The Timberwolves Dilemma: Make the playoffs or bottom out?


The Timberwolves seem to be at a very interesting crossroads at this point in the season: do they want to win now, or simply build for the future?

It’s odd to think about, but the Minnesota Timberwolves are still very much in contention for a playoff seed. Surprisingly, it is the Eastern Conference that seems to be the stronger conference in terms of records to this point in the season.

If the season were to end today, the East would have eight teams above the .500 mark in the playoffs plus two over .500 teams that miss the cut. The West would have six teams over .500 with two at or below .500 that would qualify for postseason play.

Now, this isn’t a piece to argue whether or not conferences should be a thing in the NBA. It is an article describing how the Wolves have an interesting proposition on their hands. They could still make a playoff run, but they could also choose to bottom out for a high draft pick.

Let us weigh some options.

The Wolves record currently stands at 11-20 — only three games behind the current eight-seed, Utah. Notably, the Jazz have lost two of their bigger pieces in Rudy Gobert and Alec Burks to injury. This has caused them to slip a little bit as of late and could lead to them falling out of the race altogether.

The Phoenix Suns have also been bitten by the injury bug, as Eric Bledsoe is set to miss extended time with a knee injury. It is also rumored that coach Jeff Hornacek’s job is in jeopardy, and many believe the Suns may try to pack it in early for a high draft pick.

Denver and Sacramento are the two other teams that could make a serious push for the eight seed. The Wolves know full well about Denver, and they have also beaten Sacramento twice already. In fact, those two wins versus the Kings were some of their best played games of the season.

Theoretically, the Wolves could make a serious push for the eighth seed. I think the Wolves are capable of playing well enough to make the playoffs. Actually, let me re-phrase that: I think the Wolves can play at a higher level than Sacramento and Denver over the course of the rest of the season.

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Regardless, the West is going to have at least one under-.500 team in the playoffs. All of the teams vying for the spot are relatively inconsistent, so why can’t the Wolves shoot for the eighth spot?

The upside to doing this is that it would show a great leap in development in a short period of time. No one expected the Wolves to be this good already, and a playoff berth would put the whole league on alert for the future and give the Wolves tremendous momentum going forward.

On the other hand, it may difficult for the Wolves to win enough games to make the playoffs. They haven’t been playing well as of late, and if they choose this route it would mean they’d have to start winning consistently.

The beauty (or lack thereof) of this eighth seed is that all the teams going for it are just as inconsistent if not more so as the Wolves. Still, it would be no easy road if they choose to try for the playoffs.

That’s why it could be better (and possibly easier) to just bottom out this season. The Wolves are only currently ahead of the Pelicans and Lakers for the worst record in the West. It would not be hard for them to just tank the rest of the season.

The reward, of course, would be a lottery pick, and probably within the top-six selections. In my estimation, the highest the Wolves could probably get is four, but we’ve seen crazier things happen in the lottery.

Regardless, they would be entitled to a very solid prospect. They could have a chance at getting Ben Simmons, but that is probably unlikely. Minnesota would still get a solid player like Kris Dunn or Jakob Poetl.

On the other hand, taking that route this season could be damaging towards the younger players like Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins. And if the Wolves were to make the playoffs this season, can you imagine the confidence this team would have?

If they choose to lose, I don’t think it will fully damage their confidence, but I do think I can go out on a limb and say no basketball player ever enjoys losing. It certainly can’t help a player’s psyche, that’s for sure.

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I don’t know if there is a right or wrong decision for the Wolves. Obviously, it would be very nice to win and be in the playoffs, but if they bottom out and lose, they’re playing right into fan expectations.

Nonetheless, the Timberwolves are certainly at an interesting point in their season. These next few weeks should tell us just what the Wolves have in mind.

(Edit: An earlier version of this article mentioned the possibility of the Wolves missing the playoffs and keeping their draft pick. The Timberwolves actually owe their pick, if not in the top-12, to the Boston Celtics, through the Phoenix Suns, as a result of the Wesley Johnson trade back in July of 2012.)