The Minnesota Timberwolves are over halfway through their season. Despite the ups, downs, and injuries to key players, they’ve established themselves firmly in the playoff race in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, being in the playoff race is a bit more dubious than it sounds. The Western Conference standings look like a gigantic traffic jam of moderately successful teams attempting to pass each other in a shoulder lane that’s about to end.
Currently, seeds 4 through 12 are all within three games or less of a .500 record. Even the 23-28 Los Angeles Lakers, who sit in 13th, are still technically in contention. They are only four games back from the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers and six games back from the third-seeded Sacramento Kings. One long win streak could help any team speed past the competition into the 3rd seed. However, a set of bad losses could send them crashing down to 13th. That may be due to an unprecedented amount of parity in the conference, lousy injury luck for star players, or a glitch in the matrix. Regardless, this season has been a roller coaster of excitement and frustration for 10 of the 15 teams and fanbases in the Western Conference.
As bizarre as the season has been, the strange timeline we have entered provides a surprising amount of positivity for all types of Wolves fans. If you are a fan who can’t escape bitterness despite remaining loyal to your team, you can celebrate having unlimited ammunition for Twitter criticisms. You can take solace in knowing that no other fanbase in the West is truly happy with their team’s performance right now, either, besides the Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, and Denver Nuggets.
If you are an eternal optimist, you can sell yourself on the idea that the Wolves are finally starting to gel after the massive changes to their roster during the offseason, and their best basketball is yet to come. If you are like me and enjoy observing absurdity in nearly all of its forms, then you may be reveling in the irregularity of this season and searching for meaning amongst the chaos.
One of the most unfortunate irregularities of this season has been that the Wolves play badly against teams they should be expected to beat. Before the season started, many anticipated that Victor Wembanyama would cause more teams than usual to tank. However, the opposite has been true so far. There are only four teams in the league that could clearly be labeled as tanking: the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs. Each of these teams has 15 or fewer wins. Whether by choice or due to injury, each now seems fully committed to waving the white flag for Wemby or scooping their cards off the table for Scoot Henderson.
Still, despite none of these teams’ front offices actually wanting to win games, the Wolves have managed to muck up the tankathon. They’ve gone 4-6 in their 10 games against teams with 15 or fewer wins. At first glance, this statistic may make you want to pull your hair out while thinking about how they’d be sitting firmly in 4th place at 29-24 if they won even two more of those games. However, as bad as those losses were, they may not tell us much about the quality of the team, considering the context surrounding it.
It’s probably fair to conclude, as many people have, that this Wolves team lacks a level of “seriousness” or effort when they play against tanking teams. As a result, they’ve played down to their level and lost games they shouldn’t have. Still, just because the Wolves fumbled away several games to bad teams, it does not inherently mean they are also a bad team. Nor does it mean that they will be an easy out if they make the playoffs.
While it might sound silly at first, it’s possible to argue that the opposite is true. Hear me out. There are currently only 7 teams in the league with over 30 wins. Each of them is talented and consistent enough to be considered playoff locks and potential title contenders at this point in the season, barring a major injury to one of their star players. The weird part is that the Wolves have a better record against these elite teams at 5 and 6 than they do against tanking teams. While it is only a one-win difference, it seems fairly significant to me when you consider how much better a team like the Boston Celtics or the Denver Nuggets are than the Rockets. At the very least, it implies that while the Wolves may play down to their competition, they also play up to it.
I find this encouraging for Minnesota’s potential to win a playoff series. Sure, losing a couple of extra games to teams they are projected to beat and winning against teams they are projected to lose to has only amounted to the .500 record they currently hold. It certainly is not helping them climb the standings.
However, their ability to beat some of the best teams in the league signals that this roster still has a ton of untapped potential. It can go toe to toe with almost anyone they would match up with in the playoffs if they iron out some of their inconsistencies. Even if they only made the 7th or 8th seed, their record against the best teams in the West suggests they’d still have a chance to compete in the first round. The Wolves are 1-1 against the 1-seeded Nuggets and 2-1 against the 2-seeded Grizzlies.
Even more encouraging? The Timberwolves have played solid basketball against all the teams that have yet to separate themselves from the pack, either as contenders or hardcore tankers. Minnesota has gone 18-14 against the 19 teams with between 20 and 30 wins. That suggests that if the Wolves could climb to somewhere between the 6th and 3rd seed, they’d have a good chance of making it past the first round. It also shows that the lack of effort seen against tanking teams has not seeped into the rest of their games in as damaging of a manner.
Though there is chaos, I’d argue that this team has been more entertaining to watch. It also has a better chance for postseason success than a team that is truly middle of the road, one that has beaten all the bad teams but lost to all the good ones, too. Those teams often feel like they’re permanently destined for a first-round exit, or worse, the 14th pick in the draft lottery.
On the other hand, the Timberwolves are like a joyfully confusing mystery-drama that has yet to be solved by anyone in the league. We get the pleasure of witnessing the twists and turns of the season unravel. They constantly give us more clues that only serve to debunk our prior theories about whether or not this team is actually “good” despite having so many good players. The best part is that there won’t be any tanking teams to play if Minnesota reaches the playoffs. Therefore, in theory, we won’t have to worry about their effort levels. Thus, the Wolves are still in a perfect position to be the Shyamalanian twist that leaves everyone in the league’s jaw dropped at the end of the season.