The Minnesota Timberwolves are already having a rough season, with the loss of their head coach and one of the more prominent members of their organization’s history, Flip Saunders. After starting the season 4-2, an injury to point guard Ricky Rubio slowed some of the progress on the court, and they dropped to 5-8, which makes them just fourth in the Northwest division.
But there is still reason to be optimistic about the Wolves, who are a dark horse candidate for making a run at a playoff spot this season. They haven’t lost to a team that’s currently under .500 since the first week of the season, despite losing six of their last seven games. They’ve had quality victories over good teams as well, winning on the road in Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami.
One of the big things for the Wolves this season has been the inspired play of Rubio, at least early on before he strained his hamstring. Through his first six games, Rubio was averaging 13 points and nine assists per game and the Wolves were riding high, having just beaten the Bulls and Hawks in back-to-back road games. But after sitting out the next four games — all losses — Rubio hasn’t totally found his rhythm (even with a triple-double last week).
Despite being a poor shooter (his 36.3% shooting this season is right in line with his 36.6% career mark from the field), the offense just runs well with Rubio in the game. He averages 8.2 assists in 31.8 career minutes per game and has an offensive rating of 106 on the season, which is pretty good for a guy who basically cannot shoot the ball unless he’s within a few feet of the basket.
The problem for the Wolves, while Rubio was out, wasn’t even running the offense, as many might suspect. According to Jason Patt of Today’s Fastbreak, the defense was a much bigger issue without Rubio:
Minnesota’s offense has actually been okay with Rubio out, but the defense has taken a major step back. That’ll happen when the primary point guards are Zach LaVine and Andre Miller. The Wolves have given up 115.5 points per 100 possessions over the four-game losing streak, and they gave up 114 points on Sunday to a Memphis Grizzlies squad that’s been really struggling to put the ball in the basket.
Rubio has a defensive rating of 102, which is the best on the team among the guards and only behind rookie Karl-Anthony Towns and part-time players Gorgui Dieng and Kevin Garnett. Speaking of Towns, he had a strong start to the season and is the early leader in the Rookie of the Year race. The 20-year-old big man is averaging 16 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game on 52.2% shooting from the field while playing just under 30 minutes per game.
Towns is just a part of what’s so exciting about the future for Minnesota basketball, with Andrew Wiggins looking like he’s well on his way to stardom as well. Wiggins has been getting up more shots this season and it led to his scoring jumping from 16.9 points per game last season to 21.5 points per game this year. His shooting percentages are still on the lower end, however, and for the Wolves to really leap forward he needs to improve on that — and plenty of other areas of his game, such as passing and defense.
Both of their young stars, Wiggins and Towns, are just 20 years old and are already well on their way to becoming legitimate and complementary stars. With Rubio, an excellent facilitator and an improving defensive player, and Zach LaVine, a 6-foot-5 combo guard with point guard skills but excellent scoring ability, the Wolves certainly have a strong core to build around. They could even look to move Rubio at some point, depending on how they feel about LaVine as point guard, to try to add another strong player on the wing.
But for this season, the Wolves have what it takes to be a contender in the Western Conference — at least for a playoff spot. With a few teams nearly guaranteed to be in the playoffs, such as the Warriors, Clippers, Thunder, Grizzlies, Spurs, and Mavericks, that leaves two open spots for the remainder of the teams. You can guess that the Rockets, who made the Western Conference finals last year, might be one of those teams despite a disappointing start to the season that led to the firing of head coach Kevin McHale.
That means one remaining spot for teams like the Suns, Jazz, and Timberwolves. The Suns are a steady team, sitting at 7-5 as of now, but they haven’t made the playoffs in the West since 2009-10 and only won 39 games last year. Like the Wolves, the Jazz are a young team on the rise, but they’re not setting the world on fire at 6-6, either.
With a little bit of health, the veteran leadership of proven winners such as Garnett, Miller, Tayshaun Prince, and Kevin Martin, and some further development of their core, the chances of the Wolves making it to the playoffs this year look good.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.