Rachel Nichols explains that the Timberwolves’ recent success explains why they were able to shut down LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Which is the better team and the bigger threat to the Warriors? Which squad facing star player uncertainties has the brighter future?
Our NBA Insiders go 5-on-5.
1. Our Basketball Power Index (BPI) projects this as a potential playoff matchup. Which team would you pick in a seven-game series?
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: I wouldn’t make a prediction in January; however, I would say that when teams are closely matched, two factors I default to are defense and experience. In this case, the Thunder have been a top-five defensive team for most of the season. Plus, Russell Westbrook and Paul George are two valuable players to have in a postseason setting.
Bobby Marks, ESPN Insider: I will take experience over youth anytime in the playoffs. This Thunder team is built for the playoffs, even if it has been inconsistent in the first half of the season, including losses to Phoenix and Portland the past two games. Yes, Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson have a combined 234 playoffs games, but the Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns duo scares me in a big spot. The regular season is one thing, but all eyes will be on the former No. 1 picks in mid-April.
André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: My heart says Minnesota, but my head says OKC. The playoffs are about matchups, and Westbrook’s body-blow-like aggression with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony finishing would be too much for a still-developing Timberwolves defense to handle this season. Next season is a different story, as I think the young Wolves will grow up, but this year, give me OKC.
Royce Young, ESPN.com: I’d lean Thunder, primarily because of the experience factor. The Wolves are still young, and though there are some seasoned playoff vets on the roster such as Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, it’s unknown how Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will respond, especially given that the last time the Wolves were in the postseason, the Thunder were the Sonics and still four years away from moving.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Can I say whoever has home-court advantage? (That would be Minnesota if the season ended today.) The two teams entered the season with similar projections from ESPN’s real plus-minus, and despite Minnesota’s superior record thus far, their point differentials (plus-3.4 for the Timberwolves, plus-3.3 for the Thunder) are almost identical. Also, their three matchups this season have been decided by a combined nine points. These teams are hard to separate.
2. Which team has the brighter future?
Young: As of now, you have to say the Wolves, primarily because there’s a tangible future to see, whereas the Thunder’s could dissolve quite quickly next summer. Although Westbrook will play the prime of his career in OKC and Steven Adams is a legit foundational piece, George and Anthony could be elsewhere next season. The Wolves will have to answer some of the questions the Thunder did a few seasons ago when their young guys need paying, but for now, Minnesota’s stability gives it an advantage.
Pelton: With Paul George a free agent this summer and Jimmy Butler a year later, the teams’ decisions will determine that. As important as Butler is to Minnesota playing at this level, I’m inclined to pick the Timberwolves because of their young building blocks, most notably Karl-Anthony Towns. Oklahoma City has promising young talent but nobody with nearly the potential of Towns.
Marks: The Timberwolves, based on the uncertain future of Paul George and possible roster restrictions due to the looming high luxury tax next season. While Oklahoma City heads into a summer of uncertainty with George and key reserve Jerami Grant hitting free agency, Minnesota has its starting five under contract at least through the 2018-19 season. Factor in also that Wiggins’ rookie extension does not begin until next year and Towns is extension-eligible starting in July. Also, don’t forget that the Timberwolves have the Thunder’s lottery-protected first-round pick in the June draft.
Snellings: The Timberwolves have the brighter future if they can keep their core together. That depends on Towns growing into a defensive anchor, but he is showing incremental improvements, and with Jimmy Butler captaining the offense and Tom Thibodeau plus Taj in his ears, I see KAT eventually growing into what he needs to be. That’s when the Wolves become every-year championship contenders. The Thunder are a dangerous individual postseason matchup but don’t have dynastic contender upside.
Windhorst: I have a pretty good idea what the Wolves are going to look like next season. I don’t with the Thunder. I’ll say the Wolves by default and because you would assume youth is on their side.
3. Which team is the bigger threat to the Warriors this season?
Pelton: Oklahoma City. The Thunder have more playoff experience, which is a predictor of playoff success, and their four-out starting five and backup units with no traditional center are more ideally suited for dealing with the challenges Golden State presents than the Timberwolves’ more traditional style.
Marks: Neither. Let’s face it, the Timberwolves are a good team and will see their playoff drought end after 13 seasons. On paper, the Thunder look like a threat that will eventually make you think they have turned the corner. But when it comes to the playoffs, don’t be surprised if it is a Golden State clean sweep in the second round.
Windhorst: I just don’t think the Wolves can defend at a level where they can bother the Warriors. But if the Wolves get to see Golden State, it means they’re in the second round. That would be a fantastically successful season for them, and I think they’d have a “happy to be there” vibe. So Thunder.
