Timberwolves could win 50 games... or miss playoffs

MINNEAPOLIS--Barring a disaster, it's tough to see the Minnesota Timberwolves not being better than the 2015-16 edition. The nice thing about a low bar is it's easy to clear. "We're a 29-win team, so there's a lot of room for improvement," new Wo...

MINNEAPOLIS-Barring a disaster, it's tough to see the Minnesota Timberwolves not being better than the 2015-16 edition.

The nice thing about a low bar is it's easy to clear.

"We're a 29-win team, so there's a lot of room for improvement," new Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We have to close the gap."

That's a phrase Thibodeau has used a lot this preseason. No one doubts the Timberwolves' promise. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are three up and coming stars, Kris Dunn is a promising rookie, Ricky Rubio is a proven point guard and Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng are major contributors any coach would love to have on their roster.

But the key for Minnesota - who's missed the playoffs in 12-straight seasons - is to turn potential into production.


"(Thibodeau is) going to make them a serious threat in the West," Memphis coach David Fizdale said. "They have a great young team. Probably, when you look at the young teams, they are the elite of the elite young teams. When you put an incredible coach like Tom at the helm who's going to hold them accountable, discipline them and make them play basketball the right way, they're going to be a tough, tough team to face."

That's a sentiment shared by decision makers across the NBA. The majority of the league's general managers selected Minnesota to be the NBA's most improved team this season in a recent poll.

That matches up with players' expectations. Minnesota hasn't been shy about its playoff aspirations for this season. The Timberwolves are tired of the playoff drought.

"I feel we should be (the most improved team) also," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "We made a lot of great strides this offseason. We all worked tremendously hard to not only improve ourselves, but to improve the team. So we did great things that we needed to do to help us win as a whole. And I think that with the additions that we've made to the team, I think that we're on a very good track right now."

Just how many wins will it take for Minnesota to make the playoffs? Houston earned the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 41 wins from a year ago. There's a good chance that could be good enough to advance to the postseason again this season in a conference that features a few elite teams in Golden State, San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers, and then a whole lot of question marks.

That 41-win mark is an ironic postseason barometer, because when the Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas came out with an over/under win total for each team, it had Minnesota at 41.5.

Will Minnesota clear that number? Easily, according to some, while others aren't so sure.

"That's a big jump to 41," former NBA guard Dennis Scott said on NBA TV's Timberwolves preview show. "I'm not quite sure mentally they're ready to make that kind of leap. I think they're going to be better, but the 41, I think they might be a game or two under."


On the same preview show, former NBA coach Mike Fratello picked exactly 41 wins for the Wolves. That's identical to what USA Today's Sam Amick projects for Minnesota.

The math is apparently on Minnesota's side. FiveThirtyEight, a website flush with data-driven analysis and predictions, projects the Wolves to go 46-36 this season, adding Minnesota has a 72 percent chance to make the playoffs and a two percent chance to win the NBA title.

The main argument against Minnesota surging toward an upper-40s win total is how big of a jump that is. That type of improvement is rare, though even larger leaps have been made.

And ESPN's Brian Windhorst doesn't consider Minnesota as a 29-win team from a year ago, suggesting it should have been closer to the mid-30s range. He predicted the Timberwolves will finish with around 45 wins this season.

Boston made a 42-win jump from 2006-07 to 2007-08, but that was largely because it acquired Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen that offseason.

A better potential comparison is Oklahoma City, who went from 23 wins during the 2008-09 season to 50 wins the following year as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden budded into young superstars.

That's the team Washington Post national NBA writer Tim Bontemps referred to when slotting Minnesota for a massive improvement this season.

"Anyone who has watched or followed this space all summer knows how much I believe in the Timberwolves," Bontemps wrote. "Minnesota already had the best group of young talent in the league, led by future megastar center Karl-Anthony Towns, and now pair it with one of the best coaches in the NBA in Tom Thibodeau. Behind Thibodeau and that young core, which also includes Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio, the prediction here is the Timberwolves can jump from 29 wins to 50."

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