D.C. Council Opening Statements: Wizards at Timberwolves, Game 26
Technically, this is not the end of a four-game road trip for the Wizards. They took a two-game road trip to Manhattan and Brooklyn, flew home; then took a one-game road trip to Boston, flew back to D.C. for five nights, spent Christmas at home; and are now on a one-game road trip to Minnesota. The Timberwolves are a playoff-caliber team, theoretically. Sure, the West is a strong conference, but 10th in the West is also good enough for 16th in the league. Barely in for realignment. It was supposed to be better. Flip Saunders has traded Minnesota’s 2011 lottery pick (No. 2 selection Derrick Williams) for someone else’s 2008 second-round pick (Luc Mbah a Moute).
In Washington, it was supposed to be… .500 basketball?
At least that was my preseason 41-41 prediction. But not so fast, friends. Five hundo the Wizards are not. At 13-14, the Wiz Kids are looking for their second dance with .500 this season. If they pull off a win in Minnesota, it will be just the third four-game winning streak for the franchise since 2007. The Wizards won at Chicago, versus Milwaukee, at Miami, and versus Charlotte for four in April 2012—they went on to win at Cleveland and against the Heat (with all three of the Big 3 resting) at home to end the 2011-12 season on a six-game winning streak.
Last season, in February 2013, the Wizards beat the Clippers, Knicks, and Nets at home and then the Bucks on the road for four wins in a row—then they lost to the Pistons to break the streak. With the Wizards beating Minnesota in the District on Nov. 19 and now facing them again at their place coming off so many days off, this will be as interesting a look as ever at where the team wants to go rounding out 2013, especially since Washington will close out the year with a home-and-away set with nemesis Detroit. I’ve doubted the Wizards before, but I’m still going with the odds: a below .500 entry into 2014.
Joining us today for some Q&A is William Bohl (@BreakTheHuddle), contributor to A Wolf Among Wolves of the ESPN TrueHoop Network.
Teams: Wizards at Timberwolves
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Venue: Target Center, Minneapolis, MN
Radio: WFED-AM 1500
Spread: T’Wolves fav’d by 6 points
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Q #1: The 13-15 Timberwolves currently sit 10th in the West having played the sixth toughest schedule in the NBA to-date.
They started 8-6 and have gone 5-9 since, losing four out of the last six, including getting swept in their most recent Staples Center back-to-back set. Are the results thus far simply the result of a team finding its way in a tough conference? Do they have the equipment to compete for a top five seed in the West, or are there deeper problems to be concerned about in Minnesota?
@BreakTheHuddle: There are some problems in Minnesota, and the tough slate of games to open the season has fixed a bright spotlight on them. Some of the issues are potentially fixable, some are the result of roster construction (and are likely here to stay), and some will only be answered in due time. For example, the Wolves are 28th in the league in bench scoring per game, ahead of only the Warriors and the Wizards. Injuries to Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf have hurt Minnesota’s depth on both the offensive and defensive ends (respectively), and the return for each is imminent, which ought to help in that department.
While the defense has been statistically average (15th in D-Rating), the Wolves lack a proven rim-protecting big man and are prone to long stretches of allowing easy buckets in the paint, signifying that defensive problems are probably here to stay.
Time will tell if the Wolves can improve on finishing games, which has vexed them through their first 28 games. They’ve played the Spurs, Clippers (twice) and Thunder very well on the road, only to fall apart in the final quarter in each contest. They’ve dropped winnable games in some Eastern Conference cities, too (Boston, Washington, Cleveland). Becoming a contender is a process, and not a short one; can Kevin Love & Company gel in time to make the playoffs this year? I don’t have the answer—but they’ve certainly taken their lumps through the first two months of this season.
Q #2: Mostly because of #JanVeselyAlert, Wizards fans have long had their eye on Derrick Williams, mostly as an attractive prospect prior to the 2010 draft (but before they slipped to 6th in lottery), and since, as a potential reclamation project (also via Jan Vesely).
Williams is Sacramento’s problem now, good or bad. Turning to Prince Luc Mbah a Moute, can you assess how he’s fared since arriving in Minny, and does the trade still make sense from a needs perspective (i.e., a defensive player over an offensive player like Williams)?
@BreakTheHuddle: For whatever reason, Derrick Williams never earned Rick Adelman’s trust, and therefore, consistent minutes were hard to come by. The talent, visible in flashes, never materialized for prolonged stretches. Williams had plenty of opportunities to prove his worth when Love missed 64 games last year and was underwhelming, to say the least. To flip him and his $6.3 million 2014-15 salary for Mbah a Moute, who will earn $2 million less and is a trustworthy rotation player, was a smart basketball move.
As for the Mbah a Moute fit, he’s done quite nicely since arriving in the frigid north. He’s averaging nearly a turnover per game, which seems fluky (and should correct itself in time), but other than that, he’s been just as advertised: a solid defender, smart with off-ball cuts and crashing the offensive glass.
