By Dom Thoemke
After a comfortable 102–88 win last Monday, 2/27, night in Sacramento, the Timberwolves sit 24–36, 3 games out of the 8th seed in the Western Conference at the current time of writing. Despite the loss of Zach Lavine for the season to a torn ACL, there is a renewed sense of optimism around the team. Though rumors abounded prior to the trade deadline of a Ricky Rubio for Derrick Rose swap, the Wolves wisely stood pat. So, the question here is, should Wolves fans even want them to make the playoffs? This writer says no, the best they could do is the 8th seed and an inevitable sweep (or at best a 5-game series loss) at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. The Wolves owe a 1st-round pick to Atlanta for the Adreian Payne trade that is lottery-protected through 2020. At this point, despite how great it would be for the morale of the team and fans to make the playoffs, holding on to a lottery pick in the deepest draft in years would obviously be better.
The season started with high expectations, with the addition of Thibodeau as coach and the expected continued growth and maturation of their “Big Three” of 21-and-unders (Wiggins, Towns and Lavine). Tyus Jones was coming off the Vegas Summer League MVP (Recent winners include Damian Lillard and Jonas Valanciunas, so it’s not entirely meaningless) and 1st round pick Kris Dunn seemed NBA-ready, to the point that Rubio was expected to be expendable at some point. Given this preseason optimism, many NBA experts predicted a dark-horse playoff candidate, which is still true, I guess, but 45–50 wins was the expectation of many. Unfortunately, they started very slowly, losing 18 of their first 24 games.
They seemed to create new ways to lose, often blowing double-digit leads in the process. They were the one of the best first-half teams in basketball, if not the best, but far and away the worst 3rd-quarter team through those first 24 games. No need to rehash it all, but they obviously struggled a great deal in “clutch” situations. They were struggling on defense, especially holding leads, despite a top 10 offense. Things began to change on December 13, with Thibodeau returning to Chicago for the first time since his acrimonious departure. The Wolves rallied from a 21-point deficit to win 99–94, the biggest comeback in the NBA this year. Starting with that Chicago game, the Wolves are now 18–18 over their last 36 games, with the 9th ranked offense (108.7) by points per possession over that span. More importantly, they rank 14th on defense (107.2 PPP) and 10th in net rating (+1.5 PPP) over that span. Karl-Anthony Towns has been absolute beast during this portion of the season averaging 25.7 ppg on 55.4 FG%, 32.7 3PT FG%, 84.9 FT% and 60 TS%, very impressive numbers for a 7-footer. He also has averaged 13.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 blocks in that time frame. Wiggins has been inconsistent, but that’s to be expected for a 21 year old. He’s averaging 23.4/4.2/2.5, but has had some huge scoring nights including back-to-back 40 point games before the break. Lavine was averaging 18.9 ppg before the injury, and very much improved on his shooting. Dieng has been so-so, and Bjelica has been wildly inconsistent. Jones and Muhammad have had some big moments inthe clutch, but are still defensive liabilities. Rubio’s game has remained stagnant, great passing, not able to shoot well enough for defense’s not to sag off of him on the perimeter. Dunn hasn’t been reliable enough to get crucial minutes. The bench has been completely worthless in many games, causing Thibodeau to use the starters for more minutes than desired, and a tactic he has been heavily criticized for from his Bulls’ days.
So where do we go from here? The remaining schedule looks brutal. There are still visits to San Antonio and Utah on the current road trip, followed by home games against the LA Clippers and GS Warriors in the next 10 days. A visit from Washington follows in mid-March, followed by a road trip to Boston and a visit from San Antonio. A 3 game road trip, plus a visit from the Lakers concludes their March schedule. They close with 5 of 6 on the road, with the lone home game against OKC. The playoffs look out of reach. It’s been a disappointing season, based on perhaps too high expectations going in, but it is reminiscent of the OKC team from 2008–2009.
That team had a young Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, started 3–29, but won 20 of their last 50 games on the path to respectability. They added James Harden and won 50 games and made the playoffs as the 8th seed the following season. They lost to the defending champion Lakers, pushing the series to 6 games, which were highly competitive. They won the division the following year, and again lost a highly competitive series in the Conference Finals to the eventual champs, Dallas. They took the next step in 2012, rallying from a 2–0 deficit to the Spurs in the WCF, winning 4 in a row to make the NBA Finals, before succumbing to LeBron and the Heat (Then traded Harden that off season, for financial reasons, the new CBA makes this situation less likely as far as keeping your own players) If the Wolves can come even remotely close to this trajectory, the optimism around this team is well-founded going forward. There are rumors of Jimmy Butler being available this off season, and reuniting with Thibodeau would be ideal for both parties. It may cost Rubio and Lavine or the lottery pick, but I believe a Big 3 with Butler, Wiggins and Towns would be formidable enough to chase a 4 or 5 seed next year. I can’t wait to see the next couple years of this team’s development.