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Zach Lowe latest to hype up Wolves: 'Is this team a championship contender now?'

Wolves sit third in the West at 8-3 and lead their In-Season Tournament group

thumping loss on short rest Wednesday night shouldn't take too much of the excitement out of the Wolves' hot start, with many starting to look at the team as a real contender this season.

"When Malika Andrews, on one of our NBA Today Youtube episodes, asked us for our spicy takes before the season started, I said Minnesota a top-4 seed in the West," said ESPN's Zach Lowe on his most recent Lowe Post Podcast. "And I'm starting to wonder if that's underselling the Wolves? Are we full on, like, is this team a championship contender now?"

Despite the team holding the 20th ranked offense, Lowe says it still "passes the eye-test."

"I think [Karl-Anthony] Towns has figured out how and where to pick his spots to attack when [Rudy] Gobert is on the floor and Gobert is the main screen-setter, and Towns has to toggle between spacing the floor and finding ways to attack from the perimeter. [Mike] Conley looks good. [Jaden] McDaniels looks awesome attacking close-outs. Like, that passes the eye test to me offensively. Obviously, I don't know if they'll be a top-8 offense but I think they'll be better than 20th. Defensively, they're just gigantic across the floor and they're built to be a pretty good defensive team."

Co-host Kevin Pelton wasn't as eager to jump on the Timberwolves' quickly filling bandwagon, pointing out that their incredible numbers against the three are bound to regress.

"Opponents are hitting 31.5% against them so far, the lowest amount in the league," says Pelton. "You can parse this a hundred different ways, I have. Teams that allow between 31-32% over the first ten games of the season, the rest of the season opponents hit 36%, which is precisely league average. It just doesn't tell you anything about how they're going to defend threes throughout the season."

That started to take form in Wednesday night's 133-115 hammering by the Suns, when Phoenix shot a blistering 54.8% from beyond the arc.

Lowe was quick to answer that concern about one facet of the Wolves' No. 1 ranked defense, saying: "Yes, 31% is not sustainable but they're so far and away the best defense that if they allowed 36% on threes the rest of the season, as you were saying, what do they fall to, fourth? They're going to be a really good defense regardless."

"They're second in opponent free-throw rate, which for them is like, 'Are we living in the twilight zone?' The Wolves learned how not to foul? I don't even know what to do with that piece of information," Lowe continued. 

"They're still eighth in forcing turnovers and it's hard to do that while not fouling. To have an aggressive style that gets you a lot of turnovers and also not hack-away. And they're about average in defensive rebounding, which for the Wolves is like (mocking celebrating) 'Average! Average! Average! We figured out how to box-out. Awesome.'

"But look, they're playing unbelievably well," Lowe continued. "Their size. . . there's just less space all over the floor. Passing lanes, driving lanes, there's just arms everywhere. McDaniels looks unbelievable at both ends of the floor. We haven't even mentioned Ant. I still think he's got a ways to go as a passer but he's definitely better at playmaking this season than last season. The Ant/Gobert pick-and-roll already looks like a different animal than it was last year."

Edwards is averaging 8.4 points per game off the pick-and-roll this season, jumping up from 6.2 last season. Gobert's free-throw frequency off the pick-an-roll has jumped from 24.8% last season to 36.7% this season, second best in the league.

"If you're asking me why can't they win the title? I'm kind of running out of answers," said Lowe. "Other than 'they're the Wolves and bad things happen to them.' They do match up well with Denver, and that's a real thing. Like, who are you confident is definitely better than them in the Western Conference? Denver and who else?"

Minnesota has already beaten the Nuggets and Celtics at Target Center this season and, according to the Nuggets, gave Denver their toughest test in the playoffs on their way to the title.

"Yeah, I think that's the right way to put it," Pelton replied. "You know, there was a lot of talk going into the season about how strong the top of the Western Conference looks and I don't think that's the case anymore. So, there's very much an opening for the Wolves to have the season that the Kings had last year."

Sacramento missed the playoffs in the 2021-22 season with a 30-52 record before coming out of nowhere to finish third in the West in 2022-23 with a 48-34 record.

"This is what we expected from them last year, was to be a high-40s-ish [win] type team," continued Pelton. "That, and because of the fact they're putting more emphasis on the regular season, [they] might finish ahead of some of these super-team conglomerates we have more faith in in the playoffs. I think it's playing out that way."

"This was always the type of team the In-Season Tournament was designed for," said Pelton. "I think people had this vision of someone who is not even going to make the playoffs is going to have this incredible run through the In-Season Tournament. But Minnesota is the precise kind of team that is now the favorites to win their group and has a chance to win a game or two along the way and get to the finals."

After Tuesday's grueling 104-101 win over the Warriors, Minnesota sits atop West Group C with a 2-0 record and their final two games of Group play come at home against the Kings and Thunder.

"The last thing I'll say is I don't quite remember a situation like this where a team is this good, with this much single-season upside, and they have a lot," Lowe said, shifting focus to the murky future ahead of the Wolves. 

"And everyone there must know, this team will not look like this next year, almost no matter what. Financially, the McDaniels deal kicks in, Kyle Anderson is a free agent, Mike Conley is a free agent, Naz Reid has a new big contract. Like, they just can't pay all of these guys. They'll be so far into the tax, they'll be Warriors-level in the tax. No small-market has ever paid a bill like that. There's just nothing they can do about it right now, they're too good. They're so good that any decision about the future must be put off until this season plays out its course."