boy Pistons: Doing Two Big Lineups Right
This title may be a little pointed. I’m sorry. The Timberwolves are by no means the only team playing two big lineups, although they are certainly the most invested in the concept. The Celtics made a finals deploying lineups of Robert Williams III and Al Horford, and have now pivoted to Kristaps Porzingis as the answer next to Horford. The Lakers have found some success with Anthony Davis next to Christian Wood. I mean, Giannis and Brook Lopez have played next to each other for years with a ton of success. But, each of those pairings have at least one positive shooter from distance, sometimes even two. That’s what has really changed in Detroit so far this year.
Cade being back in going to help when it comes to pick and rolls generating points, and both Jalen Duren and Isaiah “Beef Stew” Stewart are great recipients of those touches. But Stewart developing into what is currently a 46% 3-point shooter and Duren grabbing every single rebound under the sun is pretty much the simplest way to have that pairing work out.
The Pistons haven’t been a topic of much talk so far this season but the growth of Duren, who is still only a teenager, is something we need to focus on. Duren has been amazing as a possession ender, a role that the similarly constructed Timberwolves simply don’t have. Rebounding is seen as the strength of the two big identity. Shooting is what makes it click. Detroit has found the best of both worlds, and with both Stewart and Duren still young, a core of Jaden Ivey and Cade Cunningham at guard, and impressive rookie Ausar Thompson, I genuinely believe the Pistons are the young team to watch in the entirety of the Eastern Conference.
General Western Conference Overview
Surprising absolutely no one, the Denver Nuggets have picked up where they left off. After a dominant regular season, Denver has continued to inspire their fans with an undefeated 4-0 start. Even more surprisingly, it’s the Dallas Mavericks in second. Luka Dončić has been incredible. Rookie Dereck Lively II has been a perfect replacement for the oft overused Dwight Powell and seems to be the future of the center position in Dallas. Grant Williams and Josh Green are likely the best wing duo the Mavs have had in the Dončić era, which is a sad but real sentence. Behind the Mavs are the aforementioned Warriors at 3-1. The Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder share the same record, with the Clippers one loss coming in late game theatrics that they hope James Harden can fix.
The rest of the West is essentially all stuck in a race for some more playoff spots and a couple of play in entrants. The Sacramento Kings have been buoyed by the increased role of former fourth overall pick Keegan Murray, but are facing a De’Aaron Fox injury while on track at 2-1. The New Orleans Pelicans join them at one game over 500. The Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns, despite heaps of veteran talent are stuck at the ninth and 10th seeds, respectively, with two wins and two losses as a result of injuries. The Timberwolves sit amongst the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, and Memphis Grizzlies on the outside looking in through less than a handful of games looking in. Most worryingly though, the Grizzlies sit at 0-4 and will be missing Ja Morant for 21 more games and, despite being a fan of Derrick Rose I have to say, his on-off numbers are disgusting. Steven Adams is out for the year. Marcus Smart has been fine but not life changing. Jaren Jackson Jr. has taken a higher offensive load, scoring 30 against the Mavericks, but the team as a whole is struggling to reach any offensive heights, with the 28th best offense. The conference is a bloodbath, and these twenty-five games without Morant may be more than they can overcome.
Story Pups: Thoughts to Track
Confined court for King — LeBron James’ minute restriction is a fascinating coaching choice for Darvin Ham to manage the question of how to keep a thirty-eight-year-old functional for a full year in the NBA. The strength of this is that LeBron has been flat out incredible for the Lakers in 4th quarters and overtimes. The weakness is that this roster has struggled immensely to survive those minimal James minutes, outside of some great showings from Anthony Davis and some promising minutes of the AD - Christian Wood pairing.
The Latvian Lighthouse in Lucky’s Location — Kristaps Porzingis has been great for the Celtics, who continue to look like a championship favorite in the East. His thirty-point debut against the team that drafted him in the Knicks showed his fit with Boston but also the player KP has become in the years since he was a Maverick with Luka Doncic. The question will continue to be health, but the vision of this team is clear: be big, make space, bruise some egos and some arms.
