On Thursday, the Timberwolves will try to win their fourth consecutive game, a task they have not accomplished since late November of 2018. That four-game run came during a brief hot streak just a couple weeks after Jimmy Butler was traded, an event that led to yet another full-scale rebuild.
The Wolves' improved play of late — 12-15 since the break after a 7-29 start — and the fact that Thursday's opponent is Golden State will naturally lead to even more discussion of the 2021 NBA draft.
I talked about it, in fact, on Wednesday's Daily Delivery podcast.
Every Wolves fan is hyper-aware that Minnesota owes the Warriors a first-round pick from the Andrew Wiggins-D'Angelo Russell swap that came in the middle of last season. If the Wolves land in the top three of the lottery drawing on June 22, they keep the pick and owe Golden State their 2022 first-rounder no matter where it falls. If the pick falls outside the top three in 2021, Golden State gets it and the Wolves keep their 2022 first round pick.
As the Wolves have won some games lately, they have crept up in the standings. They spent a long time this season with the NBA's worst record. After Tuesday's win in Houston, they now have four more wins than the Rockets and also, by percentage points, have a better record than Orlando.
It's conceivable given their recent play that the Wolves could pass at least a couple other tanking teams like Detroit and Oklahoma City before the year is over. As you fret about that, here are some things to keep in mind:
*The Wolves have lost a lot of games, and they are tired of it. In the 100 games from the start of the 2019-20 season to this year's all-star break, they were 26-74. It pushed their all-time franchise winning percentage into territory as the worst in any major men's pro sports league — a rut they are now out of, surpassing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as of last night, by a distant decimal point.
Winning has value, something the organization has repeated — and did again after Tuesday's win, a game that was the second night of a back-to-back but in which all healthy Wolves players were available.
"We told the team and certainly our core, key guys that we weren't going to go into the stretch run here with the mentality of resting anybody unnecessarily because we're trying to establish chemistry, establish identity, establish a rhythm," Wolves coach Chris Finch said. "Take into the offseason a body of work that we can really assess and that's more important than anything else for us right now."
*As the Wolves win and move up the standings, their lottery odds aren't affected that much. As of now, for instance, they aren't impacted at all. The teams with the three worst records in the league have the same odds of a top-3 pick: 40.1%. Even if the Wolves moved into the No. 4 spot, they would only go down to 36.6%; at No. 5, it's 31.6%. Those are real differences, but they aren't disqualifying.
The team that actually is getting hurt the most by the Wolves' rise is Golden State, which has every incentive to win Thursday for its own playoff position and potential 2021 pick. When the Wolves had the league's worst record, they had a 59.9% chance of getting either the No. 4 or No. 5 pick, which would of course go to the Warriors.
As it stands now, the Wolves still have a 40.1% chance of keeping the pick in the top three, but Golden State only has a 26.8% chance of getting a top-5 pick. The pick could fall as low as No. 7 to Golden State (and the most likely outcome is No. 6).
If the Wolves moved into the No. 4 spot in the lottery odds, it would increase the chance that the pick conveyed in the 6, 7 or even 8 spot to the Warriors if it fell out of the top three.
That wouldn't necessarily matter to the Wolves, but there are optics at play. The difference between losing a No. 4 pick and a No. 7 pick in a draft is considerable.
*Some of the narrative — and I'm guilty of this — around the worry about this is in assuming the Wolves will be better next season and therefore it would be preferable to keep the pick this season in a deep draft rather than to give up a pick in the 4-7 range as opposed to having the pick in 2022 when it will presumably be worse because the Wolves will have a better record.
The Wolves want to keep the pick in whatever year it will be higher and give it up when it will be lower.
But these are the Wolves. Anything can happen. While retaining the 2021 draft asset and using it to either select a top player or including it in a significant trade — combined with a core of players that seems to be improving in the back half of this season — should give the Wolves a much better chance to compete next season, counting on the Wolves to improve is a dangerous game.
And if the Wolves wind up in the lottery again in 2022 and still owe Golden State that pick, it would be unprotected and could therefore be No. 1 overall.
Thinking about it that way makes all the outcomes this season more palatable. Win more games down the stretch? You don't hurt your lottery odds that much (if at all) but you do damage Golden State's odds of getting a premium pick.
Keep the pick? It helps you probably avoid giving up a better pick next year, but there are no guarantees.
Lose the pick? It might not be as damaging as it would have been had the Wolves maintained the league's worst record.