As we draw closer to the All-Star Break, the teams just outside the playoff bubble get evaluated on whether they can make a run for the seventh or eighth spot in the Western Conference, or if the time has come to wait out the year in anticipation for a loaded 2017 NBA draft.
After a rocky start to the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves emerged from their first positive month, going 8-7 in January. They now sit 4.5 games outside the Denver Nuggets and the 8th seed in the West. After a dismal start, Minnesota is showing signs of life, so why now? And do they have a shot at the playoffs?
January was a rebound month for the Timberwolves and has put them in a spot, before the break, to potentially make a push. One of the key factors is grabbing away wins, as this team has struggled on the road but found tight wins away from the Target Center. But the bigger factor is winning, or even being in, close games.
Despite the record, this team has only had three losses by double-digits. They keep games close with great offense and while their efficiency was lacking in the fourth quarter early, they have been able to come up with wins in close games over the last few months. On defense, Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 12.9 rebounds a game while Andrew Wiggins amounted 2.8 steals a game. These extra possessions are huge in tight games, especially when the Timberwolves have shot 46 percent from the field and .338 percent from three-point land in January. Those numbers have bumped up to .512 percent and .371 percent in February. More consistent defense and improved shooting always helps.
The other key factor is the absence of Zach LaVine. While he is a popular and talented player on the Wolves’ squad, when he was in the lineup the team struggled down the stretch of games when they needed one player to step up. At the beginning of the season, the Wolves were looking for one player to be the main guy in the final five minutes of the game, a spot that revolved between LaVine, Towns and Wiggins from night-to-night. However, for the last two months with LaVine sidelined from injury, Wiggins has stepped up and made shots and been the crunch-time player the Wolves desperately needed.
With that in mind, despite the poor February start, the Wolves still have a viable shot at the playoffs with Portland, Dallas, Sacramento and New Orleans in their way. The most potentially damaging contenders are Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers. Both Portland and the Wolves lack consistent defense, as these teams will need to shoot their way out of the slump. If the Wolves do choose to go for the playoff push, the success with LaVine out makes him an interesting piece to move before the trade deadline. If this team could package him with Ricky Rubio and send them to a team like the 76ers for a strong defensive piece like Nerlens Noel. Getting a great defender to pair with Towns and Wiggins is key for the squad and may be the difference in earning a playoff berth.