After missing the playoffs for 13 consecutive seasons, the Timberwolves broke their drought last season. But the Western Conference is only getting harder with the addition of LeBron James to the Lakers. With that in mind, this question is in play: Are the Timberwolves at least good enough to make it back to the playoffs next season?
First take: Michael Rand
Well, let’s start with the given: Barring catastrophic injuries, the Warriors, Rockets and Lakers are title contenders and clearly the three best teams in the Western Conference.
And if we’re going by just history and math, the Lakers’ addition to the playoff pool after not making it last season would seemingly push the No. 8-seeded Wolves out.
But it’s also helpful to remember that the Nos. 3-9 seeds in the West last season were separated by just three games. Even if the Wolves treaded water, all they would need is one other team to fall below them to reach the postseason again.
The question hinges, then, on what to make of the Wolves. Part of me thinks they squeezed just about all they could out of last season’s roster, while part of me thinks there is another gear.
Chris Hine: As constructed, I still think the Wolves make the playoffs provided there are no serious injuries to Jimmy Butler or Karl-Anthony Towns.
It’s also hard to say how many wins it will take to make the playoffs. It took 47 last season, the season before only 41. In this decade, however, teams usually needed around 45 wins to make the playoffs out of the West. This Wolves team can get there. They can leapfrog the Spurs, provided Kawhi Leonard doesn’t have a change of heart.
I’m also curious to see if New Orleans can have another season like it did after losing Rajon Rondo, who added a decent 3.6 win shares to that team.
Rand: Your phrase “as constructed” is of note considering all the whispers and reports of strife among the Wolves’ “Big Three” players. If either Butler or Towns ends up getting traded — probably long shots — the thinking obviously changes.
A Wiggins trade that brought back a reasonable return would leave me thinking the playoffs were in reach. It would be interesting to see how the fan base would react to another season very much like 2017-18.
Hine: It depends what that looks like. Does Wiggins look interested? Are the Wolves competitive when they lose? Do the young players develop? If you see notable progress from those pieces of the roster and you end up back at 47 wins, it’s easier to swallow than if it’s Butler and Towns carrying the team to that mark.
But making the playoffs in this conference should be considered a successful season. Those who want Thibodeau gone might not want to hear that.
Rand: You might as well argue for a lifetime contract for Joe Mauer and assert that Mikko Koivu should continue to wear the captain’s “C” while you are at it!
Final word: Chris Hine
But if you’ll let me finish you’ll see that my larger point is that this is a bad thing for the Wolves! If just making the playoffs is considered a success it means they’re nowhere near the ability to compete for a title in the long term. And right now, without big leaps in improvement from Towns and Wiggins [and keeping Butler around], I don’t know how that happens in this stacked conference.
More Rand: startribune.com/RandBall
More Hine: startribune.com/NorthScore