Wolves season sinking into the abyss after latest bad loss

Less than a month ago, Wolves fans were full of cautious optimism and I was writing such things as “Are the Wolves a legitimate playoff contender, or is their start a mirage.”

That post was written on Nov. 22 — a day before a home loss to Phoenix, a setback that was followed quickly by two convincing road wins at Atlanta and San Antonio that pushed Minnesota’s record to 10-8 and had them firmly in the bottom half of the West’s top eight.

With a home game coming up against lowly Memphis, everything was on solid ground.

Until, of course, it started sinking into the abyss.

The Wolves haven’t won since those back-to-back road victories, an eight-game 0-for-December skid with particularly unsightly bookends: a 115-107 loss in the aforementioned home game vs. Memphis, a team that had lost six in a row at the time; and a gruesome 107-99 home loss to the Pelicans on Wednesday. New Orleans came in on a 13-game losing streak and had played the night before in Brooklyn, while the Wolves had four days off before the game.

If the skid was frustrating and alarming up until Wednesday, it was at least somewhat rationally explained: four of the losses came on a Western Conference road trip, including a heartbreaker at Oklahoma City, and the two after the Wolves came home were against the superior Jazz and Clippers.

But to lose to the Pelicans — even with Karl-Anthony Towns sitting out with a sprained left knee — in a flat, lifeless performance on their home court signals this is a Wolves team either on the verge of or in the midst of a crisis.

Robert Covington, the third-best player on the Wolves and a veteran leader, was late for a team-related event and didn’t start as a result. Whatever positive energy emanated from what coach Ryan Saunders deemed good practices leading up to the game did not carry over in a performance so bad it was suggested to Saunders that his team had given up.

I don’t think those are the right words to use,” the young coach said after the game. “I think frustrated. You can be frustrated because you’ve lost some games. But I’m not using those words.”

It will be his job, though, to help pull the Wolves out of this rut. Defense and communication (which are tied together) have been culprits during much of this streak, a surprising turn of events. Of the things that seemed fragile vs. sustainable through the 10-8 start, I would have imagined defense (which had improved to 12th in efficiency before the streak) and cohesion were in the sustainable category based on the seeming tight-knit nature of the roster early on.

It’s hard to say what is the chicken and what is the egg when things are going poorly, but it is fair to wonder if increased trade chatter (with Covington and Jeff Teague at the forefront) — fueled in part by the lifting on Sunday of the moratorium on trading players who signed as free agents last offseason — is sowing tension. Then again, there probably wouldn’t be as much chatter if the Wolves were still progressing on the plus side of .500.

What is clear is this: The Wolves already have eight losses in a row — their longest since a nine-game skid during Towns’ rookie season in 2015-16 — and they are barreling toward double-digits considering their next two games are road back-to-backs against Denver (Friday) and Portland (Saturday) as part of another four-game swing out West, particularly if Towns is still out.

The back half of that trip is more forgiving, with stops at Golden State and Sacramento, but the reality is this: Early in the year, it felt like the Wolves had a good chance to win any game. Now it feels like they have a good chance to lose any game.

They weren’t as good as we thought in the beginning, and there’s still time for them to prove they’re better than they are right now. The sum total of their efforts so far is a 10-16 record, a 31-win pace that would align with what I thought they were before the season started: a bad team with its sights set beyond this season.

Twins Winter Caravan is back for 60th year — but cut from two weeks to one week

The Twins Winter Caravan, a traveling tradition that brings Twins players, coaches and alums to smaller cities across Twins territory, will return for its 60th year in 2020. In announcing the itinerary Wednesday, a Twins news release noted that the Caravan is “among the longest running and most extensive offseason fan engagement tours in professional sports.

That is true, but so is this: the long-running tour just got shorter.

What has been a two-week excursion in recent years — typically eight days total, Monday-Thursday of two consecutive weeks — is just four days total over one week this time, running from Jan. 20-23, 2020.

