Yes, the most notable highlight of the young 2019-20 NBA season for the Minnesota Timberwolves has been Karl-Anthony Towns getting into a fight with Joel Embiid. This comes after Towns, Jimmy Butler, and the Timberwolves had their ugly falling-out last season, which concluded with the organization trading Butler and finishing with a losing record (36-46).
We need to put all that to rest when it concerns their capabilities for this season: this team is a dark horse to make the playoffs.
The Timberwolves are 4-1, have won three games on the road, and seem to be on the same page in head coach Ryan Saunders’ offense. It’s not necessarily the encouraging start that provides the most hope for the Timberwolves; it’s the core group of players they still have.
Whether you like their games, agree with the narrative surrounding their careers, or think they’re one-dimensional players, Towns and Andrew Wiggins are a talented duo that can do damage.
Towns is one of the best big men in the NBA and has taken his game to another level to start this season. He’s a beast in the post, has a reliable outside game (he’s hitting 52.9% from 3 on 8.5 attempts per game), hits the boards at an elite level, is an underrated passer, and is getting better defensively. For his career, Towns has averaged 22.3 points and 11.9 rebounds per game while averaging a double-double in each of his four complete seasons in the NBA.
Wiggins has been an enigma throughout his career and has been a roller-coaster ride yet again this season, but he has come up with numerous clutch buckets. There are still times where he looks like he can be that alpha-dog scorer many expected him to be coming into the NBA. Even if he never is that and is overpaid on his $147 million max extension, he can still make an impact with more consistent effort and focus.
Around Towns and Wiggins is a group of underappreciated, underlooked, and, in some cases, forgotten players.
Jeff Teague is a proven floor general who’s an athletic scorer and moves the ball well; Robert Covington is a terrific 3-and-D player when healthy; Gorgui Dieng and Noah Vonleh are athletic big men; youngsters Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie have a lot of promise on the wing; guys like Jake Layman and Shabazz Napier are contributing.
The Timberwolves have become the type of team where a player signs with them and then disappears from the public eye. It could be that few pay attention to the organization unless they’re in the playoffs or an epic Twitter thread/story is released on internal turmoil (case in point: Butler’s training camp outburst last season).
Expectations were low for the Timberwolves this season, and for their sake, it was something of a blessing. Towns has used the lack of hype as motivation and even dared critics to keep sleeping on the squad. He and the Timberwolves have backed up their talk so far, and they’re getting some early help when it comes to potentially reaching the playoffs.
Every season a player who’s pivotal to his team’s well-being gets hurt, and it opens the door for a team to make the playoffs or climb up the conference standings. It’s not even November, and there’s already a monumental injury in the West: Stephen Curry.
The Bay Area superstar is expected to miss at least three months with a broken left hand, and the Golden State Warriors are already without Klay Thompson due to a torn ACL. Right now, the Warriors aren’t a playoff team.
Sure, the Timberwolves probably aren’t better or at least as talented as the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Los Angeles Lakers. The San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks may have a bit of an edge on the Timberwolves, too. But that doesn’t mean they can’t crack one of the bottom seeds and be a first-round headache. One of the aforementioned teams is likely to disappoint a bit anyway; not every team meets expectations.
The distractions are gone. The organization has shown continued commitment to Towns and Wiggins, and they’re surrounded by a stellar mix of players. Saunders is also embarking on his first full season as head coach — he took over the position midway through last season when Tom Thibodeau was fired — and his presence appears to have brought some stability, from an emotional and continuity standpoint.
Having Saunders calling the shots is a breath of fresh air, and he has his team playing a modern brand of basketball with a fast pace and a lot of 3-pointers. The Timberwolves are even defending at a high level to start the season, which has been a major problem in the past.
This team knows what it takes to get to the playoffs and perform at a competitive level. It’s a matter of building sustainable chemistry, everyone doing their part, and there being no finger-pointing. If those three factors prevail, the Timberwolves will get back on the map for all the right reasons.
They’re surely no gimme, but don’t sleep on the Timberwolves making the playoffs this season.