We are officially 17 games into the Minnesota Timberwolves season. In a normal year, we would have a good sense of who a team is by about the 20-game mark. That is not scientific. Many coaches and people around the NBA will tell you that is how long it takes to evaluate a team. While 20 seems like a random number, most teams are more or less who they are by then.
If that is the case, that does not bode well for the Timberwolves. With a 4-13 record, they sit last in the Western Conference. You can say “They have only played 17 games” but that amounts to roughly the same percentage in a 72-game season as 82.
Even if Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell return this weekend, they would have to go on a tear just to dig out of this hole.
Way Down in the Hole
Memphis currently sits in eighth place with a .538 winning percentage. Let’s assume that is where Minnesota needs to be and all 72 games are played no matter what. The Timberwolves would need to go 35-20 (.636) to get there.
What if we lower the bar to 10th place and just high enough for a spot in the play-in tournament. Oklahoma City is the current 10th seed at 8-9 (.471). To match that percentage, the Timberwolves would need to go 30-25 over their remaining games to finish 34-38. That is an attainable record for a team with a full season of healthy Towns, but playing at a five-games-over-.500 pace feels like asking a lot at this point.
I don’t mean to be negative — a big run over the final two-thirds of the season would be a blast. However, we have seen how much luck or good fortune a team needs this season. We have never had a season like this because of the pandemic and that’s in addition to usual factors like injuries.
Another Endless Rebuild?
Instead of contending for a play-in spot, it feels as if Timberwolves fans and followers have returned to a familiar place: rebuild mode. Many of the high points over the last few weeks have been the play of young guys like Naz Reid, Anthony Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Jaden McDaniels.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great those guys have had their moments, but that’s not what this team set out to accomplish this season. They did not trade for Ricky Rubio, retain Malik Beasley, and acquire Ed Davis to finish at the bottom of the standings again. You have to aim higher when you have a player like Towns in his prime and that’s what the team *tried* to do.
Two things can be true here — the team could not have foreseen the Towns injury or Rubio and Davis playing terribly. Perhaps they hoped Russell could carry this team for a short time but that hasn’t been close to true. All of this is true but you also don’t have to watch this team win one out of every four games and feel good about it.
If you expected the team to contend for a play-in seed before the season, I don’t think that was ridiculous. Even if you thought they would be bad, did you think they would be this bad? What has transpired this season has been a letdown.
Too Many Problems, Too Few Answers
What the first quarter of this season has shown more than anything else is that this team (still) doesn’t have enough. Yes, Towns is the solution to many of their problems; but beyond that, it seems like not much else is figured out. Being this one dimensional in the NBA is unwise.
Maybe they knew Russell wasn’t that guy when they brought him in but at least he kept Towns happy. Still, Russell is — fairly or unfairly — cast in the role of the number two guy. You expect those players to support the team for a bit if the top guy has to sit. I’m sure Towns watches the games and can see what’s happening with Russell leading the team. Expecting someone like Edwards, who is far too young and inexperienced, to shoulder the burden would be worse.
The Timberwolves have to do something this offseason. Dramatically improving this team isn’t easy other but they need to do something. They need more and those answers don’t appear to be on the roster at this current moment. If they were, it’s unlikely they would have a 4-13 record right now. Barring a miraculous run, it seems as if the 2021 Timberwolves are destined for disappointment (yet again).
Because of the Russell trade, there isn’t even the hope of another top pick (unless of course it’s pick one, two, or three). There is a 60 percent chance the team loses their pick to Golden State no matter how bad they are. The fact they aren’t tanking and are still this bad should be concerning.
This season would absolutely have played out differently with a healthy Towns the whole way. However, his absence has exposed a number of critical issues this franchise must address to just return to playoff contention. Salvaging this season could be possible if the team looks at the start of this season and realizes big changes are needed and needed quickly.