Oklahoma City Thunder

Netherworld of the West
Minnesota Timberwolves

Oklahoma City Thunder

• I’d have the Thunder here even if I knew they would keep their team together at the trade deadline. They have a playoff-caliber starting lineup but almost no proven depth on the wing or at power forward.

Paul hasn’t played in more than 61 games since 2016. Danilo Gallinari cracked 65 last season for the first time since 2012-13. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is not an awesome fit hanging off the ball while Paul does his point god thing.

Throw in the likelihood that someone gets traded, and Oklahoma City lags behind the playoff race.

• Several projection systems — including Kevin Pelton’s at ESPN and the 538 forecast — treat the Wolves more kindly. They outscored opponents by about three points per 100 possessions with Karl-Anthony Towns and Robert Covington on the floor, and Covington is on track to start the season healthy.

They made a bunch of nice fringe moves: Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham, Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell and Tyrone Wallace. Some of those contracts could be handy in two- and three-team trades; Minnesota figures to be active.

Towns is a god on offense, and having just one scorer so talented — a legitimate fulcrum — tends to push even blah teams toward .500. He has missed five games in four seasons. The wrenching, energy-sapping melodrama of the Jimmy Butler/Tom Thibodeau saga is behind them.

But the talent gap between Towns and the rest of the roster is huge. Everyone else is either untested or underwhelming. This group has almost zero record of competent defense. A bounce-back from Jeff Teague, or any bounce at all from Andrew Wiggins, would shift the trajectory, but it’s tough to bet on either doing enough to elevate Minnesota into the thick of the West playoff race.
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