In the race to the bottom in the NBA, the Timberwolves have been losing as they've been winning.
For much of this season, the Wolves had the NBA's worst record as they floundered while missing Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell and sometimes both at the same time.
But they've been winning a lot more lately, including an 8-5 record in their last 13 games, to move steadily up the standings. After two lopsided wins over clearly tanking teams — Orlando and Detroit — the Wolves now have just the sixth-worst record in the league.
With a 22-47 overall record through 69 games, they have one more win than Orlando, Cleveland and Oklahoma City plus two more than Detroit. Each of those teams either has two or three games left in this 72-game season. Houston, at 16-53, has clinched the worst record.
I talked the implications of those wins on the draft during Wednesday's Daily Delivery podcast, and I'll explore a little more here.
For those who had hoped the Wolves would tank the rest of the year in pursuit of the best possible lottery odds, know this:
1) As has been much-discussed, the Wolves only had a maximum of 40% chance to keep their pick this season. They owe it to Golden State, of course, as part of the Russell for Andrew Wiggins swap, but it only goes to the Warriors this season if it falls outside the top three in the draft. If they don't give it up this year, the pick goes to Golden State no matter where it lands in 2022.
The Wolves would have a 40% chance of getting a top three pick if they finished anywhere from the worst to third-worst in the league. As their record has improved, their odds have gone down — to the point now that they have a 27.6% chance of keeping the pick.
Minnesota has emphasized winning down the stretch to build momentum and a positive culture. The other five teams at the bottom clearly have not. All of the other five have lost at least three games in a row and have a combined record of 7-43 in their last 50 games. They are putting out lineups of replacement level players and inventing injuries for more established veteran starters.
When the Wolves beat the Pistons on opening night, for instance, Detroit had a starting lineup that included Blake Griffin, Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant, with Derrick Rose off the bench. Rose was traded to the Knicks in February. Griffin was bought out of his contract in March. Grant and Plumlee have been strategically inactive down the stretch as the Pistons seek to lose games. Orlando, Oklahoma City and Houston have employed similar tactics.
2) The Wolves weren't supposed to be this bad in the first place. They are 12-9 now when Towns and Russell both play, but they are just 10-38 in all other games — 6-20 with Towns but not Russell, 3-15 with Russell but not Towns and 1-3 without both. Having both in the lineup for even 15 more games this season likely would have taken them well out of the conversation of finishing in the bottom three. Now that they are healthy and available, they've been winning.
Given that the Wolves seem intent on trying to win while the rest of the bottom-feeders are intent on trying to lose, it seems likely that the Wolves will finish with the sixth-worst record (they can't climb any higher because Toronto, the next team above them, has five more wins with just three left to play).
Here are the results: 15 times out of 50 (30%) they landed a pick in the top 3, which would allow them to keep it. That's about in line with the 27.6% chance they have based on their slot. Out of the other 35 (the 70% of picks that would go to Golden State) the most common slots were No. 7 and No. 8 — about half time time, which again squares with the odds when you go in at No. 6.
So that's the type of pick the Wolves should expect to give up to Golden State if they lose the pick — not ideal, particularly in what is touted as a deep draft class, but the chances of getting a star with that kind of pick as opposed to No. 4 or No. 5 is considerably diminished.
I also ran 25 simulations for Houston, which will have the top odds — which the Wolves could have had with a real commitment to tanking.
Houston kept the pick 10 out of 25 times (40%), which is exactly what the odds suggest should happen. Five of those were No. 1 and five were No. 3. Randomly, none were No. 2. The rest were No. 4 or No. 5 because that's as far as the team with the worst record can fall. (Houston, by the way, will give up the pick to Oklahoma City if it is No. 5 because it is top-4 protected as part of a pick swap from the Russell Westbrook deal a couple years ago).
So the Wolves could have tanked hard enough to finish with the worst record, carried no momentum into next season and had a 2 in 5 chance of keeping their pick but a 3 in 5 chance of giving up a top-5 pick.
Or ... what they did do: Prove that they have at least some of the pieces in place to win more games next season, while keeping somewhere between an 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 chance of getting a top three pick — and an 82% chance that they will either keep the pick or have it convey at No. 7 or lower.
Option one creates a slightly higher possibility of reward, but a greater risk of disappointment and the continuation of a losing mentality.
Option two creates a scenario where there's at least a 4 in 5 chance Wolves fans will either be very excited or not too disappointed during the lottery drawing while also gaining meaningful information about the current core.
Winning isn't so bad now, is it?