Twins President Dave St. Peter said via text that “lots of factors led to the decision.” Among them: a desire by the organization to get players involved in the community in different ways aside from the caravan and the challenge of not disrupting offseason workouts for players.

The latter does seem to align with the less-is-more approach to scheduling espoused by the Twins under manager Rocco Baldelli during their 101-win season in 2019.

This year’s caravan features four groups that will stop in a total of 16 different cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul. A stop in Fargo (N.D.) and Sioux Falls (S.D.) are the only two outside of Minnesota. Last year’s caravan was scheduled for more than twice as many stops, including 11 cities or towns in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa.

Former Twins Tony Oliva, Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris and Dan Gladden are spread among the four groups, but the most prominent current Twins player scheduled to be on this year’s caravan is 2019 rookie sensation Luis Arraez. Jake Cave, top prospect Alex Kirilloff and Baldelli are also scheduled to take part, among others. Here’s a full list of times, locations and participants.

In terms of its breadth and distance covered, St. Peter said, the Twins Caravan will still remain “the most aggressive in all of pro sports” even with the reduction this year.

The Twins Caravan in January 2019 had arguably a more robust lineup of current players, with Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Jose Berrios and Taylor Rogers on the initial schedule. The 2017 caravan featured, among others, Byron Buxton (pictured above in New Prague that year, photo by Jerry Holt).

The caravan leads into TwinsFest on Jan. 24-25, which also has been abbreviated for 2020 from three days to two. Hours are 4-9 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday at Target Field; last year there was also a Sunday session from 9 a.m.-2 p.m., but that isn’t on this year’s schedule.

Intriguing Vikings playoff scenario: Grabbing the No. 5 seed

Last weekend went about as well as it could for the Vikings’ playoff chances, with one significant exception: Green Bay beating the Bears means it will be very difficult for Minnesota to win the NFC North.

Even if the Vikings win the Monday Night Football matchup coming up in five days with the Packers, putting both teams at 11-4, all Green Bay would need in Week 17 is a win over Detroit to grab the division because even if both teams were 12-4 the Packers would win the tiebreaker based on division record.

On the plus side were three outcomes: the Vikings beating the Chargers (of course), the Rams losing to the Cowboys and the 49ers losing to the Falcons.

The first two of those outcomes felt like coin flip chances, maybe a little better, but to get both was huge. It boosted the Vikings’ playoff chances (per FiveThirtyEight) from 72% heading into the weekend to 97% now. All they need to secure a playoff spot is at least one win or one Rams loss in the final two weeks — and the Vikings could clinch a berth as early as Saturday if the Rams lose at San Francisco, an outcome reasonably likely to happen even as the 49ers have fallen back to earth (3-3 since their 8-0 start).

But speaking of San Francisco, that unexpected home loss to the Falcons (a weird team that is 5-9 but has road wins at New Orleans and now SF) opened the door for a more appealing (and plausible) wild card scenario for the Vikings.

Short of winning twice while Green Bay loses twice, thus giving the Vikings the NFC North title, here’s the Vikings’ best scenario:

*San Francisco wins Saturday. It’s always nice to just get into the playoffs, and that would ensure the Vikings are in as at least the No. 6 seed.

*The Vikings beat the Packers on Monday and then beat the Bears in Week 17 to finish 12-4.

*San Francisco loses to Seattle in Week 17 to finish 12-4.

That would give the Seahawks the division title and push the 49ers into the wild card. And in that scenario, if the Vikings and 49ers tied at 12-4, the Vikings would win the tiebreaker — it would go to the third criteria, common opponents, and the Vikings would be 3-2 in such games while the 49ers were 2-3, an edge created by that 49ers loss to a Falcons team the Vikings beat handily in Week 1.

That would give the Vikings the No. 5 seed as the better of the wild cards, ensuring a matchup with the No. 4 seed — the winner of the weak NFC East, either Dallas or Philadelphia, two teams the Vikings have already defeated this season.

