NBA Championship Update: Should We Keep an Eye on the Timberwolves?

As we stew in the basketball-less days brought on by the NBA All-Star break, it leaves us with a great opportunity to take stock of this year’s title contenders. The All-Star break may symbolize the midpoint of the NBA season but with 67.1% of regular-season games already in the rearview, the playoffs loom on the horizon, prompting the question: who will be in contention for the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy come June?

This season presents a roster of teams with legitimate aspirations, shifting our gaze beyond the usual suspects. Although powerhouses like LeBron James’ Lakers and Stephen Curry’s Warriors have the potential to disrupt the playoff landscape, the era of predicting their perennial presence deep into the postseason seems to be waning.

Boston Celtics

Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum. Credit:
Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum. Credit:

The Celtics have been the chalk championship favorite since the start of this season, and their short odds are only getting shorter. The Celtics have earned every right to this status. Their league-best 43-12 record has them sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, with a cushy six-game lead over the next-best team.

It seems more likely than not that they will maintain home-court advantage for the duration of the playoffs, and their 26-3 record at TD Garden is quite convincing. And while a championship win this season would mark the first of its kind for Boston since the Paul Pierce era, we can’t say this team is short on playoff experience. Boston’s pair of All-Stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have already played in four Eastern Conference Finals series in their fairly young careers, including an NBA Finals appearance. Plus, offseason addition Jrue Holiday was at the helm of a championship season with the Milwaukee Bucks just three years ago.

All signs point to this being Boston’s year. The last 12 NBA champions finished their regular season in the top six of Player Impact Estimate (PIE), net rating, and effective field goal percentage (EFG%). The Celtics sport the league’s best net rating and PIE, as well as the fourth-best EFG%. With all this being said, it’s difficult to justify laying these short championship odds before we’ve even reached the playoffs, regardless of how impressive Boston’s resume may be.

Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Credit:
Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Credit:

The defending NBA champions have high hopes riding on their shoulders to make a repeat performance this season. Despite the unfailing optimism from the markets, the Nuggets’ (36-19) current statistics instill a sense of skepticism about their capacity to retain the crown. With the pivotal loss of Bruce Brown Jr. and considering Denver’s vital team statistics, they appear less formidable than the prototypical NBA champion.

The team ranks eighth in Player Impact Estimate (PIE), ninth in net rating, and fourteenth in effective field goal percentage (EFG%), all of which lag behind the top-six benchmark that has characterized the last twelve NBA champions. Standing fourth in the highly competitive Western Conference, just three games from the top spot, they have the potential to climb higher before the postseason begins. Yet, history reminds us that no team seeded lower than third has secured the championship since the Houston Rockets accomplished the feat in 1995.

Despite the deviations from statistical expectations, Nikola Jokic’s extraordinary talent cannot be overlooked, much like the outlier scenario of this season’s Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL. He brings an unpredictability to the Nuggets that could defy the numbers. Conventional wisdom may suggest caution, but the Nuggets deserve a careful watch as a dark horse that could upset the odds.

Los Angeles Clippers

James Harden. Credit:
James Harden. Credit:

The Clippers have indeed discovered a formula that is propelling them upwards in the competitive NBA landscape. The question that looms over the Clippers now is not about their potential but their consistency when the pressure mounts in the crucial playoff stages. Historical performance suggests they have the makings of a championship team, boasting the fifth-best net rating and effective field goal percentage alongside ranking sixth in Player Impact Estimate. These metrics signal a robust composition, evidenced by their noteworthy 36-17 record and the current No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. As a result, their current state amplifies the narrative that they could be destined for a substantial postseason impact, with their championship odds climbing steadily.

However, the Clippers contend with an outlier in their armor: a 13th-ranked defensive rating, a marking that is unusual for a team with championship ambitions. It harkens back to the precedent set by the Denver Nuggets last season, who managed to emerge victorious despite their defensive shortcomings during the regular season, reinforcing that defensive frailties can be overcome. The Nuggets’ remarkable defensive turnaround in the playoffs, where they achieved the second-best defensive rating, might offer a blueprint for the Clippers to emulate.

