Of course, what I found most interesting was actually the guys who got multiple votes from their compatriots without being All-Star caliber players. My favorite list of player-voted non-All-Stars includes: Michael Beasley (4), Gordon Hayward (2), Boban Marjanovic (2), Jahlil Okafor (4), Quincy Acy (2), Tyler Zeller (4), T.J. McConnell (2), Elfrid Payton (2), Zaza Pachulia (3), Taj Gibson (6), Zach Randolph (5), Maurice Harkless (2), Deyonta Davis (3), Lonzo Ball (9), Mike Conley (3).
Storyline: All-Star Selections
Earlier this month, in Brooklyn, Taj Gibson shuffled into the locker room prepared for the worst. The Timberwolves had just lost to the Nets in a game in which Brooklyn connected on 46.7 percent of its threes and 51.4 percent of its shots overall. Gibson — who played five seasons for coach Tom Thibodeau in Chicago before signing with Minnesota last summer — braced for a verbal beating. Instead, he got a pep talk. “He came in and said he was proud of the way we played defense, the pick-and-roll defense is getting better, we are getting better as a unit,” Gibson told Yahoo Sports. “I looked at him and thought, ‘Boy, has he changed.’ He used to be really on top of guys, challenging guys, getting in guys’ faces. This is a different guy.”
A weakness — for now, anyway. Since a horrifying October, Minnesota’s shaky defense has shown steady improvement. Points per possession have decreased over the last two months. Transition defense — a total disaster the first couple of months of the season — has tightened up. The pick-and-roll defense, which Gibson says is a focal point of every ’Wolves practice, has gotten better. There are still the occasional clunkers — the 108 points Minnesota surrendered in a loss to Orlando on Tuesday is a glaring example — but the Timberwolves have shown that when they are locked in, they can be pretty good. “It’s about the sense of urgency,” Taj Gibson said. “Sometimes guys come into the game thinking the game is played hard mostly in the fourth quarter. But it’s a 48-minute game. We have been playing some good halves, then run out of gas in the third quarter or blow a lead late in the fourth. Guys have to understand that playoff time starts now. You have to fight for position, especially in the West.”
So what’s behind the turnaround? Jimmy Butler, for one. Team sources say Butler — the ’Wolves’ ballyhooed offseason acquisition — has taken on a more vocal role within the team in recent weeks, particularly on defense. Butler, one of the NBA’s best two-way players, has prodded Minnesota’s two franchise cornerstones, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, to commit to the same effort on both ends of the floor.
Karl-Anthony Towns is interesting. The third-year center is already an offensive stud, averaging 20-plus points for the second year in a row, racking up double-doubles and shooting above 40 percent from three for the first time in his career. Defensively, the potential Towns flashed at Kentucky — the late Flip Saunders once compared Towns’ defense to Joakim Noah — has yet to materialize, and oftentimes when his defense comes up it’s off a comical breakdown in which he looks lost in coverage. Yet to a man, the Timberwolves believe in Towns’ defensive skills. “He has great instincts,” Gibson said. “He can put up five blocks a game if he really wanted to. It comes down to that sense of urgency and being willing to get there. It’s just effort. Sometimes it’s about wanting to do the job. Young guys are so keyed in on offense. This is his first year on a winning team and understanding what it takes to go deep and win big in this league. I think he is handling it well. He’s a lot better than where he started earlier this year.”