How Good Are Wolves, Can Winning Continue?

Photo: David Sherman - Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves have clawed their way back to .500 in the last week or two, winning four-straight games vs other middling Western Conference opponents, (13-18) Portland, (15-14) Denver, (16-15) LAL and (14-15) Dallas without budding star, Anthony Edwards. It’s true, a 15-15 team that needed a win streak to get back to even wouldn’t be worth celebrating for fans of most NBA franchises.

But the Wolves aren’t like other organizations around the league. Outside of one 8th-seed appearance with Jimmy Butler that wasn’t worth the trouble it brought, many basketball fans in Minnesota have never seen their pro team in the playoffs (’03-’04). Could that change this season? Streaks are made to be broken, right?

With their latest run, Chris Finch and the Timberwolves have climbed into the 8th position in the West. That would place them into the NBA Playoffs play-in tournament, if that’s where they were to finish. To avoid the play-in, Minnesota would have to reach the 6th-seed or higher. As of Monday afternoon, they sit just .5 games back of Denver, who currently occupies that final sure-playoff position. Most of the West is up for grabs as we inch closer to the halfway point of the season.

How good are they? – Defense

While the numbers on each side of the ball tell a sometimes confusing story, one thing becomes clear when you review the 2021-22 Minnesota Timberwolves on paper. They are carried by their defense. It was the surprise development through 15 games and it’s continued to be the storyline after 30.

The Wolves are ranked 22nd in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. But what’s continued to stand out both in the numbers and while watching is the hustle and hard work. That’s what carries them to victory most nights, along with clutch shooting from one of the big three late in contests.

And if an opponent comes into a matchup lacking that same type of energy, the Wolves will often run them out of the gym. They’ve done it twice this season to the LeBron James led Lakers and the separation in energy last week was palpable.

The stats on Basketball-Reference double down on Minnesota being one of the hardest working teams in the NBA.

They force the most turnovers in the entire NBA, including the 4th most steals. They’re terrible on the defensive glass because they’re undersized but when you flip the floor, they’re 12.7 offensive rebounds per game ranks 2nd.

Chris Finch needs to get his defense to keep up their intensity and aggressivenes without fouling, however. They rank 30th in the NBA in fouls committed and that’s led to opponents attempting the most free throws in the league against them. That’s why, even with the improvements on defense, they’re giving up the 11th-most points in the league.

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Karl-Anthony Towns has been the only consistent threat offensively and, at times, has put the Timberwolves on his back when needed. That’s a good thing because KAT will need to continue that killer attitude through 82 games if the Wolves are going to finish with a winning record.

But even with a new and improved Towns, Minnesota ranks near the bottom of the league in many offensive categories, including FG% (27th), 3P% (20th), eFG% (25th) and OFF RTG (22nd). But unlike their improvements on defense, I see these offensive deficiencies as a temporary problem.

There’s too much talent for them to continue struggling so much on that end of the floor and players have made it clear that Finch’s focus in the offseason was on improving their defense. Most of the competitive drills featured rebounding and defensive-based scoring opportunities.

They didn’t put in the time necessary this offseason, offensively, to get comfortable in a brand new system. The head coach chose to learn his flow-style offense on the fly, hoping the immense amount of physical talent and built up experience would push them through while they figured it out.

Can they keep winning?

As long as they continue to give effort on the offensive boards and on the defensive side of the floor, I think Finch’s decision to push defensive focus will eventually pay off for the Wolves as the year goes on. The offense will continue to get better.

And in a wide open Wester Conference, that should lead to more wins. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the Minnesota Timberwolves fight for 82 games but if they do, there’s no reason they shouldn’t finish above .500 and smack-dab in the middle of the playoff race.

The upcoming schedule has some good teams on it, just like anyone’s, but there are a lot of opportunities for Minnesota as well. If they can play well into the All-Star break and stay healthy, it could be a fun spring. Timberwolves fans are clearly bought in already, buying tickets to Target Center at one of the healthiest rates in the NBA.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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