Attachment to championship success among the roster varies, with players like Paul George, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook still yearning for that elusive title. In contrast, Kawhi Leonard stands out as a beacon of excellence, with him Paul, and Harden making up “The Big 3” in Los Angeles. Leonard has been monstrous on both ends of the court this season, and his history of clinching championships with multiple teams suggests he can marshal the Clippers through the turbulent waters of playoff contention. The ensemble of talent and their current statistical resume make it evident that the Clippers are a team to watch, yet it is their potential defensive metamorphosis in the playoffs that may ultimately define their fate.

Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee Bucks. Credit:
Milwaukee Bucks. Credit:

The Bucks are in an intriguing position. While sporting the fourth-shortest championship odds, their actuality prompts a measured skepticism. Their 35-21 record positions them as the No. 3 seed within a competitive Eastern Conference, yet they trail the conference-leading Celtics by 8.5 games. This sizeable gap suggests the stark possibility of the Bucks having to navigate the playoffs largely without the comfort of home-court advantage, considering their less-than-stellar 12-14 away game record.

The Bucks’ quandary extends beyond their road struggles; there’s an essential need for role players to elevate their performance. Despite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s sensational, MVP-worthy displays and Damian Lillard’s undeniable clutch prowess, the supporting cast has room for growth—their bench placing 17th in net rating, quite the contrast from Boston’s top-ranked bench.

Compounding Milwaukee’s challenges is the coaching carousel, with Adrian Griffin’s mid-season firing and Doc Rivers’ subsequent appointment raising eyebrows. Rivers has had a rocky start, marked by a 3-7 record—a transition that could either be a stumbling block or a catalyst for renewed focus. Remembering the Bucks’ past glories and undeniable talent, the concern isn’t their potential but the visible struggles casting doubt on the wiseness of staking too much on their championship odds.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota Timberwolves. Credit:
Minnesota Timberwolves. Credit:

As we sift through the statistical bedrock of this season, the Timberwolves stand out as a paradox in the NBA narrative. Astonishingly, eight other teams are pegged with shorter or the same finals odds as the Minnesota Timberwolves odds, despite Minnesota’s commanding 39-16 record that cements them at the zenith of the daunting Western Conference. The odds could be reflective of the team’s recent postseason woes, where they have gone 20 years without winning a playoff series.

At this juncture of the season, such an accolade undoubtedly must be recognized as an indicator of profound resilience and capability. The team brandishes the league’s second-best Player Impact Estimate, a third-best net rating, and ranks seventh in effective field goal percentage. These are not just numbers; they are a testament to an undeniable strength.

If victories in the regular season are the building blocks for a championship run, the T-Wolves have constructed an edifice worthy of awe. They have accumulated a series of high-caliber wins, outmaneuvering teams such as the Nuggets, Clippers, Bucks, Celtics, and more. Their league-leading defensive rating is not just a statistic; it’s a statement of their ability to overpower formidable adversaries.

The intrigue deepens when pondering a playoff scenario against the Nuggets, with Rudy Gobert as the towering bulwark against the likes of Nikola Jokic. His overwhelming favoritism for the Defensive Player of the Year Award underscores his defensive virtuosity. In tandem, the All-Star honors bestowed upon both Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, coupled with Chris Finch’s Coach of the Year prospects, fortify the Timberwolves’ narrative with individual commendations.

While playoff experience is a valuable currency in the postseason, the prevailing question lingers: what more could Minnesota have accomplished to claim the spotlight convincingly? The lack of seasoned playoff participation within their ranks is a narrative often told, yet, at this pivotal moment, the T-Wolves have demonstrated an exceptional capacity to not just capture attention but warrant serious championship consideration. According to numberFire’s projections, with a promising 16.3% chance of ascending to NBA champions, Minnesota’s season is far more than a collection of wins—it’s an assertive campaign that demands recognition and, perhaps, a recalibration of expectations.

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