Snellings: Again, the Thunder have the better puncher’s chance in the playoffs this season. Two seasons ago, I watched Westbrook wear down the Spurs and almost do the same to the Warriors in the playoffs, and with George and Melo playing their finishing roles the way they have of late, Westbrook has the capacity to lead the Thunder to a similar level of postseason danger this year.
Young: The Thunder have been built to compete with the Warriors. The roster is full of length, athleticism, versatility and size. They’re star-heavy, with role players who can adapt and guard multiple positions. The Thunder proved their potential with an emphatic win over the Warriors in November, and in a series, there is at least a way you could talk yourself into a Thunder upset. The Wolves just don’t have the depth or the defensive capability to hang with the Warriors … yet.
4. Fact or fiction: Andrew Wiggins is living up to his new contract.
Snellings: Fiction. Wiggins has regressed this season, shooting less efficiently from everywhere (career-low 50.2 true shooting percentage) and struggling on defense (ranking 77th out of 80 small forwards in defensive real plus-minus). Moving forward, Wiggins must focus heavily on defense, putting will and motor with his elite athleticism to become a stopper. He also must embrace his role as primarily a finisher on offense, developing a consistent spot-up 3-point shot that he can make at volume.
Marks: Fact for the last year of his $7.5 million rookie contract and fiction for the $146 million extension signed in October. Yes, small forwards are a premium in the NBA, but Wiggins is the third-best player on the Timberwolves behind Butler and Towns. The extension is not based on what Wiggins did in the past. Rather, it is based on Minnesota buying stock in the future. So far, that stock is stuck in neutral.
Pelton: Fiction. Wiggins’ fit alongside Butler has proved to be as poor as feared. Adding another shot creator means Wiggins’ best skill — generating a high volume of shots at reasonable efficiency — is now less valuable, as his usage rate has declined from 29.0 percent of the Wolves’ plays to 23.6 percent. Moreover, because Wiggins has backslid from 35.6 percent to 32.8 percent from downtown, shifting more of his shots from self-created to spot-ups hasn’t made him any more efficient. While Wiggins has made progress defensively, he isn’t much closer to max-level production.
Windhorst: Fiction, though I’ve lost track of what a max player is. How about I hijack this and give my own fact or fiction? Fact or fiction: A year from now, Zach LaVine will be deemed a better player than Wiggins. The answer is I don’t know, and that’s not a good sign for Wiggins at this point.
Young: Fact. Consistency has always been the issue for Wiggins, with flashes of stardom popping up and three-game runs of fading into the background following them. A new max contract is one signed over multiple seasons, so it’s way premature to draw any kind of conclusion just a few months into it. Wiggins can still get better — especially on the defensive end — and after this deal has run its course, the Wolves are probably going to be happy with the return they got.
5. What deal or type of deal should one of these teams pursue before the deadline?
Marks: It comes down to what the comfort level is with rookie Terrance Ferguson. If OKC management believes that the rookie can handle backup minutes, reserve Alex Abrines should be put in trade discussions. Shedding the Abrines salary would not only reduce the luxury tax this season but could also offset a potential new contract for Grant, a key reserve. With the possibility of a $100 million-plus tax bill next year, Grant likely will be a cap casualty.
Windhorst: The Wolves need defense, and the Thunder need shooting. The problem is that both teams might be heavily leveraged for the future, and adding long-term salary isn’t a great option.
Young: The Thunder are in search of a fifth guy they can consistently rely on in crunchtime lineups. With Andre Roberson being one of the elite defenders in the league, he’ll see a lot of those minutes, but his struggles at the free throw line might reduce his availability in big spots. The Thunder could still look at a backup big for Adams, but additional two-way wing depth is an obvious need.
Snellings: The Timberwolves need defense, edge and experience. They would be a good destination for a guy such as Tyson Chandler, who could help lock down the paint and glass while mentoring Towns on how to embrace that necessary anchor role. The Thunder could use a lock-down 3-and-D guy as their fifth starter, upgrading Andre Roberson with someone such as Kent Bazemore.
Pelton: Adding another capable wing would be ideal for the Timberwolves so as to reduce the minutes played by Butler (36.9 per game) and Wiggins (36.2). Finding matching salary will be tricky for Minnesota. Would the Timberwolves be willing to give up a first-round pick to both add a rental such as Marco Belinelli and clear the $2 million guaranteed portion of Cole Aldrich‘s 2018-19 salary from their books without having to stretch it?