It’s not surprising the vast majority in the NBA’s annual preseason general managers’ poll did not rate Minnesota as a top-four team in the Western Conference. The Timberwolves were the No. 7 seed a year ago in an injury-ravaged West. There are far more proven commodities atop the conference ladder that the Wolves must topple to continue their ascension.
And while no one disputes that Minnesota improved its talent base over the offseason — specifically with the additions of Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson — there is still no guarantee as to how all of the pieces will fit together.
Those are valid reasons as to why only 10 percent of responding general managers picked the Wolves to finish fourth or better.
And, frankly, many of the executives probably weren’t ranking teams in terms of who would have the best regular season but rather who would have the best teams with the greatest chance of advancing deep into the postseason. That’s an important distinction.
Because in terms of compiling regular-season victories over an 82-game schedule, perhaps the Wolves should be considered more of a favorite to collect more than most due to the following reasons:
Yes, the first reason is because Minnesota added a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year in the offseason. Brilliant analysis. In fact, general managers credited both the Timberwolves for the offseason acquisition and Gobert for his prowess in the same poll in which they expressed their lack of optimism for Minnesota.
But it cannot go understated just how dominant of a regular-season player Gobert is. Utah won more than 58 percent of its games in each of the past six seasons, including finishing with the top seed in the West in 2020-21. In each of those seasons, Gobert was Utah’s top performer in terms of win shares. Gobert has ranked in the top five among all NBA players in win shares in five of the past six seasons.
He dominates regular-season games with his interior defense and rebounding on such a consistent basis that his mere presence would suggest the Timberwolves have roughly a 48-win floor with much room to grow from there.
Minnesota’s lack of establishment as a perennial power may be the reason for skepticism, but it’s also one of the biggest reasons to believe in the Wolves during the regular season.
The questions of whether the Wolves are one of the four best teams in the West and whether they will finish as a top-four seed in the West are entirely different. It’s not uncommon in the NBA for teams to sacrifice regular-season wins for rest and recovery, with a heavier emphasis placed on being as prepared as possible for a postseason run.
That’s often the approach for championship contenders who have exercised regular-season dominance in previous season and are now in pursuit of bigger and better things. Minnesota hasn’t yet done that. It hasn’t established itself as that type of consistent force. Motivation almost certainly exists to come out every night and prove to the league and itself that it does, indeed, belong in the NBA’s upper echelon of teams.
Memphis carried out a similar approach a season ago, and it led to a 56-win campaign and a No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Motivation matters. Minnesota should have no shortage of that this season.
This plays a bit off the previous point, but Wolves coach Chris Finch’s belief system suggests his team will play for every possible regular-season victory. From the day he arrived in 2021, Finch has always emphasized the importance of being available and delivering your best on a game-in, game-out basis.
The Timberwolves are less likely to rest players when there isn’t a physical ailment to deal with than, say, Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers. The Wolves will try to squeeze every drop of success out of the regular season that they possibly can in a continued effort to establish a standard consisting of positive habits.
A home game on a Tuesday against the Pistons will mean no less to Minnesota than a Saturday evening trip to TD Garden in Boston. That alone puts Minnesota a step ahead of some of its competitors in the race for home-court advantage.