Timberwolves at the All-Star Break: What’s true, what’s interesting, and what’s the difference?

It’s All-Star Weekend, and things are peaceful in Wolves World.

The team has a 31-28 record through 59 games. Through three quarters of the season they’re pacing for a favorable spot in the Play-In Tournament, with a chance at cracking the top six in the West and going straight to the actual playoffs. Compared to last season’s 23-49 campaign with most of the same key players, the progress is undeniable.

Sprinkled on top of the massive uptick in #winning are the spoils that go to the more frequent victors: On Friday night both Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards participated in the Rising Stars Challenge. On Saturday night Karl-Anthony Towns will participate in the Three-Point Contest, before playing in the All-Star Game itself on Sunday evening. Wolves players are being celebrated by the league this weekend. Coach Chris Finch, at this point, seems to be developing a reputation for being good at his job.

Things are good with the Timberwolves.

The truth is good, but interesting is better.”

Christopher Walken referenced that quote without attribution when explaining his acting process, and how he will sometimes have completely random thoughts and inspirations behind his work that nobody could ever know about. “Sometimes I do things just to amuse myself. I’ve played scenes pretending that I was Elvis or Bugs Bunny or a U-boat commander. I just don’t tell anybody.” I suppose he means here that the “truth” is what the character is on the script, and the “interesting” is everything he puts into it that is undefined and even unknowable. It would be possible, but far from necessary for the two things to contradict one another.

Over the past couple of Timberwolves seasons, the truth was as clear as it was interesting, if that’s the right word — if “interesting” in NBA Twitterverse discourse roughly equates with the temperature of a “take.” Put differently, interesting in this space might often refer to the difference between perception and reality.

The truth about the last couple Wolves seasons was that they made terrible decisions, and performed terribly as a result. Right as their franchise player was supposed to be entering his prime, they gutted the roster of veteran supporting talent and nepotistically hired an unqualified coach. In the COVID-shortened seasons of 2019-20 and 2020-21, they compiled a combined record of 42-94. In a savage twist of the knife, amid all of this losing, their new president traded AWAY a mostly-unprotected first round pick; one that immediately turned into the seventh overall selection in a strong draft class. He did this to obtain D’Angelo Russell, whose Wolves tenure prior to this season was defined by missing games for vague injuries, and performing badly on the nights he did suit up.

The truth was not pretty.

What was interesting was that so much of this was tolerated or even sometimes celebrated by the media and the fan base. Everything from Ryan to Rosas to Russell was met with consensus approval, despite most all evidence — some immediately available, some accumulating gradually — that Things Were Bad. One could speculate on the reasons for this disconnect, but first I just need to share Stephen A. Smith’s recent outburst as an example of what big-market media does when its team is falling short of expectations:

Okay, enough about all that. I’ve belabored the points about the last few seasons of post-Thibs mistakes enough times. I probably do it every time I write anything about this team.

Back to the present, because the present is better than the recent past. What’s true and what’s interesting, and do they diverge from each other?

I opened this piece with what’s true. The team is performing well and getting its flowers for doing so. Things are good.

What’s interesting is what could be underneath some of this progress.

The question some are asking themselves, even as we enjoy winning more than half the games, is how much of this is real, versus how much of it might be the product of a fluky season of star-player injuries that seems to bizarrely benefit the Timberwolves in a disproportionate way?

Before I dig into the Wolves-schedule specifics, just to hopefully help highlight that this is a real thing – I’ll paste in the remarks made by NBA gambling guru and recent Dallas Mavericks front office decision-maker, Haralabob Voulgaris, about the good fortune of the Phoenix Suns, for essentially the same reason:

Essentially, Voulgaris says that while the Suns ARE a great team, their amazing record (48-10) should be discounted a bit by the fact that they have not had key players miss too many games. If you take a closer look, however, it isn’t as if the Suns have been immune to key-guy injuries. Yes, Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges are a perfect 58 for 58, but Devin Booker has missed 7 games, and Jae Crowder’s missed 10 games, and Deandre Ayton has missed 21. In the 2021-22 Western Conference, this constitutes a noteworthily clean sheet of health.

Why is this so?

Let’s just run down the list of teams that have been good or even great, but this year have been decimated by injuries:

The Clippers have been without Kawhi Leonard all season. Paul George has played just 26 games.
The Nuggets have been without Jamal Murray all season. Michael Porter Jr. has played just 9 games.
The Blazers have been without Dame Lillard for all of calendar year 2022, and have traded away CJ McCollum in what seems like the first big step toward an inevitable rebuild.
The Lakers, to the extent they might’ve been pretty good despite the front-office mistakes, haven’t been helped by missing LeBron James for 17 contests or Anthony Davis for 21 (and counting).
Zion Williamson hasn’t played a minute for the Pelicans. His co-star Brandon Ingram has missed 14 games himself.
The Warriors 42-17 record is all the more impressive when you consider that Draymond has missed 25 games. He remains out with a back injury that will heavily factor into this year’s title race if it doesn’t heal up.

