As we enter the 2022-23 NBA season, fans around the NBA have their eyes on the Minnesota Timberwolves, waiting to see the results of their big offseason. They added all-NBA caliber center Rudy Gobert, arguably the most significant move in the entire offseason. But Tim Connelly and Co. also signed notable role players like Kyle Anderson and Austin Rivers. Many fans are anticipating the Wolves to take a leap this upcoming year and become a true contender in the Western Conference.
What it means to be a true contender in the NBA could vary from person to person. However, a reasonably significant marker for any league team is usually a good indicator of them being one of the top-tier contenders for either a championship or Finals run.
We’re talking about the 50-win mark.
Naturally, many factors go into a team reaching 50 wins in any given season, such as their game schedule, roster depth, injuries, etc. However, a team that reaches 50 wins usually ends up as one of the better teams in their respective conference, with a real chance for a deep playoff run.
The Wolves can reach 50 wins this year. Their new roster will have to develop chemistry relatively quickly and suffer few significant injuries. Still, the biggest thing that could lead the Wolves to their first 50-plus-win season in almost 20 years will be their ability to finish close games. They’ll need to become one of the better clutch-performing teams in the league.
Last season, 38 of Minnesota’s 82 games finished in the clutch. Officially, the league defines clutch as any game where five or fewer minutes remain in the game, and the scoring margin is within five points. The Wolves finished with a 20-18 record in those 38 games and were ranked 16th in the league regarding clutch-performing teams.
The Timberwolves weren’t necessarily a bad team in the clutch, but their overall performance as a team declined in clutch games as opposed to their overall season level of performance. In the 38 clutch games the Wolves played last year, their offensive and defensive rating was 106.5 and 107.4, respectively, which paled in comparison to their ratings of 114.3 and 111.7 throughout the regular season. Their effective field goal percentage in clutch games also was lower than their season average, falling from 53.9 to 48.8 in clutch games.
According to fivethirtyeight.com, through the all-star break last season, The Wolves resorted to many isolation plays in the clutch, which was calculated by the rate increase in iso plays per 100 possessions. Overall in their season, the Wolves averaged 15.95 isos per 100 possessions, but in the clutch, that jumped to an average of 25.93 isos per 100 possessions. This marked a 62.59% rate increase in iso plays in the clutch for the Wolves, which led the league to the all-star break last season. Edwards served as Minnesota’s primary isolation player, jumping from 8.18% to 9.20% iso frequency per 100 possessions in the clutch compared to normal gameplay.
Edwards can be Minnesota’s go-to guy in the clutch. He can even become one of the better clutch players in the league over time. But the Wolves likely had mediocre success in the clutch last year because they mostly resorted to isos and fell off defensively in close games. Most of the best teams in the clutch last year did not divert away from their usual style of play. To become better in the clutch, the Wolves shouldn’t either.
With all-star level talents in Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and D’Angelo Russell, and their outstanding level of play on the fastbreak, the Wolves could stick to their traditional style of offense in the clutch. They should only run isolations for Edwards when they believe it is the best decision or matchup for a specific clutch game.
Also, the Wolves are expected to increase their defensive efficiency with the addition of Gobert significantly. Therefore, with Gobert manning the paint and Minnesota’s capable defenders in Jaden McDaniels and Ant on the wings, the Wolves could have a better defensive rating in the clutch than last season. The only caveat is that Chris Finch and the coaching staff can’t lean on Gobert’s interior defense like the Utah Jazz when facing opposing teams who played with five men out on the perimeter.
Throughout the last eight NBA regular seasons, there has been an average of over three teams in the West that win 50+ games per year. Every team representing the West in the NBA Finals won at least 50 games during the regular season in each of those same seasons.
Nothing is set in stone in any given season, of course. There is always a fighter’s chance for a team not to reach 50 wins and still make a potentially deep playoff run. In 2021, the 46-win Los Angeles Clippers took the 51-win, second-seeded Phoenix Suns to a competitive six-game series in the Western Conference Finals. And they did so without Kawhi Leonard. However, a 50-plus win team is usually likelier to win the Western Conference and be a true contender for a championship run.
The Wolves have reached 50 wins four times in franchise history. They all came during the prime Kevin Garnett era from 2000 to 2004. Since then, the Wolves have reached at least 40 wins in four different seasons, including last season when they finished with 46 wins, but they have yet to reach 50 wins since that 2004 season.
Ultimately, Minnesota’s level of play in the clutch this upcoming year could be the difference between another 45-ish win season and cracking the 50-win marker. Currently, ESPN’s stat-based win projections have the Timberwolves at 45.7 wins. While Wolves fans may not be too pleased with this projection, it is possible that with some consistency and efficient play in the clutch, Minnesota could be a 50-win team and a true contender in the West this season.