The Minnesota Timberwolves are surging right now, winning five straight games by double digits (and four of the victories were against playoff teams). They beat the Oklahoma City Thunder by 18 points, the Cleveland Cavaliers by 28, the New Orleans Pelicans by 16, the New York Knicks by 10 and the Portland Trail Blazers by 17. At 29-16, they certainly seem to be playing closer to their full potential and gaining confidence.
The Wolves’ offense is their biggest strength, ranking fourth in the NBA (scoring 110.7 points per 100 possessions). Defense has actually been their issue, which is surprising given Tom Thibodeau’s track record. The Wolves are 18th in the league, allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions.
Still, Minnesota finally seems poised to end their 13-year playoff drought. HoopsHype chatted with Jamal Crawford, who signed with the Wolves over the offseason because he was impressed by the team’s core. The 18-year veteran has been to the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons, averaging 14.5 points in his 69 postseason games. He’s determined to make it eight straight years with his new squad.
Last time we talked, you had just agreed to sign with the Timberwolves and explained your decision on The HoopsHype Podcast. How was the process of getting acclimated with your new teammates?
Jamal Crawford: It’s different. Whenever you switch teams and you’ve been in one place for a while before that, you get used to dealing with the different people. Sometimes you go from an older team to a younger team, or a younger team to an older team; I’ve done both throughout the course of my career. You also have to adjust to a new coaching staff and figure out exactly what they want.
But the good thing about this team is that we all got together in September to work out and get to know each other, so we sort of got a head start on training camp. We were all working together for that entire month and I think that really helped us. Entering training camp, we all already knew what to expect and knew each other’s strengths and then went from them there. It was definitely good for us to get together early, being around each other and getting to know each other as much as possible.
Right now, you’re fourth in the Western Conference and you guys are playing really well lately. Given everything you’ve seen in games and behind the scenes, how good can this team be?
JC: I think we can be really good. We’re definitely trending in the right direction. We’re so much better now than we were in the beginning of the season. We’re much more consistent and we’ve started to form an identity, so we know what we need to do night in and night out. From there, there are definitely a couple other levels that we can go to, especially as we continue to develop good habits. When you’re trying to change the culture, it’s not just about wins and losses; it’s about building the right habits every single day. We want to make it so that these good habits are just second-nature, just part of everyone’s routine. We’re still working toward that, so that’s why I feel like we can still improve and take our game to higher levels.
Jimmy Butler is an MVP candidate who’s been phenomenal this season. Then, you have Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who are both already so good at 22 years old. How much easier is it when you have players like that on your team and what’s it been like playing with those three guys?
JC: With Karl and Andrew, they’re as talented as any young guys out there. They put the work in, they really, really listen, they pay attention to detail and they’re constantly trying to improve. It’s a lot of fun to be around guys like that, especially when they just recently started their NBA journey. This could be the first time that they’ve been on a winning team in their NBA careers, so just seeing that play out and seeing how they’re handling it has just been great.
And with Jimmy, I can’t say enough about him and how fantastic he’s been. He played a major part in me coming here as a free agent. I saw the young talent and I was impressed, but then I saw them get Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, and I thought, “Whoa, they’re a serious threat right now.” Now, being around him, you realize that he does so many things for this organization – on and off the court. It’s more than just scoring points and grabbing rebounds and playing great defense, it’s also the way he leads and the way he approaches everything. He’s a star who does all of the heavy lifting, but fills in all of the holes and does all of the little things as well. He just does so much and he’s a joy to play with.
You’ve played for so many different coaches. I think it’s up to 18 now. What is Tom Thibodeau like compared to your previous coaches and how has your experience with Thibs been so far?
JC: Nobody is more prepared than him. Nobody. Nobody has watched more film of us, and nobody has watched more film of the opposition. I’m willing to bet anything on that. He just spends so much time preparing and knowing everything about teams, inside and out. He’s unbelievable when it comes to that stuff. People may see him screaming on TV – or actually hear him screaming through the TV – but it’s because he truly loves the game and he’s really passionate. I’ve learned that about him. He’s just trying to get us to be the best versions of ourselves, and he really wants us to take that next step as a group. We’re trying and we’re getting a lot better, and I think we’re hearing his message clearer.
Coach Thibodeau hasn’t used the second unit as much as I expected. Jimmy, Karl and Andrew are not only leading the NBA in minutes, they’re also running the floor a ton. Among all NBA players, Andrew ranks first in total minutes (1,628), Karl ranks second (1,607) and Jimmy ranks third (1,580). When you look at the total miles run, Jimmy is fourth in the NBA (111.9), Karl is fifth (108.9) and Andrew is sixth (107.9). I feel like playing the bench more would allow you guys on the second unit to contribute more, while also helping the starters stay fresh. Has that been a discussion that’s taken place with Coach behind the scene? How do you handle that?
