Luol Deng is one of the veteran, respected voices in the Timberwolves locker room and after 15 seasons in the NBA, he can sense the mood of a team as well as anyone.
The Wolves sit 6½ games back of a playoff spot after falling face-down in their last five road games. Last week’s 0-3 road trip through Atlanta, Indianapolis and Washington felt like that last gasp of playoff relevancy for the Wolves and on Friday, Deng opened up about the state of the team.
When talking about this season Deng said, “Mentally it’s been a lot.”
“We wanted to turn it around,” he said. “It’s not easy to turn it around in the NBA during the season.”
Especially not when the Wolves went through all they did. Deng alluded to the Jimmy Butler melodrama and interim coach Ryan Saunders taking over for Tom Thibodeau in January as taking a toll on the Wolves bit by bit. The end result is where the Wolves are now — five games below .500 in a cutthroat Western Conference, the same amount of games below .500 they were when they traded Butler. Deng, who missed the past four games because of a sore Achilles, said his view from the sideline has made one thing clear.
“I would say the last run that we’ve had … we just seem a bit mentally heavy,” Deng said. “Just a lot going on. In this game, most of the teams doing well really just the only thing in their mind is just basketball. I just feel like a lot of changes this year and guys have done a good job. But it’s very painful to watch right now and I know that we really wanted to make the playoff and make that push to change the whole season.”
The Wolves still have 17 games left, so what happens over that time?
For one, the health of Robert Covington, out again Saturday because of a right knee bone bruise, is still questionable. After it appeared Covington was close to returning — he practiced with the G-League Iowa Wolves last week in anticipation of a return — Saunders is more pessimistic about Covington’s prognosis going forward after he didn’t practice Friday.
“We’re further evaluating him,” Saunders said. “We don’t have a timetable. Obviously you want things to progress quickly, but he’s under further evaluation right now.”
Saunders put to rest any notion that Covington’s delayed comeback from his injury means the Wolves are tanking to improve their draft odds.
“We’re competing and we’re not out of it until we’re out of it,” Saunders said. “We’re competing. So we want to put forth our best team on the court.”
Saunders admitted keeping the Wolves focused during this time was going to be a “challenge.”
“But it’s a challenge that we only have a couple rookies on this team who haven’t been through these types of situations,” Saunders said. “So we understand, we’re professionals too and it’s about trying to keep guys engaged and just continue to take everything day by day.”
Deng used similar language — the typical talking point that the Wolves just have to keep moving one game, one day at a time, since there isn’t much they can do about the past.
“You know what the situation is already,” Deng said. “But you just got to try to be as competitive as you can.”