The phrase “if the season ended today” is kind of terrible because it inherently leads to the truth that a season does not, in fact, end today — often far from it.
So pardon me while I clear my throat and do it anyway, 15 games into an 82-game NBA season: If the season ended today, the Timberwolves would be a playoff team.
We are of course far from the finish line, and the Wolves’ 8-7 record is far from perfect. But I dare say eight wins at this point is more than most folks would have imagined (hand raised here, given that I thought the Wolves and Wild would be a race to 30 wins apiece, and that one or both might not get there).
It’s a good time to stop and ask the question: Are the Wolves really a legitimate contender for a playoff spot, or is this better-than-expected start to the season a mirage? To do that, let’s weigh some of the good and the bad.
Three signs point to yes, this is sustainable
1 The Wolves have survived stretches without key players.
Sure, every team is going to have to survive at times without important players. But the Wolves have already had to deal with Karl-Anthony Towns missing two games for a suspension, Andrew Wiggins missing three games for personal reasons/illness and four games during which neither of their top two point guards were available.
The KAT and Wiggins absences are particularly big given that before last season, they had combined to miss just ONE game in their entire careers (and even last year they only missed 14 combined — five for KAT and nine for Wiggins). They went 1-1 without Towns, 2-2 without a preferred point guard and 1-2 without Wiggins. Their record might be even better had they been closer to full strength.
2 They’re taking the right kinds of shots, and they will make them more going forward.
A full 71.2% of Wolves shots are coming either at the rim or from three-point range, a dramatic improvement from last season (60.3%).
Yeah, the bad news is that the Wolves are shooting just 31.3% from three-point range (No. 27 in the league) and and dead last in three-point percentage when their shooters are wide open (30.9%).
But that’s actually good news in the context of room to improve and sustainability of success. They’re winning despite not shooting the lights out from long distance, and if they nudge closer to league average (35.3% this season) from three, they will add points every game.
3. The West maybe isn’t as daunting as it seemed.
It’s early, but we can draw some hard conclusions and guess about some others. Golden State, for instance, is awful. The Warriors went from perennial championship favorites to “likely 45-50 win team” to lottery-bound with a string of bad luck. They are the worst team in the West, at least until Stephen Curry gets back.
Doubt the Spurs at your own peril, but at 5-10 they look like a fringe playoff contender at best. Portland is a head-scratching 5-11, but if their answer to that slow start is high-usage for the recently signed Carmelo Anthony, maybe their plummet will continue.
At the very least, it doesn’t look like it will take 47 or 48 wins (the totals for the No. 8 seeds the last two years in the West) to make the playoffs. Something closer to .500 might do it, and that should keep a lot of teams — including the Wolves — in the mix for a while.
Three signs point to no, this is a mirage
1 The Wolves have a negative net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions), and they’re the only team with a winning record about which that is true.
It speaks to how good they’ve been in close games (5-2 in games decided by 10 points or fewer, including 2-1 in overtime games) while getting blown out often in losses (five of their seven are by 16 or more points). Closing games is a skill, but clutch stats tend to flatten out over time.
2 They’ve cut down on their low percentage shots, but they’re making them at a potentially unsustainable clip.
Per Basketball Reference, the Wolves are shooting 45.1% on shots from 3-10 feet (No. 2 in the league, average is 38.9%); 44.8% on shots from 10-16 feet (No. 6, league average is 41.2%); and 43.9% from 16 feet to the 3-point line (No. 6, average is 40.5%). As their three-point percentage creeps up, those mid-range 2 numbers might go down, and the net effect could be zero.
3 Andrew Wiggins could be due for a regression.
There’s no doubt that Wiggins, like the Wolves as a whole, has been much better than many of us expected. It’s safe to say that they wouldn’t be 8-7 without him — maybe more like 6-9. That’s how important he has been, particularly in clutch situations.
But even if he continues down the path of more rim attacks, better overall shot selection and — this is the big one — a decidedly better handle, there is evidence to suggest he will regress from his strong start. That would still leave the Wolves with a better version of Wiggins than we have seen in a while, but it might cut into the optimism for a playoff push this year.
A good comp for this year’s Wolves might be last year’s Kings — a team that exceeded expectations and stayed at or near .500 before ultimately fading a little with a 39-43 finish. That pushed Sacramento nine games out of the playoffs by the end of last year. This year, it might mean the Wolves are in the hunt until the final weeks — and maybe even good enough to grab one of the last spots.