In an NBA season that figures to present challenges and unpredictability, one thing stands out regarding the Timberwolves: Those who attempt to predict what is going to happen in the NBA have wildly differing viewpoints of how Minnesota will fare.
Analytics site FiveThirtyEight.com, using a formula based on player ratings, has the Wolves finishing 35-37 in this shortened 72-game season. John Hollinger, formerly of ESPN and now with The Athletic after a long stint in the Grizzlies front office, has the Wolves a game better at 36-36 — good enough to make the Top 10 in the west and get a shot in the postseason play-in round, he says.
On the flip side, a panel of ESPN.com experts predict the Wolves will finish with 28 wins and labels them a bottom five team in the Western Conference. Various sportsbooks, online and otherwise, put the Wolves' over-under win total at anywhere between 27 and 28.5 wins.
Why is this year's Wolves team, at least in the eyes of experts who typically reach some sort of consensus on these things, so hard to get a handle on? Here are five factors influencing the Wolves' relative volatility in 2020-21 as they prepare to open the season Wednesday against Detroit at Target Center.
A lot of relatively new pieces haven't played together much.
This is the biggest factor. Remember, Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie are the only players still on the roster who were here when President Gersson Rosas took over a little more than 18 months ago.
The roster was made over at the trade deadline in February and again in a compressed offseason with the drafting of Anthony Edwards plus trades for Ricky Rubio and Ed Davis. All of these new players were tossed together in a very compressed training camp and short preseason. There will be a lot of on-the-job chemistry creation this season, and it's hard to say how well (or how soon) the pieces will fit.
The volatility of Edwards, the No. 1 overall pick
Some top picks help a team rise in the standings immediately. LeBron James turned the Cavaliers into an instantly credible team when he was picked first in 2003. Even the Wolves jumped from 16 to 29 wins in Towns' rookie season of 2015-16.
Edwards, at 19, is far from a finished product. If he contributes a lot in a positive way this season, it could make a big difference. If he gets a lot of minutes but it's in the process of pushing through a lot of rookie mistakes, the Wolves' record could suffer.
There are several "ifs" on the roster in general. Malik Beasley earned a contract that could pay him as much as $60 million over four years, but we still don't know if he can be a dependable starter and scorer after a promising but limited sample size following the February trade with Denver.
Rubio returns, but what exactly will his role be? The Wolves have some pieces to be a better defensive team, but will players such as Davis, Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver supply enough offense to stay on the court?
Even the franchise duo of Towns and D'Angelo Russell has still only played one regular-season game together.
How will they react to pandemic basketball without crowds?
Playing in large empty arenas will require players to supply their own energy in many cases. How that manifests itself on a team with relative youth that endured long stretches of losing last season remains to be seen.
The unpredictability of other teams
It's hard to predict how the Wolves will finish because, frankly, it's hard to predict how a lot of teams will finish this season. Is Golden State a playoff team again? What's going on with Houston? Is Phoenix ready to take a big step forward after an 8-0 run in the bubble, or will the Suns flame out?
Whether the Western Conference is a monstrous grind or a solvable puzzle will go a long way toward determining just how many games the Wolves win this year.