If you left town for a long weekend and shut your phone off for three days — stick with me on this, since nobody ever shuts their phone off for that long these days — you returned Sunday evening to a dramatically different Timberwolves team.
Minnesota had already made the bold swap for Jimmy Butler the previous week. Over the weekend, the Wolves traded longtime point guard Ricky Rubio to Utah for a first-round pick, a move that was mostly a salary dump. They then used their money to instead agree with point guard Jeff Teague on a three-year, $57 million contract about 30 seconds into the free agency negotiating period. They weren't done, though, nabbing big man Taj Gibson on a two-year deal worth $28 million.
After the Butler trade, the projections and analysis site FiveThirtyEight.com had the Wolves as a 50-win team next season. After swapping point guards, that number was bumped to 53 wins. Gibson is a little more one-dimensional — adding plenty of defense and nitty-gritty stuff, but not a ton of offense — so I'm not sure how much further he will move the needle.
The exact number isn't really important, though. What's more notable is using these projections as a launching point for a discussion. Are the Wolves suddenly really a 50-win team?
FiveThirtyEight makes a strong case that the Wolves are due for that big of a jump based on just how good Butler is … plus the continued improvement of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins … plus a better supporting cast … plus the idea that last year's Wolves should have won more games based on their point differential and were just a little unlucky in some cases.
The words of caution are equally important, though. The site's projections liked the Wolves to win 46 games last year. And, um, they only fell 15 short of that. And it should be noted that for as many improvements in individual talent the Wolves have made this season, we still don't know for sure how it will all fit together — nor do we know if what looks for now like a perilously thin bench will be able to hold down the fort whenever Tom Thibodeau decides his starters could use a little rest.
There's no doubting the seductive power of their headline, though: "Next Season's NBA Heavyweights: Warriors, Cavs, Spurs, Rockets … Timberwolves?"
The Western Conference is still loaded. It's very hard to imagine the Wolves being better than the Spurs or Rockets, let alone the Warriors next year. But breaking a 13-year playoff drought is possible. And doing so in the West might require somewhere near or above 50 wins.
The Wolves have spent years underperforming projections. There also exists the possibility that one of these years they will overperform.
If nothing else, the narrative for next season is this: Instead of the Wolves might be good, the Wolves should be good. Anything short of 45 wins would seem like a disappointment, and 50 feels within reach.