By: Dan Slaubaugh
The Minnesota Timberwolves are playing good basketball.
Since the start of play on February 11, they have won four of their past five games. Karl-Anthony Towns is playing like a man who wants an additional 32 million on his max extension (which he will earn if he makes an All-NBA team), Tyus Jones has given them a nice boost since his return, Anthony Tolliver has been Mr. Automatic from deep, and Luol Deng has rose from the ashes to give the Wolves a productive backup wing in the absence of Robert Covington.
Speaking of that man! RoCo is close to returning and currently getting his legs back underneath him practicing with the Timberwolves’ G-League affiliate Iowa Wolves. He will likely return to the NBA hardwood by the end of the week.
Getting Covington back for one last playoff push will be huge and it’s hard not to be excited about his return. When healthy, he impacts the game on both ends like nobody’s business covering up mistakes on defense and providing sharpshooting ability from the perimeter.
Three games behind the Spurs with 21 games to play, the 29-31 Wolves do have a chance, maybe even better than the 5.2 percent the computers at ESPN BPI's playoff odds give them.
So, what will it take for the Wolves to get there?
Win the games you should win
Out of the remaining 21 games, there are only 4 “gimmes” left on the schedule. That includes tonight’s road game at Atlanta, one home and away versus Washington, and a home versus New York. If you want to include games against bad-but-not-terrible teams in Charlotte, Memphis, and Dallas, then there’s seven. But after following the Wolves extensively for a decade now I can’t seem to automatically chalk those up as wins.
Going 6-1 here seems probably necessary.
Stand your ground
The remaining slate is pretty brutal for the Wolves. 15 of the remaining 21 games are versus current playoff teams. The good news, at least, is that eight of those games will be played in the Target Center confines along with two road games at Detroit and Charlotte. That’s 10 out of 15 games that are at home and/or winnable. Going 9-6 here seems probably necessary.
If Minnesota keeps winning and inches closer to a playoff spot, it will be interesting to see if Wolves fans respond and pack Target Center for the final stretch.
As every team needs when fighting for playoff seeding, the Wolves need help from anyone playing the Clippers, Spurs, Kings, and Lakers the rest of the way.
A deeper look at their remaining schedules, color-coated by games corresponding to the level of difficulty (via Reddit’s u/beefrombeemovie).
The good news is the Spurs are struggling right now. The bad news is the Kings aren't. The win over Sacramento Monday night was huge for closing the gap on them, but I still think they're a tad better than Minnesota right now. The Kings making it over the Wolves wouldn't be so bad. They are wildly entertaining, employ a head coach with Minnesota roots, and their fans deserve it.
From what we've seen recently, the Lakers don't deserve to make the playoffs and LeBron James' "activate playoff mode" switch doesn't appear to be working at the moment. Overall, it should be really interesting to see where these teams end up when the fat lady sings.
7. Clippers - 34-28 - +1 GB
8. Spurs - 33-29
9. Kings - 31-29 - 1 GB
10. Wolves - 29-31 - 3 GB
11. Lakers - 29-31 - 3GB
Long term, it'd likely be better for the Wolves to lose more than win the rest of the season as a top 10 draft pick could prove to be a game-changer for the future. However, it's undeniably more fun to root for the playoffs and earn a bid to get walloped in the first round (why that's more fun, I don't know). Whether that’s the wise choice of action or not, that’s what I’ll be doing the remainder of the season. The quest to 44 wins, which might just do it, begins now!
Thanks for reading. Have a wonderful Wednesday. Go Wolves.
By: Brian Simonson
The NBA Trade Deadline has passed, and once again the Minnesota Timberwolves were quiet throughout the process. Andrew Wiggins is frustrating fans more and more with each passing game through his lack of work ethic and questionable decision making on the court while earning a max deal. Key rotation players continue to be held out due to injuries. Luol Deng is starting games. The Wolves complete their most recent road trip in extremely disappointing fashion with a 0-4 road trip to mediocre teams, with the exception of the Denver Nuggets.
Following the road trip, Dario Saric makes the switch to starter, which results in the Wolves closing out their final home stretch before the All-Star Break with impressive wins over the LA Clippers and the Houston Rockets; both Western Conference playoff candidates.
In summary, everyone is uncertain on which Timberwolves team will show up on a nightly basis. Everyone is also uncertain about what the future holds after the season. Their record is currently at 27-30, which is four games out from the 8th seed in the Western Conference with three teams to jump. They are not looking like serious playoff contenders at this point in the season unless they go on a serious run. They also are not mediocre enough to land a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft. Looking past the season, there is little room with their cap space, and they have few assets, meaning less opportunity to make significant trades or free agent signings that push the franchise in the right direction for the long term. Everything feels...stuck.
