Christmas day: The Wolves coming out party?


Timberwolves fans celebrated an early Christmas when the NBA schedule came out for 2016-17. For the first time in franchise history, the Minnesota Timberwolves will play on Christmas day.

Unsurprisingly, Christmas day generates some of the league’s highest rated regular season games, and the league uses that to its advantage to show many of its marquee teams. As such, it appears that league executives are taking notice of the Timberwolves rise (#EyesOnTheRise) and want to expose the young pups to a wider audience. The Timberwolves face off against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that found itself in a similar situation 7 years ago to where the Wolves are this year.

The 2009-10 Thunder sported a promising young roster, with Kevin Durant in his 3rd year, Russell Westbrook in his 2nd year, and rookies James Harden and Serge Ibaka. This was the year the Thunder really broke out, improving their record from 23-59 in 2008-09 to 50-32 in 2009-10, good for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. The Thunder were subsequently rewarded the following year with a Christmas day tilt against the Denver Nuggets. With their selection to a Christmas day game this year, the Wolves appear to be operating under an accelerated timetable when compared to the Thunder of 7 years ago.

The Timberwolves are almost universally considered to have a very bright future, particularly due to the presence of Karl Anthony Towns, who FiveThirtyEight anointed as the future of the NBA. But are they ready to take that leap and become a playoff team? If you ask local media and fans, they sure are.

Local optimism for this team is among the highest I’ve seen in my adult life (which isn’t exactly saying much). Outside the Twin Cities there are mixed feelings about the Timberwolves prospects for the upcoming year. Bleacher report projects a 38-44 record, with a 40% chance of making the playoffs. Today’s Fastbreak predicts a 34-48 record, and places them as the 21st team in their offseason power rankings. Others, such as HBO’s Bill Simmons, have penciled the Wolves in for next year’s playoffs. On the Ringer’s NBA show podcast, he says,

“Minnesota has (Karl-Anthony) Towns who will be a top 10 player this year. They have depth. They have a trade to make. They’re very athletic and they have a great coach (Tom Thibodeau) – they have a top 5 coach. And I do not see a scenario where he doesn’t make the playoffs.”

With Tom Thibodeau at the helm, there is an opportunity to do just that. After penciling in the three locks (Golden State, San Antonio, and Los Angeles Clippers), there are 5 spots left. Memphis and Portland both look like they will have solid odds to make the playoffs as well. In my mind, the last 3 spots are anyone’s to grab, with questions existing for every remaining team. Will the Thunder be able to absorb the loss of Kevin Durant and retool around Russell Westbrook? I can see them running into big problems on offense, when teams realize they can’t shoot from outside 18 feet. Will Houston play any defense at all under Mike D’Antoni, or will they give up a record number of points per game? Can Utah follow the early 2000’s Pistons blueprint, with a bunch of good but not great players? Will Anthony Davis be able to stay on the court? Even if he does, he lives in a world where New Orleans has failed to surround him with sufficient talent, a fate Timberwolves fans from the Kevin Garnett era know all too well. And finally, will Dallas be able to utilize their new max player, Harrison Barnes, while the rest of their squad attempts to ward off father time? If the Timberwolves continue their growth, and get the expected contribution from their new head coach, they can compete with any of these teams.

Regardless of whether the Timberwolves are ready to take the next step this year, the Christmas day game presents a fantastic opportunity for them from both a competitive and an exposure standpoint.

From a competitive point of view, the Christmas day game represents the young Wolves first taste of a ‘must-win’ game. Given the stage their playing on, and the pressure associated with the first ever Christmas day game for the franchise, the team will surely feel compelled to put on a good show. On the other side of the coin, we’ve all witnessed what happens to Russell Westbrook when he plays without Kevin Durant for an extended period of time (he goes Super Saiyan). We know he and the rest of the Thunder will be on a mission to show they don’t need KD to take the league by storm. This game gives the Wolves an opportunity to test drive their extra gear, something all championship teams need to be able to kick into when the moment calls for it.

From an exposure standpoint, it will likely be this Wolves team’s first introduction to the casual NBA fan. Many fans have not yet seen a full game of the NBA’s new prototype stretch 5 in KAT, or the awe-inspiring moment of a high-flying Andrew Wiggins or Zach LaVine dunk, to say nothing of Ricky Rubio’s smooth passes. Christmas day could very easily be a springboard for the Timberwolves as league pass darlings once people catch a glimpse of the exciting brand of basketball they play. Not only that, but fans will get a chance to see the Wolves play in their stylish new Christmas Day jerseys.

The Timberwolves coming out party has a date set. Be sure to mark your calendars for December 25th.

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