About two weeks ago I finished a statistical survey of the league that placed the Wolves firmly in the playoffs. It felt good to finally be legitimately excited about our favorite team's prospects. For the first time since Garnet and Cassell I was optimistic.
Well that didn't last long.
With Rubio already sitting out for the first few months we didn't have room for another key injury, and Kevin Love definitely counts as a key injury. This isn't the same team without Rubio and Love. During the first 10 to 15 games we will not perform like a playoff team. Instead, I project us to perform at about a -4 efficiency differential. To put that in perspective, the New Orleans Hornets finished last season with a -4 efficiency differential.
Until Love recovers, this moves us from the 6th best team in the West to a tie with Houston for the title of 12th best. On the bright side, that means there are still a few teams worse than us. Five teams: Phoenix, Portland, Detroit, Orlando, and of course Charlotte should still be at a disadvantage against the Pek/AK47/Roy trio.
So... how many games can we expect to win early in the season?
Taking the Hornets' 31.8% win rate, we will be lucky to win 5 of the fifteen Loveless games. However, we may get lucky thanks to playing some of the weakest opponents early. Here is our differential spread in those fifteen games (assuming a -4 for the Wolves):
Fri, Nov 2 vsSacramento [ -1.6 ]
Sun, Nov 4 @Toronto [ -4.4 ]
Mon, Nov 5 @Brooklyn [ -4.3 ]
Wed, Nov 7 vsOrlando [+6.7]
Fri, Nov 9 vsIndiana [ -8.5 ]
Sat, Nov 10 @Chicago [ -1.7 ]
Mon, Nov 12 @Dallas [ -6.4 ]
Wed, Nov 14 vsCharlotte [ +10.9 ]
Fri, Nov 16 vsGolden State [ -0.2 ]
Wed, Nov 21 vsDenver [ -9.2 ]
Fri, Nov 23 @Portland [ +3.7 ]
Sat, Nov 24 @Golden State [ -0.2 ]
Tue, Nov 27 @Sacramento [ -1.6 ]
Wed, Nov 28 @Los Angeles [ -12.2 ]
Fri, Nov 30 vsMilwaukee [ -1.8 ]
So we have a solid advantage in three games, and within less than half a differential point in another two. That doesn't look very good...
What does this mean in the grand scheme of things? We may struggle early, but Love is still going to play in at least 80% of our games, and Rubio should be with us in December/January. Maybe the injury isn't that big of a deal.
If we take a "full season" perspective, things do look better. Adjusting Love's possession contribution from 14% to the 11% that we can now expect (this is the most pessimistic scenario), our projected season differential drops from +3.1 to about +1.4. Still a positive differential for the season. Unfortunately... the West is ridiculously strong this year. A differential of +1.4 drops us below the Clippers, Hornets, and Mavericks... right above the Utah Jazz at 9th place.