Timberwolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell cites NBA history as proof it's too much to imagine his team can rise from 16 victories a season ago to the playoffs this season, given that in recent years the Western Conference's eighth and final entrant sometimes needed 49 or 50 victories just to reach the postseason.
And then there's this season.
Admittedly it's still early, little more than a month gone, but if the regular season had ended Friday the Timberwolves would have earned the West's final playoff spot with their 8-10 record.
Once so weak there were calls to change the NBA's playoff qualifications, an improved Eastern Conference this season is producing what could be a sea change across both conferences. With teams such as Indiana, Boston, Charlotte, Orlando, Detroit and even New York all better, 11 East teams currently are .500 or better and another is one victory short of being even.
"You can't take teams in the East for granted now," Mitchell said.
In comparison, only six Western teams are better than .500 and teams once assumed to make the playoffs such as Houston and New Orleans are 9-11 and 5-15, respectively. Even the Los Angeles Clippers with All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, among many others, are hovering around that .500 mark.
The only certainty so far this season is the still undefeated Golden State Warriors.
"They are going to be better than every team they play," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said during a studio telecast. "To be honest with you, if you look at the NBA this year, I've been very disappointed in the level of basketball. We thought the West was loaded."
Suddenly, the West doesn't look so formidable and seemingly there's hope for such teams as the Wolves, Utah and Phoenix that the playoffs might not be that far off as long as they can keep that .500 mark in sight.
"We can't let games slip away," said Wolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns, whose team knows something about that judging from its 2-7 home record and 6-3 road record. "We're trying to reach something that is a goal of ours. We need to not let games slip out of our fingers and find ways to win because you never know."
'We're turning into the NFL'
Take away a handful of teams — particularly undefeated Golden State but also Cleveland, San Antonio and maybe eventually Oklahoma City — and there's a thick stew of teams not all that far off from each other, at least for now.
"We're turning into the NFL with all this parity right now," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.
His team is a case in point: Once considered not only a lock to make the playoffs but a serious title contender, Rivers' Clippers started the season by winning their first four games and then lost eight of their next 11 games. They are 10-9 after Wednesday's home loss to Indiana.
They are one of a number of veteran teams that Mitchell says still are finding themselves in the season's early weeks.
"I just think it's really early still," Mitchell said. "You know a lot of veteran teams don't hit their stride until 15, 20 games in. They're still getting into shape, still finding their rhythm and timing. I always thought you had a better chance to beat those Lakers teams with Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq [O'Neal] if you played them early. When those teams hit their stride, they're in shape and their minds are locked in. I just feel it looks like a lot of parity, but the older teams haven't hit their strides yet."
Mitchell said in time every team will find its own level.
"A team like the Clippers, they're just too talented," Mitchell said.
Rivers agrees about a team finding its own level, sort of.
"I don't know about everyone else, but I hope we do," Rivers said. "Everyone's good, and you can lose any night in the West or the East right now. I do think teams will break out, but I don't think there will be a lot of teams that just fall apart. It will be a hard year for everyone other than Golden State. It's just going to be one of those years."
Orlando coach Scott Skiles has seen this before. He predicts the teams that distinguish themselves are not the ones that will play above everybody else for the rest of the season but those that get hot for a time.
"At some point, there's going to be some separation," Skiles said. "I don't know how many teams — a couple in each conference — and I don't know when it's going to be. But some team is going to win seven out of eight at some point. When you get to the postseason and there's a team that's six, seven games above .500, you look at their season and you'll see that is what has happened: They rattled off some wins, and the rest of the time they played .500 ball.
"There will be some separation at some point. We would certainly like to be the team that gets some separation."
Indiana — winner of nine of 10 games recently — already is doing that. There will be others. For the Wolves, it might all be about the games they give away, particularly if they're unable to win at home.
"You will remember those games down the road when you're fighting for the playoffs," Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said, "or not fighting anymore."