We have a winner in the first annual RandBall Winter Sports Meh-morial Cup, pitting the Wild and Wolves against each other in a race to see who won the most regular-season games. (The name of the cup comes from Eric Thompson and signifies the nature of the race, while the design is via Russo’s Slacks).
The Timberwolves won this fictional battle in fitting style, earning their 46th win of the season by sleepwalking early and pulling away late Monday against a Memphis team that deactivated almost every useful player in an epic tanking effort.
The Wild finished with 45 wins and awaits the start of the playoffs Wednesday. The Wolves will need to get to 47 on Wednesday in a win-or-stay-home finale against Denver.
The Timberwolves won more games in a full season than the Wild did for the first time since 2004-05, which tells us a lot about recent history but also the improvement of the Wolves that shouldn’t be overlooked. They already won 15 more games this season than last year already, and that’s a significant baseline improvement. No team in the NBA’s Western Conference improved by more wins from last year to this year.
But the fact that it was this close between the Wolves and Wild after some pretty significant early separation speaks to the nature of their two seasons and sports — how the Wild gained steam and survived injuries at an admirable rate while the Wolves did not.
The Wild reached the century mark in points (101 to be exact) by treading water (or better) while key players mended. They were 21-16-3 without Zach Parise, 11-5-3 without Nino Niederreiter, 6-1-2 without Jonas Brodin, 12-5-4 without Jared Spurgeon and 8-7-1 without Charlie Coyle. They were also 2-1-1 without Ryan Suter, a sample size that will expand in a very tough playoff matchup against Winnipeg. Some of those injuries overlapped, and it never seemed like the Wild was at 100 percent at an point this year.
But they had 47 points at the midpoint of their season and 54 after that. They got healthy enough and did enough with what they had to make the playoffs. The Wild also benefited from some of their rivals fading — including serious swoons by the Stars and Blues.
The Wolves were not similarly resilient in the face of their most significant injury, nor did they get any help.
That they are in a must-win game Wednesday is a testament primarily to two things: Jimmy Butler’s injury, during which time they went 8-9, and the rest of the West catching fire. Overall this year the Wolves are 36-22 when Butler plays, 10-13 when he does not. And that 17-game chunk came at a particularly critical time.
Consider the West standings through 56 games (and at a point when Butler was healthy):
Wolves 34-22, No. 4 seed by 3 games
Wolves 12-13 (including 8-9 without Butler)
If Butler doesn’t get hurt or even one of those West teams doesn’t suddenly start playing much better than they were playing, Wednesday’s game is probably about playoff seeding and nothing else.
Alas, here we are. The Wolves won the Meh-Morial cup, but there’s still work to be done to avoid a 14th consecutive playoff-free year. The Wild lost one cup, but they’re back for a sixth consecutive trip to the playoffs while chasing a more prestigious and elusive cup.