The NBA All-Star Game is in the books and the final stretch of the 2013-14 regular season is officially underway. All 30 teams are preparing for a true test of their respective wills and legitimacy, but few have as much on the line as the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The T-Wolves have struggled in February, thus creating further distance from a rare postseason berth. Nevertheless, Rick Adelman's crew is still alive, and it has a chance to right the ship.
The question is, what should you expect from the T-Wolves now that All-Star weekend is behind us?
When it comes to registering double-doubles, Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves has perfected the art. It's reached the point in which it's more surprising when he fails to rip one off than it is when he succeeds in doing so.
Down the stretch of the 2013-14 season, Love will do something even he's yet to do: Record at least 70 double-doubles in one season.
Love enters the final months of the season with 44 double-doubles in 50 games played. He's missed three outings, but that still puts him on pace for 69.52 double-doubles in 79 games played.
Round that up and you have what Love will achieve: 70.
Seventy double-doubles is a number that Timberwolves fans are likely familiar with. Kevin Garnett won the league MVP award in 2003-04 during a season in which he put up a mesmerizing 71 in 82 appearances.
Love has a chance to rival that legendary production in 2013-14.
Love came close in 2010-11 with 64 in 73 games played. In 2013-14, however, he's a more complete player with a greater feel for the game.
As long as he can remain healthy, Love will reach new heights of statistical greatness with a 70 double-double season.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have a strong starting lineup with Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. What head coach Rick Adelman lacks, however, is a reliable bench.
After the All-Star break, expect the second unit to see dramatic improvements.
According to HoopsStats.com, the T-Wolves rank 27th at 25.7 bench points scored per game. The only semi-reliable source of offense has been J.J. Barea, who is shooting just 40.6 percent from the field and 33.5 percent from three-point range.
With previously injured players rounding into form, Barea will finally have some help.
Barea will be joined by a healthy Chase Budinger and a progressively improving Dante Cunningham. Ronny Turiaf will continue to provide a strong defensive impact, while rookies Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad will see more playing time.
Collectively, Minnesota will be significantly better after the All-Star break than it was before it.
The key for Minnesota will be down low, where Cunningham and Turiaf have become a very strong combination. Both played well approaching the All-Star break, but that must be maintained to provide rest for Love and Pekovic.
In the end, Barea and Budinger's scoring prowess, as well as the improved second-unit interior, will be enough for Minnesota to remain in the postseason hunt.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are third in scoring offense and rebounds per game and seventh in assists per contest. Minnesota is also 21st in scoring defense and dead last in opponent field-goal percentage.
In other words, the Timberwolves defense is atrocious.
Ronny Turiaf has been a delight down low, but he's a reserve who won't see enough minutes to do a significant amount of damage. The reality is the T-Wolves' stars are of an offensive mentality with minimal defensive contributions.
Before the trade deadline passes, you can expect the T-Wolves to trade for defense.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the T-Wolves are engaged in trade talks with the Memphis Grizzlies. Per the report, Minnesota would swap Chase Budinger and J.J. Barea for Tayshaun Prince.
Minnesota could also receive Tony Allen, whom the league's general managers voted as the best perimeter defender in the league in October of 2013, per NBA.com.
Even if the trade fails to go through, the mere attempt of this deal is an encouraging sign for the future. Management is making a clear commitment to improvement, and that's reason enough to be confident.
Before it's all said and done, Minnesota will acquire a defensive upgrade via trade.
In 2004-05, the Minnesota Timberwolves won 44 games under head coaches Flip Saunders and Kevin McHale. Since then, Minnesota has won no more than 33 games in any of the seven seasons that have followed.
Minnesota will finally eclipse 40 wins in 2013-14.
The Timberwolves come out of All-Star weekend with a record of 25-28 after 53 games played. Their current win percentage of .472 projects for a 39-win season, but Minnesota will not let this opportunity slip.
Forty wins is finally attainable, and Rick Adelman's crew will come through.
In order to reach the 40-win plateau, Minnesota would need to close out the season with a record of 15-14 in its final 29 games. That seems like a tall task for a team that stumbled into the All-Star break, but it will happen.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have played this game before. They've started hot, built up excitement and then crashed and burned down the stretch, for whichever reason you'd prefer to cite.
So will the 25-28 T-Wolves reach the playoffs? Unfortunately, they won't.
The Timberwolves are in a five-team race for the playoffs. The 32-22 Dallas Mavericks, 31-22 Golden State Warriors, 29-23 Memphis Grizzlies and 30-21 Phoenix Suns are all in a tight race for the seeds from No. 6 to No. 8.
The Warriors have been struggling, but it's hard to imagine a team with that much firepower missing out on the playoffs after reaching the Western Conference Semifinals just last season. That leaves just two spots for five relatively even teams to battle for.
Dallas holds a 6.5-game advantage over Minnesota with a pair of future Hall of Famers in power forward Dirk Nowitzki and head coach Rick Carlisle leading the charge. Phoenix and Memphis also have relatively comfortable leads over the T-Wolves.
Most importantly, Memphis is 16-6 since Jan. 1 with a 4.5-game advantage over Minnesota. By comparison, the T-Wolves are 2-6 in their past eight games.
This all adds up to Minnesota scratching and clawing for the No. 8 seed, but ultimately falling short.
With its first 40-win season in nearly 10 years, however, the Timberwolves will officially emerge from the ranks of the bottom-feeders and establish momentum for future seasons.