Less than a month ago, Wolves fans were full of cautious optimism and I was writing such things as “Are the Wolves a legitimate playoff contender, or is their start a mirage.”
That post was written on Nov. 22 — a day before a home loss to Phoenix, a setback that was followed quickly by two convincing road wins at Atlanta and San Antonio that pushed Minnesota’s record to 10-8 and had them firmly in the bottom half of the West’s top eight.
With a home game coming up against lowly Memphis, everything was on solid ground.
Until, of course, it started sinking into the abyss.
The Wolves haven’t won since those back-to-back road victories, an eight-game 0-for-December skid with particularly unsightly bookends: a 115-107 loss in the aforementioned home game vs. Memphis, a team that had lost six in a row at the time; and a gruesome 107-99 home loss to the Pelicans on Wednesday. New Orleans came in on a 13-game losing streak and had played the night before in Brooklyn, while the Wolves had four days off before the game.
If the skid was frustrating and alarming up until Wednesday, it was at least somewhat rationally explained: four of the losses came on a Western Conference road trip, including a heartbreaker at Oklahoma City, and the two after the Wolves came home were against the superior Jazz and Clippers.
But to lose to the Pelicans — even with Karl-Anthony Towns sitting out with a sprained left knee — in a flat, lifeless performance on their home court signals this is a Wolves team either on the verge of or in the midst of a crisis.
Robert Covington, the third-best player on the Wolves and a veteran leader, was late for a team-related event and didn’t start as a result. Whatever positive energy emanated from what coach Ryan Saunders deemed good practices leading up to the game did not carry over in a performance so bad it was suggested to Saunders that his team had given up.
“I don’t think those are the right words to use,” the young coach said after the game. “I think frustrated. You can be frustrated because you’ve lost some games. But I’m not using those words.”
It will be his job, though, to help pull the Wolves out of this rut. Defense and communication (which are tied together) have been culprits during much of this streak, a surprising turn of events. Of the things that seemed fragile vs. sustainable through the 10-8 start, I would have imagined defense (which had improved to 12th in efficiency before the streak) and cohesion were in the sustainable category based on the seeming tight-knit nature of the roster early on.
It’s hard to say what is the chicken and what is the egg when things are going poorly, but it is fair to wonder if increased trade chatter (with Covington and Jeff Teague at the forefront) — fueled in part by the lifting on Sunday of the moratorium on trading players who signed as free agents last offseason — is sowing tension. Then again, there probably wouldn’t be as much chatter if the Wolves were still progressing on the plus side of .500.
What is clear is this: The Wolves already have eight losses in a row — their longest since a nine-game skid during Towns’ rookie season in 2015-16 — and they are barreling toward double-digits considering their next two games are road back-to-backs against Denver (Friday) and Portland (Saturday) as part of another four-game swing out West, particularly if Towns is still out.
The back half of that trip is more forgiving, with stops at Golden State and Sacramento, but the reality is this: Early in the year, it felt like the Wolves had a good chance to win any game. Now it feels like they have a good chance to lose any game.
They weren’t as good as we thought in the beginning, and there’s still time for them to prove they’re better than they are right now. The sum total of their efforts so far is a 10-16 record, a 31-win pace that would align with what I thought they were before the season started: a bad team with its sights set beyond this season.