The Pelicans are looking down in the standings at Minnesota.
But for the Timberwolves, things are looking up.
The two teams will play in Minneapolis on Wednesday in the season finale for both. There will be no playoffs for either, and they’ll enter the game separated by just two wins, the Pelicans with 30 and the Wolves 28.
The gap between them feels much wider.
The Timberwolves are 5-5 in their past 10 games and have won three of the past four, including a stunning upset last week of Golden State in Oakland. Minnesota — and its young core centered around Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — is the Western Conference team expected to make the biggest leap next season.
“When you have these kind of wins at the end of the season, you feel like we’re getting better,” Towns told reporters this week. “We feel like we want to pick up where we left off (next) season. This is great for us. This is amazing, to have this kind of momentum.”
Momentum, meanwhile, has been largely absent for New Orleans, its roster ravaged this season by injury, and its expectations of a playoff appearance out of reach almost since a 1-11 start.
Minnesota’s offseason optimism is a stark contrast to the pessimism around the Pelicans, who face a hiatus littered with questions about a roster that TNT analyst Kenny Smith this week described as “a lot of square pegs for round holes.”
It’s not the only dramatic difference between the two.
Though the Pelicans and Wolves both are built around big men their teams took with the No. 1 pick in the draft — New Orleans’ Anthony Davis in 2012, Minnesota’s Towns in 2015 — the similarities stop there in roster construction.
Minnesota has eight players on its roster acquired either through the draft or through draft-rights trades. Davis is the only such Pelican.
The Wolves’ opening-night roster featured eight players age 25 or younger. The Pelicans had two, Davis and guard Jrue Holiday.
Davis has been the youngest Pelican since the day he was drafted as the franchise chose to build around him with what general manager Dell Demps calls “young veterans,” players in their mid- to upper-20s who have provided an experienced supporting cast.
Earlier this season, Davis called that approach “a positive and a negative thing.”
“Positive (in that) you get to learn from other guys, get a lot more experience and knowledge from guys who are older than you and have been through the league,” Davis said. “But at the same time, you always want (to say) ‘Man, I remember when he was the same age, when we were both 22’ or whatever as you get older and see how both of (your) games developed. I’ve had guys on the team who were like that who end up leaving.”
In Towns, Wiggins and guard Zach LaVine, Minnesota has three players 21 years old or younger playing major roles. They’ve been supplemented by veterans like Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince who are past their productive primes in the NBA but who provide the kind of guidance New Orleans has sought for Davis from contributing players.
“I think the talent they have is foundational,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters last month in Minneapolis. “Sometimes you have some good, young players you can’t figure out what you’re going to do with them all, but with this group, it just looks like the pieces fit.”
It’s easy to see in Minnesota’s construction a blueprint laid out by the Oklahoma City Thunder in its rise to NBA prominence: using the draft to land elite talent in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, then building around it.
That system isn’t foolproof any more than New Orleans’ is foolhardy. The Wolves haven’t reached the playoffs since 2004. The Pelicans lost a first-round series a year ago and were expected to return with a healthy roster this season.
“(Strategies) all work if you have the right people in place making the right decisions,” Smith said. “You can do it multiple ways.”
As the Pelicans prepare to end their season against the Wolves, the Minnesota way looks like it ultimately will be a winner. But it requires patience.
New Orleans will search for answers this offseason, will seek a new path to build a contender. Minnesota coach Sam Mitchell, meanwhile, hopes the Timberwolves will stay their slow, steady course to success.
“If we do that, our chances of being successful are much better than going out trading your young talent and then trying to piece together a bunch of veterans for a run,” Mitchell told reporters this week. “And even if it works — even if you make the playoffs or go deep — the following year, you can’t sustain it. You’re going to have to go back down to ground zero anyway. At least with what we’re doing, our foundation, if we do it right and we add the right free agents and get lucky in the draft and get the right guys, we got a chance to have a really good team for a long time.”