After a brief period of success where the Wolves looked like a completely new team following the Jimmy Butler trade, the unavoidable letdown has come with a 0-4 road trip along the West Coast.
It was hard not to be exuberant following the Jimmy Butler trade. After all, everyone simply looked happier. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins were playing with more joy, the defense somehow incredibly improved, and Robert Covington and Dario Saric were looking like two of the missing pieces to this team.
Optimism was sky high, and for good reason, as the Wolves were actually a good team. From November 12th to December 5th the Wolves went 9-3 with the 4th best net rating in the NBA. Sure some of those victories came from beating up on the Cavs, Bulls, and Nets, but the Wolves had real victories over the Rockets and the Trailblazers as well.
Somehow, over that period, the Wolves had the 3rd best defensive rating in the NBA, largely bolstered by Robert Covington playing like the best defensive wing in the NBA. This was a far cry from the usually terrible defense that we have seen the Wolves play in the last few years.
But in the past few games, Covington has been coming back from missing a game due to right knee soreness and has not had quite the same impact.
So what has changed in the last week? First of all, the Wolves new defense has disappeared. After having one of the best defenses for almost a month, the Wolves have ranked 26th in defensive rating over their road trip. Ever since Butler has left, the Wolves have basically a middle-of-the-pack offense, which works fine when you are playing out of your mind on defense, but is less useful when the team cannot get any stops.
The home and away splits from December 12th show the recent divide from the road trip. At home, the Wolves are 7-3 with a positive 8.3 net rating. On the road, they are 2-4 with a -2.6 net rating, a swing of nearly 10 points.
However, if we look at the whole picture since November 12th, the Wolves still look like a team that will be competing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. This road trip aside, the Wolves are not going to simply slip into becoming one of the worst teams in the NBA.
Their offensive rating of 109.5, 12th in the NBA over that period, feels about right for a team with Karl-Anthony Towns leading the way. The defensive rating, 105.3, will likely drop, as it is too much for us to expect one player to help a team vault from one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA to one of the best. But we could expect the Wolves to end up a middling team in defense, which after countless years of abject failure, would feel like a win.
Overall, this would place the Wolves about where we would expect them, about an average team on offense and defense, likely bouncing around .500. While the Wolves have shown they can be better thus far, as well as worse, that feels like a reasonable expectation going forward.
While this was certainly a disastrous road trip for the Wolves, it is hardly a slide into the tanking wars. Rather the Wolves going 0-4, with a few bad losses, is more of a reversion to the mean. The Wolves were never going to continue to play like one of the best teams in the NBA throughout the entire season. The team simply does not have the talent for that.
This can still be a good team. Hopefully, the pendulum will begin to swing back in the other direction. If the Wolves want to keep up in the Western Conference, it has to.