San Francisco would be the No. 6 seed and likely have to play the No. 3 seed, either Green Bay or New Orleans (likely Green Bay since this scenario involves the Packers losing at least once to the Vikings).

That’s a much easier first-round game for the Vikings, though they would be on the road regardless for at least the first two rounds if they kept winning. But it would also give them an outside chance of hosting the NFC title game if the No. 6-seeded 49ers also won twice, a benefit the Vikings wouldn’t have as the No. 6 seed.

The Vikings would lose a tiebreaker with Seattle if both teams finish 12-4 (head-to-head), and they would lose the tiebreaker to the 49ers at 12-4 if San Francisco’s outcomes are flip-flopped (lose to the Rams but beat the Seahawks) because the Vikings would no longer have the common opponent edge. And of course they lose the tiebreaker with the Packers in the division.

But the one narrow tiebreaker edge they have, as spelled out above, could come into play and give them a more favorable path as a wild card.

The one constant positive in Vikings turnaround: Kirk Cousins

 

In the resurrection of this Vikings season, one which appeared on the brink of disaster after a 2-2 start – even though we should know better than to judge a Mike Zimmer team after four games – there have been plenty of story lines and standout performances.

But in the course of the last 10 games, when the Vikings have gone 8-2 and put themselves on the brink of making the playoffs, there really has been one positive constant above all others: the excellence of Kirk Cousins.

The running game has disappeared for stretches, injuries to Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook have changed the look of the offense, the defense has been inconsistent (and at times flat-out bad) and special teams have been a mixed bag.

All the while, Cousins has thrown for 22 touchdowns against just three interceptions in that span, with 2,745 passing yards and a 118.1 passer rating along with 8.74 yards per attempt. His Total QBR, which was down near the bottom of the league through four weeks, is No. 9 among passers now.

In almost every case where he’s been asked to make big throws, he’s made them. In games that called simply for good decisions, he’s made them.

Before this stretch, he was 36-39-2 as a starting QB in the NFL, including 10-9-1 with the Vikings. Cousins changing the narrative on his career as a .500 quarterback has been the defining narrative of this Vikings season.

We’ve seen this from Zimmer teams before, this ability to shape-shift after a quarter of the season. Both his previous playoff teams in 2015 and 2017 started 2-2 before finishing 11-5 and 13-3, respectively.

But we haven’t seen this level from Cousins, the combination of consistency and winning.

He’s not doing it alone, of course. An underrated part of the narrative of the last 10 games is the improvement of the offensive line – which goes hand-in-hand with Cousins’ better numbers and decision-making.

Through the first four weeks of the season, Cousins was being pressured on 46.8% of his dropbacks – tied for the highest rate during that span with Deshaun Watson of the Texans among the 27 passers with at least 100 dropbacks per Pro Football Focus. That came on the heels of 2018, when Cousins was pressured on 260 dropbacks (second-most, again behind Watson).

Since then, in the last 10 games, Cousins is being pressured on just 31.8% of his dropbacks – the 10th-lowest rate among 28 qualified quarterbacks in that span. And when he has been pressured in the last 10 games, Cousins has delivered – throwing four TDs with zero interceptions and 86.9 passer rating (sixth-best).

Not surprisingly, the Vikings’ offensive line grades are much-improved. They were tied for the second-worst pass blocking efficiency through four games; since then, they are a respectable 15th out of 32 teams. Rookie center Garrett Bradbury is the individual embodiment of that improvement; he graded last out of 32 centers through four weeks; since then, he’s closer to league average at 19th among centers.

And as Zimmer said Monday, it’s not just about the line or Cousins.

“I think it’s more than one area. I think Kevin (Stefanski) has done a nice job calling the game, which helps, helps the quarterback getting the ball out on time, helps he’s not sitting back there and patting it,” Zimmer said. “The offensive line has done a nice job as well. I think if you put all those three things together, it’s a combination of not getting negative plays.”

