The Minnesota Timberwolves are sitting 22-24, a full three games out of the playoff race. Between the Wolves and that 8th seed sit the Los Angeles Lakers, who will get LeBron James back at some point in the near future.
Under Ryan Saunders, the Wolves have gone 3-3 and they look like a team that is going to vacillate around .500 the rest of the way. The Wolves have had a few impressive wins over the Thunder and the Pelicans, but had a rough game against the 76ers and barely got by the Suns. Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS) has them at -0.02, which is basically accurate for their record.
Going back to the Jimmy Butler trade, the Wolves have the 12th best offensive rating and the 11th best defensive rating, giving them the 12th best net rating in the NBA. That would imply that the Wolves should be able to compete for one of the last playoff spots, but with the Wolves current injuries that seems unlikely. Robert Covington and Tyus Jones have been two of the plus-minus stars since the Butler trade and both are out without a timetable to return. Jeff Teague has been in and out of the lineup and Derrick Rose will likely have his minutes limited through the rest of the year.
This is all terrible timing, because looking ahead at the Wolves schedule, they really need to take advantage of the next month or so. From now until the end of February, the Wolves have 16 games. There are difficult games among the bunch, such as two games against the Jazz (who are currently dealing with their own injuries), and matchups against the Rockets, Nuggets, Clippers, Bucks, and Pacers. However, that is just 7 out of 16 games against playoff teams. The rest of the games will be against the Lakers (likely without LeBron), the Suns, Grizzlies (twice), Pelicans, Knicks, Kings, and Hawks.
That may not look like the easiest schedule, but in the Western Conference with only one tanking team, that is about as good as it is going to get.
The Wolves need to take advantage of this stretch, as they have a deficit to climb out of in the playoff rankings and their schedule over the home stretch of the season is incredibly difficult. From March 12th to April 10th, the Wolves face a buzzsaw of tough opponents. The Wolves take on consecutively, deep breath, the Nuggets, Jazz, Rockets, Warriors, Hornets, Grizzlies, Clippers, Warriors, 76ers, Trailblazers, Mavericks, Heat, Thunder, Raptors, and Nuggets.
There are maybe two out of that 15 game bunch that the Wolves will be favored in. If I was pressed into deciding how many of those games I think the Wolves would win, I cannot say I would be confident picking much higher than four. That is simply a brutal slate of games to close out the season, particularly if the Wolves believe that they will be competing for one of the last playoff spots.
This implies that the Wolves really need to be paying attention to the next two weeks leading up to the trade deadline. If the team can only manage to play at an even keel against a weaker schedule, they should be looking to be sellers at the deadline. Even if the Wolves somehow coalesce and go on a run, that fortune may be short-lived, as the relatively weak schedule will give way to a barrage of teams competing for playoff positioning.
The Wolves likely will not see any benefits of playing playoff teams who have already locked in their seeding, as Denver is the only team that could rest their starters in the Warriors pull ahead for the one seed. Everyone else is within a game or two of each other.
This means the Wolves are exactly who we have been saying they are for the last few weeks. A team that does not have enough talent to compete that is also struggling with injuries to key rotation players. The only benefit of the schedule is that the Wolves could take advantage of a late season slide to improve their draft positioning. At least we would be in familiar territory.