As the NBA season nears the halfway point amid the COVID chaos, now may be the perfect time to reflect on preseason expectations and align them with the current reality. For the Minnesota Timberwolves, a 15-16 start is an accomplishment, given all that has unfolded this year.
Entering the season, according to Vegas Insider, the Timberwolves were tied with the Toronto Raptors for the eighth-lowest win total at 35.5 wins. In the middle of an impressive four-game win streak, their current pace has them pegged to win 41 games this year and cash the over by a comfortable margin. While there’s a lot of basketball to be played, Chris Finch and Co. have to be pleased with what has transpired the last couple of weeks, especially after a slow start.
Minnesota started 3-7, and the doubt began to creep in. The Karl-Anthony Towns trade whispers made the rounds while others pondered the idea of dumping D’Angelo Russell and others to try and acquire Ben Simmons. Minnesota responded shortly after losing six straight by winning seven of eight. The roller coaster ride didn’t end there.
After that run, the Wolves dropped five in a row before ripping off four straight wins. It hasn’t been the smoothest path to get back to .500, but take a look around the NBA and specifically the Western Conference — they’ve put themselves in a good spot.
The external preseason expectations of 35.5 wins likely wouldn’t be good enough for a playoff spot. At 15-16, though, Minnesota finds itself right in the thick of things. This confident bunch is currently the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference and only three games out of the four-seed. That’s something Minnesota would’ve signed on the dotted line for 10 times out of 10 before the year started. It’s still fair to ask if it is sustainable, and will the Wolves be there when game 82 concludes and the playoffs arrive? A lot of it won’t be in the Wolves’ control.
All of this should be prefaced by noting that the unpredictability of COVID and positive tests will continue to play a significant factor when the playoff races start to dial-up as winter turns to spring in the coming months. There’s no telling how some of these head-to-head matchups may look as one team after another is getting battered by outbreaks. However, it’s worth looking at how the teams around Minnesota have fared when they’ve been at what is considered full strength this year.
It’s safe to say the New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets, and Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t going anywhere this year. Zion Williamson may not suit up for a single game in the Big Easy. The Rockets are in a full-on rebuild, and so are the Thunder. All three have only 10 wins so far this year.
The San Antonio Spurs are hanging around. But the odds of them putting it all together for a playoff spot seems unlikely. Then there are the teams directly around Minnesota.
The Los Angeles Lakers look like just another team but rest assured, pseudo general manager LeBron James will make moves at the deadline when it becomes necessary. The Portland Trail Blazers have been a mess, and Damian Lillard keeps reiterating his intentions to remain with the franchise as the losses keep piling up. The Los Angeles Clippers have put together a hell of a 16-15 start, given that they’ve done it without Kawhi Leonard. However, Paul George has displayed his true value as an All-Pro caliber player.
So, what do we make of Minnesota going forward?
They haven’t downgraded from a year ago, and it’s not a franchise that’s looking to build in the years to come like Houston or OKC. They want to and expect to win now. The young pillars of Towns and Anthony Edwards have been brilliant. DLo, the second-tier star player, has been what he’s always been: A streaky shooter who is a sniper when he gets going.
Patrick Beverley‘s contributions can’t be ignored: His play, attitude, and leadership have been outstanding. Jarred Vanderbilt is the quiet yet steady player rounding out part of that core five for Finch. Minnesota is playing with confidence, they’re playing with momentum, and they’ve shown an ability to knock off some of the better teams in the association.
At this point, the Wolves faithful may as well buckle up and expect nothing short of a playoff berth this year. The bottom of the West is atrocious, and Minnesota is a decent team. In years past, yes, there have been teases from the Timberwolves that have turned out to be fraudulent. This genuinely doesn’t feel like one of those cases.
Is this a team that can make some noise in the West come playoff time? That seems unlikely. However, like the 15-16 start the Wolves would sign up for, there isn’t a fan in Timberwolves who would be disappointed if this team just makes the playoffs this year, and that’s as far as they go. That is something everyone would have signed up for as well.