The 10 most underappreciated current Minnesota pro athletes are …

coleI’ve been awake since 4:30 a.m. — not by choice, never by choice — and I just pared down my browser tabs so there are only 33 open. Clearly I’ve been up to no good working hard to create the sports #content that will get us through these confusing times.

Here’s where the dust settled: a list of the most underappreciated current Minnesota pro athletes. If you appreciate a short diversion on a slow sports news day (but not a slow “news” news day, never any more it seems) let’s spend a few minutes together. Here are my choices, pulling one each (and an honorable mention) from the Timberwolves, Wild, Vikings, Twins and Lynx (Minnesota United is still in its Major League Soccer infancy, and I have no idea which players to appreciate yet).

Wolves: Cole Aldrich. Here’s a fun statistic: Aldrich, the former Bloomington Jefferson big man who signed with the Wolves as a free agent this past offseason, leads current Wolves players this season in both offensive (122) and defensive (104) rating per 100 possessions this season. Though he’s only averaging about 10 minutes per game, good things tend to happen in those short bursts. Aldrich is averaging 11.2 rebounds and a team-best 1.7 blocked shots per 36 minutes. He doesn’t score much, but he takes high percentage shots and makes them (as evidenced by his team-best 52.9 percent shooting from the field).  Honorable mention: Gorgui Dieng.

Wild: Chris Stewart. On a team with balanced scoring to the point that eight Wild players are in double-figures but nobody has more than 16 goals, the contributions of Stewart — mainly a fourth-line player — have been invaluable. He’s one of those double-digit scorers (with 10 goals) and was trusted enough by coach Bruce Boudreau to get the nod in a crucial shootout spot against Dallas a week ago (during which Stewart delivered the winner). Honorable mention: Mikko Koivu.

Twins: Ervin Santana. Wait, how can a team’s best starting pitcher (by a long shot) be underappreciated? Well, let’s see. He finished 10th in the American League in ERA among starters last season (3.38). That ERA, by the way, was the lowest for a Twins starter who pitched at least 100 innings since Scott Baker (3.14) in 2011 and the lowest for a Twins pitcher who qualified for the ERA title since Johan Santana (3.33) in 2007. It was not Erv’s fault that the Twins supported him so poorly that he won just seven games. On a better team, he would have won twice as many (at least). Do not trade this man. Honorable mention: Taylor Rogers.

Vikings: Marcus Sherels: First, the numbers. Sherels averaged 13.9 yards per punt return in 2016 (second in the NFL) and was one of three players to return two punts for TDs last season (and the Vikings won both of those games). Minnesota, in fact, was 7-4 when Sherels played and 1-4 in the games he missed due to injury. Plenty of factors played into those defeats, but there were a lot of narrow losses that could have turned on one big play. Honorable mention: Adam Thielen.

Lynx: Rebekkah Brunson. During the Lynx’s six-year run of excellence, including three WNBA titles, Brunson has been a mainstay willing to do whatever the team needs. Usually, that amounts to fierce rebounding and a sneaky scoring touch. She’s the WNBA’s all-time leader in offensive rebounds, which sums up her game perfectly. Honorable mention: Maya Moore (yes, she’s just that good that you can never appreciate her enough).

Agree? Disagree? Let’s have a strangely civil debate in the comments.

LeBron James puts exclamation point on war of words with Charles Barkley

lebronIn a scenario that has played out countless times, Charles Barkley used his TNT platform to express a controversial opinion.

Shocking, right? Wolves fans have heard it first-hand as recently as less than two weeks ago when Barkley lobbied for Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones to get more playing time over Ricky Rubio. Usually it ends with Barkley getting the last word — typically the only word, since he’s paid to talk and players are paid to play.

But Chuck went after LeBron James last week, piling on after James had been critical of Cleveland management for the team’s roster construction. Said Barkley: “He’s the best player in the world. Does he want all of the good players? He don’t want to compete?

It wasn’t the first time Barkley had been critical of James. These kinds of sound bites draw viewers, particularly when they circulate the next day. Indeed, that was James’ initial reaction when he found out about the comments: “good for the ratings.”

Given another swing at it a couple days later, though, LeBron didn’t pull any punches. Suddenly, Barkley the ripper was on the other side of the equation.

Said LeBron to ESPN: “I’m not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that. I’m not the one who threw somebody through a window. I never spit on a kid.”

