By: Dan Slaubaugh
The Minnesota Timberwolves currently have a record of 36-25. They have played 61 games, which means they have 21 games left to go.
Currently, the Wolves are tied with the Spurs for third place in the Western Conference standings. ESPN's NBA Basketball Power Index (BPI), a measure of team strength developed by the ESPN Analytics team, peg the Wolves with a 98.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, meaning the Wolves are extremely likely to break the NBA's longest playoff drought at 13. Hallelujah!
The Houston Rockets currently sit atop the Western Conference with a record of 44-13. Behind the Rockets are the Warriors, who are still the clear favorites to win the NBA Championship, although Houston is certainly closing the gap.
Golden State and Houston are clearly in their own tier. After that, it gets messy. Behind them are the Spurs (10 GB), Wolves (10 GB), Thunder (12 GB), Nuggets (12.5 GB), Trail Blazers (12.5 GB), Pelicans (13 GB), Clippers (13.5 GB), and Jazz (14.5). That means just 4.5 games separate the 3rd team in the West from the 10th team. However, it's important to keep in mind that 4.5 games in basketball is similar to 8-9 games in baseball because teams aren't playing every night and there's simply less games, making it harder to jump teams in the standings.
Fortunately for the Wolves, they have fewer games versus teams currently in the playoffs (10 of 21) than teams they're competing with for a top-4 seed. That includes San Antonio (17 of 23), Oklahoma City (15 of 23), Denver (17 of 24), and Portland (15 of 24).
At 24-7, the Wolves have the 5th-best home record in the NBA and the 3rd-best home record in the West. They've looked like a different team at home, evidenced by a 13-game home win streak that stretched from December 18 to February 13. Consequently, home court advantage could be the difference between the Wolves winning a playoff series or going home early in the playoffs. That being said, what would it take for the Wolves to host a playoff series for the first time since 2004?
For argument's sake, let's set a surmountable goal to set this team up for home court contention throughout the remainder of the season.
In order to get to, lets say, 48 wins and start thinking of a top-4 playoff seed, they'd ironically have to play at the exact same 48-win pace they've been playing at all season. Attainable, but not easy.
They'll begin their toughest stretch of the season right out of the All-Star break, facing Houston (A), Chicago (H), Sacramento (A), Portland (A), Utah (A), Boston (H), Golden State (H), Washington (A), San Antonio (A), and Houston (H). It gets lighter after that, as only three of their last 11 games are against teams currently in the playoffs (albeit two are against red-hot Utah).
To layout the most realistic case of the Wolves winning 48 games, here's what would need to transpire over the final two months.
-Defeat Chicago and Sacramento
-Take 3 out of the additional 8 games in the brutal 10-game stretch out of the All-Star break
-Take 7 of the final 11 games on the schedule
That would give the Wolves a 12-9 record in the final 21 games of the season to give them a final record of 48-34 and set themselves up for a great chance at home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
Regardless, the Wolves will be playing meaningful games in March and April. After so many years of being the laughingstock of the league, that alone is a success.