Early Season Review: the Thunder, Hawks, and Timberwolves

We are nearly two weeks into the NBA season, and it is shaping up to be an entertaining one.  Everyone but the Sixers, Mavericks, and Pelicans has put one win in the books, while the Cavs are the only team to not yet feel the agony of defeat.

In a word of caution about all 30 teams, it is simply too early in the year to form drastic conclusions that any team will be substantially better or worse than everyone thought during the preseason.  Strong or weak starts may be blips on the radar.  First, teams play through hot and cold streaks throughout the year, and the beginning of the season is no different.  A team that started better or worse than expected may simply be on a hot or cold streak.  Second, as teams play more games, differences in strength of schedule inevitably become less significant.  Some teams are benefiting at this stage, more than others, from a soft opening schedule.

Third, multiple teams will be better or worse than we thought to enter the season.  That is simply inevitable.  As a result, it is difficult, at this juncture, to assess the quality of teams’ wins, or how bad their losses are.

Nevertheless, the young season has provided some trends to monitor, and allows for appropriate evaluation of several teams as they compete for a championship, or a playoff berth.

Three teams to keep an eye on: the Thunder, Hawks, and Timberwolves.

Prediction: The Thunder will not be the contender their 5-1 start would have you believe

            Everyone wants the Thunder to succeed in 2016-2017.  Whenever superstars leave their incumbent team, there is a propensity to want to see that player fail, and a propensity to want to see that player’s former team excel without him, in the apparent hope that the superstar will be proved wrong in their decision to leave.  Add those factors to the unique fact in the Thunder’s case that Russell Westbrook, a superstar in his own right, signed a short extension with the Thunder this summer (essentially a one year extension with a second year option), and everyone wants to see Westbrook “succeed” and Kevin Durant “fail.”

With that, predictably, the Thunder’s 5-1 start has been buoyed by the general theory that the Thunder are poised for success without Durant.  And sure, the Thunder’s 5-1 start has been a nice thing to see.  Their defense, impressively, ranks fourth in efficiency despite the losses of Serge Ibaka and Durant on that end.  They also scored a road win over the Clippers – that game remains the Clippers’ lone loss.

It is true that the Thunder, armed with Westbrook and reasonable talent around him, should compete for a playoff berth.  But the Thunder’s 5-1 start tends to be reflective of a team poised to finish top 4 in the west and win a playoff series, and that does not seem likely.

Besides the Clippers win, the other Thunder victories came against the Sixers, Suns, Wolves, and Lakers – teams unlikely to finish above .500.  The schedule will catch up to them.  In addition, and of more concern, is that Westbrook has a cartoonish usage rate of 43.1, while the Thunder sit at a poor 25th in offensive efficiency.  In short, despite heroics from Westbrook on a nightly basis (which will continue – he is exceptional), the team’s offense is bad.  Watching them explains why perfectly.  Westbrook does a lot of dribbling, others stand around, and then Westbrook tries to make a play.  The parts are not working in complementary fashion.  The ball is not moving, the players are not moving, and the offense is not producing open shots and creases, but rather an array of contested looks.

Sure, the Warriors wanted that win, but so did the Thunder, and the “1” in the Thunder’s 5-1 was a bad one.  Simply, the Thunder cannot sustain their current pace because they will not score enough points.  And, frankly, if their defense remains top 4 after losing Ibaka and Durant, I would be shocked – Steven Adams is good, but he is not THAT good.

The Thunder are atop the west.  Everyone loves that.  Do not expect it to last.

The Hawks look good. Maybe we owe Dwight Howard an apology.

            Clearly, the Thunder were the big losers of 2016 free agency, but before Durant there was Al Horford.  When Horford left the Hawks for the Celtics on a Saturday summer night, the assumption was that the Celtics would step up another level, while the Hawks were going to tumble down the standings.

The Celtics look just fine with Horford, so all is well on that front.

The Hawks?  Their demise has been exaggerated.

It was surely a surprise when the Hawks replaced Horford with Dwight Howard.  Horford was a fixture in Atlanta, while Dwight once spurned Atlanta to become a Houston Rocket.  Couple that shift with the trade of Jeff Teague, and the Hawks, despite retaining multiple pieces from last year, simply have a totally different feel and foundation.

