Are we homers? Or are there things expert projections are missing? What gives?
After seeing projections and power rankings come out from ESPN and The Athletic recently, coupled with their 2022-23 NBA regular season win-total prop dropping to 47.5 at some sports books like DraftKings, it seems that national experts are not quite as high on the Minnesota Timberwolves as people locally are. For instance, ESPN projects the Wolves to finish 7th in the conference (albeit at 49-33), with The Athletic labeling the Wolves as a play-in tournament team in the same tier as teams like the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
I think fans would feel disappointed at the end of the season if the Wolves were in the play-in tournament. Locally, my sense is that people feel this is pretty solidly a 50-win team.
That got me thinking — are we too high on the Wolves, or is it time for us to rally together and scream “WATCH THE GAMES” at these experts? As is usually the case, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
I think there are genuine reasons why a lot of the analysis of this team from national media is not sufficient.
The Los Angeles Clippers made guarding Karl-Anthony Towns with a bigger wing and doubling with their center off of Jarred Vanderbilt nationally popular in the play-in game. This was something that we saw almost every night during the regular season, but the Wolves were, in the words of Anthony Edwards, “hidden” during the regular season. It is quite literally impossible to be an expert on every team in the league, so I don’t blame people who aren’t on the Wolves beat or aren’t a fan of the team for not realizing that this was the way Towns was defended all year. Of course, that’s a year in which Towns was an All-NBA selection.
This is relevant in large part because this is the fear many seem to have about the way teams will defend Towns post-ups with Rudy Gobert on the floor. They are correct! This is how teams will defend those possessions, but it misses the broader point that KAT just dealt with a lot of this coverage, and he still had a great year. Was he erratic in those post-up situations? Sure, but I’d just expect KAT to play more on the perimeter and embrace his elite three-point shooting, as well as his blossoming pump-and-go game from the top of the key.
Plus, as awesome as Jarred Vanderbilt was in his role, Gobert figures to play a souped-up version of the Vando role from last year since he is bigger, has better hands, and is a terrifying lob threat. You’re going to have a hard time convincing me that Gobert’s vertical spacing in place of what Vando offered in a similar role is a downgrade. The problem with Gobert’s offensive game is generally that he can’t punish a switch, not that he doesn’t provide any spacing.
I can understand being skeptical of this team gelling right away, but I don’t really see Gobert as a difficult player to integrate into what they were already doing offensively. The biggest change figures to be a slightly heavier diet of pick-and-roll, which is maybe the easiest action to work into your offense. In short, the concerns over Gobert’s fit in this offense are severely overblown, to me.
With that said, I think there is some merit to the idea that we could be too high locally on where this team’s reasonable floor is. Even assuming good health, there are legitimate reasons why, despite adding Gobert, this team might not win significantly more regular season games than the chaotic 2021-22 cast.
First things first, fans absolutely have a tendency to overrate their own players, especially their young players. I continue to want to shield Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels from unrealistic expectations, but I think that ship has sort of sailed. Both players were so impressive in their first taste of playoff basketball that it is hard not to let your imagination go overboard with these two. Finishing the season on a high note is exactly what we needed in order to build them up moving forward.
On that note, if I take my “Anthony Edwards Super Fan” hat off for a moment, I think it’s important to remember once again that growth is not linear. Both of these guys took big steps forward last season, but that doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to make similar leaps this year. It’s possible that their third season aren’t as impressive as we hope they’ll be
With that said, the possibility that Edwards and McDaniels might not improve to the full extent that we think they could is not reason to project them to not improve at all. After all, these are two kids who have gotten better and better as they’ve been handed more responsibility. With Towns, Gobert, and D’Angelo Russell already in place to support them, the two kids improving marginally would make the team dramatically better. They do not need to be prime Jordan and Pippen for this roster to hit 50 wins.
Anyways, the true variable that I think we may be overlooking is just how good the Western Conference is going to be compared to last season. It is entirely possible that the Wolves could be a significantly “better” team than they were last year, without winning substantially more games.
Teams will eventually take injuries, but as of now, you’ve got a healthy Clippers team and a healthy New Orleans Pelicans team that were behind the Wolves last year. The Clippers are now title favorites, and the sky is the limit for the Pelicans, in my view. The Denver Nuggets finished ahead of the Wolves last year, and bring back Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. The Sacramento Kings look … competent? The Oklahoma City Thunder might not shut down all of their good, young players in February this year. Sure, the Utah Jazz will be worse, but there are just more good-to-great teams in the West now. There’s no world where the Kings or Thunder will/should be better than the Wolves, but my point is just that the West is significantly tougher on a night-to-night basis this year. It’s going to be a grind.
When you take that with the idea that last year’s squad may have hit the upper limit of what that roster was capable of, it’s not hard to understand why a notably better team might win only a few more games than the prior season. A win total of 47.5 feels low, but when considering the strength of the conference at large, I can see a path to that being close to right.
In closing, I could see their win total not jumping quite as significantly as some are predicting. I do not, however, buy the expected outcome of this regular season ending with an appearance in the play-in tournament in any fashion. I definitely do not buy this team being in a similar tier as the Bulls or Lakers. I guess I think ESPN got it closest to correct, but I still find it hard to believe that this team ends up in the play-in.
There’s definitely some bias locally that’s overstating the floor or expected outcome for the 2022-23 Timberwolves, but that has more to do with the strength of the West top-to-bottom than it does the fit of their own roster. In fact, this is a damn good roster, that I believe will cause real problems for other teams both in the regular season and playoffs.