DimeMag

NBA Power Rankings Week 6: Optimism In Minnesota

Following a beacon of hope in 2017-18 that doubled as the franchise’s first playoff appearance in more than a decade, the Minnesota Timberwolves struggled for three straight seasons. Those scuffles weren’t all bad, especially when they allowed Minnesota to land the No. 1 overall pick and Anthony Edwards, but the Wolves have endured organizational turmoil for quite a while and the on-court results have not been fantastic. After a 3-1 start to the 2021-22 campaign, things seemed to be potentially flying off the rails once again for the Wolves, as Minnesota lost eight of nine games to throw a cold blanket over any potential heat. Quietly, though, Minnesota is finding its stride, and the results through 21 games are encouraging.

The Wolves, under the direction of Chris Finch and led by Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, are 11-10 at this stage. Minnesota’s record is buoyed by seven wins in the last eight games, but it hasn’t been smoke and mirrors, with the Wolves landing in the top ten of the NBA with a +1.5 net rating. In an unforeseen development based on the team’s personnel, Minnesota has actually been a defense-first team this season, allowing only 1.05 points per possession and landing below the league average on the offensive end. The Wolves are scoring 1.14 points per possession in the last eight contests, though, and Minnesota is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the NBA this season.

It would be fair to worry just a bit about Minnesota’s defense operating over its head. After all, the team’s best players are not exactly known for defense, and the Wolves have been fortunate in a few key areas. Minnesota’s opponents are shooting just 31.5 percent from three-point range, a number that is likely to regress, and the Wolves are comfortably leading the league in turnover creation, which may not fully sustain. Still, Towns has been dialed in to a level he hasn’t been in a long time defensively, and Edwards is using his physical gifts to translate into solid, across-the-board play on that end.

Unsurprisingly, Towns and Edwards key the offense and, when one or both is on the court, the Wolves have performed well. Towns’ health and availability may be the most positive development of all, with the talented big man averaging 23.5 points and nine rebounds per game while posting a 63.1 percent true shooting mark through 21 games. Minnesota’s key pieces have been healthy, but the term “proof of concept” may be apt in this case, even if the Wolves don’t fully sustain this defensive performance.

The majority of projection systems still peg the Wolves as a team battling for play-in position, and that may be accurate over the course of the 82-game marathon. That type of effort would constitute real progress for Minnesota, though, and it’s been a wild ride through 21 games, with the entertainment value (mainly of Edwards) helping to drive interest. If nothing else, it’s been fun to see the Wolves playing competitive basketball, and there are signs that it could continue for the long haul.

Where does Minnesota land in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s explore the space.

1. Phoenix Suns (18-3, Last week — 2nd)

We have a new No. 1, and it isn’t up for debate. The Suns haven’t lost since Oct. 27, navigating the entire month of November without a defeat. Phoenix’s 17-game winning streak says it all, but the Suns also defeated the Warriors on Tuesday even with Devin Booker leaving the game early with injury. They’re in a zone.

2. Golden State Warriors (18-3, Last week — 1st)

Golden State still boasts the best point differential and a tie for the best record in the league. The loss to Phoenix meant they had to drop, but it was a road game against a team that is playing out of its mind. The Warriors are doing just fine.

3. Milwaukee Bucks (13-8, Last week — 4th)

Hey, it’s the Bucks. Milwaukee is still without Brook Lopez, which is at least mildly concerning, but the Bucks have won seven games in a row. During that run, they’ve held opponents to less than a point per possession. With Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor, Milwaukee has a +13.6 net rating, and the Bucks are 9-0 in games when Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday suit up together.

4. Brooklyn Nets (15-6, Last week — 3rd)

Brooklyn has five wins in the last six games, and the only loss came to Phoenix. That isn’t a bad place to be, and the offense is beginning to show signs. The Nets nearly blew a significant lead against the Knicks on Tuesday, but Brooklyn held on and Kevin Durant and company still sit atop the Eastern Conference standings.

5. Utah Jazz (14-7, Last week — 5th)

It is the Jazz that rank No. 2 in the league in net rating (+9.8) and Utah leads the league in offensive rating by a comfortable margin. Utah’s strength of schedule will heat up in the coming days, though, and that will perhaps provide some additional clarity on how much of this dominance will continue.