JC: We haven’t really talked about it much, to be honest with you. As a professional, your job is just to stay ready. Any competitor wants to be out there playing, but we just have to go with the flow, try to make the starters as good as possible and do our best to help the team whenever we are out there. For us [on the second unit], we just try to help each other collectively and help make the team better. That’s all we can really do: be ready when our number is called.
Minnesota is in the midst of a 13-season playoff drought and I feel so bad for the fans who have endured that. It seems like this may be the year the Wolves make the postseason, so what would it mean to you to help break that drought?
JC: That would be incredible. It really would. These are unbelievable fans who have been so patient and I can’t even imagine waiting that long to get to the playoffs. That’s the best part of the season! That’s the most fun! That’s when everyone is watching! It always feels good to be one of those top 16 teams going at it; there’s nothing like being in the middle of a postseason run. For the fans who have been here waiting for the postseason drought to end, hopefully we can do that.
You’re best friends with Isaiah Thomas and you recently commented on the fact that you guys were almost teammates because you seriously considered signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers before they made that trade. What was your reaction when the Boston Celtics dealt him?
JC: I was really shocked that he got traded after everything he went through in Boston. Looking at all of the stuff he did there and how much he was loved, I actually thought he was joking when he first told me that he was traded. I was like, “Are you serious?” And he was like, “Yes.” And I said, “No, you didn’t get traded. Stop playing, man.” Then he said he really did get traded and that it was to Cleveland. All I could say was, “Wow.” I was shocked, but I told him, “At least you’re going to a great situation.” Then, way, way later on, I was thinking about it and I was like, “Wow, I was seriously considering signing there.”
You do think about stuff like that, but I was more concerned about him and how he was handling everything that was going on because I know how that goes. I had just gone through the same thing with the Clippers. They traded me to the Hawks and then I got bought out, which is how I became a free agent. After a trade, it’s a crazy time. It’s so unexpected, you’re uprooting your family and it’s right when your kids are about to start school and you don’t really know what’s about to happen next. There’s a ton of stuff that happens behind the scenes and changes you have to make to your everyday life, so I felt for Isaiah more than anything else.
I’m always interested to hear your opinion on NBA stories that are making headlines and I’m curious how you feel about LaVar Ball. I had no issue with him hyping up his sons and starting his own shoe brand, but I do think it’s a problem when he’s criticizing Luke Walton and becoming a distraction for the Lakers. As a player, what are your thoughts on that situation and how would you handle it if you were in that locker room?
JC: It just depends. I mean, if you think about it, 10 years ago social media wasn’t anywhere near as relevant as it is now. And I say that because social media has given everyone a voice. If, say, my father or my uncle had something to say about my team or coach, it would never blow up and reach the amount of people it could reach now because there wasn’t social media. I mean, everyone has an opinion. Even when I go to the barbershop, I get asked, “Why are you guys doing this?” Or, “What happened in that game?” Everyone has something to say, but now with social media, it can be amplified. You could have your own press conference now. Alex, you could have your own press conference right now and reach 100,000 people with one tweet! That’s just the way the world is going. You hate when it plays out like this [and has a negative impact]. For those guys on the Lakers, they just have to be as professional as possible and only worry about the things that they can control. You would hope that [going forward] those kind of conversations happen behind closed doors and not get out there like that.
Five years ago, if I had told you that a player’s dad making comments would be a top story on ESPN almost every day, what would you have said?
JC: I wouldn’t have believed you. I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s crazy. But there are so many things that are crazy and different these days. I was just saying that in the locker room the other day, that there are so many things that are different for this generation. If Twitter was around when I was a kid, I would’ve been tweeting my favorite players every single day. Like, I can’t even imagine being a kid and being able to reach out to Magic Johnson every single day. Now, a kid can tweet a player and possibly get a like or even a response. When I was a kid, if I got a response from an NBA player, that would be crazy! It didn’t even seem possible. It’s so interesting to see how the world and technology evolves.
Is that good for the athlete or bad for the athlete? On one hand, it humanizes the athlete because the fan realizes it’s someone who they can actually talk to and relate to. But on the other hand, we’ve seen how social media can be misused and it can be a direct line to criticize or threaten someone too.
JC: I think it’s a mix of both. I don’t think social media is bad; I think it just depends on how you use it. How a person uses it can be good or bad, but the social media platform itself isn’t bad. It all depends on how it’s used. It’s up to the individual person. They have to make a choice about how they want to interact with others and utilize that accessibility.