Oh, and he wasn’t finished. Not even close. Go ahead, LeBron, the floor is yours:

“I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never said, ‘I’m not a role model.’ I never showed up to All-Star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying,” he said. “All I’ve done for my entire career is represent the NBA the right way. Fourteen years, never got in trouble. Respected the game. Print that.”

ESPN probably printed it as fast as it could.

TNT’s next NBA action is a doubleheader Thursday. More interestingly: next Monday the Cavaliers are on the network. Maybe there will be more words to come — either on air or behind closed doors. Sounds like LeBron would welcome it.

And if this makes him want to talk to me, the schedule’s out there,” James said. “He knows every road arena I’ll be in. Don’t just come up to me at All-Star and shake my hand and smile.

Packers writer: GM Ted Thompson holding organization hostage

tedthompsonIt’s one thing when Packers fans gripe about general manager Ted Thompson’s habit of eschewing the free agent market in favor of drafting and developing players (more on those fans, by the way, in a moment).

It’s another when a well-respected and plugged in Packers writer — the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Bob McGinn qualifies on all counts — digs in and writes essentially the same thing quite forcefully. Here are a few of the feisty snippets from the piece:

The Green Bay Packers under general manager Ted Thompson would rather sit on their hands than procure players … at least veteran players. Now they’ll be sitting home once again as another more aggressive franchise, this time the upstart Atlanta Falcons, represents the NFC in the Super Bowl.

This hints at the theme of wasting years of Aaron Rodgers’ prime. And there’s more once McGinn really gets his throat cleared.

Thompson’s aversion to signing players that have been with other teams is holding hostage McCarthy and his coaches, Rodgers and his teammates and members of his own personnel department. None of them like it but they can’t do one thing about it. … Thompson is a good general manager with a long list of admirable qualities. If he were a great general manager, the Packers would have been in the Super Bowl more than once in his 12-year tenure, especially considering his quarterbacks have been Favre and Rodgers.

McGinn goes into great detail on the Packers’ defensive deficiencies — particularly a lack of proven talent at cornerback, which was costly in the NFC title game loss. He concludes:

It wouldn’t have taken much to put the Packers over the top this season. It won’t take much for them to get over the top next season. So the ball rests squarely in Thompson’s court. For Packers fans, it must be depressing to know it’s likely little or nothing will change in the way he puts the team together.

It’s hard to argue with that. Vikings GM Rick Spielman does not have the track record of success that Thompson has (and the QB positon has a lot to do with that), but it’s a fair argument to say Spielman has at least been willing to come off the draft-and-develop mantra to sign key players like Linval Joseph, Captain Munnerlyn, Terence Newman and Alex Boone — as well as trade for Sam Bradford — in the past few seasons to fill holes.

Aaron Rodgers is an all-time great QB. With more talent around him, he would have more than one ring. Packers fans, by the way, tend to agree. In a rather amusing Twitter thread, Jason Wilde asked his Packers fan radio listeners to send him fictional text messages to Thompson. You can read them here, but the message was almost universal: sign some more players before it’s too late.

With Bulls in disarray, is the time right for Wolves to move on Jimmy Butler?

thibsbutlerThe Bulls restored a little bit of order with a convincing win over the 76ers (without Joel Embiid) on Sunday, but make no mistake: this is a team that appears to be operating on a level somewhere between friction and chaos.

And that means this could be an opportune time for the Wolves to rekindle the talks with the Bulls about Jimmy Butler that reportedly surfaced before this past June’s draft.

Several months back, the speculation was that the No. 5 pick was part of the package the Wolves were dangling in an attempt to reunite Butler — an emerging scorer and tenacious two-way player — with former Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. It never happened, of course, as the Wolves settled on drafting and keeping Kris Dunn while the Bulls tried to remake their roster on the fly by signing Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo.

The Bulls have lurked on the fringes of the Eastern Playoff race for most of the season, hovering around .500. That was hardly a disaster but hardly what they imagined.

Then things took a decided turn last week when Butler and Wade publicly criticized their teammates for a perceived lack of effort … and then Rondo responded with an Instagram post questioning the team’s leadership. All three players were fined by the team; Butler and Wade were benched to start Friday’s game against the lowly Heat, which ended in a blowout home loss for the Bulls in which Butler went just 1-for-13 from the field.

Ugly. But just how ugly is it?

Would the Bulls legitimately be interested in trading Butler, who is having his most efficient season while averaging a career-high 24.5 ppg? I have no idea. Under normal circumstances, a player with his credentials and age (27) who is under contract for two more years beyond this season at a comparatively reasonable salary (between $17.5 million and $20 million per year) would be a cornerstone player around whom you would build.

