After a hard-fought victory over the Golden State Warriors, the Minnesota Timberwolves moved to 7-2 on the season and into the top four seeds of the Western Conference. That included an unbeaten four-game homestand where the Wolves beat the reigning champion Denver Nuggets and Eastern Conference favorite Boston Celtics, handing them their first loss of the season.
Of course, longtime followers of this team know the Wolves have been capable of upsetting great teams for several years when they’re in the right mindset. Ever since the beginning of the 2021-22 season, they have been capable of beating anyone in the league. For better and worse, they have looked like a team that plays to the standard of their opposition.
The Wolves have been capable of following up a remarkable, gritty defeat of a strong team with an atrocious display against a losing or tanking team. They have faced a lot of criticism, and rightly so, about their inability to beat bad teams.
Last season’s most surreal statistic is that the Wolves had a winning record against teams above .500 and a losing record against teams below .500. Across an entire season, that is far too big of a sample size to be insignificant. The Wolves lost seven games against the four worst teams in the NBA. If they had won just three or four of those seven, they would have finished in the fourth or 5th seed and faced a far more favorable matchup in the first round.
There were various reasons why the Wolves played down to their competition. They were one of the worst third-quarter teams in the league last season. They would often lead at halftime only to have their opponents blow them away in the 12 minutes that followed. There was undoubtedly an element of underestimating opponents, and this league has far too many talented players not to take every game seriously.
The Timberwolves also had trouble identifying the genesis of this issue. You’d think a few losses to bad teams would be a wake-up call for the players. Unfortunately, it was a theme throughout the entire season. Minnesota underestimated their sub-.500 opponents, had lifeless performances and played selfish hero ball in the fourth quarter. It was a recipe for disaster. If the Wolves had won just a few more of these games in recent years, they would already be considered a far more serious threat in the West.
The Timberwolves are undeniably better than last season. Anyone who has watched the first eight games can see that. But the Wolves already had a winning record of over .500 teams when they were worse, so what kind of record could they have if they beat the bad teams this season? If their record improves against the bad teams, they will be one of the best regular season teams in the league, assuming they continue to compete with the good teams.
Say the Wolves avoid defeat all but once or twice to the four worst teams in the league, and their record against winning teams remains the same. In that case, they are likely to be a 50-win team. And it’s not unreasonable to think of that as a floor, not a ceiling, at this stage. After all, the front office built a team that can dismantle the Nuggets, the Western Conference favorites.
That’s why Minnesota’s 122-101 victory over the shorthanded Pelicans was so significant. In the hours before tip-off, the Pelicans announced that neither Zion Williamson nor Herb Jones would be playing. With CJ McCollum also out, New Orleans was seriously undermanned. And yet, the Wolves dispatched them with the confidence you might expect from one of the best teams in the league.
Two days later, they beat the San Antonio Spurs 117-110 on the road. That was a positive sign for an entirely different reason. The Timberwolves got stuck in a dogfight with a Gregg Popovich team that will scrap to beat anyone. The Wolves were not playing their best in the first half, yet they still led by two entering the third. It was ugly basketball. Still, there was a desire and grittiness about them that had been absent in years previous, and they managed to get the win. They beat two bad teams before playing the Golden State Warriors, and each win was significant for different reasons.
It’s far easier to do this with an elite defensive unit. Gobert is returning to his defensive player of the year levels, and Minnesota’s perimeter defense from the guards and wings has been excellent. If the defense remains elite, bad teams will struggle to score. Crucially, that means that the offense can still have off nights, and the games remain close. For many Wolves fans, beating bad and undermanned teams is a far bigger indication of potential contending status than beating good teams.