We asked last week where Minnesota Timberwolves fans saw their favorite squad finishing in a surprisingly wider than wide open Western Conference.
- Jordan McLaughlin made his return from a left calf strain that sidelined him for 30 games
- Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry suffered a leg injury that could sideline him for at least a month
- News broke that Devin Booker will return to play for the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday
- Suns President and CEO Jason Rowley resigned ahead of incoming owner Mat Ishbia set to take over control of the team on Tuesday
- The Dallas Mavericks went all-in in a move to acquire Kyrie Irving and Markieff Morris from the Brooklyn Nets for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, an unprotected 2029 first-round pick and two future second-round picks
- Los Angles Lakers star LeBron James tweeted the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen him tweet after the Lakers missed out on Irving
- A story from The Athletic reported Sunday that Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant and his “associates” got in a verbal altercation with, and allegedly shined a red laser at, members of the Indiana Pacers traveling party outside FedEx Forum in Memphis following the game on January 29. It came after an on-court scuffle took place during the game. Morant was ruled out of Sunday’s game with a wrist injury, as players who miss a game due to injury are not available to speak with media.
So, plenty has transpired since we surveyed the fan base, to say the least. But here’s how the voting broke down:
I was rather surprised at the collective confidence level of a fan base that has never placed expectations on their favorite team, even though I also voted 5-6 seed.
Minnesota has only nine home games left this season, meaning the team will play 17 of the remaining 26 games on the road. On top of that, we do not have a concrete understanding of when Karl-Anthony Towns might be back from his right calf strain, and the Wolves have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule, per Tankathon.
However, I trust that Towns’ reintegration will be a smoother one than we all think — at least offensively. His injury gave him the chance to take a step back and heavily scrutinize his place in the Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch’s system now that Rudy Gobert is in the front-court with him. Towns has plenty of games to look at to empirically determine what has worked, what hasn’t, and how he can make the best impact, no matter who else is on the floor with him.
Swapping out Kyle Anderson for Towns will certainly make the Timberwolves’ starting unit worse defensively, but the offensive potential is incredibly exciting. While the Slow-Mo has developed a strong connection with Gobert, Towns’ passing upside is equally strong and can replicate a similar dynamic while bringing an elite shooter and scorer into the fold.
In order for the team to continue its strong play offensively, the ball movement has to be a focal point; Towns is as unselfish as they come in terms of star offensive players. KAT took 2.0 less shots per game over his first 21 games this year than he did last season. He also increased his assist output from 3.6 to 5.3 and his passes made from 37.8 to 40.6 — both significant jumps that matched the eye test. There have been plenty of nights where Anthony Edwards needs more scoring support than what D’Angelo Russell alone can offer (which isn’t a knock on D-Lo, it’s just the reality of today’s NBA), and Towns’ proven scoring acumen will be a major shot in the arm when he does return.
The defense is the bigger question. Anderson and Jaden McDaniels have created one of the league’s most formidable defensive wing duos, and breaking that up could have some repercussions. Over the last 15 games, Minnesota is fifth in defense (111.3 defensive rating), a reflection of both their understanding of Gobert’s impact and their ability to toggle between drop coverage with Gobert and either a switching concept or high-wall defense without Gobert. Towns will struggle defensively while he’s still getting his legs back, but even when he does, he will have to improve upon the off-ball defensive positioning he showed over the first quarter of the season.
Getting Jordan McLaughlin back is a major boost, as well.
The trusted point guard will undoubtedly provide stability and improved efficiency to the second unit with his ability to get everyone organized, stimulate ball movement and infuse pace into the offense. If the Wolves end up keeping Russell beyond the trade deadline, he will be able to take Jaylen Nowell’s spot next to Russell in two-guard bench lineups and improve those units’ efficiency on both ends of the floor, while still allowing D-Lo to flourish in his off-ball shooting role.
Finally, the context of their place in the standings is important. Even without Towns and McLaughlin for the last 30 games, Minnesota has scratched and clawed to the No. 7 seed as of Monday evening. In order to get into that No. 5/6 seed range, the Timberwolves will have to leap frog one of the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Clippers, Suns and Mavericks. With shaky health situations for the final three teams, it is feasible to see that happening. However, Sacramento may be the most likely candidate for Minnesota to jump. The Kings are 2.0 games up on the Wolves and have had remarkable injury luck so far, missing three times fewer player games due to injury this season than the Timberwolves.
NBA injury plot. Games missed by injured players and health protocols versus team wins. Bubble size represents cumulative quality of players lost for games (Lost-vorp metric)https://t.co/RyyWLxUiKV pic.twitter.com/3QcU7U1SEt— Man Games Lost NBA (@ManGamesLostNBA) February 6, 2023
Between the return of two key rotation players, having to get up and bring the energy for every game down the stretch, and the law of averages working in their favor, the Wolves have a very clear path to earning the No. 5 or No. 6 seed come playoff time.
There’s something sweet about controlling your own destiny, but considering the Timberwolves’ history, nothing is given. I’m excited to see what this team can go out and earn.