Close your eyes, turn on your imagination — and while you’re turning — turn the other cheek so as to allow yourself to be punched in the face by Aaron Afflalo’s haymaker.

With that type of velocity, a knuckle-sandwich to the temple should do the trick of erasing the memory of Minnesota’s embarrassing Tuesday evening loss to the Orlando Magic while also possibly deleting the thought of Thursday’s national television loss to the Houston Rockets.

Do this because, if erased, it is easier to revert back to the idea that the Wolves have been on fire of late. Prior to the Orlando matchup, Minnesota was the best team in the NBA.

Okay, not actually the best team, but they did have the best net-rating, best offense and fifth-best defense in the NBA over the most-recent 30-day span.

Efficiency Ratings Dec. 16 – Jan. 16

Team Net Rating Offensive Rating Defensive Rating
Minnesota Timberwolves +10.4 114.3 (1st) 103.9 (5th)
Golden State Warriors +6.6 112.6 (2nd) 106.0 (12th)
Toronto Raptors +5.5 110.5 (6th) 105.0 (10th)
Boston Celtics +5.3 104.8 (19th) 99.5 (1st)
San Antonio Spurs +5.1 104.8 (21st) 99.7 (2nd)
LA Clippers +4.7 110.3 (8th) 105.6 (11th)
Oklahoma City Thunder +4.4 111.9 (3rd) 107.5 (17th)
Philadelphia 76ers +2.7 105.2 (17th) 102.5 (3rd)
Miami Heat +2.6 106.0 (14th) 103.4 (4th)
New Orleans Pelicans +2.4 110.7 (5th) 108.3 (21st)

This surge propelled the Wolves all the way to the fifth-best record in the entire NBA — and the third seed in the West — by the end of Martin Luther King Day’s slate of games.

The losses to Orlando and Houston dropped Minnesota back below San Antonio — to the four-seed — but the idea that the Wolves can finish the season with the third-best record in the West is not outlandish.

For an irrelevant, 31-win, 13-seed a season ago that is a coup.

To — in one season — bound from irrelevance to a proliferation of wins worthy of a three-seed is relatively unheard of in the NBA. In recent history, this has happened three times — two of which included the addition of LeBron James. The third is Minnesota’s Saturday evening’s opponent, the Toronto Raptors.

The New Raptors?

Toronto’s rebound to relevance in 2013 required the PG-13 version of what has happened in Minnesota over the past 13 years — the last time the Wolves were in the playoffs.

In 2005, Toronto traded the best player in franchise history (Vince Carter). The Raptors followed up that miscue by hiring a new general manager and drafting terribly — Rafael Araujo (eighth overall, 2004), Charlie Villanueva (seventh overall, 2005) and Andrea Bargnani (first overall, 2006).

Unsurprisingly, this led to six straight seasons without a winning record.

Over that span of time, they fired three coaches (including Sam Mitchell) and moved on from a general manager (Bryan Colangelo) who earned his reputation in the 90’s.

Things finally began to stabilize after trimming the fat on one-dimensional players (Rudy Gay and Jose Calderon) and trading for a previously unhappy player (Kyle Lowry) who became a superstar after changing zip codes.

After finishing the previous season with 34 wins, in 2013-14 the Raptors were relevant overnight — surfacing as the 3-seed in the playoffs.

Sounds familiar, right?

Minnesota’s recent ascension to three-seed conversation can’t help but draw parallels. The Wolves have separated themselves in the standings from the Western Conference middle-class — Oklahoma City, Portland, Denver, New Orleans, LA Clippers — and have set their sights on a San Antonio team that is, now, without Kawhi Leonard indefinitely.

On a smaller and more recent scale, parallels between the two teams can also be made. It is hard to go through the standings and find a team that better mirrors Toronto (31-13) than Minnesota (29-18).

When ranking the NBA population — specifically for this season — the first difficult question comes after Golden State, Houston, and Boston.

Sure, Cleveland and San Antonio deserve legacy votes here, but the league’s two oldest rosters are going through their respective strifes. San Antonio has sustained admirably but clearly lose their teeth without Leonard. Cleveland has LeBron and an uncanny ability to “flip the switch” but what exactly the switch can generate has become increasingly questionable.

If the Cavs and Spurs are skipped over, Toronto deserves the nod with a better record and statistical profile than anyone else, but Minnesota is close.

The Raptors are currently better than the Wolves, perhaps because they have had three more years to evolve than this Wolves team.

After making that initial leap in 2013, Toronto proceeded to progress slowly year-over-year through 2016.

Year Record Playoffs?
2012-13 Raptors 34-48 n/a
2013-14 Raptors 48-34 L in 1st Round
2014-15 Raptors 49-33 L in 1st Round
2015-16 Raptors 56-26 L in East Finals
2016-17 Raptors 51-31 L in East Semis

The idea that the Wolves have not fully evolved into the Raptors would have been much more appealing if presented a year ago. After the 2016-17, Toronto was coming off a 56-win season that ended in taking The King and the Cavs to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Toronto was, then, a team on the precipice. Now the idea that the Raports are very good, but not great, is beginning to sink in.

Avoiding Becoming The Raptors

Watching a Raptors game — like their Friday evening victory over the Spurs — is an impressive piece of work. They have the league’s fourth-best offense and sixth-best defense yet there is a growing sentiment of “not quite enough.”

They need more talent, specifically, more top-end talent. Talent infusions are, however, tough to come by while already “very good.” Those type of infusions typically requires (at least) one of three things: draft picks, internal development, or premier free agent signings.

As a perennial 50-win team, re-stocking via the draft is tough. That said, the Raptors have used those picks admirably.

  • 2015: Delon Wright, 20th overall
  • 2016: Pascal Siakam, 27th overall
  • 2017: OG Anunoby, 23rd overall

Those players have grown just as Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and Lucas Nogueira — three players who first played for Toronto’s G-League affiliate — have developed.

Despite those strides, the same issue remains: the top-end talent is still just DeMar DeRozan and Lowry.

After signing DeRozan for $139 million over five years and Lowry for $100 million over three, the Raptors have hit a financial wall that prevents free agent acquisitions. Even perfect drafts and excellent internal development may not be able to break through that barrier.

With Andrew Wiggins’ $148 million extension kicking in next season, the Wolves are headed towards a similar obstacle. This is because beginning in 2019-20, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler can each sign five-year contracts for up to $190 million.

Optimistically, that is three stars in Minnesota to Toronto’s two but it is not all roses. The Wolves would need to draft in the same exceptional way the Raptors have while also developing Wiggins into his ceiling — ironically, something that looks like DeRozan.

For now, that is all science fiction.

As it stands today, the northernmost teams of the Eastern and Western Conferences parallel in quality. Their matchup Saturday evening presents a telling intersection of two similar franchises on different timelines.


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