The West Is Wide Open For the Wolves

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

With Wednesday night’s come-from-behind overtime win against the Golden State Warriors, the Minnesota Timberwolves have beaten every other team in the Western Conference this season. By the transitive property, that means they are NBA champions, no need to question the math any further. They also have at least one loss against every other team in the West except for the Los Angeles Lakers, which means we all have to marry our mother-in-law. The West is wide open this season, and the Wolves are right in the middle of the action. As of writing, they’re in the playoffs sitting in the sixth seed at 28-26. Minnesota is only a game behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the fourth seed. However, they’re only three games up on the Lakers, who are in 13th and 1.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers, who are 11th and currently outside the play-in.

On any given night, the Timberwolves can bounce around the standings from 4th to 10th. With only two teams, the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, fully committed to the tanking for Victor Wembanyama, the West has 13 teams that all have a shot at making some noise when the playoffs roll around. For as wonky and occasionally horrific the Wolves season has been to this point, they are in prime position to make a deep run in the playoffs. All they have to do is make sure they get into the postseason.

It sounds weird 54 games in to pivot from mostly negative feelings towards the team to now saying they could make a deep playoff run with 28 regular season games to go. However, this team is an enigma that’s harder to crack than the decision to leave Anthony Edwards out of the All-Star Game. (That’s an angry blog for another day). The Wolves have clawed their way back to relevance by going 18-15 since Karl-Anthony Towns went down with a “calf strain” and 12-5 in 2023. Now that they’ve stabilized the ship and have things headed in the right direction at the right time, they can look around at the teams they’re fighting against for home-court advantage.

The Western Conference is ripe for a lower seed to make a surprise run to the conference finals this season. The Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies have separated themselves from the rest of the pack as the two best teams in the conference. The top-seeded Nuggets are on pace for 56 wins, while the second-seeded Grizzlies are on their way to a 51-win season. But that’s a far cry from the giants that have been dominating the West during my lifetime. Denver’s .686 winning percentage would be the worst for the top seed in the West since the Lakers went 54-28 during the 1983-84 season.

The Wolves have fared well against the best two teams in the conference this season. They are 1-1 against the Nuggets with a 124-111 win on January 2nd that broke a six-game losing streak and a 122-118 loss in Denver that the Wolves probably should have won. They’re 2-1 against Memphis, including a rivalry week win that vaulted Minnesota above .500 for the first time since December 19th. They gave the Grizzlies hell in a 6-game first-round playoff series last year and have shown that they can play with almost anyone when they’re on. (They can lose to anyone, too). The good showings against the top teams in the West during the regular season don’t mean the Wolves will win a single game in the playoffs, but it’s nice to know that things are possible.

There are currently only two elite teams in the West. However, there’s a handful of sleeping giants lurking around the play-in that could play their way into home-court advantage and be a tough out in the playoffs.

  • The Clippers finally have Paul George and Kawhi Leonard healthy at the same time and are 7-3 in their last games.
  • The Sacramento Kings have been solid all season and are currently the 3-seed. Still, they haven’t made the playoffs in 16 years and might be more of a fun story than a real contender.
  • The Suns shot out to a 15-6 record but are just 12-20 since, with Chris Paul and Devin Booker missing significant time. But CP3 is back, and Booker is nearing his return and could vault the Suns back toward the top of the standings where they’ve been for the last two years.
  • And, of course, the reigning champion Golden State Warriors are lurking a half-game behind the Wolves in 7th place. They can’t seem to win away from the Chase Center, but you can’t count them out until they’re eliminated from the playoffs.

Luka Doncic could always carry the Dallas Mavericks on his back on a deep playoff run, and the Lakers could make a trade and ride LeBron James and Anthony Davis to another title. However, those scenarios seem increasingly less likely every day.

The Timberwolves also have plenty of uncertainty, namely, how this all looks when Towns returns. If doctors and Chris Finch are to be believed, and not deep-state agents, Towns should be back sometime around the All-Star Break. The Wolves were not very good with Towns in the lineup before he got hurt. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how he reintegrates into a lineup that has developed some decent chemistry without the three-time All-Star. You’d love to think a man of KAT’s talents would be a net positive no matter how wonky the fit with Edwards and Gobert, but it’s the Wolves, so all things must be considered.

As Anthony Edwards blossoms into a superstar (but not an All-Star somehow) and the West remains muddled in mediocrity, the Timberwolves might have their best chance to make a deep playoff run since they went to the conference finals in 2004. It will still take a minor miracle, as the Wolves have the fourth-toughest schedule remaining. As things stand, they’re more likely to fall out of the playoffs than win a first-round series. But if there’s ever going to be a year in which the Wolves can shock the world, it’s this season. The West is there to be won, but the Wolves still have to figure out how to get out of their own way and win it without beating themselves.

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