By: Dan Slaubaugh
Yesterday I was listening to Bill Simmons’ "Kawhi-DeRozan Emergency Trade Podcast" on The Ringer. The show boasted intelligent NBA conversation on the Kawhi Leonard-to-Toronto blockbuster via the voices of Simmons himself, Shea Serrano, Kevin O’ Conner, Joe House, and Bill's dad. Here’s a link to it: you’ll enjoy it. While a quality hour-and-a-half listen, one thing struck me the wrong way.
There was no mention of the Timberwolves being playoff contenders last year, despite the 16-win jump they made a season ago.
Somewhere in the middle of the podcast, Simmons asked O’ Conner, one of my favorite national NBA writers by the way, to power rank the Western Conference. His answer:
“Golden State, Houston, that third spot hmmm... San Antonio? Utah? OKC maybe in there as well?” Simmons responded, “Is that our top five? I think the Lakers have to be in there.”
Shortly after, Simmons justifiably raves about how stacked the Western Conference is.
“I think the West is better this year. I don’t even think that’s a controversial statement. Golden State had 60 wins. Houston had 65. The Lakers go up. I think Utah goes up. I think the Spurs tread water and they’re right around where they were last year. OKC is slightly better. It’s a loaded conference.”
Then O’ Conner chips in: “We didn’t even mention Portland or New Orleans.”
I’m thinking, how can you not mention Minnesota or Denver in that conversation? Last year, the Timberwolves were the 3-seed for the majority of the year before Jimmy Butler tore the meniscus in his right knee. Finishing two games back of the Trail Blazers for the 3-seed, they likely would have clinched third place had their resilient leader not missed 17 games. The Nuggets were in the same boat, being one win (on the last day of the season) away from a playoff berth despite Paul Millsap, their big 2017 offseason splash, only playing 38 games.
Now, this doesn’t go without saying other playoff teams didn’t sustain injuries. Utah’s defensive monster Rudy Gobert only played 56 games and Kawhi Leonard chose to sit out the season in a New York hotel not wanting to risk further injury (or so we have been led to believe).
Yes, the West was loaded before the offseason began and it’s only gotten better. How exactly? Let me explain.
-Golden State did what we all thought was impossible and added another All-Star to the dynasty (although Achilles injuries can be incredibly tricky and tough to come back from).
-The Rockets have probably had the worst offseason in the West losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute in free agency but will still be most experts’ picks to finish second.
-The Blazers ceiling doesn’t raise higher than the 2nd round but with Lillard and McCollum’s ability to light nets on fire they are a near playoff lock.
-Utah’s defense is otherworldly with Rudy Gobert, 2017-18 Defensive Player of the Year, imposing fear into anyone who dares to enter the lane. Offensively, they’ll have a more materialized and established Donovan Mitchell to lead the way.
-Oklahoma City got rid of Carmelo Anthony and will get back stud defensive wing Andre Roberson back. Plus, they added Dennis Schroeder. They will be better.
-New Orleans added bruising big man Julius Randle to their already stealthy frontcourt rotation after unexpectedly winning a playoff series in April.
-San Antonio, like Simmons said, now has two All-NBA players that will suit up rather than avoid the team.
-Minnesota finally has a sense of continuity can build on a successful season with Butler, Towns, Wiggins, and co. all having one year under their belt with each other.
-The Nuggets took a risk signing Isaiah Thomas to lead their second unit but getting Paul Millsap for what they hope to be 75-plus games should improve their league-worst defense.
-The Lakers have LeBron and you can’t doubt any team in the world that has LeBron.
-The Clippers boast a plethora of quality veteran players who’ve been in the league for quite a while and know what it takes to win.
The teams unlikely to reach the postseason (Phoenix, Sacramento, Dallas, Memphis) are set up for bright futures and likely have more favorable title window timelines than the Minnesotas and Portlands of the world who are in win-now mode while the aforementioned rebuilding teams wait for Golden State to (hopefully) deteriorate.
You get the point. The West is stacked. There are legitimately 11 teams that could make the playoffs in the West next year.
With that being said, I am now beginning to see two recurring themes among NBA writers and fans.
1) People have forgotten the amount of parity involved in the West last year (just three games separated the 3rd-place Blazers and 9th-place Nuggets) and 2) how good the Wolves were before Jimmy got hurt.
On February 23, the day before the Butler injury, Minnesota sat 36-25 and in third place in a jam-packed Western Conference. That’s 61 games – basically ¾ of the season and a large enough sample size to have an educated grasp on where teams rank in the standings. The Wolves were rollin’, especially offensively, where they had the third-best offensive rating in the league at a blistering 111.2. As we know, the offense had to be good enough to make up for a woeful defense, and it was.
Then Jimmy got hurt. They went 8-10 in his absence, then 3-0 after his return. In total, the Wolves posted a 39-26 record when Jimmy Butler wasn’t in street clothes. They finished an impressive 34-18 against the West and defended home floor exactly how a playoff team should, going 30-11 under the roofs of a newly remodeled Target Center. Before ending the season with consecutive losses, they gave us the game we’ve been waiting for 14 years in a 121-105 smackdown over the Houston Rockets in the franchises' first home playoff game since 2004.
So, why have the Wolves been cast off into the over-looked section?
It certainly could be traced to the off court problems between Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Tom Thibodeau. If you are unaware of those rumored problems, Andy Grimsrud of "A Wolf Among Wolves" helped provide context in a great article ran last week. Because there are too many reputable sources reporting the current disconnection inside the Wolves franchise, it would be foolish to sweep those reports under the rug and act like there are no issues. But on the court, things are looking pretty good for the Wolves, especially if we go by the same criteria Simmons laid out to Serrano (well-known Spurs fan) in the podcast mentioned above on what makes a prominent NBA team.
From the podcast: “Shea, I know it’s a bleak day for you. I just want to point out that you have two All-NBA guys on your team -- two current reigning All-NBA guys. Only 15 guys make the All-NBA team. It’s a 30-team league and you have two of them. I feel like this is a triumphant day for San Antonio.”
If my facts are correct, the Wolves also have two current reigning all-NBA guys. In a league where high-end talent often wins out (which is where I think Bill was getting at), the Wolves have a 1-2 punch (Towns and Butler) better than every team in the West besides Golden State (Durant and Curry), Houston (Harden and Paul), and arguably Oklahoma City (Westbrook and George).
The Wolves clearly have some kinks to work out in the locker room, their defense sucked last year, Tom Thibodeau’s outdated defensive schemes and tactics lead me to believe it won't improve enough to reach contending status, and there are plenty of question marks surrounding the bench. At the same time, they belong in the same class as their Western Conference rivals not named Houston or Golden State for the 2018-19 season because of a lethal 1-2 punch and a plethora of quality role players. They are not the 15th best team in the league, as the latest ESPN power rankings suggest. That's hogwash, and stunning how they are being ranked so low. Ultimately, I guess it's just not attention drawing to keep your roster, more or less, as is during the offseason. Naturally, those teams that are adding players are going to be dreamy new contenders.
But make no mistake about it: The Wolves, with everyone healthy, are a top 10-team in the league and a top-6 team in the West.
Don’t confuse this team’s talent with the current tumult behind the closed doors of Target Center and Mayo Clinic Square.