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Can the Minnesota Timberwolves hang on to a top-four seed in the Western Conference without Jimmy Butler?

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David Aldridge:  It’s going to be tough, especially if Kawhi Leonard is really coming back soonThe San Antonio Spurs are getting healthy at the right time of year. The Portland Trail Blazeds are coming on like a freight train, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have another big run left in them, I reckon. Minnesota’s defense has just been so bad for so much of the season (24th in Defensive Rating), and Butler was their best and most consistent defender by far. It will take a huge uptick at both ends of the floor from Andrew Wiggins — who is posting a career high in Defensive Win Shares at present, but will need to pick things up even more as the Wolves’ top wing defender going forward. And the upcoming schedule is just brutal: at Portland (which has won 11 of 12 at home) on Thursday, followed by a roadie at Utah, then home for Boston and Golden State, then at red-hot Washington, at San Antonio, back home for Houston and the rugged Clippers.

Steve Aschburner:  Can they? Soitenly. Will they? Probably not. The race in the West is too close, with only 3 1/2 games separating third place from lotteryland. Now, I’ve seen Tom Thibodeau-coached teams do some impressive things with their best player sidelined (think Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose and all those regular-season victories from 2012-15). But all it would take for the Wolves to slip into the bottom four of the West playoff seeds would be one, maybe two additional defeats due to Jimmy Butler’s absence. Are you telling me Butler, at this rubber-legged point in the schedule, isn’t worth one or two games over the final 18? The key for Minnesota is to slide no further than sixth. Starting a first-round series on the road is one thing, starting it on the road in Houston or Oakland is an entirely different beast. After their 14-year postseason drought, the Wolves need at least a legit gulp of the playoffs, not merely a sip.

Tas MelasThat’s a lot to ask in the loaded West, but luckily for them, they’re tied for the most games played in the NBA. As my man John Schuhmann points out, the other four starters struggle defensively without Jimmy Butler. On the other hand, they only have four more games against top-10 offenses. 18 games remain — the front nine is harder than the back nine — maybe Jimmy can come back and save the round.

Shaun Powell:  I wasn’t sure the Wolves’ hold on the third seed was all that secure with Jimmy Butler. Now that he’s on the shelf for roughly a month, this is a prime opportunity for Oklahoma City to finally right the ship, or the Spurs to regroup with Kawhi Leonard possibly returning. Who knows how the seeds from No. 3-8 will fall prior to the playoffs? Let’s face it, every team staring up at Houston and Golden State brings imperfections. The Wolves just added another … at the absolute wrong time.

John Schuhmann:  The Wolves have been fortunate to play their first two games since Butler’s injury against the Bulls and Kings, but they now have eight straight against teams over .500. Their offense can hold up without Butler, but their defense has been awful (more than 114 points allowed per 100 possessions) with him off the floor. The good news is that they have two more wins than any West team outside of Houston and Oakland. Also, every team in the mix for a top four seed, including the Wolves, has a tough schedule going forward, with at least twice as many games remaining against teams with winning records than against teams with losing records. The only team with much momentum — New Orleans — has four fewer wins in the bank than the Wolves do, so Minnesota has a good chance to hold on, but we’ll know a lot more after seeing how they get through these next eight games.

Sekou Smith:  The Timberwolves are going to find it extremely difficult to remain in that top four without Jimmy Butler leading the way. With no cushion to speak of in that logjam behind the Rockets and Warriors in the Western Conference playoff chase, I don’t feel comfortable assuming anything about the final playoff positioning of the eight teams vying for those six spots. That said, this is a prime-time opportunity for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to assert themselves as leaders. I’m looking forward to seeing how these young stars handle themselves. We are about to find out if they are ready and are built for this moment.

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How will the Timberwolves fare while Jimmy Butler mends?

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Report: Dallas Mavericks set to chase DeAndre Jordan after opt out

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DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Mavericks are making another run at DeAndre Jordan, three years after the center jilted them in free agency to stay with the LA Clippers.

Jordan has opted out of the final year of that contract he signed with LA in 2015, and the Mavericks intend to pursue him as an unrestricted free agent, a person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press on Friday.

Dallas also intends to decline the $5 million club option on Dirk Nowitzki’s contract and re-sign him once its salary structure is more settled, the person told the AP on condition of anonymity because the sides are not publicly commenting on moves ahead of free agency opening Sunday.

The move on Nowitzki is designed to create more room under the salary cap, as were the decisions to rescind qualifying offers to shooting guard Doug McDermott and center Salah Mejri, making both unrestricted free agents.

Jordan was set to make $24.1 million under the four-year, $87.6 million contract he signed to stay with the team that drafted him in 2008. Seven years later, the Mavericks made a strong play for Jordan, who agreed to sign with them as a free agent.

The Houston native changed his mind, and the saga played out on social media the day before Jordan could sign. Former teammate Blake Griffin and coach Doc Rivers were part of a contingent that went to his house and stayed with him until the deal was official.

The reversal was a stunning setback for Dallas, which made the playoffs without Jordan the following year but lost in the first round and now is coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time in nearly 20 years.

 

Is DeAndre Jordan the perfect free-agent fit for Dallas?

Circumstances are much different now, with the former All-Stars who helped persuade Jordan to stay no longer around. Chris Paul engineered a trade to Houston last summer, and the Clippers shipped Griffin to Detroit in January in a sign that rebuilding years could be ahead.

The Mavericks are two years into their own reconstruction, with 2017 first-round pick Dennis Smith Jr. joined by another player who will begin his NBA career as a teenager in European standout Luka Doncic.

Dallas moved up two spots in the Draft last week to get the Slovenian guard, who was taken third overall by Atlanta while the Mavericks selected former Oklahoma scoring sensation Trae Young for the Hawks.



