It’s March, with three-quarters of the season in the books and the Timberwolves are potentially in playoff contention for the first time since the 2013/2014 season. The Wolves currently sit three games back from the 8th seed with a 25-37 record. They are competing with the Nuggets, who currently have pole position with the 8th seed, the Kings, the Trailblazers, the Mavericks, and the Pelicans.
The teams are currently ranked (in terms of records)
- Nuggets - 26-34 (538 has them at 52 percent to make playoffs)
- Trailblazers - 26-35. 1.5 games behind (538 has them at 26 percent to make playoffs)
- Mavericks - 26-36. 2 games behind (538 has them at 12 percent to make playoffs)
- Kings - 25-37. 3 games behind (538 has them at 1 percent to make playoffs)
- Timberwolves - 25-37. 3 games behind (538 has them at 7 percent to make playoffs)
- Pelicans - 25-38. 3.5 games behind (538 has them at 1 percent to make playoffs)
The Wolves are currently the best team of this bunch. In their last 25 games, they are 14-11, with a positive net rating of 2.9. The team has been trending upwards, albeit not always in a linear fashion, all year and almost every statistic points to the Wolves being the strongest team. However, it might be too little too late for the Wolves, as they have the most challenging remaining schedule. There are 20 games left for the team to make up the three game difference and 12 of those games are on the road. The Wolves also still have two games yet to play against the Warriors. The only “soft” games left are three games against the Lakers and one against the Kings. It will be tough sledding.
The Nuggets are highly likely to retain the 8th seed. They have been playing at a high level offensively since Nikola Jokic has been permanently moved into the starting lineup and Jusuf Nurkic was sent to the bench (and later traded to Portland for Mason Plumlee). They are the only other team out of the bunch that looks nearly as good as the Wolves statistically and they have a bevy of quality veterans playing substantial minutes. Of their remaining games, it’s an even split between home and road games, and a more moderate schedule.
The Trailblazers have been 3-2 since the All-Star Break, but have not been able to overcome their disastrous defense all year long. The team bet this last offseason they would be able to replicate their recent success by building around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but have not been able to find the magic formula as their defense has dissipated and a lot of their role player’s shooting numbers, such as Al-Farouq Aminu, have cratered. However, Nurkic might be injecting some life into their team, as since he has been traded to the Blazers he has been averaging 14.2 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game with a positive rating of 10.2. However, if they are going to jump up in the standings, one team they will certainly have to beat is the Wolves, as the Blazers and the Wolves have three remaining games this season.
The Kings are the likely suspects to fall off this list, as they essentially have blown up the team with the DeMarcus Cousins trade. They have gone 1-3 since the trade and will trend downwards the rest of the year as they will be going for the best draft pick possible. They still have the 23rd best record this year, but will have a hard time catching up to the bottom of the barrel teams. The only teams they could potentially leapfrog in the lottery are the Magic and the Knicks.
The Mavericks are the dark horse candidate to sneak into the playoffs. Since January 1st, they have gone 15-12 and have unlocked their offense by sliding Dirk Nowitzki up to Center and utilizing a lot of small-ball lineups. They just added Nerlens Noel during the trade deadline, which should help their overall team defense. They also have the easiest remaining schedule out of all these teams. Not to mention, they still have current Wizard in Chief Rick Carlisle running the show. However, the team retains their draft pick only if the Mavericks do not make the playoffs, so if the Mavericks decide they don’t think they have a real shot of jumping ahead of the Nuggets, they could pack it in.
The Pelican’s early returns on their blockbuster trade have not lived up to the expectations. They have gone 2-4 since trading for Cousins, have had to deal with injuries to Omri Casspi and Jarrett Jack, and seen Jrue Holiday disappear over the most recent stretch of games. Cousins was forced to miss one game due to a mandatory suspension after acquiring two more technical fouls and will miss one game for every additional two technical fouls he receives the rest of the season. Their roster is currently lopsided, as they do not really have necessary talent with their Wings. The Pelicans had hoped that the force of Cousins and Anthony Davis could carry them to the playoffs, but each loss pushes them further and further out of contention.
It seems that the Nuggets will be the team that retains the playoff spot, although there will certainly be at least one team that pushes them. It’s hard to believe that the Blazers are suddenly going to figure things out, as they have shown no indication so far this season that they are capable of doing so. It’s more likely that the final rankings end up looking something like this.
The Mavericks and the Wolves could certainly flip-flop, as well as the Blazers, I think it’s more likely that the Mavericks are the team that could overtake the Nuggets rather than the Blazers.
While it would certainly be disappointing if the Wolves did not make the playoffs after the high hopes entering this year, it’s hard to be anything over than extremely positive about the future of the Wolves. They are making real progress right now and have been doing so for around two and a half months. Of the grouping with the Mavericks and Nuggets, they are the only team relying almost entirely on their young players for heavy minutes and as role players. Brandon Rush is the only true veteran on the Wolves that is getting substantial minutes, although one may consider Ricky Rubio a veteran at this point.
Overall, as fans, we get the dual benefit the rest of the season of watching the Wolves make a real run for a playoff spot, while also knowing that the Wolves will most likely be returning to the lottery for another high-quality draft pick. Regardless of what happens, the future is bright.