But Cousins is the one who is making the big money, who has to make the in-the-moment decisions and who ultimately gets the glory or blame. He was getting plenty of the latter early in the year, and he deserves the former now.

All of those things will be tested in the final two weeks against Green Bay and Chicago. Arguably the worst games of the season for Cousins, the line and to a degree Stefanski came in Week 2 and Week 4 losses to the Packers and Bears.

We will see how far they have come as the Vikings try to close in on a playoff berth that could ensure Cousins is here for years to come.

Memories of Doug Woog: ‘He was like an additional family member’

Like anyone else whose life was touched by Doug Woog, former Gophers player Casey Hankinson has a million stories to tell.

“I’ve got so many that I started writing them down, and then there was another one, and another one and and another one,” Hankinson said over the phone Monday morning. “Some you could share and some you could not.”

We laughed together over some of the mostly shareable ones Monday, a fitting tribute to “Wooger” — and a way to ease the sadness over the news Saturday that he had died at age 75 after dealing for years with various health problems, including Parkinson’s disease.

Hankinson’s memories go back far into childhood, when his older brothers Peter and Ben skated for Woog’s Gophers on the 1989 Froze Four team at the St. Paul Civic Center. At a practice before the semifinal game, 10-year-old Casey found his way onto the ice as well.

“He invited me to skate with the team,” Hankinson said. “I wore a pair of Paul Broten’s old skates that were five sizes too big. He was just so warm and welcoming.”

From the jump, Hankinson wanted to play for Woog and the Gophers. The summer before his senior year at Edina High, that dream seemed to evaporate.

“I still remember Doug calling the house in August and telling me that he didn’t think I would fit in and be a Gopher,” Hankinson said. “I came into the house just crushed.”

But an even lower point in February of his senior season turned out to be a turning point.

“Our section semifinal game my senior year against Wayzata, we lost. I remembered so badly wanting to win the game. I was in the locker room, tears in my eyes, and when I came out (Woog) was sitting there on a bench,” Hankinson recalled. “I wasn’t even looking until he got my attention. And he said, ‘Casey, anybody that plays as hard as you played, I need to have on my team.’ He told me he wasn’t even planning to go that night but he stopped because he figured he should watch me one more time.”

Thus began a four-year career for the Gophers in which Hankinson amassed 106 points. I got to know Hankinson and Woog quite well during the 1996-97 season, Hankinson’s junior year, when I covered the team at The Minnesota Daily. It was the biggest beat I had covered at the time, and the team was full of characters — with Hankinson and Woog near the top of the list.

(Photo above is from Hankinson’s senior year, with Woog providing practice instruction. Hankinson is in the background, in the blue jersey, with his visor up).

I’ll never forget Woog describing freshman Dave Spehar as “cute and fun,” nor will I get over his long, rambling and ultimately always thoughtful answers to questions (including one in which Woog tried to explain the physical implications of playing in the thin air against Colorado College).

In practice one day that season during a week without a game, Hankinson convinced backup goalie Willy Marvin to switch gear with him — letting Hankinson put on the pads while Marvin skated out in Hankinson’s jersey.

“Guys are warming me up with shots, and Woog is on poor Willy because he thinks it’s me,” Hankinson said. “He’s saying, ‘Come on, Hank, pick it up, pick it up. Geez, Hank, what is wrong with you?’ Finally after about 30 minutes, he goes over and he’s right in Willy’s face. And I’m like oh no. He’s hot. We thought we were going to get in trouble. And then Wooger just laughed and said, ‘Oh! What a great prank!’ He could just go with the flow.”

But Woog could also be demanding and voice his displeasure — though even that often had a shake-your-head-and-laugh quality to it.

