John Hollinger’s Minnesota Timberwolves prediction is lower than last year’s

D'Angelo Russell of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
D'Angelo Russell of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Timberwolves roster is far deeper than any edition of the Wolves in recent memory.

They seem poised to challenge for a play-in spot in the Western Conference, as has been acknowledged by several analysts, including ESPN’s Zach Lowe most recently.

While The Athletic’s John Hollinger has a similar conclusion regarding the Wolves’ ultimate record, he is projecting the Wolves to finish with a worse winning percentage than he predicted Minnesota to have in the 2020-21 campaign. But … why?

John Hollinger: Minnesota Timberwolves’ roster is worse than last year’s

To be clear, Hollinger isn’t saying that the Wolves will be worse than their 23-49 record of a year ago. That’s a winning percentage of just .319 and was the fifth-worst record in the NBA.

But last year, Hollinger picked the Wolves to finish at 33-39, a .458 winning percentage in 72 games. This year, Hollinger has the Timberwolves finishing at 36-46, which is a .439 pace (subscription required).

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, to be sure. But why is that where the longtime ESPN analyst and former Memphis Grizzlies executive land when it comes to the Wolves’ ultimate record?

Let’s look at the roster changes from the start of last season to the start of this one, not taking into account any two-way contract transactions.

Out: Ricky Rubio, Jarrett Culver, Juancho Hernangomez, Ed Davis
In: Patrick Beverley, Taurean Prince, Leandro Bolmaro

Rubio and Beverley are the two best players on that entire list, and ultimately, the Wolves swapped out Rubio, Hernangomez and Culver to land Beverley, Prince and a 2023 second-round pick.

It’s a fairly even trade that allowed the Wolves to stay under the luxury tax line, as Hollinger notes in his article.

Now, Hollinger also mentions his fondness for Rubio in his article, stating that the Wolves “sent out one of their better players for a more marginal one in Prince.” Indeed, Rubio is a better player than Prince — in a vacuum. The second part of this equation is back-filling Rubio’s minutes with Beverley.

Beverley and Rubio are in a similar tier in terms of their on-court impact. But again, that’s considering the two players in a vacuum.

Beverley is a better fit for the Wolves than Rubio. He’ll primarily play off the ball, either with D’Angelo Russell or Anthony Edwards initiating the offense, and he’s a better individual point-of-attack defender. Rubio is a great defender in a team concept and can lock down some opposing point guards, but Beverley is able to guard multiple positions and neutralize the pick-and-roll game at a higher level than Rubio.

Add in a positionally flexible player such as Prince and a player with true upside in Bolmaro, and it’s difficult to argue that the 2021-22 version of the Wolves is somehow less deep — or generally worse — than the 2020-21 roster.

Hollinger’s ultimate prediction of 36 wins and the No. 12 spot in the West is in line with most predictions out there, but it is also a strangely pessimistic take on the Wolves’ offseason full of roster balancing and cap management.

Remember, the Wolves were always going to rely on getting to full health as a key to having a successful 2021-22. And, as Hollinger himself notes in the article, Minnesota now has nearly $40 million in expiring deals in Prince, Beverley, and Jake Layman. Plus, they have all of their own future picks and a couple of extra second-rounders.

That means that the Wolves A) have a better roster than they did at the start of last season, and B) are in a better spot to make a major trade at some point in the coming months.

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It’s hard to see how that all adds up to a more negative preview of the Wolves heading into 2021-22 than what we saw before the season last year, but that’s where we’re at.