We’re talking about the best players in the world here. Kawhi, PG13, Dame, Davis, Zion, Draymond. The conference as a whole has been watered down by so many of these superstar players missing so much of the season. The teams with relatively decent health have obviously propped up a bit as a result.

For their part, the Wolves have lost key players to some games – especially during the Omicron COVID-19 surge – but their numbers look more like the Suns’ than their other Western Conference playoff team counterparts. KAT’s played 52 (out of 59) games. Ant’s played 53. D’Lo’s played 45. Patrick Beverley’s 18 missed games, for a variety of minor injuries, is their biggest injury excuse, to date.

And it’s not only that the conference has been generally watered down by star-player injuries. It’s also that the Wolves on a night-to-night basis have had an almost unbelievable pattern of facing teams missing at least one key player. I’ll just take the recent schedule in reverse order, as the pattern has been unmistakable. Absent opposing player’s listed next to the game.

02/16/22 vs Raptors — Fred VanVleet, 2022 All-Star who’s played in 50 other games this season.
02/15/22 vs Hornets – Gordon Hayward, by far the Hornets highest paid player
02/13/22 vs Pacers – Myles Turner & Malcolm Brogdon, their top guys
02/11/22 vs Bulls – Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Patrick Williams — relatively bad example of this trend, but 3 key role players
02/09/22 vs Kings – no key absences
02/08/22 vs Kings – (immediately after big trade with Pacers) Domantas Sabonis, 2020 & 2021 All-Star
02/06/22 vs Pistons – Cade Cunningham, #1 Overall Draft Pick (Pistons are terrible, but have beaten the Celtics and Cavs recently, on nights Cade actually played.)
02/03/22 vs Pistons – Cade Cunningham
02/01/22 vs Nuggets – Jamal Murray & Michael Porter Jr.
01/30/22 vs Jazz – Donovan Mitchell & Rudy Gobert – the foundation of a title contender
01/28/22 vs Suns – Deandre Ayton & Jae Crowder
01/27/22 vs Warriors – Draymond Green
01/25/22 vs Blazers – Dame Lillard
01/23/22 vs Nets – Kevin Durant
01/19/22 vs Hawks – Clint Capela (*Onyeka Okongwu filled in admirably and this is a bad example of the trend)
01/18/22 vs Knicks – Derrick Rose, without whom the Knicks seem unable to function
01/16/22 vs Warriors – Steph Curry & Draymond Green (1 of just 5 games Curry has missed this year)
01/13/22 vs Grizzlies – Jarrett Culver (hehe – Grizzlies were at full-strength)
01/11/22 vs Pelicans – Zion Williamson
01/09/22 vs Rockets – Rockets don’t have any good players to be missing in the first place

Anyway, that’s the last 20 games. The Wolves went 12-8 over that stretch. I’m not able to put any analytics on this, but it sure seems like the Wolves have had a soft schedule. You can go back earlier in the season and find other examples. A back-to-back set with the Mavs that featured a Luka Doncic absence comes to mind. Out of three Lakers matchups, LeBron’s missed 1 game and Davis has missed 1.5. (He suffered one of his injuries in the middle of a Wolves game.) The fun early-season game at Milwaukee did not include Jrue Holiday. They’ve of course never had to face Kawhi, Jamal Murray, or Zion. They’ve had one Philly matchup, and like everyone else’s, it didn’t include Ben Simmons.

Etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

All of this exhaustive recapping of opponent-injury health is to say that it’s possible the Wolves are winning at a rate they might not be able to sustain if and when health around the league returns to something closer to “normal.” Yes there are always injuries, and yes the Wolves have played without key guys for some games too, but this isn’t normal.

If your broad brush belief about the franchise is that winning something like 43 games (traditionally a record on the fringe of the playoffs) is a huge difference from winning something like 37 games (outside looking in, unless the conference sucks) then this pattern is definitely relevant, and also pretty interesting in how it does or does not impact the path forward.

Big picture, in the less peaceful moments, we think about timelines — KAT and D’Lo’s, versus Ant and Jaden’s — and whether this team as constructed is kind of “it,” or whether some form of a rebuild is on the way. Sachin Gupta, in his first move of significance since succeeding Gersson Rosas, signed Pat Bev to a one-year extension. Much bigger and potentially-expensive and stone-setting decisions will need to be made this summer with Towns and Russell. Both are extension eligible. (Obviously the Russell decision is more controversial on the Wolves’ end than the KAT one, which has more to do with his satisfaction level and plans.)

Sources of future progress remain, no doubt. Again, two Rising Stars participants. They own their future first rounders, thanks to trade-deadline restraint shown by Gupta. Finch seems to know what he’s doing. This team absolutely could get better, and it could get better progressively to the level everyone wants to see.

But this opponent injury thing is crazy. I think it’s kind of interesting. And if it really is boosting up the Wolves record in a way that proves unsustainable, there might be a few members of Wolves Nation crying out next year like Stephen A Smith, aghast as to why things are moving the wrong direction instead of the right one.

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