What It Means for the Wolves To Compete for a Playoff Spot, but (Probably) Not Quite Make It

It won’t be this year.

I’m going to say something I, and many others, have grown more and more accustomed to over the last 13 years: The Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. It’s been a bad decade-plus-change for Wolves fans, and at times, it’s been downright miserable.

Good players have come and gone. Al Jefferson has a nice run, Kevin Love had a stint as the (arguably) best power forward in the NBA, and Nikola Pekovic spent quality time as a trusty scoring and rebounding bruiser of a big man.

But those guys always lacked three things during their time in Minnesota:

  1. A good supporting cast
  2. A time machine to find a way to avoid time playing under the eye of David Kahn
  3. A reasonable amount of time, mid and post-Kahn era, to build anything substantial.

Fast forward to 2016: I picked the Wolves to make the playoffs this season. The call, made on our AWAW season preview over/under predictions post, was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I did have a sense of optimism that I hadn’t had in a while. In fairness, I will be the first to admit that my annual overreactive, optimistic preseason outlook can be a bit of a problem. I’m certain I picked the Wolves to make the playoffs in 2013-14, and probably did so a couple times in less promising years prior to that.

But as we approach the end of this season, I’m less embarrassed of my prediction than I expected to be, especially around December. Not because I got close in the win-loss category. I didn’t. I predicted a 7 or 8-seed with 40-some wins, and they’re barely going to come within 10 games of that.

But what’s funny is, unlike past years of poor win-loss performance, the Wolves have stayed in the playoff race. The context: the 8th spot in this year’s Western Conference has been a goofy one in historical context.

This year’s WC 8-seed has a very good chance of finishing with a sub-.500 record, something that hasn’t been done in the West since the 1996-97 season. If they finish at .500 (the current 8-seeded Nuggets are 34-37 as of right now), they’ll be the 4th team since 97 to do so. More context: 1996-97 was Kevin Garnett’s second NBA season, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash’s rookie season, and the season Michael Jordan won his 5th (of 6) championship with Chicago. Also, I was 6 years old.

With 12 games to go, the Wolves are 28-42, a good enough record this season to still be just 5 games out of the final playoff spot. Of course, it’s been well documented that the problem lies less with how many games behind they are (which, at this point, is far more alarming than it was 2 weeks ago), but rather how many teams sit between them and Denver. Currently, that number is 3: Portland, Dallas, and New Orleans. There simply isn’t enough time, or luck in the world, to realistically get it done at this point.

But this is also the first year since 2004-05 (for those of you counting, I was 14 at the time) that the Wolves were actively involved in the Western Conference playoff push this late in the season. The only other year that comes close was Kevin Love’s final year.

And while it looks like they almost certainly will fall short again this season, this still matters. A bad record is still a bad record, but no matter how bad the 8 seed is this year, the coming close matters. The staying relevant through adversity matters.

Unlike 2004-05 and 2013-14, the Wolves’ don’t have the feel of a team on its final push before everything blows up. This happened in both cases mentioned prior. In the summer of 2005, both Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell left the team, and the KG era was never the same. In 2014, Kevin Love was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Wiggins, forcing yet another rebuild.

Two years later, Andrew Wiggins has partnered up with Karl-Anthony Towns. They have Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, and Gorgui Dieng to round out their starting lineup. Tom Thibodeau is now running the ship. This is more than just a small roster round-up, though. It’s what makes this situation different. The youth, the new coach, and the new atmosphere.

The closest Kevin Love got to the playoffs was his last season with the Wolves, a time when he was already fed up with the organization that had failed to put the pieces around him to do anything resembling success.

The closest KG and friends got to the playoffs post- 03-04 Western Conference Finals fun came the following year, when blood was boiling over contract disputes, and age (to Cassell and Spree in both cases, specifically) was seeping in.

KAT and Wiggins are both 21, on rookie contracts, and hungry. Tom Thibodeau, while clearly frustrated with the defensive efforts of his team early in his first year as Wolves coach, is equally (if not more) hungry. This core, specifically Towns and Thibs, are in a situation where falling out of playoff contention isn’t going to trigger a flight mentality. Their shared obsessive nature for basketball is a perfect match, paired with their clear shared admiration for one another.

Offensively, the team as a whole is improving, but already have some things figured out. KAT has become one of the most dynamic players in the league, competing for All-NBA honors in a league where doing so is incredibly hard to do without team success (I still have doubts he’ll make it this year. Andrew Wiggins is a scoring machine. Zach LaVine is a bonafide three point shooter. Ricky Rubio is a magical unicorn. Offensively, the core fits.

But the offense wasn’t enough. When the season began, the team’s best players didn’t play defense to Thibs’ (or, in many cases, an average NBA player’s) standards. Leading up to December 13, they were near last in the league with a putrid 6-18 record. They had the fourth worst defensive rating in the league in that stretch, with their core guys (LaVine, Wiggins, Towns) nearing the bottom of the league in individual defensive RPM at their respective positions.

Since then, as individual defense continues to improve, the Wolves are near (but not quite at) the top half of the league in defensive rating. Seventeenth, to be exact. Over the past month and change (since Feb. 12), they’re in the top 10. The improvement, while slower than some, including Thibs, would have preferred, is happening.

Over that month-long stretch, they showed their improvements in play and maturity, and that turned into some impressive wins. They beat the Clippers, the Warriors, the Wizards, and the Jazz; all solid-to-elite playoff teams that they wouldn’t have been able to mess with 2 months earlier. Not to the same level of play, anyway.

More recently, they followed it up with some duds, duds that have mostly killed their postseason dreams. This showed that they’re still flawed, and have a ways to go.

But the difference here: they’re young, and are well aware that the work isn’t done. More importantly, they want to keep working. That’s why making a push, successful or not, for the playoffs through mid-March is important. This team is hungry. Thibs is hungry. And getting as close as they did without actually achieving their goal is only going to bring them closer, and make them hungrier.

It’s no longer just KG. It’s not just Big Al. It isn’t just Kevin Love. It’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine. All young. All dead set on improving individually. All wanting to get a feel for what they’ve collectively come so close to this year. That’s why all this matters, even if they don’t get there this year. They’re not done.

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