History says Wolves are making a case to miss the postseason

Two games currently separate the 14th-seeded Timberwolves from the final playoff spot in the West. Considering that we’re now approaching the halfway mark of the season, that’s a razor-thin margin of error. The difference between a playoff seed right now is essentially the difference between a winning or losing streak.

And it has been that way all along this season.

The Timberwolves have been a strong home team. Only five teams had more wins at home than their 12 and two of those teams play in the opposing conference. Winning at home was a hump that the Wolves had been trying to get over since the 2014 season, the last time the team had a winning record at Target Center before last season.

Yet, taking advantage of home court isn’t enough. You also have to be able to win on the road and beat your conference, things the Wolves have seldom done in their first 30 games.

Struggles on the road

While taking care of business on your own court is important, so is playing at least average away from it. Anyone following the 2019 Timberwolves knows that has not been the case. The team is 2-12 on the road which means they have to be even better at home to stay alive in the postseason hunt.

  • Philadelphia is the third seed in the East thanks to a 15-3 record at home despite being 6-9 on the road. The Sixers currently sit 1.5 games out of second and three games out of first in the East.
  • The Spurs, Mavericks, and Pelicans each have 12 or more home wins but would miss the playoffs if they began today because none of these teams have won more than four road games. The Wolves would obviously be in this mix too.

Should the Wolves sustain their 2-12 road pace, that would put them on track for 5.8 road victories. A team that is on pace to win six road games is not a team that typically has playoff aspirations or even a shot at them. In fact, the Timberwolves have had single-digit road wins in a season 13 times and most recently 2015 (seven), 2011 (five) and 2010 (five). None of those teams won more than 17 games in a season, which doesn’t bode well for this year’s iteration no matter how good they are at home.

A season ago, the Wolves were 17-24 away from Minneapolis. That’s a 40 percent winning percentage which isn’t great but gives at least gave them a chance. And all they needed was a chance to make the playoffs in 2018 but that’s not enough this season. Given the Wolves’ current 30-home-win pace, 17 wins would get them to 47 and a likely playoff spot. But they have to give themselves a chance this season.

More struggles against the Western Conference

If anything has summed up the Wolves’ woes this season, it’s their combined 0-9 record on two separate West Coast road trips. Being bad against both your own conference and on the road isn’t likely to earn a playoff berth.

The Wolves are currently 7-13 against the Western Conference. Additionally, none of the teams in the top-eight of the conference are more than one game below .500 against the West. It’s almost as if the best teams in the conference don’t lose unnecessary games against inferior teams like the Suns or Kings.

For comparison’s sake, the Wolves went 34-18 against the West a season ago. Most of that work was opportunistically done early in the season against teams like the Thunder who hadn’t figured it out yet. Even then, they beat fringe playoff teams like the Clippers in their own building. Had they not blown the season series with Phoenix and Memphis their record would look even better.

This team has gone from winning .653 percent of their games against their conference to .350 percent this season. That’s what makes their West Coast trips so disappointing: the opportunities are there this season but they have not capitalized.

Of all the current non-playoff teams, only the Spurs have a winning record against their conference. That immediately gives them the inside track on making up ground in the standings and securing pivotal tiebreakers along the way. If the Spurs didn’t have just four road wins so far, they’d likely be in playoff position already.

History isn’t encouraging

Can you be successful with a losing road or conference record? Sure. Teams have done it before. Dating to 2008, five teams with a losing conference record have made the postseason.

  • 2016 Memphis Grizzlies: 42-40 overall | Road: 16-25 | Conference: 25-27

This Grizzlies team was swept out of the first round by the second-seeded Spurs. In all fairness, this team was down Marc Gasol and Mike Conley because of injury, leaving a patchwork roster of NBA hopefuls. However,  that doesn’t change their fate.

  • 2015 Brooklyn Nets: 38-44 overall | Road: 19-22 |Conference: 24-28

You remember this Nets team. Somewhere in the recesses of your mind, it lurks like a traumatic event. This team was too old to ever have had a realistic chance at contention despite what Billy King gave up for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Gerald Wallace but they still swiped two games from the Hawks in their first-round series defeat

  • 2013 Houston Rockets: 45-37 overall | Road: 16-25 | Conference: 24-28

It’s hard to believe the Rockets have been disappointing basketball fans since 2013 but it’s true. Yet, they were the most successful of these teams. Houston was nonetheless defeated 4-2 in the first round by Oklahoma City.

  • 2013 Milwaukee Bucks: 38-44 overall| Road: 17-24 |Conference: 24-28.

This Bucks team had no business making the playoffs. We would have been better served with the top-seeded Heat getting a bye in the first round and instead we watched LeBron James overwhelm and effortlessly sweep the Bucks.

  • 2008 Atlanta Hawks: 37-45 | Road: 12-29 | Conference: 24-28

This was the first year in an eight-year run after climbing their way out of the lottery. Making these playoffs was an achievement in itself. The Hawks managed to push the top-seeded Celtics to seven games by winning all of their home games. It’s no surprise they struggled in Boston but losing by 34 in Game 7 on the road was a disappointing end.

Right now, the fifth-seeded Blazers and eighth-seeded Kings are the only teams with a losing conference record who would make the playoffs if they began today. However, history says one or both of them likely falls out for a team like the Spurs who have proven more successful against their conference.

Time to buck these trends is slipping away

Recent history suggests that if a team has a losing road and/or conference record, they can make the playoffs but the ceiling is low.  The 2016 Grizzlies made the playoffs as the seventh seed but only after sliding following Conley and Gasol’s injuries. Otherwise, these teams are typically an eighth seed waiting to be unceremoniously dismissed in the first round.

Four of the five teams to make the playoffs with a losing conference record had 24 in-conference wins. The Wolves are currently on pace for 18 conference victories. Recent history suggests that’s not going to be enough to close the gap, especially in a hyper-competitive conference.

What’s interesting is how much lower the minimum standard is for road success. These five teams won an average of 16 road games and had an average road winning percentage of .390. It’s still no guarantee that the Wolves can sneak in should they ascend to this lowly level. Moving off of their six-road-win pace could be as simple as, say, not losing games to teams like the Suns that have little interest in winning this season.

Making up ground will be no easy task. The coaching staff still seems to be juggling lineups due to injury and acclimating the pieces from the Jimmy Butler trade. It won’t help that seven of the team’s next 10 games will be on the road and half of those 10 will be against Western Conference teams.

Orlando, Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami will present greater victory opportunities. While those wins also matter, games against San Antonio, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City will be especially pivotal.

These next 10 games will not only bring the Wolves to the halfway mark of the season but give us an indication of what kind of team we should expect in the second half of the season.