But if the Bulls continue to hover around .500 and Butler’s frustration continues to occasionally go from a simmer to a boil, Chicago could decide to shake things up.

Would the Wolves want to trade for Butler? I sure would.

He’s not a kid, but he’s not past his prime. He’s a dedicated two-way player. He’s not a rental given his contract status. And his main frustration in Chicago seems to stem from a perceived lack of effort on the part of his teammates, a 110 percent mindset that would not only be welcome in Minnesota but would mesh with that of Thibodeau.

I’d absolutely consider dealing Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and maybe even one more player not named Andrew Wiggins or Karl-Anthony Towns for Butler — who can also facilitate given his average of 6.5 assists per game, which would take pressure off the young Wolves point guards left behind. I’m not sure that’s the perfect trade for both sides, but it is a reasonable one.

And if the Wolves are still interested in Butler, there might be no time like the present to make their best offer.

Favorite to win the Stanley Cup? The Wild

dubnykThere was a point in the NFL season during which the Vikings were the most likely team in the entire league to both reach and win the Super Bowl, so please remember that before we get too carried away with what I’m about to share.

(Deep breath).

Your Minnesota Wild, owing to a tremendously nice first half of the NHL season in which it has racked up 69 points, shows up in the No. 1 spot of Sports Insights’ “most likely teams in the NHL Stanley Cup Finals” list, one which is compiled by looking at betting odds. Capitals-Wild is first on the list, followed closely by Capitals/Blackhawks.

And there’s more: the Wild occupies four of the top seven spots, with Columbus (No. 3), Montreal (No. 5) and Pittsburgh (No. 7) as the other opponents.

Want a different metric that is even more optimistic about the Wild? Hockey Reference’s playoff probabilities index gives Minnesota a 28.8 percent chance of winning the West. No other team in either conference is given better than a 21.9 percent chance of going to the finals. And the Wild has a 14.9 percent chance of winning it all — best of any team in the league. No other team in the West is above 7 percent.

Two of the primary reasons are pictured above: Devan Dubnyk, who has been among the league’s best goalies, and Mikko Koivu, who is a plus-24, has 35 points and has halted all of the ranting about “taking away the C” with his exceptional two-way play.

Plenty of things can happen in the next few months, of course (seeing as how, you know, the Vikings didn’t even make the playoffs).

But these numbers are at least another reminder of just how good the Wild has been so far.

Twins’ Falvey: next 7-10 days will bring flurry of free agent decisions

falveyLast week, I took a look at five potential free agents who might be good fits with the Twins — while also noting that since signing catcher Jason Castro early in free agency, the Twins have basically been at a standstill at least in terms of closing the deal on anyone.

Of the five players mentioned, only long shot Mark Trumbo is off the board (having just returned to Baltimore). In an interesting offseason, a bunch of useful players are still out there. And it sounds like the Twins could be ready to move on one (or more) of them in the coming days.

That was the impression, at least, from talking Friday to Derek Falvey, the Twins’ head of baseball operations. Both he and general manager Thad Levine noted the unusual glut of pitching still on the market, which Levine attributed it to a lack of a signature pitcher on the market this offseason (thus eliminating the domino effect that can happen when market value is set and/or teams miss their Plan A target).

Falvey said signing Castro was the team’s top priority. The next step in the plan was seeing how the market shook out in January. Now that the month is almost over …

“I think you’re seeing there are a number of free agents still available that I think can impact us this year and beyond,” Falvey said. “We’re staying in touch with those guys right up until we get to spring training and maybe beyond to figure out ways we can add a number of those guys potentially as we go forward.”

But those players won’t be there forever. If fans are getting antsy for more moves, the decisions should be happening soon.

“I think we’re seeing right now there might be opportunities in the pitching market to have conversations,” Falvey said. “We have had a lot of those conversations over the last month or so, and I would expect those to start coming to a head really in the next week to 10 days.”

Falvey said that could mean starters or relievers because he thinks the Twins have some flexibility with their existing pitchers to either start or head to the bullpen. Levine specifically mentioned targeting veteran players who can be good in both the clubhouse and on the field — a trait which also has value to Falvey.

In fact, the 33-year-old trained in analytics said the thing he is most interested in seeing during spring training amounts to chemistry.

“I want to see some things that are admittedly a little behind-the-scenes,” Falvey said. “There are cultural elements to a successful team that I’ve been able to observe: a team pulling together, a team operating in a way in which guys play for each other and not themselves.”