6. Miami Heat (13-8, Last week — 6th)

Miami lost at home to Denver on Monday, but that defeat came without Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro. Before that, the Heat beat the Bulls on the road, maintaining an edge over Chicago in this space. Miami’s depth concerns haven’t been fully mitigated, but they have been outstanding on the whole with a top-five net rating.

7. Chicago Bulls (14-8, Last week — 7th)

The Bulls remain fascinating. Since opening with a 4-0 mark, Chicago is just 10-8 and the Bulls are 4-4 in the last eight games. At the same time, the Bulls posted a +3.6 net rating in November, and the defense has held up, at least to some degree. Only time will tell.

8. Atlanta Hawks (11-10, Last week — 9th)

There is a bit of a gap between the top seven and the rest of the league, at least in terms of resume to this point. Atlanta slots in at No. 8 following a 7-1 stretch in which they throttled teams by 14.5 points per 100 possessions. The Hawks haven’t played since Saturday, but they have an interesting road tilt against Indiana on Wednesday before a potentially revealing game against Philadelphia on Friday at home.

9. Boston Celtics (11-10, Last week — 13th)

Boston doesn’t feel like a top-10 team, but the Celtics are 9-5 in the last 14 games. The Celtics are also out-scoring opponents for the season, and Boston’s defense is legitimately solid. Trying to figure out where the team’s baseline is on offense is a challenge, but Jaylen Brown is getting re-established and that should happen.

10. Minnesota Timberwolves (11-10, Last week — 21st)

The next four games will be quite challenging for Minnesota. The Wolves have road tilts against Washington and Brooklyn before returning home to play Atlanta and Utah. If the Wolves can keep it rolling through that stretch, Minnesota has to be taken seriously.

11. Philadelphia 76ers (11-10, Last week — 10th)

If you simply look at recent results, Philadelphia seems too high on this list. They are 3-8 in the last 11 games, and even with a solid overall profile, a slide down the list would be warranted on the surface. Digging deeper, the 76ers have a +8.3 net rating when Joel Embiid plays this season, and Philadelphia had ridiculous roster challenges during their losing dip. If anything, this is probably too low, and they could rise in the coming weeks.

12. Washington Wizards (13-8, Last week — 15th)

On one hand, the Wizards are just 3-5 in the last eight games. On the other, Washington has a top-eight winning percentage in the league. It doesn’t feel as if the Wizards are likely to actually stay in the top eight, but writing them off seems unwise. This kind of splits the difference.

13. Los Angeles Lakers (12-11, Last week — 20th)

The big story for the Lakers is LeBron James missing time in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. It remains to be seen how long he may be out but, on the positive side, Los Angeles is 3-1 in the last four games after a convincing win (sans LeBron) over the Kings on Tuesday.

14. L.A. Clippers (11-10, Last week — 12th)

L.A. suddenly can’t score. The Clippers are 3-6 in the last nine games, and Ty Lue’s team is scoring 100.1 points per 100 possessions during that stretch. That would be a bottom-five figure when expanded to a full-league sample, and the Clippers are turning the ball over on almost 18 percent of offensive possessions.

15. Portland Trail Blazers (11-11, Last week — 8th)

Portland has been all over the place in these rankings, and they drop back to reality this week. The Blazers did avoid total disaster by beating the Pistons on Tuesday, but three losses in a row before that explain the dip. Portland remains the second-worst defensive team in the league, and that’s tough to overcome.

16. Charlotte Hornets (13-10, Last week — 14th)

If these rankings arrived a few days ago, Charlotte may have cracked the top ten. The Hornets rattled off eight wins in nine games, and they were legitimately rolling. At the end of the week, though, the Hornets to the Rockets (yikes) and got smacked by the Bulls on Monday. Now, they have the joy of a road trip to Milwaukee to Atlanta. If the Hornets can split those two games, that would be a positive outcome.

17. New York Knicks (11-10, Last week — 16th)

Tom Thibodeau made waves by removing Kemba Walker from the rotation following a nice win over the Hawks this weekend. The early results were solid enough in a close loss to the Nets on Tuesday, but it will be interesting to see how this goes for New York. Famously, the Knicks’ starters have been brutal, so maybe this sorts them out to some degree.

