Welcome to Court Vision, a weekly video-breakdown column on emerging trends around the NBA that you might have missed.
Timberwolves finally playing defense
Tom Thibodeau must be elated with the early returns. The dark cloud of Butler's discontent has cleared, and now he's left with a motivated roster that is ready to play team basketball. With all the major transactions and headaches out of the way, Thibodeau can now just focus on his responsibilities as coach, which is what he does best.
First and foremost, Thibodeau's team is defending again. Minnesota holds the league's best defense since dealing Butler on Nov. 12, and it caught national attention Wednesday when it limited the San Antonio Spurs to a nine-point quarter.
The results are stunning:
|Statistic||Pre-trade (rank)||Post-trade (rank)|
|Defensive rating||114.3 (30)||99.8 (2)|
|Points allowed||117.7 (28)||99.3 (1)|
|Paint points allowed||51.2 (25)||40.9 (1)|
|Opponent field-goal percentage||47.5 (26)||41.9 (1)|
Robert Covington has been nothing short of phenomenal on defense. The reigning First-Team All-Defensive wing is averaging a league-best 2.8 steals per game since the trade and is blowing up possessions left and right. Highlight reels comprised entirely of Covington's defense have already been compiled after three weeks in a Timberwolves uniform.
Dario Saric has also been quietly stellar. The other major piece in the Butler trade remains cold from the perimeter, but he's second on the team in shot contests per game despite averaging just 24 minutes off the bench as an undersized power forward.
But the biggest factor behind the T-Wolves' improved defense is just a renewed willingness to show effort. Butler dragged the organization and his teammates through the mud, and now they have something to prove. Throw in two proud contributors in Saric and Covington who were deemed as disposable by their former team, and the result is one giant group with an ax to grind.
The mood in Minnesota is much lighter of late. Covington and Karl-Anthony Towns were seen teasing each other in a media scrum about their respective defensive shortcomings. Towns got his max extension and Butler is gone, which has allowed him to focus on basketball. Now he's more involved on both ends and is actually showing some capacity to play help defense.
It remains to be seen if the Timberwolves can sustain this effort. Their 7-2 record since trading Butler can be attributed in part to a dip in the schedule where they beat up on the Cavaliers, Bulls, and twice on the Nets. But for the first time in what feels like forever, the Timberwolves have achieved stability as an organization, and everyone is playing with a palpable sense of relief.
Jeremy Lin's revival being wasted
Linsanity feels like a distant memory. Those two euphoric months at Madison Square Garden turned out to be just one of many stops for the journeyman point guard, as Jeremy Lin is now playing with his seventh franchise.
This latest chapter in Atlanta is somehow more depressing than his two years in Brooklyn, where injuries limited Lin to just 37 appearances. He recovered from rupturing his patellar tendon, only to see his salary dumped on the Hawks where he is now tasked with cleaning up after Trae Young.
But with the Hawks seemingly looking to tank, Lin watches from the bench during close games. He's played a grand total of four clutch minutes on the season while rookies and washed-up vets play ahead of him. The strategy has worked out for the Hawks, who own the fourth-lowest win percentage in the league thanks in part to posting the third-lowest net rating in crunch time.
Lin is making the most of what he's been given. He's averaging 11 points and three assists in 19 minutes per game while shooting 51 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep, and he's been a good teammate. But he could be a useful contributor on most playoff teams, and the Hawks should really do Lin a solid and let him move on. The 30-year-old just lost most of his last two seasons to injury and he's just wasting away at the moment.
Patrick Patterson slumping badly
The most miserable player in the league at the moment is Patrick Patterson, who has not made a single shot in nearly two weeks. He's missed his last 20 field-goal attempts while going scoreless over his last five games.
His shot chart on the season is downright ugly:
Patterson's shot selection is already about as conservative as it gets. He only takes the most wide open of jumpers between the rare plodding drive, and his confidence is fragile. Patterson is entirely comfortable blending into the background, working some dribble hand-offs, before fading to the corner and hopefully occupying a defender who didn't read the scouting report.
Unfortunately, the Thunder have no choice but to ride it out with Patterson's struggles, as they're awfully thin at power forward. Jerami Grant has taken a huge step in his development this season, but he's already maxed out, playing over 30 minutes per night. OKC should look into making a trade for some extra help.
Suns running elevator doors
As noted in last week's column, Devin Booker's stint as the Suns' primary playmaker has had its share of ups and downs. Booker's assists are up and his court vision is much improved, but he's taking more difficult shots because there's nobody else who can set the table for him to eat.
It's up to Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov to get Booker some easier looks. One wrinkle that Phoenix has added to its arsenal is the popular "elevator doors" play. Notice how the two screeners come together after Booker cuts through the gap on the sequence below:
It's hard to call such an intricate play every time down the floor, but it's important for every coach to have these sets in their back pocket, especially for a gifted shooter like Booker. He'll use all the help he can get right now.
Raptors engineering separation
Here's another example of good coaching. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse dialed up this wheel play where Kyle Lowry literally circles the court as his defender is left to navigate three screens in quick succession.
The purpose of that play was to help Lowry gain separation, which is no longer the 33-year-old's forte. Not only did that set force the most dysfunctional team in the league in the Washington Wizards to communicate, but it allowed Lowry to find space without having to beat his defender off the dribble. The result was an easy bucket.