Dwight received substantial criticism for how he orchestrated, and later handled, his exit from Orlando, and his entire season in Los Angeles.  However, he was a professional during his time in Houston.  While he was initially blamed for the Rockets’ chaos filled 41-41 season one year ago, the behind the scenes drama tends to vindicate him.  Dwight believed he was brought in to be a star next to James Harden but wound up marginalized, placed under Clint Capela (a nice young player, but no Dwight, even today) in the organizational hierarchy – it sounds like Dwight was correct.

Thus far, the Rockets are no better without Dwight.  The Hawks?  Despite the believe they would stumble, they are 4-2, and look very good with Dwight in the middle.  Dwight fits with Paul Millsap like a glove, and he fits well within the Hawks’ pick and roll, motion heavy offensive system – just like he fit well in Orlando years ago.

After all this time, Dwight is, in the young season, playing a significant cornerstone role on a likely playoff team.  Sure, he likely regrets much of his behavior in Orlando and Los Angeles during 2012 and 2013, but all of those events happened 3.5 or more years ago.  It is time to move on.

Dwight is a good NBA player. And his Hawks look just fine despite losing two of their starters from last year.

The Timberwolves: growth in young teams is not linear, and many jumped the gun on their prospective progress because of a tendency to anoint young teams and players too early.

Two years ago, the Milwaukee Bucks, in their first year with Jason Kidd at the helm and after having drafted Jabari Parker, went 41-41, and won two games in a first round playoff series against the Bulls.  The Bucks then added Greg Monroe in free agency. The response to that?  You could not find a playoff prediction for 2015-2016 that did not feature the Bucks in a prominent way.  The assumption was that the Bucks would take another step forward and be a threat in the East, or, at a minimum, would remain in the 6 seed range in the East. As we now know, the opposite happened.  The Bucks plummeted to 33-49, and missed the Playoffs without ever coming close. This year’s Bucks appears to be the Minnesota Timberwolves.  After an inspired 10-10 finish, to wind up 29-53 last year, the Timberwolves built on their momentum by naming Tom Thibodeau as their head coach.  The assumption was that Minnesota would continue their trend up the standings, and finish .500 or better, maybe even threatening to win 50 games.

In the early going, those possibilities appear extremely remote.  Ricky Rubio missing three games notwithstanding, the Timberwolves, despite fantastic individual play from Karl Anthony Towns and Anthony Wiggins, are 1-4, and Thibodeau’s impact has not yet been felt. The Wolves, without any doubt, have excellent young talent.  Towns is the game’s second best Young big behind Anthony Davis (yes, both are better than Joel Embiid, especially this early in Embiid’s Career), and Towns is going to be a sensational player.  The Wolves have the type of high ceiling young talent that should grow into a force – one day – but that day is not today. The Wolves’ struggles should be a reminder, first, that young teams rarely develop and percolate into contenders in a linear fashion.  Rather, growth either comes exponentially (compare the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 Warriors, or does not come at all (consider the post Dwight Orlando Magic kids, who have begun to be moved by the franchise as veterans are added).  In the case of the Wolves, I expect the growth to come, but their struggles are not nearly the surprise some may think.  A huge jump next year was always more likely than an interim jump this year.

The Wolves are a reminder, second, that the trend of anointing young teams and players prematurely leads to nothing but unreasonable expectations, and subsequent criticism of a failure to meet those expectations.  When the Wolves beat the 73-9 Warriors late last year, there was talk that the Wolves and Warriors would become long time powers – think of the absurdity of comparing a 29 win and 73 win team, and the burdens that places on the former.  Karl Anthony Towns was voted by GM’s as THE piece to start a franchise with, never mind all that LeBron Curry and Durant did and continue to do.  Anthony Davis went through similar hype and then did not make an all NBA team last year. Towns is a great player, right now, with potential to be even greater.  The Wolves are a young team with an abundance of potential, but that is currently not good.  Let’s not prematurely declare Towns and the Wolves as something more than what they currently are, lest we be disappointed when they “fail” to meet that lofty perch we created.

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