• As the All-Star break nears it’s conclusion, the Wolves currently sit at 36-25, which is good for fourth overall in the Western Conference and seventh in the entire NBA. They have the most wins versus the West in the league, and the best home record in the conference.

    Despite all this, the Wolves find themselves only one game in the loss column from falling completely out of the playoffs. The season, which has gone so well with a top-five offense and a dynamic roster, still remains very much in the balance with just 21 games left to go.

    When the Wolves were playing at their peak in late December to early January, it felt like reaching the two seed was a plausible goal and making the playoffs was an inevitable feat, a simple hurdle in a standard track meet.

    After stumbling through a late stretch, including an active six-game road losing streak, it’s reminded that the NBA season resembles more of a steeplechase than a sprint.

    The main obstacle for the Wolves has been their defense. Despite a third ranked offense, the defense ranks 26th and it remains the main issue in every loss. The Wolves have the best offensive rating in the NBA in losses, meaning every game they play in tends to be high scoring, they just don’t find a way to get a few stops when it matters.

    Having a top-five offense and bottom-five defense is an unusual feat. In this current century (since 2000), only seven teams have achieved this. The Milwaukee Bucks in 2002-03, the Dallas Mavericks and the Seattle Sonics in 2003-04, the Sonics in 2005-06, the Washington Wizards in 2006-07, the Phoenix Suns in 2008-09, and last year’s Denver Nuggets.

    On the other side of the spectrum, a top-five defense and bottom-five offense has occurred even fewer times. Only five teams, the Miami Heat in 2001-02, the Houston Rockets in 2003-04, the Chicago Bulls in 2004-05, the Milwaukee Bucks in 2010-11, and last year’s Atlanta Hawks, have achieved this in the same time-span.

    All told, 12 teams since 2000 have finished the season on the “dramatic scale,” a top-five and bottom-five ranking. Less than half have even made the playoffs, only one has held home-court advantage and none have gone on to win a playoff series.

    This puts the Wolves in a precarious position. Historically teams under these circumstances have not fared well, and there is little hope the Wolves will be able to dramatically turn things around in such a short span. The defense has been erratic all season, particularly on the road, and is unlikely to provide much aid when the team really needs it.

    Among the 21 remaining games, 11 are away from the Target Center.

    This does bring back the question of what the Wolves’ expectations are, raised at the beginning of the season. Having a winning record, being in the top-four and an incredible stretch as the hottest team in the NBA, perhaps the perception has changed a bit from simply “growth.”

    With only a quarter of the season left to go, sitting in the pole position for a game-one in the Target Center come April, would it be a disappointment if that doesn’t come to pass?  Despite 13 years of torment and failure, draft busts and trade flops, is it fair to expect it all to turn around so quick? As of now the answer is probably yes.

    Even against the odds and their playoff standing on thin ice, anything less than that would be perceived as a failure. Consider where the Wolves got to this season. They jumped from a top-10 offense to a top-five, while remaining a bottom-five team defensively.

    Without hardly even trying the Wolves have managed to improve their standing purely on as an offensive threat. If they begin to show consistent signs of development on defense, there’s no where to go but up. The original goal of “growth” still remains, but it’s directly tied to the standings at this point.

    So long as the team continues to work on the defensive end and becomes a cohesive unit, they look to be a solid bet to hold steady in the playoffs.

    It’s worth pointing out that 5-of-the-10 teams on the “dramatic scale” improved the next year, with the Hawks and Nuggets still to be determined (though likely looking at the former regressing and the latter progressing).

    So the goal from the beginning remains the same, growth. Growth as a defensive team, getting off the “dramatic scale.” Growth from the young players, namely Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Building a team that is familiar with one another. The only difference in the goal now is the stakes got a bit higher.

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