Timberwolves Preview: Q and A With CBS Sports’ Zach Harper

Jan 15, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 15, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

The Oklahoma City Thunder continue their road trip in Minnesota, taking on the Timberwolves on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. CST. We spoke to Zach Harper of CBS Sports and asked him about the Wolves, how they’re handling the season and what he thinks of Oklahoma City’s title chances. You can follow Zach on Twitter @talkhoops for incredible insight on the NBA in general as well as a mix of terrible puns and excellent taste in really bad films.

For a team like the Timberwolves that has so much talent but isn’t likely to fully realize it this season, how do you measure what is or isn’t successful beyond just wins and losses?

I think that’s the toughest thing to judge because you have to judge what success is to you. Is it meeting a certain threshold for team defense or team offense? Is it a certain percentage of shots going in? Are you measuring the play of the second half of the season vs. the first half? Do you judge it by the competitiveness of the losses for a young team? I’m not sure there is a lot of talent on the team. I think there’s a lot of potential talent on this team and it has to be turned into guys who really matter in the NBA.

I think what I want to see the most out of them is the competitive losses. Ideally, you’d like to see some version of what the Utah Jazz were in the second half of last season but I’m not sure that’s realistic. Competitive losses show the Wolves have work to do but can stay with a lot of teams. All of the losing can drain the young players but the ones who make it out with their heads up can probably withstand the rebuilding process.

The return of Kevin Garnett to Minnesota is a nice bookend to his storied career. But is there a downside to having a player his age taking up playing time? Also, have you seen a specific impact he’s had on the young players currently on the roster?

KG isn’t playing very many minutes out there, so I don’t think you’re detracting from a better rotation or a more developmental rotation. This young Wolves team has benefitted greatly from his presence both on and off the court. Karl-Anthony Towns is working KG every day and that’s exactly who they need teaching Towns. As much as I like the assistant and developmental staff of the Wolves, it’s more effective sometimes when you have a veteran showing them throughout practices, shoot arounds, and games.

Last season when the Wolves acquired KG back to the team, the first two weeks were great for the players on the roster because they saw first hand what you needed to do to be successful thanks to KG’s example. However, once he went down with an injury the rest of the season and stopped at five games played for them, that voice wasn’t quite as effective to the young players. It matters having the person talking to you and then going out there to battle with you.

The Zach LaVine experiment has made news for all the wrong reasons, as the team can’t quite settle on where he belongs on the floor? Where would you ultimately like to see him end up and what strengths does he bring to his ideal position?

People could stand to relax on the Zach LaVine thing this season. He’s being played out of position at the point guard and it’s actually a good thing. Playing down a position helps you develop skills, instincts, and understanding for playmaking that benefits you when you move back up a position. The Magic did it with Victor Oladipo at the 1. The Sonics did it with Kevin Durant at the 2. The Heat did it with Dwyane Wade at the 1. All when they were young players, mostly in their rookie season. Then the floor looks bigger and easier to attack with your shot, dribble, or pass as you’ve soaked in that experience.

I’m much more worried about LaVine defensively than I am about which position he’ll play. He’ll eventually be the shooting guard for this team. Maybe even the starting shooting guard. Or at worst a Sixth Man type of player. He’s struggles at times but he’s had some really good moments as well. He’s going to be just fine. Works his ass off constantly. The game will become more natural for him as this team gets better and the roster fills out for him to play the more natural 2. Then he could be a real problem as a scorer/playmaker for opposing defenses.

Sam Mitchell has been scrutinized pretty intensely by local reporters for how he handles the team and media. Are the issues overstated? Do you have an ideal coaching candidate that can take this team to the next level?

Sam Mitchell has been pretty bad with the media, mostly because he’s rarely been thought of as the solution to the Wolves’ rebuilding issues over the years. He wanted this job a lot sooner, back when Rick Adelman was hired and he didn’t get it and nobody fought for him. So I think he has a “me against them” mentality with the media, which probably runs over from his playing days as well. I don’t think it’s a bad thing in terms of his coaching but it won’t do him any favors when he’s being covered toward the re-opening of the coaching position.

I don’t think he’s the solution but I’m not sold on the idea that he’s the biggest problem they have. Like I said earlier, I’m not sure how much tangible talent they have and people see the potential when they’re frustrated instead of the present. With that said, I don’t think Sam should be the coach after this season. I think he does a poor job of coaching a modern game. His teaching can help get back to fundamentals for the young guys, but it won’t further their development past that. I’d love for Mike D’Antoni to get the job, but I doubt that happens. More realistically, Scott Brooks or Dave Joerger (if he gets fired this offseason) would be best-case scenarios. Some people want Tom Thibodeau but I don’t want this team to be dead in three years.

The way Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook dominate the offense has been questioned for years. It runs the gamut from an aesthetic perspective, capable of incredible beauty and also hideous at its most inefficient. Where do you stand on this and what, if anything, would you change?

I’d like more ball movement and player movement from Durant and Westbrook, especially at the end of tight games, but I don’t buy that they can’t play together like some presume. I don’t buy that it’s bad basketball or bad offense. They’re so supremely talented that it makes sense what they’re doing out there. I think it can be tweaked though and Billy Donovan’s system could work with the ball movement you expect it to create. They probably just need much more time with it than they’re being given. If you don’t like these two stars’ style of play, you’re probably just mad your team doesn’t have them.

Despite being one of the top teams in the league, the Thunder have been overlooked as legitimate contenders (due to the brilliance of Golden State and San Antonio)? Do you see Oklahoma City as a team whose title window has closed?

I definitely don’t see their title window as closed. This is one of the deepest teams they’ve had. Their defense has been good but not great, and unfortunately for them, they’re this good in a season in which great isn’t good enough; you have to be historic to hang with the Warriors and Spurs. I actually think they can get to the level of challenging the Spurs or Warriors in a playoff series this year, but assuming Durant stays with the team this summer, next year is probably more likely. I still think this team has as good of a chance as anybody to win a title in the next three years. They’re not good enough yet but I see the potential being there.

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