That road map seems to lead to the Twins signing a veteran free agent pitcher or two in the near future. We’ll see if that actually happens.

I became obsessed with a silent auction crock pot (for a great cause)

crockpotThe Twins held their annual Diamond Awards gala Thursday night at Target Field. I’ve been lucky enough attend several of these events in a combination working/social capacity over the years.

On the baseball side, there are usually at least a few interesting things said by players in the midst of the evening — and getting to hear from legends like Mudcat Grant and Tony Oliva, as was the case last night, is more than an added bonus.

Also more than an added bonus: the event is a fundraiser for a cause near and dear to me — the U of M’s research into neurological diseases. That’s where I chose to get my care when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in March of 2014, and I have been impressed not only with their treatment but also with their position as a leader in research toward better treatment and (hopefully) eventually a cure.

A centerpiece of every Diamond Awards program involves a family impacted by one of the diseases the U is working to defeat. The tales are typically heart-wrenching, with patients in far worse shape than I am (my symptoms are not my favorite and affect me in some way every day, but in the big picture they have been moderate and manageable).

That makes it pretty easy to give money at the end of the night. Last night, though, I was drawn to another form of giving: the silent auction. Whereas usually this just involves browsing and jotting down some of the best items for a short newspaper write-up on the event, this time around the magnetic pull of a particular item drew me in and wouldn’t let go.

Sure, there were the typical items — Twins tickets, autographed merchandise, spa getaways, theater tickets — but those didn’t hold any sway. No, I set my sights on a crock pot.

This was not a special Twins-branded crock pot — just a regular one like you’d find at Target or on a wedding registry. And it was not something our family really needed, having just purchased a new crock pot about 6 months ago (one not as FANCY as the silent auction crock pot, but still).

It was just so … unusual? In the midst of all the gift cards, tickets and other fun amenities, here was a giant vat in which to make meatballs and such. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a slow cooker enthusiast. But it was really the perceived strangeness that sucked me in.

So with some urging from folks on Twitter — this kind of became a social media thing last night from a lot of people who quite possibly found the crock pot drama to be a nice distraction from the real world — an opening bid of $20 was placed. Honestly, I thought that might do it. Who else would want to lug a small appliance home from a fancy event?

As it turns out, three other people — including Chrissie Bonnes, wife of Twins blogger John Bonnes. The bid climbed to $25, then $30, then $35. Clearly, I needed an actual strategy if I was going to win this thing.

So: I found out bidding closed at 7:55 p.m. and dinner was slated to start at 7:15 p.m. At around 7:14, I put in a bid for $40 and waited.

A silent auction volunteer came to our table around 7:45 and showed me that my bid was still on top. She promised to come back right before bidding closed, but alas she did not. So I had to sweat it out for more than two hours until the official business ended shortly after 10. Did I get the slow cooker or not?

If the image with the post was not enough of a spoiler/clue, I did in fact get the crock pot. It was, in fact, much heavier than I thought it would be. And I did, most would agree, look kind of ridiculous carrying it about a mile through the skyway and back to my parking spot. It’s in our house now, and I’m plotting my first slow cooker meal (after, of course, Dana Wessel’s meatballs).

But hey: $40 for a great cause, a pretty nice crock pot with such features as “locking lid” and “cord management,” and a story to tell as well? I’ve paid a lot more for a lot worse.

Great read: DeMarcus Cousins and the dysfunctional Kings

cousinsI don’t often promote the work of outside entities writing about out-of-market teams, but this ESPN.com piece about DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings is just so good that it needs to be shared.

The essential question is a very good one: is Cousins the problem in Sacramento, or is Sacramento’s management the problem.

About 9,000 words later (really), I think you’ll arrive at a solid conclusion of “they’re both the problem,” but along the way you’ll get so many anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories about not only one of the most talented, intriguing and mercurial players in the league but also what appears to be one of the most dysfunctional organizations in all of pro sports.

Cousins emerges as a somewhat sympathetic figure but also one who engages in arguments the way my 2-year-old often does. (“Take a deep breath.” … “No YOU take a deep breath.” This is verbatim from both the story and my life).

Another great quote along the way:

From an unnamed Kings source (there is a lot of unnamed sourcing in this piece, not surprising since there is not typically an official road map to where the bodies are buried) in reference to the awful relationship between former Kings coach George Karl and Cousins: “In a way, they deserved each other. Unfortunately the rest of us didn’t.”

A great anecdote: Kings GM Vlade Divac drives a Tesla with autopilot function and considered taking a nap when driving down the highway until deciding not to.

