It’s tough to ignore the early red flags for Timberwolves

Twenty games. That’s how many games most NBA teams say they need to get an idea where their team is headed. While 60 games is still a lot of games, how a team performs in the first quarter of the season generally dictates how the rest will play out.

The Timberwolves sit currently at 4-7 and would be two games behind Memphis for the eighth seed if the playoffs began today. If history is any indication, the team needs to start trending upward soon if they want to return to the playoffs.

You could say that they only lost to Toronto by seven points or San Antonio by four points. But couldn’t you also say that their narrow wins versus the Lakers and Jazz last week were also coin-flip games? A play here and a play there determine every game and it’s not like this is the only red flag we see after 11 games.

Starting off the season 4-1 at home is positive but the 0-6 mark on the road is concerning because they aren’t likely to win 80 percent of their home games. Sure, they won’t lose all of their road games but this team needs to start supplementing its Target Center success with some road victories.

The biggest red flag we’ve seen from this team so far is so big that it should be accompanied by sirens and flares: point differential. For people who don’t like analytics, this is literally just how many points you score versus how many you give up. Point differential is a good indicator of who is good and who isn’t. For instance, Milwaukee and Golden State have the two best point differentials while Phoenix and Cleveland has the worst. There can be anomalies but it only becomes a more reliable form of measurement over time.

Right now, the Timberwolves have the fifth-worst point differential ahead of only Atlanta, Washington, Phoenix, and Cleveland. Those are not good teams yet only Washington has an argument for being as talented as this Wolves team. Worse, this is the second-worst point differential in the conference, which is right in line with sitting 13th in the conference by record.

When this team loses, they make it count. The Wolves’ average margin of defeat in losses is 14.7 points thanks to four-point victories over Dallas and San Antonio– their only losses by five points or less this season.

Sunday’s embarrassment in Portland may be the penultimate case study for this team’s road woes. Missing Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, the Wolves lost 111-81 despite playing their opponent closely for 1.5 quarters. The Blazers led 45-40 before blowing the doors wide open and outscoring the Wolves 66-41 the rest of the way. In fact, after a 27-point first quarter, the Wolves never topped 20 points in the next three and shot just 31 percent on the night.

Again, the Wolves have talent. They still have talent even when Butler and Rose don’t play. When games have gotten out of hand, there has been no sense of the team rallying around each other or someone stepping up. They haven’t exactly come together in tough times, Using the Portland game again, many of their errors and lapses appeared to be due to listless play. Playing in Portland is always difficult but to see this team give up when the game was still close was both disheartening and concerning.

To follow it up, they lost to the Clippers the next night.

Wolves failing to learn from history

Just a season ago, the Wolves took advantage of division rivals and other playoff contenders to end their postseason drought. The team had locked up tiebreakers against New Orleans and Oklahoma City before those teams figured it out while putting themselves in position to secure other critical tiebreakers like Utah, Denver, and others down the road.

That’s why those games in L.A. and Portland sting. These are games that despite being played early on come with playoff implications. The Clippers were able to stay afloat in the playoff race far longer than they should have because they played in a weak division but also because they won just enough of these games. Had they dropped those games, they would have been out of the playoff picture much sooner.

Both losses dropped the Wolves to 2-5 against their conference on the season. Playing the Lakers again on Wednesday and the 6-4 Kings on Friday means two opportunities to regain some ground in the conference. They’ll have to wait for another shot at Portland and Denver until later this month but at least they can get a game on Sacramento and pull two games up on Los Angeles (L), who also figure to be in the playoff mix eventually.

I know it’s crazy to talk about these games like this so early but they do matter. Every conference and division game matters a lot when you’re a competitive team in the superior conference. What the Wolves do now could easily set the tone for the rest of the season if that hasn’t already happened this season.

I’ve got 8 questions as Tyus Jones takes flight

A fractured core

It’s uncommon to have conversations like these about teams that just ended a substantial playoff drought Things should be looking up and there should be optimism rather than this uncertainty over who’s going to be on the team or who’s going to coach and manage this team going forward. These are things teams usually have figured out by the time they’re earning playoff berths.

There are many factors but the ongoing Jimmy Butler saga has to be the primary one. No matter what the team or Butler himself says, there’s no way this cannot be a distraction on some level.

While Butler is Butler, there is certainly some responsibility on the team and Tom Thibodeau right now for letting things get to this point. When Butler no-showed for training camp, they could have called it an unexcused absence and fined him but they didn’t.

When Butler returned and lashed out at Scott Layden, they could have fined or suspended him for conduct detrimental to the team or something like that. But they didn’t.

Butler is now deciding when he is and isn’t going to play.  He took the home game off against Utah but returned for the primetime contest in Golden State. After sitting out the game in Portland, he played in L.A.. All of these come with the report that he’s “available” or out with something like general soreness.

In a way, this is positive. If Butler isn’t on the court then he can’t get hurt and lessen his trade value. But the team is worse off without him.  If he’s going to pick and choose the games he plays, the need to trade him heightens because they do not have the depth to offset him not playing. They may only get 70 or 80 percent of value on Butler in a trade but that’s at least something more that can be put onto the court.

Yet, that hasn’t happened and we know why. Butler is the one in control. Thibodeau may think he can repair this relationship with Butler and keep him to win more games in an act of self-preservation. Even that plan isn’t working and the team is back on a 30-win pace.

You should win at least 30 games with the return from a Butler trade and the remainder of this roster easily. Again, there are still many games for things to come together but if this trend continues for another 10 games, wouldn’t you rather win 30 games without all of the strife?

West Coast Thoughts: KAT’s quick start; Wiggins’ shots; L.A. Nightlife