What Can We Take Away From These Late-Season Wins?

Photo Credit: Chris Nicoll (USA TODAY Sports)

Buckle up, Minnesota Timberwolves fans!

The Wolves have won three of their last four games, including back-to-back wins over the Western Conference first-place Utah Jazz. Sure, the Jazz didn’t have Donovan Mitchell for either game, and Minnesota only has 18 wins on the season, but don’t ruin this for us! We need something to celebrate!

But, what does it all mean, and what can we take from it? That’s a great question. Between winning too many games and wanting to put the pieces in place for next year, I’ve waffled a lot on how badly I want the team to actually win. But I have no control over that, so instead, let’s examine what we have learned and can learn moving forward.

Here have been my three takeaways from what we’ve seen from the Timberwolves lately:

Elephant In The Room

You can’t talk about the Timberwolves winning games without discussing how it impacts their chance of keeping their 2021 draft pick.

To recap: If they land a top-three pick in the lottery, the Wolves will keep their pick. If not, they lose it to the Golden State Warriors due to the D’Angelo Russell/Andrew Wiggins swap. Right now, they are 18-44. That’s the second-worst record in the league, but the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons are only a half-game and a full game back — or ahead? — respectively. If Minnesota falls to the fourth-worst record in the league, their lottery odds will dip from 40.1% to 36.6%. That’s not a huge drop-off, but every percentage point counts here.

If the Wolves fall out of the top three, they won’t have a pick at all in the upcoming draft, and it will be really difficult to think of the 2020-21 season as anything other than a complete disaster — even with these impressive late-season wins. However, add Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, or Evan Mobley to a roster with Anthony Edwards, a healthy Karl-Anthony Towns, Malik Beasley, and you might as well plan the parade route now.

I hate to say that a single pick will change the next decade for a team, but that’s exactly what it’s looking like for the Timberwolves. It can’t be understated how important it is for the team to keep this pick.

Russell Off the Bench?

On our 10,000 Layups podcast (shameless plug!) a few weeks ago, Julian Andrews and I discussed what Russell’s best role on a contending team would be. We agreed that it was probably a player coming off the bench — think in a Lou Williams on steroids role. This helps limit Russell’s sometimes not-so-great decision-making or at least makes it less obvious when he’s the heat check guy off the bench.

Now, is this a realistic option? Probably not. He’s playing on a max contract, and he’ll almost certainly be the team’s starting point guard next season. But…it’s at least something to think about. As we’ve learned in the NBA, it’s not always about who starts the games but who finishes them.

Here are Russell’s stats as a starter this season and coming off the bench. It’s worth noting that Chris Finch took over when Russell mostly came off the bench, so that’s also a factor.

Starter Off The Bench
28.9 MPG 26.2 MPG
19.3 PPG 19.8 PPG
5.1 APG 5.2 APG
2.5 RPG 2.5 RPG
42.6 FG% 48.1 FG%
40.1 3P% 43.8 3P%
75 FT% 87.8 FT%

If Russell’s ego can handle coming off the bench, it could be a win for everyone in 2021-22 whether the Wolves have Ricky Rubio, Cunningham, or Suggs starting at point guard.

You Can’t Ignore Finch’s Impact

For as bad as the process to hire Finch was, it’s hard to ignore his impact on the team. The Wolves have won 11 games already under Finch in 31 games compared to just seven with Ryan Saunders in the same amount of games.

Russell’s game-winning layup against the Jazz was a good example of how Finch, a basketball lifer, is helping. I’m not entirely sure the layup was the exact plan considering Rubio threw the pass with about 0.2 seconds left on the five-second clock, but it worked! Do you want to know a great way to get the locker room to invest and believe in a coach? Have things like this happen:

Draft picks aside, these next 10 games will be crucial for Finch as he tries to figure out who should play where and where the team needs upgrades as he heads into an offseason of preparation. As a 51-year-old first-time head coach, you better believe he’ll do everything he can this offseason to ensure the Wolves are set up for success in his first full season as a head coach.

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Photo Credit: Chris Nicoll (USA TODAY Sports)

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