One of the more unexpected story lines of the still-young NBA season has been the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are 4-3 and have beaten the Chicago Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks on the road. After a 7-34 road campaign last season — tied for the 29th fewest road wins of any team in the league — the Timberwolves are an unblemished 4-0 away from the Target Center this season. And, if they remain healthy, should be headed for the playoffs.
With Sam Mitchell’s team already 25 percent of its way to last season’s win total, there’s clearly something fresh and electrifying up north. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the last two No. 1 overall draft picks — Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns — who have accelerated the franchise into what will likely be a watershed moment.
The Timberwolves haven’t won more than 40 games in a decade, haven’t seen the postseason in longer, and have been among the least-relevant teams in the league since Kevin Garnett was jettisoned to Boston in 2007.
Garnett (39 years old), who has since returned to Minnesota and assumed a starting role, is the combined age of Wiggins (20 years old) and Towns (19 years old); he has more NBA experience (21 years) than either have experience on this planet. And he knows it’s their team now: Garnett’s 10.2 usage rate is by far the lowest of his career.
Down the stretch against the Atlanta Hawks, it wasn’t the future first-ballot Hall of Fame power forward hoisting shots — it was Wiggins and Towns, who combined to score 12 of the team’s final 14 points over the last 5 minutes 55 seconds of the game.
“A superstar wanting to end the game on his terms, that’s what I saw,” Towns said about Wiggins’s performance after the game.
Both players are averaging better than 19 points per 36 minutes, a true shooting percentage of at least 47 percent, and are sopping up at least 24 percent of possessions while on the court. Wiggins, last year’s rookie of the year, ranks ninth in the league in usage rate (31.6) and in the top 20 in scoring (19.8 points per game). Towns had four double-doubles in his first six games, added a fifth on Tuesday, and has asserted himself as a dominant rebounder (10.4 per game; seventh in the NBA), and protector of the rim (21 blocks; fourth in the NBA).
Much of the credit for the team’s progressions should be allocated to the defensive effort put worth this year. Mitchell’s unit ranks sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions (96) and has more or less shut down the midrange game. Last year, they allowed 109.6 points per 100 possessions, the most of any team in the NBA.
Towns’s dexterity has been on display early, in both his ability to defend at the rim and against pick-and-roll sets. Wiggins has improved substantially on the defensive end, too, particularly in his ability to close off opposing players driving to the basket.
According to Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System, which is a team rating metric that takes into account strength of schedule and average point differential in order to calculate above- or below-average play, Minnesota is the fifth best team in the Western Conference.
Championships aren’t won in November, but New Orleans (1-7), Memphis (3-6), and Houston (4-4) aren’t helping their cases. Minnesota has already beaten two playoff teams from a season ago, and is leaps and bounds ahead of where it has been in recent years. If Rubio and the other core cogs can stay healthy, why can’t Minnesota — a team that ranks above seven playoff teams from a season ago in point differential — get to the postseason?
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.