A peek at what the (…gulp) playoff Wolves will look like

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 24: Andrew Wiggins #22, Jeff Teague #0, and Karl-Anthony Towns #32. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 24: Andrew Wiggins #22, Jeff Teague #0, and Karl-Anthony Towns #32. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images) /

For the first time since ‘The Incredibles’ was dominating the movie box office, the Minnesota Timberwolves are positioned for a playoff birth. What are some hopes for how this team will look when it comes to the postseason?

Well, we’ll start with the elephant in the room by stating that no, the Wolves have not yet officially clinched a playoff birth and currently sit in the 7th spot in the packed Western Conference playoff picture. Their place is far from solidified as the team could still realistically move up to  the 4th seed (and maybe even the 3rd seed if the Blazers lose some more games) or fall out of the playoff picture altogether if there was an unforeseen losing streak.

But that’s enough of the pessimism. According to ESPN’s BPI playoff odds, Minnesota currently has a 97.1% probability of making the postseason. Another prognosticator over at Basketball Reference has the Wolves current chances at 93.6%. These odds take into account remaining schedule, tiebreakers with opposing teams, and thousands of simulations that come up with a semi-reliable forecast for the outcome of this postseason race. In short, if the Wolves fail and miss the playoffs yet again, it will be a collapse of epic proportions – not that anyone would be surprised if it actually happened, but the point still stands.

A look at the Wolves’ framework

The ruggedness of the playoffs is something that us as Wolves’ fans haven’t experienced in so long that it is bound to take some adjusting to become somewhat comfortable with what we are watching. Defensive intensity is drastically picked up. Teams take away opponents’ strengths at all costs and force teams to beat them by going outside their comfort zone. The weaknesses of every team are exploited and put under the microscope.

It will be a very telling time in Timberwolves-land as to the fiber of this current Minnesota roster. Predicting what we might see is as invigorating as it is terrifying, as the results could either open our eyes to a team that has the basic blueprint to strive for the NBA’s elite, or potentially crumble under the pressure and create serious cause for future concern.

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One area to watch is how the Timberwolves style of offensive play will translate to a time when referees swallow their whistles and make it more difficult on teams to get to the charity stripe.

The Wolves currently sit at fourth in the NBA in offensive rating (OFFRTG), which measures a team’s efficiency per 100 possessions, at a rate of 111.5. However, the way in which they supply this offense might not translate seamlessly to postseason play. Minnesota is fourth in the league in free throw attempts per game at 24.5. They also play a brand of basketball that is ultra-dependent upon the offensive excellence of their star players to create good looks at the basket through isolation plays, post-ups, and having league leading-minutes played.

This style can sometimes cause difficulties in the playoffs, as has been seen with the Toronto Raptors in recent years and their struggles with translating regular season offensive excellence (top-six regular season offense in NBA each of last three years) into postseason success. Over the course of the last three postseasons, out of the 16 teams that make the playoffs, they ranked 15th in OFFRTG in 2015, 12th in 2016, and 14th in 2017. Their reliance upon DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to win one-on-one matchups and stimulate their playoff offense has created a multitude of issues, perhaps projecting similar struggles to the Wolves current construction.

Although the offensive success will be fascinating to follow as we move into the playoffs, perhaps the more intriguing aspect of the Wolves will be their defensive play.

Seemingly every season, the franchise that employs LeBron James is said to have a defensive “switch” that they can flip on in the playoffs, which the team refuses to fully relinquish in regular season contests. However, in looking at the roster makeup of all potential playoff teams, this season it appears that the Wolves might have the most potential to have this mysterious gift, even more so than James’ Cavaliers.

It has been no secret that the Wolves have played horrendously on that end all season, as I have now exhausted my derogatory vocabulary in attempting to describe how awful they have actually been (currently 27th in defensive rating). But now, officially, it will be time to put Tom Thibodeau’s long-heralded defensive principles to the test. He will have his two weathered defensive warriors in Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson leading the way, with athletic wunderkinds Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins having no choice but to be locked in for the entirety of games.

Effort and focus will not be an issue, intensity should ramp up, and clean looks should be allowed very infrequently. It is at this end of the floor that the Wolves will make or break their chances to come up with a series victory in the playoffs.

Player breakdowns.

These won’t be exhaustive breakdowns of each player, but rather brief summaries as to what we should expect out of some key pieces on this Minnesota roster.

Jimmy Butler

Simply put, if the Timberwolves are to miraculously create any sort of real steam in this year’s playoffs, it will be directly on the back of their superstar and leader, Jimmy Butler. He is the only player with real playoff experience in leading a team, and it will be vital that he is entirely recovered from his meniscus injury and ready to take on a heavy minutes burden.

