It would be easy to say that the Cleveland game was an anomaly, but it really wasn’t. OK, building a 39 point lead against a team that is supposed to contend for a playoff spot, while shooting near perfect from the field, may end up being the highest point differential the Wolves achieve this season, but the offense has been cooking to start the year. Even without Kevin Martin, the Wolves were able to absolutely roast the Cavaliers, getting contributions from a wide range of players in order to will the victory. But rather than dissect the play these past few games, let’s review a few recent bits of news for the team as it faces another set of back-to-backs.
1. Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic were crucified a bit early in the season, as each started off very slow offensively. Pekovic was the biggest surprise, averaging 39% shooting through his first 5 games. In these last 4, Pek has rounded in closer to form and upped his shooting percent to 58%. In a similar trend, Rubio started shooting 29% the first five games, and shot 47% these last 4. Encouraging trends for those fans worried about their offensive regressions.
2. Kevin Martin was out with the flu the other night, but was healthy and ready to go the next day. He started feeling better right around halftime of the Cavs game, and was perfectly fine the next day (hangover? Nah). He will start tonight at Denver where he will be matched up with Randy Foye. For a player who has had his fair share of injuries over the years, giving Martin a night off while the rest of your team more than makes up for your absence is a nice thing.
3. Chase Budinger has been cleared to rejoin the team and has been engaging in set shooting and light running as he continues his journey towards a welcomed return. It remains to be seen when he will return to the court, but based on how injuries have been treated in the past, I would guess news on his return will remain mum and we will find out shortly before tip-off of a game in order to throw off any strategy from a given opponent. This has been an ongoing trend in the league and I suspect it happens here. My guess is early/mid December, despite the reports of Christmas. But, just a guess.
4. Taking a look at the NBA standings, there have been quite a few outliers to start the season. For the Wolves, currently at 6-3, this is a record you would and should expect from a playoff team. The health has fared relatively well through the first 10-12% of the season and the Wolves have proven to be a formidable foe to any team in the NBA, netting some quality wins against quality teams, and being 2 single field goals away from an 8-1 record.
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But two surprise teams have surfaced from the ashes thus far this season, both of which appear on surface level as a new threat to the Wolves and future playoff chances: Portland and Phoenix.
Portland, as few people seem to mention, is off to a 6-2 start, one less loss than our home team. I would consider them more of a threat, but thus far the Blazers have been benefactors of a very favorable schedule to start the year, including: 5 of 8 games at home, two games against a lowly Kings team with a 2-5 record, games against Detroit (2-5), Denver (3-4), a Rockets team off to a shaky start (which Portland lost) as well as two battles against an overachieving Phoenix team where Portland and Phoenix split the wins. Their only quality win was netting the Spurs their lone loss of the season on the tail end of a back to back. Neil Olshey was lauded this summer for bolstering the Blazer’s lineup with several quality bench pieces in Mo Williams, Dorrell Wright and Thomas Robinson, but thus far those pieces haven’t added anything dramatic or indispensable, with Robinson and Dorrell Wright averaging 5.5 and 6.0 pts., respectively, and Mo Williams adding 9 a game but owning the worst PER of any player in the rotation (by a long shot) at 9.9. Lillard has been hot and cold to start the year shooting just 38% from the floor, and overall the team remains beatable. Let’s see how they fare on the road against a group of playoff teams before getting too worried. Their good fortunes continue with a game against Boston tonight.
The other anomaly in the west is Phoenix, widely considered to be bottom 3 in the league pre-season but off to a shocking start only rivaled by its partner in supposed awfulness Philadelphia. Not even in fantasy basketball would anyone have possibly imagined what’s going on with these teams to start the young season. This team is Sixers West, being coached successfully by Jeff Hornacek, and getting quality production from several surprise players to start the year. The first is new NBA double-double machine Miles Plumlee, who has shown he is a formidable and productive NBA center. Eric Bledsoe is off to a ridiculous start in terms of overall production and Markieff Morris continues to improve. This team also has FOUR (including our own) first round picks in this next draft . As a unit, the Suns are tough to analyze. On paper, you think, “can a team that starts Gerald Green ever make the playoffs?” “Is Markieff Morris a star?” The answer to both of those questions is no. Again…reasonable schedules make things look a little less bright. The Suns’ five wins are: 2 vs. New Orleans (3-6), one against Utah (1-8), one in Denver (3-4) and one against Portland as previously mentioned, although the Suns have played most of their games on the road to start (5 of 8). They have lost to OKC and SA to date, as well as Portland. The Suns’ early season fortunes are likely to continue as they have Brooklyn, the Kings twice, Orlando and Charlotte as its next 5 opponents. Plain and simple, the second this team starts playing playoff teams on the regular, it will begin to fall in the standings. They do not have the fire power to sustain this early season influx of wins unless their trio of young players inexplicably become NBA mainstays.
So that leaves us with the Wolves, who, to be fair, have had some similar fortune with their opponents with 4 of 6 wins against sub-.500 opponents, the outliers being the Dallas win and a blowout of the pre-Westbrook OKC Thunder. However, the Wolves, as mentioned above, are currently within 2 field goals of an 8-1 record, lost to the Clippers by two on a back to back, and have won three games by 19+. The have three sub-.500 teams to play for their next three games, which still won’t give us a great read on where they stand. Tonight in Denver, Love should prove to be a formidable matchup for Faried in Denver’s newly implemented half-court style; and so long as Rubio forces turnovers from Lawson and Brewer stays close to sharpshooter Wilson Chander, it should be fairly easy to outmatch the Nuggets so long as the shots are falling early. Not to mention a Pek vs. Mozgov matchup should be entertaining. Tomorrow against the Celtics, both teams will be on the tail end of a back to back, and a loss would be a statistical anomaly. Barring an early clang-fest either night, the Wolves should emerge from the weekend with an 8-3 record.