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Timberwolves vs. Warriors Key Matchup: Words on the wings

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When Minnesota and Golden State play, it’s likely to come down to who can dominate the game: Durant or Wiggins?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Golden State Warriors
The pivotal matchup when the Warriors and Timberwolves play will always be the battle between each team’s wing player.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

With the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves set to play their first of two preseason games—along with three games to come in the regular season—it’s time to consider how these two teams stack up against one another. The most interesting matchup, and the one that will tell us the most about how Minnesota will do this season, is the one on the wings between Kevin Durant and Andrew Wiggins.

While the Timberwolves have made serious changes to their roster and (once again) are a team many believe could make a move up the standings in the Western Conference, the tipping point for this team will be Wiggins’ performance and what he is able to contribute. It remains to be seen how much of Wiggins (and Wiggins versus Durant) we will see in this game—it is preseason after all. But the Timberwolves' wing play is going to be the most interesting thing to watch this time and that starts with Wiggins.

Looking Back on Last Season

Using last season’s performances to get a sense of what is to come is a bit tricky, since Durant only played in two of the Warriors games against the Timberwolves because of his MCL sprain. One of those games, a home win in November, was somehwat abnormal because Draymond Green missed the game. The other—a win in Minnesota in December—was anomalous as well as it featured a horrendous shooting night from Kevin Durant (6-for-21 from the field) and required a fourth quarter comeback led by bench players like Shaun Livingston and David West. The other two games these teams played were without Durant, with Minnesota winning one while Golden State won another.

However, there are things we can glean about the role Wiggins needs to play if the Timberwolves are going to compete by looking at last year’s matchups.

The first game between the two teams saw Wiggins end with a plus/minus of -15 and a defensive rating of 124 (meaning he was on a pace to allow 124 points over 100 possessions). Durant, by contrast, was +9 and scoring 28 points and an offensive rating of 142 (on pace to score 142 points over the course of 100 possessions). In this game, Wiggins was 9 points above his defensive rating for the season on that night while Durant was 17 points above his offensive rating for the season.

Wiggins’ offense also suffered in the November matchup, only scoring 16 points with an anemic offensive rating of 88. Even without Defensive Player of the Year Green, the Warriors were able to contain the Timberwolves’ star wing and Durant had a lot to do with that. The Warriors were able to claim the lead with about two minutes left to go in the second quarter and didn’t relinquish it for the rest of the game.

The second game, which was much closer, saw Wiggins fair only slightly better—an improved offensive rating but still with a high defensive rating and a plus/minus of only +1. Durant, meanwhile, was still able to put up 22 points and end with a +9 despite having a rough shooting night by his standards.

In the fourth quarter, Wiggins was a -10 while Durant was a +18, scoring 7 of his 22 points to lead the Warriors to the victory. Down the stretch, Wiggins being on the court was negatively impacting the Timberwolves while Durant, along with Klay Thompson who also was a +18 in the fourth, helped to get the Warriors the victory.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Golden State Warriors
Entering his fourth season in the league, questions are beginning to mount about just how good Andrew Wiggins is.
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not worth reading too much into the other two Timberwolves-Warriors matchups, in my estimation at least. Durant did not play in those games and Minnesota’s one victory came in the midst of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s prolonged shooting cold streak while the team was adjusting to not having Durant in the lineup. But despite not having to play against Durant, the Timberwolves wing still struggled in those games and continued to underwhelm instead of asserting himself as an elite player next to Karl Anthony-Towns.

The fourth meeting between the two teams, coming at the very end of the season, saw Matt Barnes helping to fill in for Durant and put up his second highest point total for the Warriors in 2016-2017. Even with Durant out of the lineup, the Warriors wings were able to excel while Wiggins continued to leave much to be desired.

Looking Forward to This Season

Wiggins, who could be in line for a max-level extension from Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, is a bit of a lightning rod amongst NBA fans. On the one hand, he has shown glimpses of the game that made him the number one pick and the price for the Cavs acquiring then-Timberwolves all-star Kevin Love. One need only watch the compilation of his best plays from last season to see his potential to be a top-flight wing in the league.