“I remember one time we were playing against Denver, and Charlie Wasley and I made a bad line change. And Woog was screaming at us to get off the ice, get out of here,” Hankinson said. “We were like, ‘It’s the middle of the game, where are we supposed to go?’ He told us to go to the locker room. So we’re sitting in the locker room, we’re watching the game on TV, and next thing we know Woog comes into the locker room, screams at us, tells us never to make a bad change like that again, then tells us to go play hockey.”

Woog’s on-ice coaching legacy is probably one of tremendous regular seasons that came up short of the ultimate goal. He made it to six Frozen Fours, but his Gophers never won a title — the biggest heartbreak being the aforementioned 1989 team that lost in overtime to Harvard in the title game just minutes after Randy Skarda hit the post on what would’ve been the winner.

That 1996-97 team I covered ended up being Woog’s last trip to the NCAA tournament, and another season that ended short of the goal (with a region final loss to Michigan). After two seasons out of the tournament — the only two of his 14-year Gophers career — Woog was replaced by Don Lucia.

“He was a really smart hockey mind and an absolutely creative coach,” said Hankinson, 43, who went on to play 18 career NHL games and is now a senior vice president with Ryan Companies in Minneapolis. “After my career was over, I was listening to him doing analysis on an FSN game. I called him later and told him what a smart hockey mind he was. And he joked that he wished I would have listened to him more when I was a player.”

Hankinson has two daughters (ages 14 and 13) an 8-year-old son. One of his daughters played hockey a few years back against one of Woog’s granddaughters — a memory Hankinson calls “really special” and just one way he stayed in touch with his old coach.

“He was one of those guys that you just intentionally kept in contact with. You loved spending time with him. He was like an additional family member. He was the Wooger,” Hankinson said. “I’m sad now and I’m going be sad later, but thinking about all those memories makes me smile.”

Vikings at Chargers is huge for wild card, but not really for division race

Earlier this week, I spent a lot of words laying out all the Vikings playoff scenarios. As Week 15 gets closer, let’s drill in on one peculiar feature of this weekend’s Vikings-Chargers game.

Basically, the game has huge implications for the Vikings in terms of their overall chances of making the playoffs. Per FiveThirtyEight, which allows you to adjust playoff odds based on results for the next three games — which now takes us to the end of the regular season — the Vikings currently have a 72% chance of making the postseason in any form (either wild card or division winner).

That number jumps to 86% if we add a “W” to the Vikings’ ledger against the Chargers, but it drops to 54% with a loss. That’s a pretty big swing from feeling pretty good to roughly a coin flip chance, and the reason is simple: A Minnesota loss means the Rams would grab the final wild card spot by winning out, and it also leaves the Vikings a lot more vulnerable to missing the playoffs if they also drop one of their final two at home to Green Bay or Chicago. But the Vikings are guaranteed to make the playoffs if they win out, and the Rams still have to play at Dallas and at San Francisco.

The improved play of the Rams in particular and the Bears just a little have made the overall playoff race tighter than it was a couple weeks ago.

However: This weekend’s Vikings game means very little in their pursuit of the NFC North title. Their odds of winning it right now are just 24% (they were about 50% before that loss to Seattle two weeks ago). But a win Sunday without factoring in any other results moves that to just 26% while a loss drops it to just 21%.

Why? Because the Vikings’ division chances are almost solely tied to how Green Bay fares down the stretch in its final three games against division foes — and particularly how Sunday’s game between the Packers and Bears in Green Bay turns out.

Minnesota trails Green Bay by two games in the loss column (2-2 vs. 3-0) in division record. So the Vikings need the Packers to lose one other division game in addition to the Week 16 Monday Night Football matchup between the Vikings and Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.

If the Vikings win but the Packers also win Sunday, the Vikings’ division odds will sit at just 9% because Green Bay would only need to win one more game — Vikings or Lions — to win the division by virtue of having the division tiebreaker. If the Vikings lose and the Packers win Sunday, the Vikings’ division odds are nearly identical at 8%.