If that isn’t a metaphor for the Kings, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, it’s a great read. It’s not a Minnesota team, but peeling back the layers of any organization is fascinating.

Wolves’ Towns shooting fewer 3-pointers lately — with great results

dunntownsLike an NBA player who aspires to be great, Karl-Anthony Towns set to work this offseason on adding to an offensive skill set that had already carried him to a unanimous Rookie of the Year Award in 2015-16.

One of the most notable additions was range on his jump shot. Whereas Towns attempted on average 1.1 three-pointers per game as a rookie, he started firing three or four times that many in his second year. Like a child with a new toy, it was clear Towns was loving his new skill.

Through the Wolves’ first 10 games, he had hoisted 42 three-pointers. Through 20, the total was up to 79 — nearly four per game. He had made 30 of those 79 (38 percent), justifying the attempts at least in terms of efficiency.

Games 21-37, though, brought a clear cooling off. Towns still hoisted 3.5 threes per game in that 15-game span, but he made just 21.7 percent of them. The Wolves’ record sat at 11-26 overall at that point, and Towns’ efficiency was plummeting along with it.

It was easy to wonder if Towns, like the kid with the new toy who abandons old tried-and-true favorites, was relying too heavily on the new addition to his game instead of fundamentals like strong inside play and a deadly mid-range game.

But NBA players who aspire to be great also learn to adjust. Consciously or not, Towns has found a much better balance in his offensive game over the Wolves’ past eight contests.

He’s attempted 16 three-pointers (two per game) in that span, making six (for a 37.5 percent average). Meanwhile, his overall numbers have soared — coinciding with a 6-2 stretch by the Wolves that has put them on the fringe of the Western Conference playoff race.

In those eight games, Towns is averaging 27.3 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2 blocks while shooting a blistering 63.6 percent from the field — numbers befitting of an All-Star, which we’ll find out Thursday night if Towns, indeed, is this season.

He’s posted four of his seven highest “game scores” — a formula that measures offensive production and efficiency — of the season in the past eight games.

But again, in this admittedly small sample size Towns hasn’t abandoned the three-pointer. Rather, he’s possibly started to realize the happy balance between using it as a threat and using it too much. If defenses have to respect the shot, for instance, it gives him more options. If he leans too heavily on the shot, though, he becomes easier to guard.

Brook Lopez of the Nets is a good example of a player who has successfully added a three-pointer to his arsenal to become more dynamic on offense. Lopez, a nine-year veteran big ma, had attempted 31 career three-pointers before this season. In barely over half a season this year, he’s attempted 217 — and made a respectable 35.5 percent.

In the modern NBA that values three-pointers so heavily, it’s hard — incorrect, really — to say Towns shouldn’t shoot them if he can make them. Like many things this season, the evolution of his game is a work in progress.

If the last eight games are any indication, though, Towns — and the Wolves — might be starting to figure things out a little more.

You’ll never guess which college program has the most players in this year’s Super Bowl

rutgersHere’s a trivia question that I would expect 0.0001 percent of people in Minnesota (and maybe anywhere) to get correct on the first … second … 10th try.

Which college football program has the most players on the Super Bowl rosters of this year’s teams, New England and Atlanta?

You would probably churn through guesses like Alabama, Florida State, LSU, USC, and those guesses would be fine. Just wrong.

Next, I would try to help you and tell you that it’s a Big Ten school.

Ah, OK that narrows it down. It’s probably Ohio State or Michigan.

Nope.

Fine then, it’s someone like Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin or Michigan State.

Nope, nope, nope, nope.

Ah, you’re being tricky. It has to be Iowa.

It is not.

Come on, who else could it be? Northwestern? Purdue? Hey, the Gophers have two guys on the Falcons. Is it Minnesota?

Still wrong on all counts.

Seriously? Who is even left? Illinois? Indiana? Maryland?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’s Rutgers, which went 0-9 in the Big Ten last year.

The Scarlet Knights have five players on Super Bowl rosters — four for the Patriots and one for the Falcons.

Because of the program’s recent nosedive coinciding with its entry into the Big Ten, I’m guessing quite a few people forget Rutgers had a pretty decent run from 2005-2012, almost all of it under former coach Greg Schiano. The Scarlet Knights went to seven bowl games in those eight seasons, and won at least eight games in each of those bowl season (with a high of 11 in 2006).

Still, it’s surprising to learn that’s the school with the most players in the Super Bowl. Now you know and can impress all your friends.