Through five preseason contests, Tom Thibodeau’s Timberwolves did little to inspire hope for a successful regular season to come.
Not only did Jimmy Butler’s devious antics humiliate the franchise, but a band of dejected teammates also performed woefully in his absence. The Wolves finished their stint of exhibition matchups 1-4; a lone victory came more than two weeks ago against the Golden State Warriors.
In four games since then, the beleaguered bunch was outscored by a staggering margin of 509-430.
But the Wolves aren’t the only team with lofty aspirations that fell flat through the preseason. The New Orleans Pelicans finished 1-4 with a Net Rating of minus-10.3 while the Boston Celtics were 1-3 with a minus-5.3 Net Rating.
“I been on teams that we won – what it used to be eight preseason games? – we won seven of ‘em and had a shitty year,” Wolves guard Derrick Rose explained after Monday’s practice. “And we had preseasons where we won one or two games and had a great year. It’s all about what you take out of it.”
If the 2018-19 Wolves get off to a respectable start, that handful of performances will be all but forgotten.
But if they don’t, it will have been a glaring precursor to a discombobulated campaign.
Questions about their young duo and this team’s appetite for advancement with/without Jimmy Butler will begin to sort themselves out on Wednesday night.
Those same questions will be answered more thoroughly through six months of entertaining home stands, excursive road trips and exhaustive back-to-backs. But the undertaking begins when the Wolves and Spurs tip-off in San Antonio; after that, all bets are off.
Analyzing The Regular Season Schedule
Following their opening game against the Spurs, the Wolves return home to face off against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 19 – a night that will evoke no shortage of emotions after the team’s gloomy summer. From there, Thibodeau’s group will get its feet wet with their first back-to-back of the season; the very next night, the Wolves face off against the revamped Mavericks in Dallas.
When analyzing an NBA schedule, back-to-back contests are a primary point of observation. If a team has to play two games in consecutive nights, they’re at an inherent disadvantage against the second opponent. In 2018-19, the Wolves will endure 13 back-to-backs, marginally fewer than the league average mark of 13.3 and their 2017-18 total of 15.
What’s interesting is where those hardships will be sprinkled throughout the season.
The Wolves are slated to play just seven back-to-backs through 57 games before February’s All-Star festivities – that’s one every 12.3 matchups. But in 24 games after All-Star weekend, the Wolves will play six back-to-backs (one every four games).
And though it’s difficult to project where an opposing team will stand when they wind up facing the Wolves, preseason expectations can indicate especially difficult areas of a schedule.
The Wolves play eight contests during the month of October. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, their opponents during that time project to win an average of 42.8 games. Before the calendar even turns to November, they will have faced off against the Spurs, Pacers, Raptors, Bucks, Lakers and Jazz – six squads with lofty ambitions.
After that, they embark on their most advantageous stretch of the season, at least as it relates to the quality of opponent. From Nov. 1 through Feb. 28 – more than half of their 82 games – the Wolves’ typical challenger projects as just a 39.3-win group.
Still, over the same period, only 46 percent of their games will be played at Target Center. But that’s a double-edged sword that could pierce in the Wolves’ favor – if they play more favorable competition on the road, it means that they play more challenging games in front of a hometown crowd.
The most daunting obstacle that lays ahead is a brigade of games that won’t be faced until the snow begins to melt in the streets of Minneapolis. By that point, the Butler drama will presumably have subsided and the Wolves will have a firm understanding of their potential.
If they’re in position to make a push, the homestretch won’t be easy.
Of the team’s final 20 games – beginning March first and spanning the rest of the season – 14 opponents project to make the playoffs. This duration of time includes two contests against each of the Warriors, Thunder, Nuggets and Wizards as well as one against the Rockets, Jazz, Raptors, 76ers and Heat.
A majority of those tilts (55-percent) will be played at home.
To place a cherry on top of this group’s challenging regular season sundae, the Wolves finish things off with a home-to-road back-to-back that takes them from their comfort zone in Minneapolis, against the dangerous Raptors, to the altitude of Denver.
If those games prove consequential, victories won’t come without a fight.
It all starts on Wednesday
On Wednesday night – when the opening tip goes up between the Wolves and Spurs – every line of preseason evaluation flies out of the window and tumbles away like the core of an apple behind a speeding pickup.
As the Wolves prepare for action, there’s no shortage of storylines they’d prefer to leave in their dust.
“Boo me, ain’t going to change the way I play,” remarked Butler – who remains on the roster despite demanding a trade earlier this summer. “Probably going to make me smile more; please come on with it.”
Evidently, Butler plans to suit up for the Wolves despite any turmoil that surrounds his continued employment. Adjacent the team’s all-NBA wing, the roster is healthy and trimmed to fourteen.
Meanwhile, their first opponent has strolled down injury lane en route to Wednesday’s matchup.
First, Spurs rookie Lonnie Walker IV tore his meniscus in a preseason game against the Detroit Pistons on Oct. 5. Two days later, sophomore point-guard Dejuante Murray suffered a torn ACL in his right knee versus the Houston Rockets – likely ending his season. To make matters worse, Derick White – the player expected to replace Murray in the Spurs’ starting lineup – was sidelined with a plantar fascia tear in his left heel.
The 2017-18 Spurs had 11 players compile more than 1,000 minutes; two have since signed elsewhere, two are injured, one was traded and another retired – only five will be active for Wednesday’s game.
“We can’t use that as an excuse,” All-Star newcomer DeMar DeRozan explained to Spurs’ media, “we have to use that as motivation and I understand that every single guy that goes out there and dresses up has to do a little bit more.”
Putting aside the depth of their misfortune, a group led by DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and head coach Gregg Popovich will sow fear in the minds of even their fiercest competition.
“They still have a lot of guys who have been there,” Thibodeau remarked after Monday’s practice. “Patty Mills has been a cornerstone. Gasol has been there a number of years. So there are a lot of pieces that are still there.”
After months of public malcontent, the Wolves have a chance to put their best foot forward against a depleted opponent on Wednesday night. If they’re able to pull out what would still be a surprising victory, their sights will shift toward two winnable games against the Cavaliers and Mavericks.
With hope slipping from their grasp, the Wolves have an opportunity to rewrite a somber story during the season’s opening weekend.
Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) contributed to this story.