But if the Vikings LOSE and the Packers also lose Sunday, the Vikings would have a 43% chance of winning the division. They would control their own destiny, with wins over Green Bay and Chicago ensuring an 11-5 finish and a tiebreaker edge over Green Bay to win the NFC North (it would come down to the fourth tiebreaker, conference record, since in this scenario the teams would be tied in head to head, division record and common opponent record).

Winning Sunday while the Packers lose Sunday would put the Vikings at 54% to win the division — meaningful only because it would allow the Vikings to win the division by beating the Packers and then losing to the Bears if the Packers also lost to the Lions, the latter of which seems unlikely given Detroit’s trajectory.

Best-case scenario for the Vikings is obviously just to keep winning. But if what you care about the most is winning the NFC North and securing at least one home playoff game, the game you need to pay attention to the most this weekend is Packers-Bears, not Vikings-Chargers.

It was nice of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to admit system is unfair to Twins

Upon being reminded that all of the big-ticket free agents this offseason are shockingly — SHOCKINGLY! — going to large-market clubs with larger revenue streams, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred this week at the Winter Meetings unwittingly admitted that baseball’s economic system is unfair.

Of the four biggest-money sports leagues in the U.S., only MLB doesn’t have any sort of salary cap — leading to a wild payroll disparity between the haves and have-nots that just doesn’t happen particularly in the NFL and NHL and to a degree in the soft-capped, loophole driven NBA.

Do I deny that Tampa can’t sign a pitcher for $326 million? I don’t deny that; that’s a fact,” Manfred said, per La Velle E. Neal III. “Having said that, I think there are other areas in our system that allow those smaller markets to compete, and I think Tampa and Oakland [are] two good examples. Minnesota [is] another good one who takes advantage of those parts of the system and put very, very competitive teams on the field.”

Presumably, Manfred is referring here primarily to the draft and to MLB’s economic system that keeps young players on limited salaries for six years of team control — three years at or around the minimum, then three years at fixed rates through arbitration.

That certainly does help small market teams (though not so much players who don’t typically hit free agency until their late 20s at the earliest). But guess what?

All of those avenues are ALSO AVAILABLE TO HELP LARGE-MARKET TEAMS.

So the Yankees, who can’t just spend to infinity but certainly have more than twice as much revenue as the Twins to spend on payroll, can afford Gerrit Cole and a bunch of other big ticket guys in part because players like Aaron Judge ($6.4M arbitration in 2020) and Gleyber Torres (likely around the minimum because he’s not to arbitration yet) are also filling huge holes in their lineup.

I’m not saying the Yankees shouldn’t benefit from that part of the system, just as a millionaire shouldn’t have to pay more for a gallon of milk than someone making a small fraction of that.

But it would only be a true evener if fixed-cost young players were available to small-market teams in greater proportion than to large-market teams.

And the Twins? They could technically afford someone like Cole, but it would come at the expense of other things. (This is a rough comparison, but Cole’s $36 million a year annual value is about what Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda and Nelson Cruz will make in 2020).

So the Twins (and Rays and A’s) load up on young players and more modestly priced free agents. They work the system, and the did it well last year to the tune of 101 wins (at least until they were steamrolled by they Yankees in the playoffs).

Because baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, the Twins in theory can spend all they want. But the Yankees have more money to spend. They should since, you know, they took in $400 million more in revenue than the Twins in 2018 (that is not a misprint).

They can compete, but only to a degree and against a stacked deck.

Manfred basically spelled out that inequality, even as he was trying to defend how the system works.

Opposite of trash talk: Stefon Diggs, Darius Slay show respect with compliments

On one of the more memorable plays of an otherwise forgettable game Sunday, Stefon Diggs ran a comeback route near the left sideline with Lions defensive back Darius Slay matching him step-for-step.

