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As The Wolves Turn: Week Nine Observations

Minnesota is coming off their best week of basketball in years. Let’s recap everything that took place over the last seven days.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Ah, the peak of the roller coaster is so much more enjoyable than the plummet. The Minnesota Timberwolves continued their season long streakiness by winning four in a row against the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers, and the Dallas Mavericks. After this win steak, the Timberwolves are now back to .500, sit in the eighth seed, and are only one game back of the fifth seed.

Despite having a promising four game stretch, the Timberwolves are no where close to out of the woods. Over their next seven games, the Timberwolves face teams with playoff expectations in each one. While it’d be nice if the Timberwolves ran the slate and won all seven, that’s incredibly unlikely. What they do need to do, though, is avoid another one of these massive down swings where they lose five or more in a row. If the Timberwolves can come out of this stretch with three or four wins (preferably against the Western Conference teams), they’ll be in a great position to capitalize on a four-game stretch that’ll be much easier, at least on paper.

Taking Care of Business

For the Timberwolves to make the playoffs this season, they needed to prove they could consistently beat the teams vying for those same lower seed playoff spots. I’m not exactly reinventing the wheel with that, but you know what I mean. What has been so encouraging and un-Wolves like is that they are actually beating these teams.

It would probably help if I clarified which teams I was talking about. Entering the season, the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and Utah Jazz were widely regarded as the three best teams in the West and in a class of their own. Those three are excluded from this conversation. Conversely, the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder were pegged as bottom dwellers and in a class of their own. They’re also excluded from this conversation. That leaves nine (soon to be eight given how the Pelicans have looked, but we’ll stick with the preseason projections) other teams that the Timberwolves needed to battle and come away with results against. I know that is a wide range but look at the standings and it makes sense.

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Against that pool of nine teams, the Timberwolves are 10-6. I could finagle this a little more by removing the Los Angeles Clippers as a team in a class of their own (I don’t really think they are), which would make the Timberwolves record 10-3 against this group they’ll be competing closely with all season. I know this also means that the Timberwolves are 5-9 against the rest of the league which isn’t ideal but taking games off these middle tier Western Conference teams is essential to their playoff ambitions.

What is even more encouraging is that these wins don’t feel like a fluke. In their 16 games against that group of nine, the Timberwolves have a point differential of plus-93. That number is heavily supported by the 43-point dismantling of the Memphis Grizzlies, but even if you take that game out as an outlier, that gives the Timberwolves a plus-50 point differential. The Timberwolves are currently beating who they need to beat, and if they can start to avoid these damaging losing streaks, the 4-6 seeds aren’t out of the question.

V8 Engine

It is going to be a real shame when we get to the post-season awards and Jarred Vanderbilt goes unrecognized because he isn’t the most popular name. What Vanderbilt has been doing this season has been nothing short of incredible. His motor never stops, and he provides a sense of versatility, toughness, tenaciousness, and will that is rarely matched throughout the league.

Vanderbilt currently has the second highest on/off net rating differential on the team at plus-14 which ranks in the 93rd percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. D’Angelo Russell is the only one higher on the team at pluse-21 (99th percentile). Before we go on, just think how absurd that number is for Vanderbilt who just signed an extraordinarily team friendly multiyear deal, didn’t get much of any pursuit in free agency, and struggled to get minutes before last season.

Instinctually, you’d think that Vanderbilt’s on/off net rating differential would be massively bolstered by his defense. While Vanderbilt’s on/off defensive rating differential of minus-4.6 is strong (79th percentile), it isn’t the outlier. What is so incredible, is that Vanderbilt’s on/off offensive rating differential is plus-9.4 (92nd percentile). For a guy who doesn’t score much and can’t shoot, this is an astounding figure.

How does he do it? Purely through offensive rebounding. It is shocking to think about, but Vanderbilt’s uncanny ability to gather offensive rebounds has made him the third most valuable offensive weapon on the Timberwolves in terms of on/off offensive rating differential (only behind Patrick Beverley’s plus-11 and Karl-Anthony Towns’ plus-10.5). Vanderbilt’s offensive rebounding rate of 12.3 percent ranks in the 88th percentile of bigs, and the Timberwolves have an offensive rebounding rate that is 8.3 percent higher with him on the court than off (97th percentile). Through sheer force of will, brilliant angle recognition, and tremendous tenacity, Vanderbilt is singlehandedly giving the Timberwolves extra possessions every game and proving that you can still be an offensive asset even if you can’t shoot.

Nowell, Nowell

Jaylen Nowell has struggled to find consistent minutes this season, but over the last five games, Nowell is proving that he should be the third guard in the rotation. Over these five games, Nowell is averaging 13.9 minutes, nine points, two assists, and almost two rebounds while shooting 58 percent from three (only 2.4 attempts per game).

The third guard has been a sore spot for the Timberwolves as Jordan McLaughlin has been a huge disappointment. It is also a spot of importance for the Timberwolves given the injury history of Russell and Beverley. I don’t think Nowell will ever be a long term starter in the league, but his shot creation combined with his defensive effort are proving that he should be that third guard in the rotation.