Over his last two playoff appearances (in 2015 and 2017) he has averaged nearly 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and two steals per game while sporting a usage rate of 24.1% and 26.9% respectively in those two postseasons. Furthermore, he has proved that he has what it takes to shoulder the burden of an underdog and lead his team to victories when his squad isn’t given much chance to win.

His defensive tenacity, experience and leadership will all be of vital importance in creating an atmosphere that the rest of the team can rally behind. He is unquestionably the driving force behind building confidence in his teammates to truly believe that they could win a series.

Karl-Anthony Towns

Towns revolutionary offensive game has morphed into something scary. Over his last ten games he is averaging 25.1 points and 12.4 rebounds on shooting splits of 58.0/46.2/83.8. What he is doing to opponents on a nightly basis is could be classified as both inhuman and inhumane. His work on that end of the floor will be tested come playoff time, but all arrows point to him continuing his brilliance and putting up gaudy numbers no matter how much the opposing team throws at him.

But even with all of his offensive gifts, the part of the game that KAT might have an even bigger impact come playoff time is on the defensive end of the floor.

There was a stretch ranging from December 18th to January 14th where the Timberwolves flashed an extended run of swarming and fundamentally sound defense. It was over this range of games where Minnesota posted a superb defensive rating of 103.9 (would be good for 7th in the NBA if extrapolated over an entire season), which was mostly queued by a previously unseen defensive competence by Towns. His rotations were crisp, he found the correct timing in both defending the rim and shielding off his man from put-backs, and his enhanced two-way play made him look like one of, if not thee, best big man in the entire league.

That is precisely the Karl-Anthony Towns that the Timberwolves need in every postseason game. His offensive game is already polished enough to sustain in the most intense of situations. His defensive game is what could take his team to a whole other level.

Andrew Wiggins

Although both Butler and Towns’ greatness will undoubtedly be enjoyable to watch throughout however long this year’s Timberwolves playoff run goes, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this team will be the performance of Andrew Wiggins on a stage that he has never been on before.

It is on this stage that we will see if the flashes of brilliance that Wiggins shows briefly during various points of the season can be bottled up into consistent freakish excellence that he is athletically capable of (for a full statistical and player breakdown, DWW’s own Paul Ibrahim broke Wiggins play down here).

There has been a running joke since Wiggins arrived in the NBA that a certain beast nicknamed “Cavs Andrew Wiggins” or “Raptors Andrew Wiggins” comes out when he feels like he has something to prove against teams he has a personal connection to. The hope, and need for the Wolves in the playoffs, is that this monster comes out in intense playoff games where his otherworldly athleticism is squeezed out in consistent waves.

He is this team’s X factor – with a super capitalized X – in a playoff series. If he continues to waver in focus and not lock in at both ends, the Wolves will have a tough time striking fear into opponents’ minds. But if he decides to fully unleash the wrath of his physical gifts consistently, the Timberwolves could turn from an afterthought for contention into a team that is actually scary for any opponent to face.


Jeff Teague, who is in many ways Andrew Wiggins’ doppelganger when it comes to being consistently engaged, has played in the postseason every year of his NBA career. Other than his rookie year, he has averaged over 11 points per game in the playoffs, hitting a peak of 19.3 per game in 2013-14 with the Hawks. His veteran savvy and experience in the playoffs will be vital for a team who relies so heavily on a couple of young stars for offensive production.

Taj Gibson: probably nothing to report. He will almost assuredly be his rock solid self, being able to play rugged, switchable defense and scoring when needed.

Nemanja Bjelica will be called upon to continue his recent success with the starting lineup, even though his minute distribution will likely take a noticeable hit once Butler is reinserted into the lineup. His 43.2% three-point field goal percentage will have to hold up under higher pressure and he will need to shoot a significant volume to help the Wolves keep up with sharpshooting teams.

Tyus Jones, Jamal Crawford, and Derrick Rose are all huge wildcards. Jones has shown the ability to step up in big moments before (he was the 2015 NCAA Tournament Final Four Most Outstanding Player) but has yet to play in NBA games of this magnitude. Jamal Crawford will likely be called upon to hit clutch shots late in tight games to sway the outcome in the Wolves favor. Derrick Rose, despite his faults and cynics, has went to war with Tom Thibodeau many times and will almost undoubtedly play key bench minutes throughout the playoffs.

Wait and see

There are so many questions when it comes to this team in the postseason, all of which will hopefully be answered sooner rather than later.

Will Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns step up and prove that they are capable of being star players when the lights shine brightest? What will Jimmy Butler look like after his recovery from surgery and how will he fit back into the lineup? Will Nemanja Bjelica continue his recent surge and fit into his role as a key bench contributor?

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We’ll just have to wait and see. The Timberwolves sometimes-stagnant offense will be put to the test, and their season long defensive struggles are sure to be tested.

Fingers crossed, it will be a treat to watch, and no matter what the outcome is, being able to watch Minnesota playoffs basketball will feel new and exciting.