The Timberwolves won going away against the Clippers in Los Angeles on Tuesday, the first game in a very difficult stretch that will determine just how seriously Minnesota will threaten to crack the Western Conference playoffs.
Minnesota plays the Lakers on Wednesday and completes the back-to-back-to-back at Phoenix on Thursday. After that, the Wolves play their next four games against Portland, the Clippers, Portland again and the Lakers. The final three games are in Minnesota, but starting in Phoenix again on March 12, the Wolves play 11 of 13 on the road. That stretch includes a seven-game trip and visits to Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis, Portland and the Lakers, along with a half-dozen other roadies against lottery teams — some of whom (Utah, Sacramento) play well at home.
The Wolves are actually 8-7 away from the Target Center and 5-4 in road games against Eastern Conference playoff teams and the Nos. 1-9 teams in the West (Minnesota is tied for ninth with Denver, a half-game behind Portland). That’s encouraging because the Wolves have played fewer road games than all but six teams and have gone just 10-10 at home. In other words: They are going to have to continue to hang tough on the road to stay afloat in the playoff race and torture New Orleans fans. (The Hornets, if you’ve forgotten, own the Timberwolves unprotected first-round pick in this year’s draft.)
A couple of the Wolves’ most impressive road wins come with an asterisk, though. They won in Dallas during Dirk Nowitzki’s four-game conditioning vacation. Chris Paul missed the first of the Wolves’ two road victories against the Clippers, when Kevin Love made a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. Of course, Minnesota has had its own injury problems, and one of its road losses against good competition, in Memphis on Feb. 8, occurred during Love’s two-game suspension for smushing Luis Scola’s face.
What’s clear as things stand now, going into this tough part of the schedule: The Wolves are no longer a curiosity, no feel-good vehicle for Ricky Rubio highlights. Their schedule has been home-heavy, but it has also been one of the toughest in the league in terms of opponent winning percentage, a burden the Wolves share with just about every West team. They’re 18-17 with the scoring margin of a 19-16 club, per Basketball-Reference. They are somewhere between average and decent on both ends of the floor. And most encouraging of all, they are better defensively than we had any right to expect.
The Wolves rank 13th in points allowed per possession after finishing 27th last season, the kind of jump you seldom see without the acquisition of a massive star. They added two major pieces in Rubio and Rick Adelman, one of the league’s best coaches, and both are contributing to the team’s gigantic improvement in defending the three-point shot. Opponents shot 37.4 percent from deep against Minnesota last season, the fourth-highest mark in the league. That’s down to 34.9 percent this season, right at the league average.
You’re right to suggest that such improvement could well be the result of random luck. This is more difficult to dismiss: Minnesota allowed the most three-point attempts per game last season (20.8), but only six teams are allowing fewer this season (17.4). Minnesota’s decline in pace might explain a small portion of this drop-off, but it cannot explain even close to all of it. This has had to do with coaching, unity of purpose, Rubio’s length and the general commitment among Minnesota’s perimeter players to take away the three-point shot, even if doing so results in dangerous dribble penetration.
Other fundamentals are trending the right way. Opponents assisted on 62.9 percent of baskets against the Wolves last season, the second-highest mark in the league. That’s down to 55.2 percent this season, the fifth-lowest mark. And while opponent assist rate can be a bit overblown as an indicator of good defense (New York’s horrid defense “allowed” the lowest assist rate last season, mostly because teams didn’t have to pass to score), a change like this is usually meaningful. Opponent field-goal percentage at the rim has also fallen by about five percentage points — a huge drop — and the Wolves, allegedly vulnerable on the interior, have held opponents to just 39 percent shooting in the post, per Synergy Sports. Only two teams have allowed fewer points per possession on post-up chances.
This is not to say the defense is anywhere close to elite. Neither Love nor Nikola Pekovic is an imposing rim protector, and the rotations along the back line are often a hair late. This can be a problem when your guards are told to stick close to ball-handlers to prevent open threes. Clipper guards scored several easy baskets in the first half on Tuesday after blowing by Rubio, Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea and finding little resistance in the paint. Even when Love or Pekovic is on time, the two big men just won’t be able to intimidate some shooters. Forward Michael Beasley remains generally inattentive, and what center Darko Milicic provides with his size and shot-blocking, he mostly gives back with his subpar offensive game.
Still, the Wolves defend competently enough to work as a legitimate .500 club or better, and they’ve done this with only Love performing at a very high level all season. Rubio is shooting just 37 percent after a decent first 10 games. Minnesota has actually scaled down his role a bit lately, running much of the offense through Love and Pekovic at the elbows and allowing Ridnour and Barea to take over a decent chunk of the ball-handling. Pekovic was barely in the rotation a month ago before exploding as a pick-and-roll beast and offensive-rebounder extraordinaire. Beasley alternates one huge game with four others in which he shoots poorly, stops the ball and/or falls out of favor with Adelman. Rookie forward Derrick Williams, sensational on Tuesday, has fallen out of the rotation completely for short stretches. Barea has played just 19 games because of injury, and though he might be a bit overrated, he can also provide essential offense for a team that gets so little from its wing players.
All of Minnesota’s shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards (other than Love) are either expendable, disappointing, intriguing or bring some positional fit issues given Love’s presence. Most of them are cheap and/or on expiring contracts. The combination of these factors explains why all of them — especially Beasley and Williams — will come up in trade rumors galore over the next two weeks. Are the Wolves, as Tom Ziller wonders at SB Nation, already at the point where they should consider dealing youth for experience, even if said experience wouldn’t make them a real contender this season? It’s an interesting question, given that Minnesota could only work its way to a mid-sized chunk of cap room this summer (around $7.5 million as of now) by declining all of its team options. Not until the summer of 2014 will the Wolves have mega cap room again.
The whole discussion feels premature because we know so little about this particular group of players. We’ll know more in three weeks or so. But right now, all the evidence suggests that this is a borderline playoff team set to be in the race for a while.