The Timberwolves own a 15-11 record, sit atop their division and hold the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference standings. Assuming they don’t drive off a cliff, the Wolves will end the NBA’s longest active playoff drought this spring.
Offer that exact scenario to Wolves fans any time in the past decade-plus and they would have whistled down First Avenue while wearing sunglasses to block the glorious rays of sunlight.
Instead, everybody is cranky.
Tom Thibodeau wears a perpetual scowl. Jimmy Butler has ripped the team’s lack of defensive focus multiple times. Karl-Anthony Towns spends an inordinate amount of time flailing his arms in disgust at the officials. Andrew Wiggins continues to employ a strange shot selection.
And fans are justifiably annoyed by the start of a season that promised to be the time of our lives.
This has been quintessential Wolves weirdness. Paint a mental picture that looks rosy before the season, the team wins at a decent clip, but reality jolts with a bucket of cold water over the head.
The Wolves have alternated between encouraging performances and maddening letdowns. Their rhythm the past few weeks has been herky-jerky: Win one, lose one, win one, lose one, win one, lose one.
It’s been exhausting trying to predict which team will show up from one game to the next.
You keep waiting for this collection of talent to click and sustain the level of play for a prolonged stretch. Well, here’s their chance to put the hammer down.
The Wolves enjoyed a rare three-day break to recuperate physically after finishing a crammed portion of the schedule. They start a five-game homestand Sunday against the Dallas Mavericks, the worst team in the Western Conference.
This homestand features three opponents sitting at the bottom of the West standings — Dallas, Sacramento and Phoenix. Only six of their remaining 11 games in December come against teams that are above .500. They don’t play a division leader before New Year’s Day.
The schedule can’t set up any more favorably for the Wolves to establish some consistency, for Thibodeau to rediscover his bench and for the whole operation to stop playing basketball like it’s a root canal.
Maybe many of us were naive to expect mostly smooth sailing after Butler’s rock-star arrival this summer. Adding star power doesn’t guarantee instant gratification like the run-and-fun Golden State Warriors. But the Wolves have flunked the eye test too many nights.
That starts with their defense, which remains a major annoyance because Thibodeau is billed as a defensive savant, and Butler’s influence was supposed to improve that eyesore dramatically. The Wolves rank 26th in defensive rating. They finished 26th last season.
This conversation has become a broken record. The Wolves own a top-five offense, but they won’t be viewed as legitimate contenders unless or until they fix their defensive liabilities.
Thibodeau bears ultimate responsibility because he is the all-encompassing basketball boss and defense is his expertise. He overhauled the roster with a clear purpose and vision. Clearly, his screaming during games is not having the desired effect.
Thibs can’t fix it alone, though. Everyone needs to take ownership and be committed to defense, especially Towns. It must become important to him, and not just in lip service.
When the Wolves operate at peak performance on offense with crisp ball movement and they seem engaged on defense, they are enjoyable to watch. When the offense becomes disjointed and they treat defense as an afterthought, they cause your blood pressure to spike to unhealthy levels.
The good news is that they find themselves in solid position despite their uneven performance. They own the fourth-best record in the Western Conference. Now they are home for five consecutive games against some inferior opponents.
All the new faces should be comfortable with each other by now. They should be beyond that feeling-out phase. It’s time to see what this team can become. Time to see the Wolves perform at a high level more than just occasionally.
That would allow everyone to relax and breathe a little easier.