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, after faking a handoff, bought time by rolling out to his left, eventually firing the ball toward Diggs – who corralled the ball and dragged both feet while staying inbounds by inches, all while Slay was close enough to hear him breathe.

It was a great throw and great coverage, but the catch was the best of all. All Slay could do was tip his cap – which he did later on Twitter, in an exchange that caught my attention.

“Great … catch,” Slay tweeted about an hour after the game ended Sunday, along with a facepalm emoji, a replay of the grab and a colorful word between “great” and “catch”.

A few hours later, Diggs tweeted a reply to Slay: “You one of the best in the game … respect.”

Every NFL game brings countless examples of trash-talking between highly competitive players, some of which spills over into heated exchanges. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who the Vikings will see Sunday, is well-known for loudly sharing opinions during games (though the spirit of Rivers’ trash talk is such that Mike Zimmer smiled when describing it Wednesday).

But moments of genuine admiration and respect? Yeah, those happen, too – and not just on social media after players have cooled off.

“I mean when it’s good on good, big on big, guys know,” Diggs said when asked about his interaction with Slay. “You have some guys who don’t like each other, but I don’t really have … a beef with nobody. When he says good play on his behalf, I’m going to let him know, and vice-versa.”

Diggs made another highlight-worthy catch over Slay on a deep ball later in the game (pictured above), but Diggs had a quiet second half while Slay was credited with a pass breakup.

Vikings running back Dalvin Cook entered the week fourth in the league in rushing yards (1,108) and tied for first in rushing touchdowns (13), so he’s had plenty of success this season. If he breaks a big one or dodges tackles, Cook said he will hear about it from defenders.

“You get some,” he said. “I don’t know if they tell you as nicely, but they’ll tell you like ‘good run.’”

And it’s a two-way street, Cook said, when it comes to dishing out a compliment.

“Yeah, if a person gets a good lick on me, you have to,” he said, adding that he’ll say “good tackle” or good hit” to an opponent.

Then again, you don’t want to go too far. Cook said if an opponent is too impressed he might take that information as a sign that the defense can’t stop him.

“If he tells me that, we better run it again,” Cook said with a laugh.

But mostly it’s just the recognition that in a league full of elite athletes who often train together and have common goals – win and stay employed – showing respect and admiration doesn’t diminish a player’s edge.

As Diggs said, it’s all part of the fun of competition.

“Part of this game is if you pride yourself on being a dog. I see a dog every week. No matter who we play, I see a good player every week,” he said. “So it’s always fun going good on good because you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some. At the end of the day, you’re just trying to come out on top.”

Wolves rumors heat up as key NBA trade date comes Sunday

It’s probably not on your handy phone calendar, but NBA Christmas starts Sunday — just four non-shopping days away.

On Dec. 15 every year, players who signed free agent contracts in the past offseason become eligible to be traded. And after all the activity this past summer, that means a huge influx of available players are entering the market Sunday — roughly 150, about one-third of all rostered players in the NBA, per ESPN.

There hasn’t been a trade in the league since the mid-July blockbuster sending Russell Westbrook to the Rockets and Chris Paul to the Thunder, but that figures to change with the lifting of the free agent trade moratorium and as teams start to sort themselves out as we approach the one-third mark of the season.

The Wolves could be in the middle of the action on multiple fronts. They sit on the fringe of the Western Conference playoff race with a 10-13 record, one which took a serious hit during a five-game losing streak they carry into Wednesday night’s home game with Utah.

First off, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski noted Tuesday on The Jump that “Minnesota is an interesting team to watch. They have to solidify that point guard position.”

Indeed, Wolves point guards Jeff Teague and Shabazz Napier have underwhelmed of late. Neither is in the top 20 among NBA point guards in PER (player efficiency rating), and neither one has a usage rate among the top 30 point guards.

Napier is a backup and has filled his role at least adequately, but Teague has been a square peg in the round hole of the Wolves’ new pace-based, three-point-heavy offense. Karl-Anthony Towns was visibly frustrated with Teague during the Wolves’ latest loss in Phoenix, though we don’t want to read too much into an isolated play.

