MINNEAPOLIS – The Wolves embark on their second west coast trip of the season after a very successful stretch of 10 of their last 12 games at home. Minnesota went 9-3 in that stretch, including its first two road wins of the season.
After starting the year a miserable 0-8 away from Target Center, the Wolves got their first two road wins during this stretch since the trade. Those wins came at Brooklyn and at Cleveland. While winning at all on the road for the first time was an achievement for the Wolves, those two wins are nothing to write home about.
Now, as the Wolves head west, they have a chance to really prove themselves as a good team. This four-game trip will feature three of the same opponents as the last west coast trip, which netted an 0-5 record that resulted in the trade of Jimmy Butler.
Since then, the Wolves have been one of the best teams in the league but winning away from Target Center is something that a great – even good – team would be able to do. They still have to prove that it’s something they can do. This trip can certainly be a start.
If the Wolves would like to make a statement to the rest of the league, then winning three out of four out west would be a good way to start. Finding a way to split between Portland and Golden State would be a success and winning at Sacramento and Phoenix are necessities. Going 2-2 on the trip would be seen as a disappointment, while going 1-3 or 0-4 would be a downright failure.
“We feel very good. We have momentum going into this west coast trip,” Robert Covington said. “Guys were dealing with a lot of stuff mentally [prior to the last west coast trip] now it’s a different mindset, different team. Guys are playing more freely, and our mindset has been different. Now, we’re going into this road trip more confident.”
Robert Covington’s effect
It’s no secret that Covington has changed the defense for the Wolves. Their numbers have been among the NBA’s best since the trade was made in mid-November. He’s been a big reason as to why things have been so much better for the Wolves at that end of the floor.
Last season Covington was named First-Team All-Defense for the first time in his career as a member of the 76ers. This year, he’s elevated his game at the end of the floor and has made a case as one of the best defenders in the NBA.
When the Defensive Player of the Year award is brought up, the names that often dominate the talk nationally are Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert.
Part of the reason that Covington wasn’t recognized as a great defender across the league until last year was the fact that Philadelphia wasn’t a very good team until late last season. The Sixers were 25-25 on the season before finishing on a 27-5 spurt. It was during that time that Covington said he started to receive recognition for how well he played defense.
He’s been getting the credit for the Wolves defensive turnaround and rightfully so. They’ve been one of the best defensive teams in the league since he stepped on the floor in the Minnesota uniform. It’s time that the talk to Covington to be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year begins nationally. He’s arguably been the best defensive player in the league since arriving and there’s no reason to think that will slow down anytime soon.
This road trip will feature the Trail Blazers, Warriors, Kings, and Suns over the next 10 days. The Suns have been the worst team in the NBA this year, but the other three are right in the thick of the playoff race through a quarter of the season. In fact, the same would be true if you replaced the first three teams with any other Western Conference opponent.
Entering play on Saturday the top spot in the Western Conference was occupied by the Denver Nuggets with a 17-8 record on the season. The Houston Rockets are 5.5 games behind Denver for first place, and they’re all the way down in 14th. There’s very little separation at all in the Western Conference right now.
“We talked about that last year, and we thought that [the lack of separation] was unusual, and I’ve never seen something like this,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I think that competition should bring the best out of you. That’s why we look forward to it and I think we have the right type of guys that are embracing that challenge.”
For comparison’s sake, at this time last season the Houston Rockets were leading the Western Conference with a 19-4 record and had a lead of 12.5 games over 14th place Sacramento. Back then there were only nine teams that looked like legitimate playoff squads, with eight of them at or above .500. This season 11 teams are currently .500 or better with just a gap of two games between eighth-place Sacramento and 14th place Houston.