Jalen Johnson, Onyeka Okungwu, and the Hawks’ underrated bench — After years and years of my personal screams, the Hawks have finally started playing my tenth overall prospect from the 2021 draft. Jalen Johnson has been incredible as a point forward who can be on either end of a pick and roll and a defensive player so tantalizing that even though he’s still putting it together, you feel confident about it. The draw with JJ was always his playmaking and versatility and the Hawks are finally, and I mean finally, putting him in that position. Add in Onyeka Okungwu’s steal of a contract, and the Hawks bench will be good for a while until they inevitably become starters.
Jordan Poole, the Vibes King of the NBA — This one’s short. I love watching Poole play like it’s two in the morning and he’s playing trance music while shooting on a mini-hoop after a night with friends. I wish I could have a job like that. Being carefree is a gift, and Poole is enjoying it.
Failure to launch - The Rockets have been what can only be described as meh. Jabari Smith Jr. has improved, and his jumper is near unblockable, but I’d rather focus on the two big free agent splashes that landed in Houston. One is going well, the other has me concerned. It’s not the order you think. Dillon Brooks has been a great Rocket. He’s giving you fourteen points a game on fair efficiency, and outside of getting cooked by Stephen Curry on court and on mic, he’s been everything the Rockets could ever want. Fred Van Vleet, on the other hand, worries me. I want to see more Amen Thompson. I think his ability. to get both Jalen Green and Alperun Sengun in good positions would be far more helpful than Van Vleet’s extra outside scoring boost. Add in the defensive edge a first-year Amen has in terms of size and I am more and more worried about when Thompson will start getting chances and if it’ll be too late in the season to take seriously.
Luka. That’s the post.
Suns testing load management rules — Beal’s back may be a legitimate injury, but resting Booker and Durant feels like checking while holding aces. Durant has played, most notably dueling the Spurs and fellow long-limbed-freak Victor Wembenyama, but Booker’s injury feels like the Suns have cracked the code. List a lingering long term injury and play the long game until the league calls it. Will Booker be All-NBA eligible? Maybe not, but the regular season accolades have long since taken a back seat to playoff glory.
Heat are still good — I am not happy or entertained.
Nuggets are still good — I am both happy and entertained.
Pacers starters cannot defend — The Indiana Pacers starters have been terrible on defense. Their first and third-quarter points allowed are gross. Why isn’t Jarace Walker getting more minutes? This is literally what you drafted him for. I understand the big money spending of Bruce Brown needs to start, but Bennedict Mathurin could easily go back to the sixth man role he excelled in last year. Until the defense improves, the Pacers won’t go anywhere. Their offense is good but not good enough to carry the lack of effort being displayed.
Thunder Down Low — Chet is everything the Thunder need right now but I’d love if the Thunder did something similar to how the Spurs have built around their beanstalk franchise big man. Let Chet be roamer in the paint and find some bigger center to play minutes to start and close small. I don’t think Jaylin Williams will be that option.
It’s worth mentioning that Chet at least survived on Jokic, and OKC has been rolling out Jalen Williams against fives at times defensively, and that the offensive margin for error the Thunder get from putting Chet at the five is sizable, but I just worry. Give Chet some safe haven minutes.
Pelicans Setting Up Draft Picks to Sink — The Pelicans have taken their hoard of draft picks and, instead of consolidating them into a helpful player, they've drafted players with no plans and hung them out to dry. Of their recent promising draft picks, it feels like only Trey Murphy Jr. has had a real chance to shine with certain moments from Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado, who may be on his way out. Kira Lewis has been abandoned. Nickel Alexander-Walker has long since been dumped. Jaxson Hayes is a Laker. I fervently hope that Dyson Daniels is not stuck in the same boat. These players have been asked to play microscopic roles to earn more minutes and trust and for the most part, have failed to do so. With thirteen picks since 2019, the Pelicans have only drafted three consistent rotation players, including Zion Williamson who has still played less than two full seasons of NBA basketball. I want young guys to succeed. It seems harder and harder to do so in New Orleans.