When the Timberwolves fired Tom Thibodeau and replaced him with Ryan Saunders, there were interesting sound bites from several different parties.
The players all took the high road. Whether or not you choose to believe them, they all spoke highly of Thibs on his way out the door.
The piece of this story that has circulated the most came from Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. Taylor, while speaking about Ryan Saunders and his opportunity to keep the job after the season, said the following to the Star Tribunes’ Chris Hine:
That quote has circulated, and has been danced around by nearly everyone. I’m not sure that anyone has taken the time to really evaluate how achievable that goal of Taylor’s is, as well as what scenario would make it attainable. To be clear, I’m not saying whether or not that should be the primary goal for the Wolves the rest of the way, but it clearly is just that so let’s dig in.
First off, let’s take a peak at the standings. As it currently stands, Minnesota is in 11th place in the Western Conference. That’s not exactly ideal.
Standings aside, not all teams remaining games are created equal. At this moment, the Timberwolves remaining opponents have a win percentage of 52%. That number is 4th highest in the NBA and Western Conference. I’ve seen some variation of this figure thrown around recently to show that the Wolves don’t have a great shot to make the postseason.
I’m not saying that I don’t somewhat agree, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what this means. Look at the other teams around them, and look at the small difference between teams and their remaining SOS. Western Conference teams, naturally, are going to have a higher remaining SOS due to the fact that there are 14 teams in the playoff race.
There is one outlier, though. Utah has the second easiest remaining schedule in the NBA with an opponents win percentage of 47.4%. I feel confident in assuming that Utah will be able to take advantage of THAT easy of a schedule and lock up a postseason berth.
I also feel confident in assuming that Lebron James will make a big enough difference once he comes back that the Lakers will also lock up a berth. Denver and Golden State are going to make it. Oklahoma City may have an incredibly tough schedule coming up, but I really can’t see a scenario where that team doesn’t make the playoffs, either.
That would leave three spots available, and the Wolves would have to leap frog two of the following teams: Sacramento, San Antonio, Houston, LAC, and Portland. That doesn’t seem impossible, but it ignores the fact that they’d have to accomplish that while not allowing any of the teams behind them surpass them in the standings.
That is going to be ... challenging, to say the least.
One thing that the Wolves do have going for them is that Sacramento is a likely regression candidate over the second half of the season. They currently have a negative net-rating (-0.6) while posting a winning record. That isn’t how that’s supposed to work, so statistically speaking, we could expect Sacramento to fall back in the standings.
Additionally, the Wolves have a positive net-rating (+0.3) while posting a losing record. A positive net-rating should lead to a winning record, not a losing one. Are both of those numbers remarkably close to zero, which might explain why both of these teams are pretty much right at .500? Yep, but I’m trying to find positives here, and that’s a small one.
For what it’s worth, Utah has the 4th highest net-rating (+2.5) in the West. That would certainly suggest that they’re due for a few more wins than they’ve been getting recently. That, coupled with the fact that they have the second easiest remaining schedule in the entire NBA, leads me to believe they’ll find their way into the postseason.
The other positive is that the Wolves should be getting healthy soon. Specifically, Robert Covington returning to the lineup should make this team better. While healthy, he was a monster on both ends of the floor. The best case scenario would see a healthy and rested RoCo come back and return to that form. It feels like forever ago, but right after the trade he was playing as good as anyone on the team. That version of RoCo can push the Wolves back in the right direction.
While the Wolves should be getting healthy soon, not every team is so lucky.
The Houston Rockets are, quite honestly, getting destroyed by the injury bug. With Clint Capela out of the lineup for the next 4-6 weeks, Houston is down to relying on several players they never imagined they’d need to. James Harden throttled Memphis to the tune of 57 points last night, so maybe they really will be able to survive without Capela, Eric Gordon, and Chris Paul. Harden is really that good. I’m skeptical, though, about how long Harden can sustain this absurd level of play. At some point, that type of offensive load has to take a toll on him.
So, in a nutshell, the Wolves path to the postseason would likely see Sacramento regress, while James Harden simultaneously burns out and the Rockets fall off a cliff. One of those scenarios is relatively likely. The Harden scenario, however, is not something that I feel very confident in.
You could argue that seeing San Antonio, LAC, or Portland fall off would be more likely than Harden wearing himself out, and I wouldn’t really disagree. And for what it’s worth, I’m not going to root for him to wear himself out. He is the most unbelievable thing happening right now. I just don’t have a great, tangible reason as to why those three other teams might perform significantly worse than the Wolves over the remainder of the season.
There’s another thing that we’ve avoided until now, and I just can’t avoid it any longer. The Wolves play Phoenix twice still this season. Now, this is only partially facetious, I’m pretty certain they’re going to lose at least one of those games. I don’t know what it is, but the Wolves can’t seem to figure out a way to beat that team consistently. It’s really hard to get into the playoffs without winning the games you’re supposed to, and I’m not confident that they’ll do that.
That, right there, is what makes this Wolves team so fascinating. We never really know what to expect on any given night. Would I be surprised if this team got RoCo back, hit it’s stride, and made a massive push towards the playoffs? Nope, not even a little bit. However, I can just as easily see them stumbling their way to a .500 or slightly below .500 finish and miss the playoffs.
What I will say, though, is that there’s a path to the postseason. If we’re being completely unbiased and honest, it isn’t the smoothest or most likely path, but there is a path. Given all that we’ve endured thus far, that’s all we can ask for.