May 19, 2024

TNJNBA: Should Washington and Minnesota panic?

It’s still early, but a couple of projected playoff teams have been among the league’s worst so far. Will the Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves be able to right the ship?

Photo obtained via creativecommons.org. No changes made.

The NBA is the most predictable league in professional sports. The length of the season and the format of the playoffs means that more often than not, the best team with the best players will be lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the year.

While the final results sometimes feel obvious, there’s plenty of surprises throughout an NBA season. Every year, some teams surprise everyone and win more games than expected, but some just can’t seem to figure out how to put everything together.

It’s still unreasonably early, but there are two specific teams that have severely underperformed so far. Analysts and fans alike believed they could be playoff teams, but they’re each currently sitting near the bottom of their respective conferences. It’s always possible they could turn things around and make a postseason push, but they’re certainly off to a bad start. What’s gone wrong for them, and how can they fix their problems?

Washington Wizards

Expectations weren’t incredibly high for the Wizards, but they were expected to be a playoff team: ESPN’s experts had them as the eighth seed and before the season began, FiveThirtyEight gave them a 52 percent chance to make the playoffs. New head coach Scott Brooks had drawn his fair share of criticism during his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he was surely better than the guy that did this.

Instead, Washington is 3-8 and sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They’re in the bottom half of the league in both offensive and defensive rating. That last one should be especially worrying, given that they were solid on the defensive end last year and that Brooks’ defenses have been his teams’ strengths during his coaching career. Of course, his Thunder teams always had plenty of athleticism and defensive talent, but he managed it well and turned it into a great defense.

The play of the stars should be more worrisome for the Wizards. Star point guard John Wall is filling up the stat sheet, averaging 22.9 points, 8.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game, but he’s also turning the ball just under five times per game. Backcourt partner Bradley Beal can’t find his three-point stroke, hitting just over 30 percent from behind the arc. Last season’s lottery pick Kelly Oubre Jr. still hasn’t found his footing and is only playing 13.5 minutes per game. Starting center Marcin Gortat is playing great, but there’s not all that much talent on this roster.

Wall’s turnovers are likely to fall and Beal’s shooting will probably get better. It’s unlikely Washington stays this bad, but this still feels like an adjustment year. Brooks can get to know his new team and a player like Oubre can grow more comfortable as an NBA player. With another high draft pick on board and some solid offseason moves, this team could be back in the postseason next year. This year, however, it’s just too much to ask.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Like Washington, the Timberwolves weren’t necessarily expected to be great. They were also one of ESPN’s playoff picks, though, and FiveThirtyEight had their postseason chances at 72 percent. The hype for young stars Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins was ridiculous, and Tom Thibodeau taking over at head coach was supposed to be able to push the team to at least an eight seed.

Instead, the Wolves are 4-7. They’ve put together the league’s third-best offense, but they’re combining it with the third-worst defense. That comes as a bit of a surprise considering that Thibodeau’s coaching career in Chicago was defined by elite defenses and subpar offenses, but it does make a certain amount of sense. Towns, Wiggins and Zach LaVine all have the athletic tools to be elite defenders, but they’re each only 21 years old. There’s always a learning curve on NBA defense, and these guys are still working on it.

On the other hand, that youth makes their dominant offense even more impressive. Towns is dominant in the low post and has range all the way out to the three-point line. Perhaps the most incredible thing about Minnesota is that a player as talented as Towns isn’t even the leading scorer. That honor belongs to Andrew Wiggins, who’s scoring 27.4 points per game on efficient shooting (including 52.3 percent from three). After Wiggins at 27.4 and Towns at 22.3, there’s LaVine’s 18.8 points per game, forming a trio of dominant young scorers that look ready to take the league by storm.

Beyond the three young studs, however, there’s not much scoring to go around. Shabazz Muhammed was a volume scorer in college and had a great second year in the league, but hasn’t hit that level since. Ricky Rubio is a great passer and a solid defender, but a notoriously bad shooter. Rookie guard Kris Dunn may someday be a good two-way player, but it’s still too early for him.

The Wolves will be fine as their core grows with each other and with their new coach. But like Washington, they’ll also likely miss the postseason. While the Wizards may need to make some moves to improve the team, Minnesota should become a great team just by letting its talent grow. Both teams have disappointed and both could miss the playoffs, but the Wolves have the far brighter future.

Edited by Dalton King 

Featured image by Michael Tipton

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Quinn is an assistant sports editor for TNJN and a sophomore majoring in Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennesse. When he's not writing, he's probably doing something else. You can follow him on Twitter (@QuinnNotCook) or e-mail him at qpilkey@vols.utk.edu.