11. Minnesota Timberwolves
Nothing about how the Minnesota Timberwolves squeaked into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season should inspire confidence about their chances of making a deep run. Then again, had Jimmy Butler not missed six weeks of the season with a meniscus tear, they likely would have clinched a postseason berth long ago.
Before Butler went down with his knee injury in late February, the Timberwolves were 36-26 with a top-eight net rating (plus-2.6). During the 17 games he missed, they went 8-9 with a minus-1.0 net rating that barely escaped being among the league’s bottom third.
Upon Butler’s return, the T-Wolves thumped two lottery-bound squads (the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies) before clinching their postseason spot with a thrilling overtime victory over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday. While the too-close-for-comfort berth means they wound up drawing the top-seeded Rockets in the first round, they’ll have the benefit of a well-rested Butler ready for battle.
That’s an enormous advantage for a Timberwolves team that head coach Tom Thibodeau otherwise ran into the ground. Star center Karl-Anthony Towns is a mismatch nightmare for most big men he’ll encounter in the playoffs, but he and fellow starters Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson each finished among the top 15 in total minutes played this season. Had starting point guard Jeff Teague not missed 12 games, he likely would have been around the top 30, too.
The Timberwolves’ starting five is undeniably potent, having outscored opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions in their 1,100-plus minutes together. Their biggest question heading into the playoffs is whether they can stave off the fatigue induced by Thibodeau’s straight-out-of-the-1990s rotations, especially against Houston’s potent offense.
Next: 10. New Orleans Pelicans