What can a healthy Timberwolves team do under Ryan Saunders?
Since Saunders was named interim head coach of the Timberwolves on Jan. 7, Minnesota is 8-9. It’s an unspectacular record, but injuries have been a big part of the storyline. Of those 17 games, Tyus Jones has missed 13, Jeff Teague eight and Derrick Rose seven while Robert Covington didn’t step on the court once. The good news is Rose and Teague returned before the break, and Jones and RoCo aren’t far behind, so Saunders will get a fair shot at earning the full-time gig in these upcoming games. It’s no secret that the Timberwolves love playing for Saunders. A push for the playoffs would certainly help his chances of returning next year. Speaking of which …
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Can the Timberwolves make the postseason?
This is the most pressing question, obviously. The Wolves are currently 27-30 and four games out of the eight seed. With 25 games to go and the health of Minnesota’s roster improving by the day, a second-straight playoff appearance isn’t out of the question. So who’s standing in their way? The Clippers (32-27) are the current 8-seed, but they traded away their best player, Tobias Harris, at the deadline and likely won’t be a factor down the stretch. Sacramento (30-27) has been sneaky good this year thanks to the emergence of Buddy Hield and De'Aaron Fox, and the Kings got better at the deadline, adding Harrison Barnes. Just one game ahead of Minnesota are the Los Angeles Lakers (28-29). LeBron James has missed significant time this season but is healthy again, and although the Lakers don’t have too many weapons to surround him -- who’s going to count King James out of the postseason? With the Clippers reeling, Dallas shelving Kristaps Porzingis and the Anthony Davis situation tearing New Orleans apart, it looks like Minnesota will battle Sacramento and the Lakers for the final playoff spot. The Wolves, down 1-2 in the season series with the Kings, have one game left against Sacramento and none against the Lakers. That game against the Kings -- Feb. 25 at home -- will be a big one.
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How can Dario Saric contribute?
The biggest tweak Saunders has made to the roster since taking over was moving Saric to the starting five in place of Taj Gibson on Feb. 11. And it has worked. The Timberwolves won both games before the All-Star break with Saric as the starter, as he averaged 17 points per game while shooting 6 of 7 from deep. The move into the starting lineup seemed to propel Saric out of his January funk, as he registered 6.7 points per game and shot 32.5 percent from downtown during that month. A pair of starts is a small sample size, but Saric can stretch the floor and is a bigger offensive threat than Gibson. If Minnesota is going to make a postseason push, Saric needs to continue this role as another scorer to take pressure off Karl-Anthony Towns on the offensive end.
Is this team capable of going on a run?
Minnesota’s longest winning streak of the first half was four games in late November. The Wolves also had two runs of three straight wins. That’s it. Unfortunately, the schedule doesn’t lighten up or offer any easy stretches. Of the Wolves’ 25 games after the break, 15 are against current playoff teams. Remaining opponents have a combined .538 winning percentage, which is the third-toughest in the Western Conference. The good news is seven of the last nine games are at the Target Center, where the Wolves own a 19-10 record. The bad news? Five of those seven games at home are against legitimate playoff teams -- Golden State, Philadelphia, Portland, Oklahoma City and Toronto.
What can we expect from Andrew Wiggins?
The million-dollar question. When Wiggins dropped a season-high 40 points against OKC in Saunders’ debut, it seemed the young coach had unlocked an engaged Wiggins, one that has come and gone in flashes over his five-year career. But since that 40-point effort, Wiggins has averaged 17.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, although he's only shooting 37.7 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from 3. He’s more involved with Saunders at the helm -- under Tom Thibodeau, Wiggins averaged almost three fewer rebounds per game -- but the Timberwolves need more from Wiggins than his career-worst 99 offensive rating this season.