When deciding whether to write about a list or ranking compiled by someone else, several factors come into play. But usually at the heart of it I’m looking for 1) The credibility of the source publication 2) Minnesota teams and 3) surprises.
As such, I often administer an unofficial “scroll test” (since I’m almost always reading these things on the internet, where a certain 99-year-old columnist at our paper assumes I spend 100% of my time, even while he acknowledges you can find a lot of things there).
For example: If I was scrolling a survey of NFL general managers on NFL.com and found Kirk Cousins ranked somewhere in the 9-12 range among QBs in the NFL, I probably wouldn’t find it all that newsworthy since that’s probably about where he belongs. If I started scrolling and BAM! there he was at No. 4 or … wait … where is he? … No. 24? That’s more interesting, even if it’s subjective, because it doesn’t match expectations.
To that end, I’ve found myself surprised on a good number of “scroll tests” involving Timberwolves rankings and predictions leading up to the start of the season Wednesday at Brooklyn.
Most recently: ESPN put out its initial power rankings for the season of all 30 NBA teams, and quite honestly I thought I’d need to scroll down to at least 25 to find the revamped Wolves.
But there they were at No. 21, accompanied by some pretty optimistic win totals in my estimation: 38, as predicted by ESPN experts; 36 as forecast by ESPN’s BPI; a staggering 44 according to FiveThirtyEight.com (according to its new RAPTOR player rating system, though a more modest 36 using its more traditional ELO model; and an over-under of 35.5 wins in Vegas.
Even if we throw out FiveThirtyEight’s new formula as an odd outlier, those numbers all seem a little high at first glance. The Wolves won 36 games last year with established guys like Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Anthony Tolliver, Tyus Jones, Dario Saric and Luol Deng playing important minutes at various times. Sure it was a weird year with the Jimmy Butler saga and midyear coaching change, but the roster had talent.
All of the aforementioned players are gone, their depth replaced primarily by players either younger, untested or both. And these new players are mixing with the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in a new up-tempo, high-efficiency, three-point shooting lineup that could have a long learning curve and might not be ideally suited the current personnel.
This combination is going to produce more wins than last year?
I’m usually the guy with unchecked Timberwolves optimism, so much so that longtime blog readers often tease that they remember to check their smoke detector batteries annually when my too-rosy and often misguided preseason post comes out.
This year it’s the opposite. I’m trying to figure out what others are seeing in this Wolves team when I mostly see short-term pain (even while believing long-term gain could be the result). Here’s all I have:
*Pundits and projections are buying into the fruits of a revamped system featuring high-efficiency shots.
After being dead last in the NBA two years ago in combined shots taken at the rim or from three-point range, the Wolves actually increased that mark by 7.8 percentage points last season (but still ranked near the bottom of the league at 60.3%). This year, if Summer League and preseason are any indication, that number could vault closer to 75% and put the Wolves among the league leaders.
The Bucks made a similar leap from two years ago (60.7%) to last year (75.9%) and increased their win total by 16. If the Wolves did that this year, they’d blow even optimistic projections out of the water.
But it’s not just as simple as shooting more efficient shots (as the dreadful Knicks and Wizards, who also made double-digit increases in threes/shots at the rim year over year, can attest). And it took Brooklyn until its third season as a high-efficiency shot attempt team to break through from the lottery to the playoffs.
It takes time to learn to play that way, and it takes the right personnel. If you’re skeptical the Wolves will figure it out right away with the shooters they have, then you, me and Patrick Reusse have something in common.
*Optimists are buying a monster year from Karl-Anthony Towns.
It’s easier for me to get on board with this one. Towns is the clear focal point of the offense and will be used in a variety of ways. Combined with the Wolves’ emphasis on early shots and efficient shots, it’s conceivable he could flirt with averaging 30 points per game. If his all-around game, including passing and defense, evolve along with that then the Wolves could have relative success.
*They’re buying the impact of a healthy Robert Covington.
Our Chris Hine has a wonderful profile of Covington and his struggles with both his knee injury and mental health last season. Therapy has helped Covington clear his head and rediscover himself, and his knee is feeling better. He can be a huge difference-maker, as we saw last season when the Wolves went on a 9-3 run after the Jimmy Butler trade and with Covington excelling on both ends.
*Perhaps there’s another big move to be made sooner rather than later?
I’ll add this one last because I keep referring back to ESPN’s Zach Lowe predicting the Wolves will make at least two trades — including one involving Covington. D’Angelo Russell is eligible to be traded Dec. 15. Lowe connects those dots and adds the Wolves will “hunt for point guards.”
So maybe don’t fly to Vegas or drive down to Iowa to bet your life savings on the Wolves winning fewer than 35.5 games. But it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the outcome this year.