18. Denver Nuggets (10-10, Last week — 17th)

The news that Michael Porter Jr. will miss extended time, and perhaps the whole season, following back surgery is brutal for Denver. The Nuggets did win a road game in Miami on Monday, but that victory simply stopped the bleeding. Nikola Jokic can only do so much.

19. Memphis Grizzlies (11-10, Last week — 18th)

Memphis is still hovering around the .500 mark despite the league’s worst defensive efficiency and a point differential well into the negative range. Beyond that, the Grizzlies have to be holding their collective breath about Ja Morant’s knee.

20. Cleveland Cavaliers (11-10, Last week — 22nd)

Following a five-game skid, the Cavs “got right” with a home win over Orlando. That didn’t move the needle, but Cleveland then closed the week with a sound win over Dallas on the road. Honestly, it’s still impressive that the Cavs are 11-10.

21. Dallas Mavericks (10-9, Last week — 11th)

Dallas was vastly overachieving in the standings for a while, at least compared to the team’s point differential. The reckoning may be here. The Mavs have dropped five of six, including a dismal home loss to Cleveland on Monday, and Luka Doncic has looked human in producing only a 53 percent true shooting clip this season. He’s not the problem by any stretch, but Dallas can’t win at a high level if he isn’t anything but excellent right now.

22. Indiana Pacers (9-14, Last week — 19th)

Indiana is 6-4 with a +3.8 net rating at home, and the Pacers will be at home for the next two full weeks. That might lead to some success, but Indiana is just 3-6 in the last nine games and will be aiming to stop a two-game mini-skid when the Hawks visit on Wednesday.

23. Toronto Raptors (9-13, Last week — 23rd)

Toronto’s 6-3 start seems like it happened six months ago. The Raptors are 3-10 since then, and Toronto’s defense is yielding more than 1.15 points per possession in the last 13 games. They are in the middle of an extended homestand, but the Raptors need to bank some wins.

24. Sacramento Kings (8-14, Last week — 26th)

There was some mid-week optimism for the Kings with a triple-OT win over the Lakers coming on the heels of a nice win over Portland. Since then, Sacramento was blasted by 52 combined points by the Lakers (in a rematch without LeBron) and Grizz. Yikes.

25. San Antonio Spurs (6-13, Last week — 27th)

San Antonio gets a small bump after back-to-back wins over Boston and Washington at home. The Spurs’ peripherals are much better than the unsightly 6-13 record, and they have a high-profile spot against Portland on the road Thursday in which to prove themselves.

26. New Orleans Pelicans (6-17, Last week — 28th)

Zion Williamson is getting closer and the Pelicans are playing better. New Orleans has won three of the last four games. That doesn’t erase a truly horrific start, but the vibes seem better lately, and Jonas Valanciunas is now making seven three-pointers in a single half. That really happened on Monday!

27. Houston Rockets (4-16, Last week — 30th)

Break up the Rockets! Houston just won three games in a row and, while that isn’t a landmark occasion for some clubs, the Rockets were 1-16 when the run began. All three wins came at home, but there were signs of life, including an amusing triple-double for Kevin Porter Jr. on Monday that wasn’t actually a triple-double.

28. Detroit Pistons (4-17, Last week — 25th)

It was inevitable given the team’s recent schedule, but Detroit is in a free fall. The Pistons have lost seven in a row, and the final four of those games came on the road against the Bucks, Clippers, Lakers, and Blazers. It didn’t go particularly well.

29. Oklahoma City Thunder (6-14, Last week — 24th)

The Thunder were punching above their weight early in the season and that was pretty clear. In the last nine games, OKC is 1-8 with an offensive rating of 98.8 points per 100 possessions. I would still argue they’ve been more competitive than expected, and the Thunder are well-coached, but it’s not a lot of fun to consume on a nightly basis.

30. Orlando Magic (4-18, Last week — 29th)

Orlando is on a seven-game losing streak, and they’ve dropped 10 of 11. In addition, Jalen Suggs is going to be out for a while, and that takes away even more of the luster. It was always going to be a long season, but Orlando’s -10.8 net rating tells an ugly story.

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