When Can We Buy Into Minnesota's Early-Season Success?

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Sitting at 8-3, the Minnesota Timberwolves are off to their best start to a season since the Kevin Garnett era. They’ve made improvements across the board, particularly on defense. The Wolves lead the league in defensive efficiency and are among the league’s leaders in other defensive statistics. With the early success Minnesota has experienced, how should we assess this team (11) games into the regular season?

Looking at their strength of schedule, the Wolves opened the season with some tough opponents. They’ve already played the Miami Heat, Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, and Phoenix Suns. All of those teams were among the final eight remaining in 2022-23. Still, the Wolves went 5-1 in those games. The lone loss among that group was to the Suns on the second night of a back-to-back, which ended a seven-game win streak, their longest since 2003.

The Wolves put their defensive prowess and shotmaking in clutch situations on display everywhere but in Phoenix. It’s a primary reason why Minnesota has earned so much recognition so far. Anthony Edwards has continued to earn much praise, and the league recognized him with the Western Conference Player of the Week award.

The Timberwolves prioritized cohesiveness, retaining much of last year’s roster to help foster chemistry. Everyone seems to be bought into their role on the team. When Chris Finch has called upon them, players have stepped up and contributed at a high level. Coming off a season when he was the MVP of the G-League’s 2023 Next Up Game, Luka Garza has been unable to find minutes on this team. It’s a testament to how deep the roster is and the work of the organization to bring in the right players.

Minnesota has garnered more attention than other upstart Western Conference teams, including the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets. Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic, arguably the MVP frontrunner, have propelled the Mavericks to a strong start. However, Dallas’ strength of schedule hasn’t been as challenging as Minnesota’s. That could be why they’re not being taken as seriously as the Timberwolves.

The Rockets have completely flipped the script after adding Ime Udoka and impactful veteran talent. They are among the league’s best defenses to this point, led by 2022-23 All-Defensive First Team forward Dillon Brooks. At this point, the expectations around the league haven’t been too high on Houston as they continue their rebuild. However, it’s still been an impressive start for them.

But the Wolves stand out because they are showing more maturity, following a year where they were undisciplined. After blowing a 21-point second-half lead to the Atlanta Hawks and starting the season 1-2, the Wolves have shown the ability to respond when faced with adversity. Towns and Edwards ran into foul trouble in the Celtics game, and there was a brawl in the Warriors game. Still, wins over Boston and Golden State reinforce the work the Timberwolves have been doing behind the scenes to get things right. While it’s still early, this growth has given Wolves fans some optimism to start the season.

Despite their strong start, you get the sense that the Wolves will have to remain resilient throughout the year to ensure they can go on a playoff run. A prime example is the 2022-23 New Orleans Pelicans, the best-seeded team in the Western Conference last December. New Orleans’ lackluster performances afterward in the new year sent them down the standings.

The Pelicans finished the season by participating in the Play-In Tournament, where the Oklahoma City Thunder eliminated them from playoff contention. While the Pelicans had to battle through injuries to crucial players, their 2022-23 campaign exemplified how quickly things can change in the NBA.

You can even take a look at the 2022-23 Los Angeles Lakers, a team that had to claw their way into the Play-In Tournament with a number of strong performances after the All-Star break. They were not only able to earn a playoff spot through the tournament; they ended up being a finalist in the Western Conference playoffs.

Ultimately, the Wolves will have to remain diligent throughout the entirety of their 2023-24 campaign. It’s important that they’re able to continue to respond to the adversity that comes their way rather than give into old habits. It’s also important that they secure a playoff spot without partaking in the Play-In Tournament for the third year in a row. Not only does playing in the Play-In Tournament make it harder to succeed in the playoffs, but it would indicate that the Wolves have stagnated.

Given the defensive identity the Wolves have established, this is a team that has the makings of a Western Conference Finals contender. They just have to put everything together against teams they’ve already shown the ability to hang with, especially in the playoffs when the stakes are at their highest.

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