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The Timberwolves have a rugged month ahead of them

At a time when the Eastern Conference has unexpectedly arisen to parity, trying to get a relative fix on the Timberwolves relative to the rest of the NBA  is not so easy.

A third of the 2015-16 NBA season is in the books, and the Minnesota Timberwolves have already matched their road win total for the entire 2014-15 campaign. Put another way, the Wolves could lose every one of their remaining 27 games on the road and finish with the same mark away from Target Center, 7-34, as they had a year ago.

Include all the games on the schedule and the Wolves could lose eight out of nine games six times in a row — go 6-48 for the remainder of the season — and still finish with a better won-lost record (17-65) than the 16-66 enacted during the death march of 2014-15.

These are some of the arithmetical gyrations that fans of a downtrodden franchise can go through to feel good about their team’s current 11-17 record. Set the bar low enough and improvement is easy.

Of course, reasons for optimism about the current Wolves transcend wins and losses — and any comparisons to last year should be a last ditch refuge during times when the current outfit is flailing and floundering. The team has a pair of 20-year old cornerstone stars under contractual control for long enough to calibrate their development and surround them with optimal complements. In other words, the hard part of trying to build a long-term contender for a championship has already been secured.

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It is easy to stake out the extremes — the blatant ineptitude and miserable squalor of last season, and the still-crystallizing sugar-plum scenario in the future where Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are competing with each other for MVP status as the Wolves contemplate how long they will enjoy home court advantage in the playoffs.

This season is about measuring the team’s progress in the long journey out of the doldrums and into that dreamscape. But at a time when the Eastern Conference has unexpectedly arisen to a status of at least overall parity with the previously dominant Western Conference, trying to get a fix on your ball club relative to the rest of the NBA is not so easily measured.

For example, it was logical to imagine that the team’s first three games — against the Lakers, Nuggets and Blazers, opponents picked to finish near the bottom of the West — was a soft opening schedule, and the season thus far has borne that out.

But eight of the Wolves next ten games were against Eastern Conference foes, and while it was fair to suppose that the Heat (who Minnesota played twice in that span), the Bulls and the Hawks would all be formidable, few imagined that the Hornets, Magic, Pacers, Pistons would combine with those aforementioned teams, plus Golden State and Memphis from the West, to give the Wolves a run of ten straight opponents who currently have winning records. That Minnesota went 3-7 in that stretch, is, in retrospect, not that shabby. Those November road wins in Chicago, Atlanta and Miami remain the best victories on the Wolves ledger.

Conversely, the team just went through an extremely soft part of their schedule — seven straight games against foes with losing records — and emerged with a disappointing 3-4 result. After beating the woeful Kings and Nets to finish out the skein with a smidgen of respectability, they bumped into reality Monday night in Boston.

Granted, it was the tail end of back-to-back road games. But the Celtics had lost three in a row and were missing three of their top seven players due to injury. The Wolves probably played well enough to beat the Nets, and perhaps even the Kings. But even an injury-riddled playoff contender from the East had too many resources and cohesion and the Wolves never once held the lead in a 113-99 defeat. (In a statistical oddity, this was the sixth straight game in which the team scored between 99 and 102 points.)

First the mighty Spurs, then Thunder and Lebron in January

Injuries will always be a wild card when assessing a schedule, but otherwise it becomes easier to assess the caliber of an opponent the deeper the NBA gets into the 82-game schedule. And what we can see on the horizon is a potential world of hurt for the young Wolves.

Thirteen of the next 19 games come against teams with winning records, but that’s only part of the story. From now until January 27, eight of those games will occur versus the Oklahoma City Thunder (three times), the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice), and the San Antonio Spurs (twice). All three of these teams were expected to be among the top handful of contenders to win it all this season, and have done little to discourage those lofty ambitions.

The Thunder are 19-9, have won eight of their last ten, and boast a pair of healthy superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Cavs are 18-7, have won five in a row, and just got All Star point guard Kyrie Irving back from injury to go with All Star forward Kevin Love and one of the three or four greatest players of all time, Lebron James.

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But the first up in this murderer’s row are the Spurs, who have won six in a row and nine of the last ten to go 24-5, second only to Golden State’s 26-1 in the NBA. The Warriors’ remarkable 24-game winning streak to start the season has allowed San Antonio to excel beneath the radar, but their 13.2 points per game differential over their opponents is just a hair behind Golden State’s 13.4. The Wolves will play them at home Wednesday (tonight) and in San Antonio on Monday.

Don’t be too surprised or disheartened if both games are blowout losses.

Andrew Wiggins
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Andrew Wiggins will try to get off against either Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green on one end of the court, and it will be up to Tayshaun Prince to contain Leonard.

There was an excellent story of the 2015-16 Spurs earlier this month by Mike Prada in SBNation. It talks about how San Antonio has simultaneously stuck to their principles while adjusting their game in a manner that goes against the prevailing trend of a three-point oriented offense.

The Spurs rank 25th in the number of threes attempted. It isn’t that they reject the notion of a “pace and space” offense — indeed, they invented their own version of it many years ago. Where many teams race down the floor in transition to jack up shots before opponents can get set, the Spurs continually get into disciplined offensive sets as quickly as anyone. This creates a by-now familiar routine of rapid ball movement and movement without the ball, creating open shots with such efficiency that even committed, practiced defenses have trouble stopping it.