What should Minnesota fans make of this? How do you output value with the remaining 25 games? How do you set your franchise up to sustain long term success past the season and avoid an Anthony Davis-esque situation with Karl Anthony Towns? Where do we go from here?
If you’ve been a Timberwolves fan for any period of the franchise’s 30-year existence, then you are no stranger to these roller coaster situations.
There is a large and growing laundry list for the Timberwolves to start addressing these questions, so we’ve centralized a summary of objectives and thoughts that we feel should be on everyone’s radar for the team moving forward:
CHECKLIST FOR REMAINDER OF THE SEASON:
• Give your young players experience – Typically, the Wolves drafts picks turn to busts, but they got one right in the 2018 NBA draft by landing Josh Okogie with their first-round pick. Okogie is getting valuable experience through extended minutes and seizing a starting position while there are injuries on the team. His efforts on the floor earned him a spot in the All-Star Weekend. While his defense has improved as of late, his offensive decision making still requires work. Okogie will continue to make rookie mistakes. Continue to groom him and he will learn to further understand the game through his minutes. 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop has rarely seen minutes since being called up from the G-League. See what the young players have to contribute rather than waste it. Perhaps their skills can be leveraged while on very cheap contracts. Since the Wolves can’t make serious splashes elsewhere, their best bet is to develop the core through their young talent.
• See what you have with Dario Saric – Dario Saric has become quite comfortable with his new starting role, and the Wolves have won the two recent games by 10 with him there. The team’s offensive rating in those games jumped from a 109.8 average for the season to 126.8 with Saric in the lineup (not to mention Luol Deng was also starting). Dario likes to start and Taj Gibson is OK with the switch. He is someone to keep an eye out for to stay in this spot long term, especially with a cost-friendly contract with two years remaining and Taj Gibson entering free agency. After Saric’s sample size with starting increases, there will be a better outlook on whether or not it will be a fit.
• Continue to evaluate Andrew Wiggins – Wolves fans are finally fed up with his lack of consistency and inability to take the next step in his craft after five seasons. It’s time for ownership and the coaching staff to start making Wiggins accountable, or perhaps the action item is to find a way to move his contract. Some people suggest that he is moved to the bench. Notice how the team has played well without him in the lineup due to illness? There are many questions surrounding Wiggins, but the best strategy at this point is hoping that we get the best version of Wiggins possible on a nightly basis.
CHECKLIST AFTER THE SEASON ENDS:
• Find your GM – With Scott Layden being one of the remaining front office members stemming from the Thibodeau era, it’s unlikely he’ll be retained past the offseason.
• Find your Head Coach/Giving Ryan Saunders a legit chance – While Saunders’ record as head coach is currently 8-9, there’s plenty of reason to give him a real chance at the position long term. Six of those losses were decided by five points or less; and mind you, the Wolves have been severely depleted. The Wolves can hang despite its injuries and miscues, and it is certainly reasonable to believe that when at full health, Saunders can build the team chemistry to output a solid performance on the court. Saunders connects with the players at a human level, which is something we did not see with Tom Thibodeau, and the players play for him. It will be an objective to monitor team performance when his players are finally at full health, and then decide if he is the one to run the position moving forward.
• Nail your draft picks – The franchise has historically been poor at drafting high-level talent through the draft (see Ndudi Ebi, Johnny Flynn, Wesley Johnson, Derrick Williams, etc.). With little cap room for the foreseeable future, the Wolves’ best option is to get their picks right in order to create a pool of potential assets or core players. This subject derives from why most fans want to see the team miss the playoffs, and try their hand at better positioning in the draft.
• Address your point guard situation (free agency) – All four point guards on the Wolves’ roster are on expiring contracts and will hit the free agent market this offseason. Jeff Teague has a player option, and many expect him to pick it up. Tyus Jones has been a very effective backup. Jerryd Bayless has held his own during team injuries. Derrick Rose has provided a veteran voice and is a scoring punch off the bench. Along with addressing the point guards and Anthony Tolliver, take a look at the list of mid-level free agents for this upcoming offseason.
• Ensure KAT’s happiness w/ franchise – This is the most important task in the list for this franchise. Karl Anthony Towns is the franchise for the long term, and the accumulation of the above action items correlate directly with his happiness.
The biggest question for fans and the franchise at the moment is deciding whether or not a 2019 playoff berth is worth it. Glen Taylor wants playoffs; fans want to tank. While a deep postseason run is quite unlikely, regardless of the outcome, there is little room for error with the front office and must make sure they nail every move that is made moving forward to ensure a bright future for the franchise and keeping their star player KAT happy.