The Minnesota Timberwolves had a bizarre and disappointing 2018-19 season.
Things went south early, with Jimmy Butler demanding a trade before the season began, a situation that included an infamous practice where Butler called out various members of the organization and reportedly dominated the scrimmage while only taking one shot.
He was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in November, after the Wolves started the season 4-9. They never quite recovered from there, head coach Tom Thibodeau was fired in January and the team finished 36-46 and missed the postseason.
This summer wasn't without its disappointments, either, as the Wolves appeared to be the front-runners to sign All-Star point guard D'Angelo Russell before the Golden State Warriors shocked the NBA world by pulling off a sign-and-trade deal to land him instead.
Still, there's plenty to be excited about in Minnesota under the new partnership of president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas and head coach Ryan Saunders.
Karl-Anthony Towns remains an elite big man. The team drafted promising wing Jarrett Culver. Robert Covington is an excellent defensive player. Andrew Wiggins hasn't lived up to the hype that made him a top overall pick, but he's still averaged 19.4 points per game in his career.
The Wolves have potential, in other words. Below, we'll break down their schedule as they attempt to reach the postseason in the loaded Western Conference.
Season Opener: Oct. 23 at Brooklyn Nets
Championship Odds: 500-1 (via Caesars)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
San Antonio Spurs (First Home Game: Nov. 13)
Sacramento Kings (First Home Game: Jan. 27)
Dallas Mavericks (First Home Game: March 1)
New Orleans Pelicans (First Home Game: Dec. 18)
Oklahoma City Thunder (First Home Game: Jan. 13)
Yes, there are five key matchups for the Wolves, and it all has to do with postseason jockeying. The Western Conference is loaded, with a number of teams that feel like virtual playoff locks. Seven, to be exact.
The two Los Angeles teams and their dynamic duos are going to get in, barring injuries. The Denver Nuggets were the top overall seed last year and improved this summer. The Houston Rockets will have an adjustment period with Russell Westbrook replacing Chris Paul, but they're too talented to miss the postseason. The Utah Jazz are going to be very, very good. Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers had a weird offseason but are still a playoff-caliber team and just reached the Western Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors may have some struggles without Klay Thompson, but are you really going to bet against Steph Curry?
That's seven teams that feel like good bets to make the postseason, leaving just one playoff spot up for grabs and a number of teams capable of securing it.
One of the teams is the San Antonio Spurs, who just always seem to find a way to get into the postseason under Gregg Popovich. They also went 3-1 against the Wolves last year, making them a definite hurdle to surpass.
The Sacramento Kings, meanwhile, are loaded with young talent, led by their lightning strike of a point guard, De'Aaron Fox. Speaking of young talent, the Dallas Mavericks have a dynamic duo in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, who should be one of the most unguardable pick-and-roll combinations in the NBA this season.
The New Orleans Pelicans had one of the best offseasons in the NBA, adding Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors, JJ Redick and a boatload of future draft assets. With Jrue Holiday already in place, they're a dangerous squad. They might be a season or two away from being true contenders, but they have enough veteran contributors to stay in the playoff picture.
And don't rule out the Thunder, who may have started their rebuild this summer after trading Westbrook and Paul George but still have a solid core in Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They lack the depth and top-end star power of some of the other teams on this list, but they aren't going to be pushovers, either.
When you really break it down on a team-by-team basis, it becomes apparent just how tall a task the Wolves have in their pursuit of a playoff berth. If they don't have a winning record overall against the five teams mentioned above, it's hard to imagine them being anywhere close to playoff consideration. These five matchups—and how the Wolves fare against the bottom teams from the Eastern Conference—will make or break their season.
The Wolves could surprise some people this season.
One factor to consider is that the Wolves played well with Covington in the lineup. They went 12-10 in games he appeared in and were just 20-27 without him following the Butler trade. In his 22 starts with Minnesota, Covington averaged 14.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.1 blocks in 34.7 minutes per contest, shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from three.
Covington is an excellent team defender who has some of the best hands in the league and is excellent at jumping passing games and creating turnovers. He also spaces the floor on the offensive end. Getting him back healthy for a full season will be a major help.
But the Wolves will only go as far as Towns and Wiggins can take them. The former needs to improve as an interior defender and rim-protector. The latter needs to become a more willing defender and smarter offensive player, fine-tuning his shot selection. Both players put up stats, but for the Wolves to take the next step, both need to make those improvements.
Getting quality minutes from young players like Culver, Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop will also be important. If that trio is ready to make an impact this season, the Wolves will be a threat.
It's all a lot to ask, however, and the Wolves will face a serious battle to reach the postseason even if everything goes to plan. There simply aren't many easy games out West. There may be potential in Minnesota, but not enough for a playoff run this season.
Record Prediction: 37-45