However, Wiggins has underperformed relative to the lofty expectations that had been placed upon him. The Kansas product has not ascended to the top strata of NBA talent like many expected him to do. That Wiggins is still a seeming work-in-progress has led to tweets and pieces like this, which wonder whether he is in fact worth the large contract that the Timberwolves ownership would like to offer him.

For Wiggins to really warrant that max contract and for him to enter into the discussion of top-tier players in the NBA, he needs to play better. Specifically, Wiggins needs to produce against teams like the Warriors, teams that feature strong players on the wings.

Look at Wiggins’ performances against the best teams last season (the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Celtics, and Cavaliers):

2016-17 Regular Season Table
Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS GmSc +/-
2016-11-21 MIN BOS L (-6) 1 39:25 5 18 .278 0 5 .000 4 6 .667 0 4 4 1 0 0 2 1 14 2.1 -8
2016-11-26 MIN @ GSW L (-13) 1 39:08 6 15 .400 1 6 .167 3 4 .750 0 3 3 3 1 0 3 1 16 8.1 -15
2016-12-06 MIN SAS L (-14) 1 38:21 5 12 .417 0 2 .000 1 3 .333 2 5 7 2 0 0 4 4 11 2.5 -14
2016-12-11 MIN GSW L (-8) 1 40:32 8 14 .571 2 3 .667 7 10 .700 0 5 5 2 0 0 4 2 25 15.3 +1
2017-01-11 MIN HOU W (+14) 1 37:57 11 20 .550 2 4 .500 4 5 .800 0 4 4 2 0 1 3 4 28 16.7 +9
2017-01-17 MIN @ SAS L (-8) 1 38:29 3 8 .375 0 1 .000 4 6 .667 0 3 3 3 1 0 3 3 10 4.6 -8
2017-02-01 MIN @ CLE L (-28) 1 35:56 9 17 .529 2 6 .333 3 3 1.000 1 1 2 0 0 0 2 2 23 12.9 -14
2017-02-14 MIN CLE L (-8) 1 41:07 16 29 .552 4 8 .500 5 6 .833 1 2 3 2 1 0 0 1 41 30.0 -8
2017-02-25 MIN @ HOU L (-12) 1 36:35 11 22 .500 1 5 .200 7 8 .875 2 0 2 2 3 0 6 5 30 16.4 -3
2017-03-04 MIN @ SAS L (-7) 1 43:53 6 24 .250 0 2 .000 5 6 .833 0 4 4 2 0 0 3 5 17 -0.2 -5
2017-03-10 MIN GSW W (+1) 1 37:24 9 21 .429 1 1 1.000 5 7 .714 2 2 4 0 2 0 4 3 24 10.9 +6
2017-03-15 MIN @ BOS L (-13) 1 39:13 9 23 .391 2 4 .500 1 4 .250 1 3 4 4 0 0 1 3 21 9.5 -16
2017-03-21 MIN SAS L (-7) 1 36:06 5 15 .333 0 2 .000 12 14 .857 0 4 4 4 1 0 2 3 22 14.5 -17
2017-04-04 MIN @ GSW L (-14) 1 29:32 9 20 .450 1 4 .250 5 7 .714 1 3 4 2 3 0 4 2 24 14.0 -11
2017-04-12 MIN @ HOU L (-5) 1 30:19 7 17 .412 2 5 .400 5 7 .714 0 2 2 3 1 0 4 2 21 10.0 -33
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/1/2017.

While it is not surprising that the Timberwolves did not win many of these games (since they were against the league’s very best teams), Wiggins’ performances stand out in how unremarkable they are. Out of these 14 games, Wiggins’ only posted a positive plus/minus ranking in three games. This means that Wiggins, when he was on the court in these games, was negatively impacting his team. That is something that your starting small forward and second (or now, third) option can do.

The Timberwolves upgraded this offseason, getting rid of Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine and bringing in Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler to form a new backcourt tandem. They also still an ascendant superstar in Karl-Anthony Towns and have played the Warriors very tough over the past few seasons. But this matchup will be determined by what Wiggins can and can’t do on the court and what he can and can’t keep Durant from doing. We will begin to learn a lot about whether the Timberwolves can push the Warriors this season and become a player in the Western Conference through the Wiggins-Durant matchup that begins on Wednesday in China.