As Woj noted, the Wolves made a heavy play for D’Angelo Russell in the offseason before he wound up in Golden State in a sign-and-trade. While Woj didn’t draw a straight line between the Wolves’ ongoing point guard pursuit and Russell, it remains a logical fit given Golden State’s struggles and that Russell is one of those players suddenly able to be dealt Sunday.

“I think Minnesota out there, they wanted a point guard this summer, they went after D’Angelo Russell in free agency, he goes to Golden State in the sign-and-trade,” Woj said. “I think they’re in the market for a point guard or something that sets them up to get one in July.”

Teague could be used as a trade piece, given that his $19 million annual salary is expiring after this season.

So, too, could Robert Covington — the Wolves’ most obvious asset given his skill set and team-friendly contract (two more years after this one at about $12 million per year).

The Ringer reports that “playoff teams are monitoring the availability of Robert Covington, according to multiple league sources.”

Covington is eligible to be traded any time, so his availability has nothing to do with Sunday and everything to do with the trajectory of the Wolves’ season, his value and how he fits.

But it’s worth noting that all the lower-level free agents the Wolves signed this past offseason — Jake Layman, Napier, Treveon Graham, Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell — are eligible to be dealt as of Sunday.

That doesn’t mean anything is imminent, particularly since the trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 6 and teams (including the Wolves) might want more time to evaluate their current roster and options.

But expect at least some movement around the league — and plenty of speculation — starting Sunday.

Twins need another pitcher if they are going to hold off Cleveland again

The narrative of the 2019 Twins season is one fueled by bombas, better-than-expected performances and a fierce division race in which Minnesota fended off Cleveland to win the AL Central with 101 wins.

The temptation is to imagine all those things happening again if the Twins simply run it back with the same cast of characters. That might work; but it’s probably a more dangerous thought than it is a productive one.

If we’re being honest, one of the main elements of 2019 was fortune — showing up, in this case, in Cleveland’s terrible injury misfortune. The White Sox are being conjured up as a trendy challenger to the Twins in 2020, but Cleveland is absolutely still the biggest challenger. In betting markets, the Indians have better World Series odds than the Twins. They won 93 games last season, and that was after a 29-30 start unlikely to be replicated.

And if we look at pitching projections, the outlook is even more grim for the Twins. You’ll find four Cleveland starting pitchers — Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco — among the top 30 in projected WAR on FanGraphs.

That assumes good health for Kluber and Carrasco, who combined to make just 19 starts last season while dealing with serious ailments (Carrasco’s the most serious, of course, as he battled leukemia). It also assumes Cleveland doesn’t trade Kluber — though even if they did, young arms Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale showed they are rotation-ready last season.

Projections aren’t everything, but it’s worth noting all four of those aforementioned pitchers show up on the list before the first Twins starter (Jose Berrios at No. 38).

The Twins this offseason have done a nice job securing Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda at reasonable prices and terms; those two will cost about $25 million combined in 2020 (after factoring in Pineda’s pro-rated deal at $7.6 million while he misses 39 more games), and the Twins have ensured they will have their three best starters from 2019 in the rotation for most of next year, barring injuries or other setbacks.

But that doesn’t feel like it’s going to be enough to fend off Cleveland again — particularly when we remember that Kyle Gibson and Martin Perez offered credible work for much of last season at the bottom of the rotation while the Twins built a huge division lead.

It’s much easier to conceive of how you would spend someone else’s money than your own, and Twins fans have no shortage of opinions about how to spend the Pohlad family’s money.

This, though, feels pretty simple: Minnesota has created the payroll flexibility to add to its top three starters. If this offseason ends without an additional top-end starter joining the mix, it will be a huge disappointment that significantly hinders the Twins’ chances to win the AL Central again.