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Reports: Kevin Durant to sign 2-year deal with Golden State Warriors

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Kevin Durant has decided to sign a two-year deal with the Golden State Warriors, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Saturday because the deal cannot become official until the league’s offseason moratorium ends on Friday. The deal comes with a player option for 2019-20, so Durant can — and likely will — become a free agent again next summer.

It’s a win on multiple levels for the two-time defending NBA champion Warriors. Not only do they get to keep the 2017 and 2018 NBA Finals MVP, but they also get some financial flexibility in the deal.

Durant will be paid about $30.5 million this coming season, about $5 million less than he could have commanded if the deal was structured differently. That savings will give Golden State options for other moves this summer, as the Warriors look to bolster their bench for a run at what could be a fourth title in a five-year span.

The New York Times first reported Durant’s intention to sign the deal.

Warriors general manager Bob Myers said after his team won the 2018 Finals that he expected swift negotiations to re-sign two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP. 

“Sometimes you don’t negotiate. I’d love to have him for 10 years. Kevin Durant, look what he did for us last year, he did us a great service,” Myers said on June 12. “He’s earned the right to sign whatever deal he wants. I just want him to sign a deal. But want him to be happy and want him to know that we want him as long as he wants to be here. He’s earned that, to kind of lay out the terms. He can do whatever he wants. That shouldn’t be a long negotiation. Our goal, to be honest, is to try to keep the whole thing together, so that’s the pieces of the puzzle we’ve got to try to figure out.”

Myers wants to keep as much of the core of the two-time defending champions intact while also realizing the Warriors will be a younger team without the same veteran presence as the group that swept LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers out of The Finals. Myers said after The Finals that working to try to extend the contracts of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson could be discussed as well.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report

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LeBron James returns to Los Angeles to plot next move

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CLEVELAND — LeBron James flew back to Los Angeles from a family vacation in the Caribbean. He could be there longer than usual.

Hours before NBA free agency opened with the three-time champion as its most coveted prize, James returned Saturday to Southern California, where he has two homes and a film production company. The Lakers are hoping they can persuade him to sign with them and return them to glory.

Los Angeles is among the teams in the mix to land James after his agent told the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday that he will not exercise his $35.6 million contract option for next season. At 12:01 a.m. Sunday, James will be an unrestricted free agent, and agent Rich Paul is expected to contact several teams with the Lakers and Cavs atop his list.

By declining his option, James positioned himself to be able to choose where he’ll play next, and Cleveland, just up the road from his home near Akron, remains a strong possibility. But there are at least three other teams – and maybe an outsider or two — with legitimate shots at landing James, who made it clear following this year’s NBA Finals that he’s still driven to win championships.

While every team dreams of being ruled by King James, only a few have a legit chance of signing him.

Here are the cases — for and against — the leading contenders:

CLEVELAND

WHY: Home; money.

James came back four years ago to a hero’s welcome, something that seemed unimaginable when he left in disgrace four years earlier for Miami. But he vowed to do everything he could to deliver a title to championship-starved Cleveland. He delivered in 2016, erasing past sins and raising James to a worshipped level few athletes in any sport have experienced. His family is comfortable here and it’s where he has complete control.

The Cavs can also offer him the most lucrative package, a five-year, $209 million contract.

WHY NOT: Flawed roster; blemished relationship with owner Dan Gilbert.

Last summer’s stunning trade of guard Kyrie Irving left the Cavs without a quality running mate for James, who was forced to carry a heavier offensive load throughout the regular season and playoffs. Cleveland has deep salary-cap issues – partially caused by James’ failure to commit long-term – and the Cavs currently lack enough talent to unseat the champion Golden State Warriors.

Gilbert and James mended some fences for his return in 2014, but they remain distant other than a shared commitment to winning. Gilbert has gone above and beyond financial barriers to appease James, but the well could be running dry.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

WHY: Salary-cap space; business interests; iconic franchise.

With some savvy moves, the Lakers are poised to potentially add two superstars – James and Paul George and maybe Kawhi Leonard – to a team featuring up-and-coming talents like Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, who is reportedly dealing with a knee injury. James loves the Hollywood lights, and with two homes in the Los Angeles area as well as a film production company, he has already established some roots in the land of movie stars and slow-moving traffic. The appeal of playing for one of the league’s most storied teams is another allure.

WHY NOT: Youth; the Western Conference.

There’s little doubt James has some quality years ahead of him. But does he have enough time to let a group of unproven players with no postseason experience develop into a title contender? And if he jumps conferences for the first time in his career, the path to the Finals is far more treacherous.

PHILADELPHIA

WHY: Rising team; staying in the East.

In Sixers guard Ben Simmons, James sees a younger version of himself and he’d relish the chance to play alongside the 21-year-old while mentoring him. The Sixers also have center Joel Embiid, 24, projected to become the game’s next dominant big men. Philadelphia would instantly vault from conference contender to favorite with James, who could make a strong run at his ninth straight Finals in Year One.

WHY NOT: Too young; front-office dysfunction.

Much like the Lakers, the Sixers lack postseason experience and James would be surrounded by players who have barely tasted the postseason. General manager Bryan Colangelo’s resignation following an investigation into whether he created Twitter accounts to criticize his own players, has given the impression that the team isn’t operating in concert and then would turn off James quickly.

OTHER CONTENDERS

Houston: While the Rockets once seemed a good fit, James declining his option all but eliminated the chances of him joining up with close friend Chris Paul and MVP James Harden. If James had opted in with the Cavs, they could have worked out a sign-and-trade with Houston.

San Antonio: James reveres Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, but living in Texas doesn’t seem appealing to the star’s family and the Spurs are still trying to figure out what to do with Leonard, who can become a free agent after next season.
 

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