Almost a quarter of the way through their season, it’s difficult to gauge this Timberwolves team’s ceiling. With the 3rd highest defensive rating in the league, their progress has been undeniable. Can it get even better? The eyes would tell you replacing the much-maligned (yet under-appreciated) work of Luke Ridnour should go a long way, but the strength of the Wolves schedule tells you they have caught a break so far, with only the league’s 21st most difficult, and maintaining that improved defense will only get tougher from here on out.
A peek at the conference standings shows the Wolves at .500 with the 8th spot in the playoffs over the underperforming Los Angeles Lakers (13th toughest schedule) and Denver Nuggets (4th), but behind the surprisingly hot starts of the Golden State Warriors (19th), Dallas Mavericks (30th), and Utah Jazz (28th).
|1||San Antonio||18||4||.818||-||7-2||11-2||4-0||10-2||105.9||97.3||+8.6||Won 5||9-1|
|2||Oklahoma City||17||4||.810||½||11-2||6-2||2-0||8-2||106.0||96.5||+9.5||Won 8||9-1|
|4||LA Clippers||14||6||.700||3||10-3||4-3||3-1||10-3||102.3||94.5||+7.8||Won 6||6-4|
|5||Golden State||14||7||.667||3 ½||6-3||8-4||2-2||6-6||99.7||98.7||+1.0||Won 4||8-2|
|7||Dallas||11||10||.524||6 ½||7-3||4-7||1-0||5-5||100.1||100.6||-0.5||Won 3||5-5|
|Denver||10||11||.476||7 ½||5-1||5-10||2-1||7-5||100.7||101.0||-0.3||Lost 1||5-5|
|Portland||9||12||.429||8 ½||5-4||4-8||1-1||5-6||97.1||100.7||-3.5||Won 1||4-6|
|LA Lakers||9||12||.429||8 ½||7-6||2-6||3-2||7-10||101.8||98.7||+3.1||Lost 2||3-7|
The anticipation of Ricky Rubio’s return hangs over everything the Wolves do, with most every Wolves fan x-ing off each passing day on the road to an unknown surprise basketball Christmas day. Surveying the upcoming schedule is impossible to do without wondering which game will be his first.
Wednesday’s game at Target Center against the Denver Nuggets is the Wolves first of 5 games in 7 nights. The 5th of those games is in Miami against the Heat, which is followed by the Oklahoma City Thunder in Minneapolis and a trip to New York to face the Knicks. Teams with the 5th, 2nd, and 4th best records in the league, respectively. Not exactly an ideal stretch of the schedule to phase in your franchise point guard. It could be why, over the weekend, Assistant Coach Terry Porter offered to pour cold water on the idea of Rubio’s return being imminent: “We’ve got a long way before that happens. I think he’s, there’s a lot more, I think (there are more) practices he’s got to get under his belt, some more evaluations, I think, before he gets clearance.”
After watching Love rush back and struggle to regain his shooting touch, maybe a different approach with Rubio and taking things slow will work out well for the Wolves when the competition starts to get a bit rougher. While Dallas, Utah and Golden State’s schedules will get a bit tougher, too, the Lakers and Denver will catch a scheduling break like the Wolves have already.
The next phase of the season is going to be about meshing all of the new parts they have — well, the beginning of the season has been about meshing all of them, too — the difference will be they are going have more of them.