Going into this season, there were two schools of thought about the Timberwolves and how they might fare: 1) their young core would take some time to develop under Tom Thibodeau, and in a competitive Western Conference it would be hard for the Wolves to rack up victories; 2) their emerging Big Three scorers (Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine) would take enough of a step forward that Minnesota would have a real shot to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
As it turns out, strangely enough, both those notions were correct.
The Timberwolves limped to an 11-26 start this year, owing to a combination of close losses, nights when they looked completely checked out and the growing pains of young players learning under a demanding veteran coach.
Since then, though, they’ve gone 6-2 — posting a pair of impressive but different three-game winning streaks. In the first, they looked fluid and polished in knocking off Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City at Target Center (the last two of which were wins over near-certain playoff teams). In the second streak, which is still intact, they’ve posted close wins over the Clippers, Nuggets and Suns — all by four points or fewer, after going 0-10 in such games to start the year. Towns carried the stretch scoring load in the first two, while Wiggins’ buzzer-beater Tuesday night against Phoenix ruled the day.
So what? They’re still 17-28. That’s not good.
You’re correct, but in the weird West this year, it puts the Wolves within shouting distance of the No. 8 seed.
The standings basically show seven teams that are virtual locks to make the playoffs — Memphis, currently in the No. 7 spot, is 26-20 and has better than a 99 percent chance of making the postseason, per Basketball Reference’s playoff odds report.
From there, the drop-off is dramatic. Denver is in the 8th and final spot right now with a 19-25 record. The Nuggets and the other seven teams in the West all have between 15 and 19 wins, suggesting it will be an eight-way battle for the final spot.
The Wolves are firmly in that mix, and among those eight they have among the most upside given their recent trend of improvement.
At the moment, they’re in the No. 12 spot in the conference. But Basketball Reference projects they’ll finish 10th — and just three games behind Denver — after going 17-20 in the final 37 games for a 34-48 overall record.
That type of finish is more realistic than a real playoff surge, but Basketball Reference still gives the Wolves a 13 percent chance of making the playoffs right now. If they beat expectations by just a few games while other teams falter …
I know. It’s probably not going to happen, particularly when seven other teams are in the hunt.
But if you gave up on the Wolves two weeks ago figuring they were both hopeless and buried in the standings, you should know that neither of those things are true.
Nine of the Wolves next 11 games are at Target Center, many of them against beatable teams.
Yes, like Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber, I’m telling you there’s a chance.