The Spurs have the 25th fastest pace of play in the NBA, but that doesn’t mean they are inert. On the contrary, they space out and then wear down opponents slinging the ball in and out and from side to side, exploiting their trademark philosophy of turning down good shots to create great shots. They have the third-best accuracy from three-point range, the second-best accuracy on two-pointers and are second only to Golden State’s miraculous crew of sharpshooters in overall field goal percentage. They score 108.8 points per 100 possessions (these and other stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference), third best in NBA.

This is a rough matchup for the Wolves, whose best defenders are either old and prone to losing stamina against continuous ball movement (Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince), or young, smart and spry but prone to gambling when frustrated (Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng).

There could be even more carnage at the other end of the court. The calling card of the 2015-16 Spurs is suffocating defense. They permit just 94.7 points per 100 possessions, way ahead of the second-best Bulls, who allow 100.3 points per 100 possessions. How much better are the Spurs on D than anybody else? That 5.6 point difference between the San Antonio and the Bulls is greater than the 5.4 point difference between the Bulls and the 19th rated defense of the Memphis Grizzlies.

The linchpin of that unit is the premiere perimeter defender in the NBA today, swingman Kawhi Leonard. It will be interesting to see if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich elects to essentially rest Leonard by allowing a straight position matchup with Minnesota’s non-shooting small forward Tayshaun Prince, or whether he cross-matches and has Leonard throttling the Wolves’ leading scorer and offensive focal point, Andrew Wiggins. If the former, Spurs shooting guard Danny Green is no slouch on defense either.

In fact, while Leonard is so good that one can’t help but cite him, the Spurs play defense with as much team synergy as their work on offense. In another unfortunate confluence for the Wolves, they very rarely commit fouls.

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In his piece, Prada explains that they “stifle opponents simply by staying in front of them. They don’t gamble for steals and keep their big men near the basket on pick-and-rolls.  The entire point is to prevent scramble situations that require players to rotate on a string and cover lots of ground….players commit fouls when they are out of position and the Spurs are never out of position.”

Consequently, San Antonio currently has the third-lowest foul rate — measured by free throw attempts as a percentage of field goal attempts — in NBA history. That’s bad news for the Wolves, who currently score more points per game on free throws than any NBA team.

Then there is the bench disparity. Since reinserting Prince into the starting lineup, the Wolves once again have to cross their fingers and hope that the isolation-heavy scoring trio of Zach LaVine, Kevin Martin and Shabazz Muhammad are hot enough on offense to overcome their chronically porous defense when the bench unit is in the game.

The Spurs typically expand their lead with their reserves on the floor. Three of their top four bench players — super-swingman Manu Ginobili, and forwards David West and Boris Diaw — are savvy veterans who were core starters earlier in their careers. Ginobili in particular has been reborn this season — the Spurs are a whopping 19.8 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when he is on the court. For Diaw, the margin is 15.2, for West, 12.8. Backup point guard Patty Mills captains the crew, ranking sixth in overall minutes on the team and boasting his own 16.4 points per 100 possessions edge over opponents during that time.

Holding on to tough lessons

Last season, the Spurs thrashed the Wolves in all four games they played. Three of the losses were by 29, 22 and 26 points. The other one was a 15-point defeat where the Spurs were up by 20 heading into the fourth quarter.

The key this season is for the Wolves, and the fans, not to get discouraged. There are some potentially wonderful matchups, beginning in the frontcourt. Each team has a first-ballot Hall of Famer — Tim Duncan for the Spurs, Kevin Garnett for the Wolves — and the Spurs add this season most noteworthy free agent acquisition, LaMarcus Aldridge, while the Wolves have this season’s most noteworthy rookie, Towns.

At point guard there is the relatively healthy Ricky Rubio against the likewise healthy and rejuvenated Tony Parker. Wiggins will try to get off against either Leonard or Green on one end of the court, and it will be up to Prince to contain Leonard — whose offense is nearly as good as his D — at the other end.

In between the San Antonio games Wednesday and Monday, the Wolves will play the new-fangled pace-and-space Indiana Pacers the day after Christmas. Last month, Minnesota nearly beat the Pacers in Indiana while playing the second night of a back-to-back. With Rubio injured, both Wiggins and LaVine erupted for 26 points in a 107-103 loss.

But although they have currently hit a tough patch, going 4-6 in the last ten games, the Pacers sport the fourth-best record in the rugged East at 16-11, and are playing stellar defense under coach Frank Vogel.

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The Wolves finish off the 2015 calendar at home against Utah and on the road versus Detroit, and figure to be slight underdogs in both contests before heading into that brutal January and multiple encounters with the Thunder and Cavs.

It feels like a particularly momentous time for Towns, who is losing more than ever before in his career while coping with the NBA grind, and whose frustration was evident on the sidelines last Monday in Boston. In four of the final five games of 2015, he will twice receive schooling from Tim Duncan, then go up against two of the most physical big men in the NBA in 265-pound Derrick Favors of Utah and 279-pound Andre Drummond of Detroit. Towns is listed at 240 pounds.

This is the necessary grind that exceptionally talented but inexperienced cornerstones like Towns and Wiggins must endure. How they handle the process—and how coach Sam Mitchell and his veterans Garnett, Prince and Andre Miller keep this roster upbeat yet focused on the steep learning curve ahead, even as the team slips further behind in the standings—will help determine how soon we can start regarding the 60-loss seasons with rueful nostalgia and begin realistically anticipating playoff games where Towns and Wiggins stake their claims to greatness.