Q #3: Last time out in the District, Kevin Love had 15 points in the game’s first eight minutes and Minnesota took a 12-point lead, 63-51, into halftime.
But in the second half, Nene became more interested in guarding Love on the perimeter and John Wall’s athleticism overwhelmed the T-Wolves guards. The Wizards won the third quarter 30-18 and the game 104-100. The most glaring stat was that the Wizards crushed the sprint, outscoring Minnesota 33-9 in fast break points. Past the obvious, what goes different for Minnesota this time?
@BreakTheHuddle: Well, hopefully, the coaching staff shows the team some video of Wall, Beal and all their friends running like gangbusters for easy buckets in the last meeting, and writes four simple words on the white board: “GET. BACK. ON. DEFENSE.”
Transition defense has given the Wolves problems, at times, but the loss in Washington was where it was most pronounced. Washington’s surplus of capable perimeter players means Kevin Martin has to guard someone, and Kevin Martin is … um, not a plus defender.
Other than that, the Wolves haven’t changed all that much since the last time they played the Wizards. Their offense flows through Kevin Love and is heavily predicated on both his production and the team’s ability to get to the free throw line. The Wolves are 25th in the league in eFG%, but have the league’s 11th most efficient offense, so earning free throw attempts is key to their success. Getting to the line, getting back in transition, and getting production out of bench—all three will be vital to the Wolves getting a victory.
Q #4: Now that we’ve found Love…?
@Truth_About_It: As you read above, last time out, Love was red-hot. But Nene finally respected his game, general defensive rotations got more attentive, and Trevor Booker with a dash of Jan Vesely helped contain Kevin Love over the course of a Wizards win.
Booker has started the last six games at the 4 spot, including the last two games for which Nene has been healthy. Slowly, you feel like the Wizards—perhaps both Randy Wittman and Nene—are inching toward the big man coming off the bench, mostly to keep Nene fresh at the end of games, but especially if the Lord deems it so. (Anyone got a rosary for Randy?) And as just about any coach would cliché: It’s all about who finishes a game.
Of course, this runs counter to an argument made last year by this very writer. Nene had to be in the starting lineup, and that doing so would not prevent the Wizards from managing his minutes. (Haven’t you noticed Nene being checked out at the six- or five-minute mark of the first quarter in several instances this season?) That particular situation—Nene needing to start—arose from such poor beginnings to games. Nene was needed to prevent a double-digit first-quarter deficit, and thus setting a counterintuitive tone for the game (especially last season’s Wizards of historical losing streak beginnings … when Wall was out). This time maybe things are different. Maybe it’s time for Trevor Booker to arrive. Someone of the leftover Wiz Kids—Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Kevin Seraphin—has to step up. They just have to (as hope
trails off into thin pixels…) Each Vesely and Seraphin have shown small flashes this year. Singleton hasn’t had enough time since making his debut on November 26; he’s seen three total minutes over the last five games.
Over his six recent starts, Booker has averaged 29 minutes, 10.2 points, 51.9% FGs, and 8.8 rebounds per game. From 16-to-24 feet, he has hit six of 13 shots (46.2%). But with Nene back, Booker saw 24 minutes against Brooklyn (7 points, 2-8 FGs, 13 rebounds) and 14 minutes against Boston (0 points, 0-2 FGs, 3 rebounds). If Booker is truly going to be a starter and help change the dynamic of the Wizards for the better (i.e., a strong bench featuring Nene and Martell Webster), Booker is going to have to be more consistent. Does he have it in him to do that? Will he continue to start and try to hold down Kevin Love? (Is John Wall totally capable of consistently managing the offense with less minutes next to Nene?) Could Booker even start against Greg Monroe and the Pistons? Will Wittman dare to find out?
A) If you could transfer the powers of Tom Gugliotta’s barbed wire bicep tattoo to anyone on the Wolves, whom would it be and why?
@BreakTheHuddle: I wouldn’t wish that awful tattoo on anyone, but if you MADE me pick, it’d be Ricky Rubio. He’s the only guy on the roster with enough political/goodwill capital to pull it off, and maybe it’d give him a little extra swagger. Lord knows he needs it, sometimes.
B) Which individual is to be blamed most for Minnesota’s inability to close-out tight games, such as the OT loss versus the Clippers, and what percentage of the responsibility would you assign them?
@BreakTheHuddle: Blame for the Clippers loss, specifically, falls primarily on Kevin Martin. He had two costly turnovers, one at the end of regulation, one early in overtime. But generally, I’m not sure any single person deserves much of the blame. The Wolves are learning some lessons and taking some lumps, and while the losses are frustrating, when they’re viewed from a historical perspective, it’s not unusual for a team like Minnesota to encounter some rough patches on the road to success.