Wolves Friday: Looking ahead to January

MINNEAPOLIS — The Timberwolves have just one game remaining in 2012, and now that we’re two months into the season, it’s a bit easier to evaluate what lies ahead. Most preseason analysis now seems irrelevant — I clearly remember counting a November matchup against Golden State as a likely win and noting that the Timberwolves were fortunate not to face the Lakers until February — so now, with nine weeks’ worth of games behind us, let’s take a better look at what January will bring:

With 15 games, the team has three more than it did in December, which was a relatively light month, and as many as it did in November, the month in which it began the season 7-8. It’ll face 13 different teams, with two games each against the Clippers and Hawks, and nine of those 13 teams currently have records of .500 or greater.

The Timberwolves will face five teams for the first time this season — the Jazz, Hawks, Spurs, Clippers and Wizards — and will see their third game against both the Nuggets and Mavericks. They have four road trips: a six-game trip to the southwest, a two-game trip out west, a one-game stop in Atlanta and a two-game trip to the East Coast. Nine of the 15 games on the month are on the road, which is the most the team will travel in any month this season.

Here’s what I’m thinking in terms of easiest games: Jan. 5 vs. Portland, Jan. 11 at New Orleans, January 14 at Dallas, Jan. 25 at Washington and Jan. 26 at Charlotte. The toughest games will be the two against the Clippers, both at home, on Jan. 17 and 30. Games in Oklahoma City (Jan. 9) and San Antonio (Jan. 13) will be tough, but they have that Hornets game in New Orleans in between to likely build some confidence.

My guess at their January record: 8-7. Last year, they went 10-8 on the month, the season before, 3-11.

Point differential: Despite slipping to 13-13, the Timberwolves still have a positive point differential of plus-0.9. That’s the eighth-best differential in the Western Conference, despite the fact that the team currently sits tied for ninth place. Only four teams with .500 or better records have negative point differentials: Portland, Utah, Boston and Milwaukee.

No one in the league is coming close to what the Clippers are doing, though; 15 games into their winning streak and with a league-best 23-6 record, they have a point differential of plus-10.3. If they were to maintain that over the course of the season, it would go down as tied for the fourth-best of any team in the past 40 years, behind the 1996, 1997 and 1992 Bulls.

Five-man units: What the Timberwolves need right now is consistency, and badly. They’ve had too many starting lineups and too many injuries, and that was especially noticeable last Thursday against the Thunder, who had started the same group every game. In fact, that group of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins has logged a total of 390.6 minutes together, almost four times as many as the Timberwolves most-used lineup and nearly six times as much as their current starting group.

In fact, only Dallas and Toronto can boast (although I’m not sure that’s exactly the right word for this) that their most-used five-man unit has played fewer minutes together than the Timberwolves’: Minnesota’s has logged 103.4 minutes, Dallas’ 54.3, Toronto’s 67.8.

So far this season, the five-man unit of Luke Ridnour, Malcolm Lee, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic has seen the most playing time of any group for the Timberwolves, but with Lee out, that’s likely to change soon, with other combinations naturally logging more time together. That group, which started together for much of late November and December before Lee hurt his knee, had a plus-minus of plus-11, one of the better marks of any unit, but the best five-man unit has logged a plus-24 and is creeping up there in terms of minutes.

That group — Ridnour, Alexey Shved, Kirilenko, Love and Pekovic — has logged 68.3 minutes together and has the highest offensive rating of any group that’s played more than 20 minutes together this season, 1.14. Its defensive rating of 0.99 leaves more to be desired, but it’s still respectable, and the best thing about that group is that all of its players are healthy and starting.

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