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It might be a roller coaster, but this year’s Timberwolves team is miles ahead of last year’s team

The 2017 Timberwolves are a roller coaster.

After a lifeless 95-92 loss to Memphis on Monday, the Wolves defeated the Clippers at Staples Center 113-107 on Wednesday. The quality of the play in Los Angeles was far better than the product on display on Monday night. It’s as if the team was on a mission to prove themselves.

The victory catapulted the team into first place in the Northwest Division and fourth overall in the conference. At 15-11, these Timberwolves are well ahead of last year’s pace; their 15th win didn’t come until January 19. That team was in the playoff hunt until late-March, so this year’s squad seems playoff-bound unless things entirely unravel.

A big of a difference as any was the play of Karl-Anthony Towns. Versus the Grizzlies, Towns had just three shots in the first half and took just three in the second, with all of them coming in the fourth. Towns went so long without a shot, that when he got the ball late in the game, he hoisted back-to-back ill-advised shots. It’s as if he was afraid he was never going to see the ball again.

Part of that was Butler hero ball as Jimmy Butler had another efficient 30-point performance. Another part was the Grizzlies scheming against him. But the third piece of the puzzle was lethargic play. There was no movement from Towns in going to the ball or setting a screen, just loafing in the paint waiting for someone to throw him an entry pass.

Towns finished Wednesday’s game with 21 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and four blocked shots on 9-for-14 shooting. It was actually his defense that was most encouraging. Towns wasn’t just hunting for blocks but was active and making the right decisions on the defensive end. For a player who has struggled defensively, this is a game that he can hold up as a hopeful baseline performance. He won’t get four blocks every night but it’s realistic to expect him to be in the right place and put forth the proper effort. The rest will figure itself out with more experience.

Offensively, Towns was also more active. His activity bent the Clippers defense and forced them to react to the Wolves big man. Towns actively battled in the post, worked to set screens, and open himself up to more opportunities. It seemed that the team set out to get him more touches but he certainly did his part as well.

Timberwolves still not a big draw

Despite the addition of Jimmy Butler and the young stars, NBA fans haven’t exactly been snapping up tickets to see them play. Basketball-Reference says that the Wolves are 20th in overall attendance, which is an improvement, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

ESPN has the Wolves 27th overall in average overall attendance, ahead of only Indiana, Brooklyn, and Atlanta. They draw the 25th-most fans at home on average but 28th-most on the road. It’s evident that fans aren’t believing in the team’s new direction quite yet.

A better metric for measuring attendance is percentage filled since not everyone has the same-sized building.  Yet, it matters little for the Wolves who are still bottom-five on the road, at home, and of course overall. However, the team is filling Target Center to 84 percent capacity compared to visiting arenas being 90 percent full. This is unsurprising as the team is trying to rebuild goodwill with its fanbase after years of false hope and disappointment.

This is somewhat surprising given the incoming hype for the team. Yet, today’s fan has many choices to spend their disposable income. For starters, it’s still football season and the NFL is always king. While not every NBA market has an NBA team, the more casual fans may prefer to save their money for when the Warriors or Cavs come to town.

Shabazz Muhammad’s deal isn’t working out for Wolves

Manny Hill and I were hanging out at 1500ESPN following a taping of the Raised By Wolves podcast. We were going through Basketball-Reference and talking about things we remembered when one of us stumbled upon Shabazz Muhammad’s contract. We were floored.

All along, it was believed that Muhammad was brought back for one-year at the minimum. That is not the case. According to Spotrac.com, Muhammad was given a two-year, $3.7 million deal. When you take a deeper look, you see that the second year is a player option and every dollar of the deal is guaranteed.

With the money that small, who cares, right? It’s not about the money. What matters about this is the process. No one gives a minimum player a player option and a multi-year deal for the minimum is a rarity in itself. The option also makes it more difficult to include him in a trade and the potential for him to opt-in could eat up precious cap space for next season.

Who were they negotiating against? The Guandong Tigers? Muhammad had some interest from the Lakers but if the terms came to that, why not let him go? Shawne Williams was a training camp invite with NBA experience that likely could have matched Muhammad’s production this season.

The gamble hasn’t worked out for the team at all. Muhammad is having a terrible season and in Year 5, the team has seen enough; he has earned a DNP-CD in three of the team’s past four games. Muhammad hasn’t played more than 15 minutes in a game since November 8 and not even more than 10 minutes since November 24.

It’s hard to find a bad minimum contract but it seems the Wolves found one.

Wolves return home for five-game homestand

After playing four of their last five on the road, it looks like the Timberwolves will do some hosting this holiday season. Dallas, Philadelphia, Portland, Sacramento, and Phoenix will stop into Target Center over the coming weeks.

Since it’s never too early to start thinking about tiebreakers, the Blazers game is the most important. The Timberwolves sit one game ahead of both the Nuggets and Blazers in the standings. The Wolves are already on track to gain the tiebreakers with Oklahoma City and New Orleans — two teams that also factor into the playoff picture. Getting a jump on a tiebreaker with a divisional foe would be smart.

The other game of note is the Sixers game. Philadelphia has long been a punchline, thanks to their extreme form of tanking. Rookie Ben Simmons has been sensational but Joel Embiid is the big draw here. The matchup between Embiid and Towns is the easy one to highlight.

Towns and Embiid have faced each other twice, with each player’s team coming away with a win. Towns has outplayed Embiid in large part because of health and being able to play almost 50 percent more minutes. The Wolves’ center has averaged 24 points and 13 rebounds on 52 percent shooting versus Embiid’s teams. Meanwhile, Embiid has averaged 17.5 points and nine rebounds versus Towns.

This time should be different. In fact, you could hail this as the first real matchup between the two. Embiid is playing nearly 30 minutes per game now and is averaging 23 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocked shots per game. Embiid or Towns?” has the potential to become this era’s “David Robinson or Hakeem?” and I say that without hyperbole. Both players can become generational greats when it’s all said and done. Tuesday night’s meeting should be a must-watch.

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