The Minnesota Timberwolves were supposed to "arrive" this season, leaving behind the post-KG rebuilding era to re-enter the Western Conference fray. After a hot start, it's hard to say whether that's happening -- at 9-10, their record only tops the struggling Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz in the Western Conference.
Now in an awkward position, it's easy to point to Minnesota's 105.9 points per game, not to mention its highlight reel, as indicators of a better future. But as pretty as the Timberwolves offense looks at times, defense will determine how far this team goes.
Given the fast-paced style coach Rick Adelman embraces, the Timberwolves' games ultimately end up being the sort of high-scoring affairs you'd expect. But strip away the speed from Minnesota's numbers -- the team is second in pace this year, per NBA.com -- and you find a team that's surprisingly unimpressive on offense, but pretty damn good on the other end.
Yes, the team that added a healthy Kevin Love, arguably the most brilliant offensive big man in the game, while losing Andrei Kirilenko over the offseason ... well, it got better defensively. And as easy as it is to imagine this being the Timberwolves' official GIF of the year, defense is where Minnesota can earn its postseason bid in a stacked conference.
Much of it starts with Love, Nikola Pekovic and Kirilenko's quasi-replacement, Kevin Martin, who are so good offensively that Adelman can surround his star players with guys willing to do everything else. Nearly every other player getting minutes on Minnesota makes his name on defense, where the results have been quite positive through about one quarter of the season. It's worth noting the team doubled down on this identity by trading Derrick Williams to Sacramento for Luc Mbah a Moute, effectively giving up some long-term offensive potential in favor of shoring up perimeter defense this season.
Ultimately, the Timberwolves take on the identity of their stars -- hence being No. 3 in points per game -- but execution on the other end will likely be the difference between a high-scoring, fun lottery team and a legitimate playoff contender later this season.
Luckily, as mentioned before, that defensive progress is being made. The Timberwolves are eighth in defensive efficiency this season, according to NBA.com, up from 14th a year ago.
Because Love and Pekovic aren't exactly world-beaters in the post, the T'Wolves give up a pretty high field goal percentage. But they're also disciplined in other ways, forcing the fifth-most turnovers and giving up the fewest free throws of any team in the league.
Teams still get their shots against Minnesota, but the Timberwolves have been stunningly good at forcing mistakes while limiting their own.
For most defenses, turning up the pace means letting go a little bit. And while that certainly happens to Minnesota -- ask any team that's gotten on a roll in transition against them this season -- the team also does a good job taking advantage of the chaos created in those situations.
When you watch the Timberwolves, it's easy to get carried away by Love's passing, Rubio's flair and the big transition dunks that often result from them. But go watch the way Dante Cunningham rolls off his man to help in the post without fouling or how Love expertly gains position for rebounds -- beneath the Timberwolves' razzle dazzle, there's some really solid basketball being played. Ultimately, it's that stuff that could be the difference in an especially wild, wild West.