Dramatic Improvement

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Are the Wolves Making History With Their Turnaround?

The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves finished a season at .500 or above, it was 2005. Kevin Garnett was a top-5 NBA player, Latrell Sprewell was still gainfully employed and Ndudi Ebi still had a roster spot. While it is getting ahead of ourselves a little bit to project out out the remaining 42 games of the '11-'12 NBA season, it is always interesting to play the "what if" game, and this one seems fairly logical:

What if the Wolves kept up their current pace and finished with a .500 record?

Given how historically bad the Wolves have been over the last two seasons, where would that put them in terms of turnarounds in the NBA? Would this be a historical event or just good progress? I thought I'd take a look below the fold.

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First, let's start out with the basics.

If the Wolves were to finish with a .500 record, that would give them 33 wins. Last season they won 17 games. The difference of 16 games is nice, but is hardly a record. It would not even be the best turnaround in Wolves history, given that they went from 25 wins in '98-'99 (another strike shortened season) to 50 wins in '99-'00.

Of course, it's hardly fair to compare the number of wins in a strike-shortened season to the number of wins in a full 82-game season. If the Wolves went .500 in a normal year, they'd finish with 41 wins. That's a difference of 24 games, which while not a record either, is getting closer.

Perhaps it is better to look at win% increase. In that case, a .500 win percentage is .293 points better than the .207 win percentage the Wolves had last season. That's far and away better than the .110 improvement the team saw between '98-'99 and '99-'00.

Since 1995, these are the three best NBA turnarounds:

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3. Phoenix Suns '04-'05

Record: 62-20

Previous season record: 29-53

Improvement: 33 games (.402 increase)

The difference: The Suns brought in unrestricted free agent Steve Nash to take the keys from Stephon Marbury and hired new coach Mike D'Antoni. That duo, along with the development of Leandro Barbosa, Amar'e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, led the Suns from 6th in the Pacific Division to the Western Conference Finals. Phoenix went from scoring 94.2 points per game (11th in the NBA) with an Offensive Rating of 101.4 (21st) to 110.4 (1st) and 114.5 (1st), respectively.

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2. San Antonio Spurs '97-'98

Record: 56-26

Previous season record: 20-62

Improvement: 36 games (.439 increase)

The difference: After David Robinson suffered a season-ending knee injury only 6 games into the '96-'97 season, the Spurs were bad enough that they earned the 1st overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. They took Tim Duncan, one of the top 3 power forwards of all-time. Robinson returned and the Spurs won 56 games. They would win the NBA Championship the following year.

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1. Boston Celtics '07-'08

Record: 66-16

Previous season record: 24-58

Improvement: 42 games (.512)

The difference: Wolves fans know this one by heart. Danny Ainge swapped Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair,, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, Jeff Green, 2 2009 1sts (Wayne Ellington and Jonny Flynn) and a 2008 2nd (Trent Plaisted) for Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis. The Celtics defeated the Lakers for the NBA Championship, the concept of a "Big Three" was born, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade stole the idea, and the rest is history.

By the way, the combined number of starts in the '11-12 season was 43 for Davis/Allen/Garnett and 44 for the 11 players who were traded in return.

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Whether you go strictly by number of wins, or you go by percentage of wins, the Wolves fall well short of the mark in comparison to those three teams. So perhaps this season is not quite NBA history in the making.

But wait...the Suns won 29 games the year before their comeback and had made the playoffs in the year prior to that ('02-'03). The Spurs were only bad because of a fluke injury to their best player and had won 59 games the previous season ('95-'96). Even the Celtics, before their 24-win season, had 33 wins the year before that. The Wolves have not won 33 games in nearly six seasons.

None of those three teams could match the consistent awfulness that the Wolves have displayed over the past two seasons.

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112 teams since 1979-1980 have finished their respective seasons with a win percentage of less than .300. The Wolves franchise is responsible for 9 of those teams. Only the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles/San Diego Clippers have had more seasons below .300 (10) in that time.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns have not had a sub-.300 season during that time period.

The Wolves, however, have had 4 sub-.300 seasons in a row. That feat has only been accomplished 4 other times in NBA history. Only 12 times has a team had 3 or more sub-.300 seasons in a row:

Team # of Seasons (Years) Win % Next Season
Minnesota 4 ('08-'11) ?
Memphis 3 ('07-'09) .488
Washington 3 ('93-'95) .476
New York 3 ('85-'87) .463
Miami 3 ('89-'91) .463
Dallas 3 ('92-'94) .439
LA Clippers 3 ('98-'00) .378
Philadelphia 3 ('95-'97) .378
LA Clippers 3 ('87-'89) .366
Chicago 4 ('99-'02) .366
Vancouver 7 ('96-'03) .341
Minnesota 4 ('92-'95) .317

The Celtics, Spurs and Suns may have been able to make better turnarounds from one season to the next. This season's Wolves could wind up being the first team with such a lengthy losing streak to finish at .500 or above. Being able to go from consistent awfulness to respectability takes a great coach, a rookie point guard who is already playing like a veteran and an All-Star who is inserting himself into the top-10 NBA player conversation.

There is a long way to go, including a 7-game road trip in March (9 out of 10 on the road overall during that stretch). If the team stays healthy and focused, however, there is no reason to believe they will not continue their current level of play and make history.

Who knows? Maybe they'll even contend for the playoffs...

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