VIDEO: Kevin Love is all smiles after a win over Cleveland
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — In an effort to soften the blow, we put our sunglasses on when scanning back at our preseason predictions for this season.
There are so many hits and misses, it helps to have a little shade to work with for the ugly misses. For every prediction we hit out of the park (thank you Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves), there is a prediction that seems to go horribly wrong (there’s that mess in Cleveland and, of course, that wobbly start from John Wall and the Washington Wizards).
The BluBlockers are needed for tonight’s Timberwolves-Wizards matchup tonight in D.C. (7 p.m. ET, League Pass), a duel between teams on very different paths early on this season. Both teams are loaded with young talent and have quality depth. But the results have been vastly different for the two teams that are inextricably linked — Wizards coach Randy Wittman used to be Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman while the boss in Minnesota, Flip Saunders, once coached the Wizards.
While Wall and the Wizards have struggled to an ugly 2-7 start, including their current four-game losing streak, Love and the Timberwolves have shown themselves to be an exciting and aggressive crew.
At 7-4, the Wolves are living up to all of the hype, internal and otherwise. Love, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, J.J. Barea and Co. have managed to take on heightened expectations and handle them appropriately. Throw in that Chase Budinger is back and practicing with the team and Minnesota is looking even better.
Love is in the MVP mix, coach Rick Adelman‘s got his supporting cast thriving and the roster’s balance and depth is finally paying dividends. The Wolves are in the midst of back-to-back grueling stretches of five games in seven nights, a mettle-testing, early-season grind that will could serve them well months from now.
Tonight’s game kicks off a monster week that will see Adelman’s team face off against the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday night at home and the Brooklyn Nets Friday at the Target Center. Then comes a road date in Houston with the Rockets on Saturday and they’ll finish this stretch up in Indiana on Nov. 25.
“I don’t know if [the league schedule-makers] know that we’re almost to Canada and Houston’s almost all the way to Mexico,” Adelman told reporters Monday.
When your team is top three in the league in scoring and set to get another boost whenever Budinger returns to the rotation, none of the teams you are blindsiding will grant you any sympathy.
The Wizards, meanwhile, could use a little sympathy … and anything else they can get right now. When their owner, Ted Leonsis, used every opportunity in the lead up to the season to tout his team as a legitimate playoff contender in the East, he surely did not envision this humbling start.
Signing Wall to an $80 million maximum contract extension in August was supposed to be a sign of the commitment Leonsis was making not only to the young face of the franchise, but to the future. Wall was not only going to be the change agent for the Wizards on the court, his extension was also supposed to serve as the symbolic change in the way the Wizards did business going forward.
Veterans would see that the organization was serious about putting the resources in the right places and taking that next step from playoff pretender to contender. But it didn’t take long for reality to set in. As sound as the plan looked on paper, the Wizards simply didn’t have the right mix.
As talented as Wall and his backcourt mate, Bradley Beal — one of a handful of early candidates for the league’s Most Improved Player award — surely are, something is still missing.
As my The Beat colleague and TNT’s own David Aldridge pointed out in The Morning Tip, Wall does not shoulder the burden of the Wizards’ slow start on his own. They’re not the same defensive monster they were a year ago, not with Marcin Gortat taking Emeka Okafor‘s place in the lineup.
A top-10 defensive unit last season, the Wizards are now a top-10 scoring team but falling woefully short on the defensive side. As DA pointed out, the slightest tweak to the Wizards’ rotation and chemistry has altered the product on the floor dramatically:
Nene, whose antipathy for banging in the post was well-known, was especially good with Okafor. The quintet of Nene, Okafor, Martell Webster, Bradley Beal and Wall was one of the league’s best defensive fivesomes last year. It’s not that Gortat is a horrible defender. He tries. But opponents, according to the league’s player tracking stats, are shooting 56.7 percent against him on shots at the rim. (By comparison, opponents are shooting 31.4 and 31.5 percent, respectively, on shots at the rim against New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez.)
“March has done a good job for us,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said Saturday. “No question, ‘Mek was solid back there for us, the last line of defense for us, with his basketball knowledge. I think what March brings, though, is that big guy who can challenge at the rim. He’s also got a very good IQ. Defense is a matter of getting your knees dirty each and every night. It’s not a fun thing, but it’s a valuable thing. That’s where we have to get back to, understanding how valuable that is for us to be a good team.”
A good team?
How about a playoff team?
After all, that’s what we all predicted for the ‘Wolves and Wizards this season. But as of right now only one of these teams is living up to that expectation.