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Updated: January 12th, 2014 12:29pm
Mackey: Why the Wolves are still probably going to win like 46 games

Mackey: Why the Wolves are still probably going to win like 46 games

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

I stumbled upon some interesting perspective on the Minnesota Timberwolves this morning while clicking through old Basketball-Reference pages.

(One of them may or may not have been James "Hollywood" Robinson. What can I say? Once you start clicking around...)

While many Wolves followers spent the entire week freaking out about another infuriating loss in a close game at home, tripping out about Ricky Rubio's poor shooting, and scoffing at another blowout win over a bad team, two well-respected predictive models are singing a far different and more optimistic tune.

John Hollinger, who now works as the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, still allows ESPN.com to use his playoff odds model. According to Hollinger, the Wolves (currently 18-18) project to finish 48-34 with a 70% chance of making the playoffs.

Basketball-Reference.com also has a predictive model that runs 1,000 simulations of the remainder of the season for each team. According to their method, Basketball-Reference projects the Wolves as a 47-win team (even after an 18-18 start) with a 70% chance of making the playoffs and a 2% chance to win it all.

But how can that be? These projections don't seem to fit the popular narrative from this past week...

Well, in our own little vacuum, people see the Wolves fumbling away a four-point lead with 18 seconds in Los Angeles, Kevin Love missing free throws in the final seconds against Oklahoma City, and Rubio throwing away an absurdly winnable game against Phoenix. To call these losses choke jobs is probably accurate.

The predictive models see a team that should probably be like 3-7 in games decided by four points or fewer, rather than 0-10. They see this trend turning in the near future.

In our own little vacuum, people see Rubio's horrible shooting numbers and conclude that he is hindering the overall performance of the team, just like Christian Ponder with the Vikings.

The predictive models see Rubio's top-notch passing, rebounding and defense and conclude that the Wolves are 10 points better per 48 minutes with Rubio on the court vs. on the bench. Sure, his shooting is a problem in late-game, half-court situations, which is part of the reason why the Wolves, as constructed, will never execute like the San Antonio Spurs late in games. But the predictive models know Rubio's value.

In our own little vacuum, people see the Wolves destroying inferior teams on a regular basis and say, "Pfffft... Irrelevant."

The predictive models see a team that has more blowout wins (20+ points) than any team in the NBA. Those models put more stock into that trend than they do in the 0-10 mark in close games. The predictive models are pretty sure the Wolves aren't going to finish 0-20 in close games.

In our own little vacuum, people see the Wolves' +5.2 point differential (7th in the NBA) and think, "Who cares? You're only as good as your record indicates."

The predictive models see a +5.2 point differential and note that the last 20 teams that finished with a similar point differential also finished with records of 57-25, 56-26, 52-30, 50-32, 53-29, 57-25, 54-28, 53-29, 50-32, 54-28, 52-30, 56-26, 55-27, 56-26, 55-27, 51-31, 49-33, 52-30, 54-28 and 55-27... So, yeah.

These are the same predictive models that stuck to their hypothetical guns with the Denver Nuggets last season. Even after George Karl's bunch lost a home game to the upstart Wolves on January 3, 2013 that dropped them to 18-16, Hollinger and other predictive models still viewed Denver as a 50-win team.

The Nuggets took advantage of a weak January schedule and throttled their way to a 57-25 record.

The Wolves shouldn't be expected to go on a run like that. But with upcoming stretches that feature a lot of home games against teams like Kings, Jazz, Grizzlies, Lakers, Knicks, Pistons, Raptors, Bucs, the Kings again, Lakers again, etc., they're probably going to get hot. 

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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