Friday’s 124-117 loss to the Clippers was a fairly accurate encapsulation of where the Timberwolves (10-15) are after 25 games.
There were defensive struggles, an inability to limit top-flight players Kawhi Leonard and Paul George from carving them like a Christmas ham. They were cold from the outside, hitting just six of 30 three-point attempts through three quarters.
Then the fourth quarter came. The Wolves picked up the defensive intensity, they played together and didn’t fold in the face of a large deficit. Karl-Anthony Towns demonstrated that he is one of the best centers in the league with 18 points in the period, 39 for the game. Andrew Wiggins was right beside him, showcasing his revamped game to drive to the basket and hit from the outside for nine of his 34 points.
But the Wolves had dug themselves too deep a hole in the first three quarters to come back despite that valiant late effort.
“I understand we’ve got to learn — with everything,” coach Ryan Saunders said. “It doesn’t feel good to learn in games.”
The Wolves have been learning the hard way lately having lost seven straight.
It might seem hard to fathom, but this losing streak is going to end at some point. The Wolves will have a stretch in which they play better than they are now, maybe going on a winning streak, but will they have dug themselves too big a hole to make the playoffs this season?
It was easy to get excited about the Wolves’ start to the season. They were 3-1, and within the first week they had fans and NBA observers thinking they could be a playoff team in the Western Conference. Maybe the new front office, Saunders, Towns and Wiggins had already cracked the code, and the Wolves were going to be an ascendant team.
All that is still on the table 25 games into the season. They are only 1½ games back of the No. 7 seed in the West, and maybe that fourth quarter Sunday can help them recapture some of their early successes.
“The way we played, that’s how we can be,” forward Robert Covington said. “That’s how good we can be, we just gotta stick to it and try those things.”
But perhaps this seven-game losing streak has served as a reminder to the Wolves and fans that they are going to be bumps on this rebuild, as hard as that may be for a fan base to take that has only seen one playoff series in 15 years. The Wolves are attempting to modernize their style of play and become more three-point-oriented with a roster that is among the worst in the league at hitting threes (33%, No. 28 overall).
The defensive efficiency, once 12th in the league near the start of this losing streak, is now 22nd.
The current roster seems incomplete, at least the way President Gersson Rosas has talked about building it — by finding another All-Star-level player to surround Towns.
The Wolves swung and missed on their top free-agent target, D’Angelo Russell, last summer and signed only one player in free agency, Jake Layman, to a multiyear deal, and Layman has played well when healthy. The roster as currently assembled is still a work in progress, perhaps a good reminder given that starting Sunday, all players are eligible to be traded, even those that signed this summer. Landing Russell isn’t out of the question, given Golden State’s plummet down the standings amid myriad injuries and a fraught salary-cap situation moving forward. But with a league as unpredictable as the NBA, Russell likely isn’t the only target.
Rosas has tried to maintain cap flexibility with the moves he made this summer, and with Jeff Teague’s contract coming off the books this summer, he’ll have some of that. So while the Wolves current situation may have fans in a funk and dreaming of pingpong balls in the lottery again instead of playoff wins, it might be helpful to know these 25 games might just be a small step in the overall arc of this new regime.