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Who are the Timberwolves Best Frenemies?

The 2023 playoffs is littered with old friends & foes of the Wolves. Tales of historic war. Stories of heartbreaking betrayal. Let’s dig into who has been and will be around for the ride.

Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images; Edit by Leo Sun

Since the Minnesota Timberwolves inception in 1989, they have rarely been “a powerhouse.” Not often have they been involved in late May-June NBA conversations regarding championships. Instead of having Main Character Energy, they have more commonly been viewed as a quirky NPC in the NBA game.

But on the contrary, they’re a real, functioning (?), professional sports organization.

Yes, despite popular national media talking heads, the Timberwolves do not just exist to serve as a farm team for big market clubs. We are not just practice dummies for contenders to run drills against. We have had many authentic and organically loveable (and despicable) players, front office members, and even owners who have come and gone. In a despicable “RINGZ” culture that most sports fans live in, Minnesota fans are much more nuanced than that. We have been along for the ride for more than just a singular piece of hardware that’s given to the team who has the highest payroll are the last survivors of a postseason tournament.

There are storylines every single season that keep us tuning in, if not just for an evening’s worth of gratification. These narratives could be freshly planted seeds, waiting to sprout in the next decade. Some have immovable roots which are tangled deep in Wolves history. We see shades of these stories in teams that are still currently alive in the 2023 NBA playoffs. Denver. Los Angeles. Golden State. Miami. What are these stories? Tales of historic war. Stolen territory. Eternal regret. Treacherous betrayal. So let’s be the protagonists of the story today. Let’s examine our history with the 29 NPCs in the league and identify who is the true antagonist of the Timberwolves.

Who are the Timberwolves Best Frenemies?

To decide this, some of our Canis Hoopus writers gathered together to rank rival teams based on a five-point category system. Each voter handed out scores between 1 (lowest) through 5 (highest) in the following areas:

  1. Storylines: Is there significant player history, beef, or individual moments on or off the court?
  2. Historic Balance: Has there been competitive or balanced matchups throughout the past?
  3. Recent Matchups: Have matchups been competitive or balanced in recent history?
  4. Opponent “buy in”: Do both fan bases or franchises view one another as significant rivals?

Let’s begin the countdown.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Honorable Mention: Cleveland Cavaliers (8.2) - Rounding out at a score of 8.2/20, the Cavs squeak into the mentions here. Many of the storylines come from player connections beginning with the Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins (and stuff) deal. Love soon won a championship while Wigs developed slowly before Minnesota soured on him. There’s also the Ricky Rubio for Taurean Prince deal that less people seem to care about. Gersson Rosas swung and missed on acquiring Darius Garland, resulting in Jarrett Culver Patrick Beverley. There’s some potential with both teams trying to run a 2-big system and the whole Rudy Gobert versus Donovan Mitchell beef, but it remains dormant... for now.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Honorable Mention: Philadelphia 76ers (8.8) - Perhaps three to five years ago, the Sixers likely would’ve landed in the top five here. Karl-Anthony Towns versus Joel Embiid was shaping up to be a tasty rivalry between two of the most skilled young centers in the game. Even when their career arcs appeared to diverge, they still literally battled it out on the court. The late Jacqueline Towns wanted a piece. Things got hot on social media. But since then, the two have squashed their beef.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Honorable Mention: Los Angeles Lakers (9.8) - Professional men’s basketball in the state of Minnesota once lifted the NBA championship trophy. Five times in six years, actually. George Mikan helped Minnesota build the NBA’s first dynasty back in the late 1940s and 1950s before being relocated to Los Angeles in 1960. Since then, the Land of 22 Lakes has enjoyed 12 championship runs which includes twice where they discarded the Timberwolves along the way (2003 & 2004). Kobe versus Minnesota has been a narrative that sits heavy with me, considering the physical and personal fouls he had on Ricky Rubio. The narrow victory from the first game after the passing of Flip Saunders’ in 2015 will always be special.

In more recent years, there’s been a handful of highlights that include Christmas 2017, Pat Bev versus LA, history with D’Angelo Russell, and the 2023 play-in game, but the actual basketball piece of the rivalry has always been fairly one-sided in favor of Los Angeles. With real “We’re too good for you” energy, the Lakers likely view the Wolves as a mere footnote.

(On a personal note, living in SoCal has made the Lakers a daily rival for me. It’s deeply personal and the fact that I’m going to be marrying a Laker fan later this year is proof that the universe loves screwing with me.)

Minnesota Timberwolves v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Honorable Mention: Miami HEAT (10.0) - You could have very well just replaced Miami HEAT with Jimmy “General Soreness” Butler. We will never hear the end of “The Hardest Working Man in the NBA” and continue catching strays about how we traded him for just Robert Covington, Dario Šarić (Technically Taurean Prince and half the cost of Rudy Gobert), Jerryd Bayless, and Italian Ricky Rubio. Everyone seems to forget the fact that the Sixers chose Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson over Jimmy Butler less than a year later, but I digress.

Things were very toxic between Butler and the Wolves, to say the least. Disagreements about money. Questioning the character of one another. Some Jerry Springer-type drama. It was out of control. The result was extremely heated battles on the floor including the magical Butler Block moment, KAT’s “Call Rachel Nichols” line, and Ant going toe-to-toe with Jimmy. Sure, this story is less to do with two rival franchises, nor do Miami fans really participate in it, but there’s been plenty of fireworks every time they meet.

Now on to the real list.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

#5 Golden State Warriors

Composite score: 10.5

Historical record: 53-73 (Warriors)
Record since 2021: 4-4 (Tie)
Postseason record: None

That’s a tough picture to look at. Even as a lukewarm Jonny Flynn advocate, there’s not many multiverses where I would have wanted to pass on Steph Curry twice. That remains the genesis of the Wolves-Warriors history. The two franchises are forever going to be linked together because of the 2009 draft. Since 2010, Golden State has accumulated 4 NBA titles and amassed a 59.4% win percentage (3rd best) while Minnesota has not sniffed a title and crawled to a 37.9% win percentage (2nd worst). Because of that, it’s hard to call this a rivalry and keep a straight face.

Let’s look beyond that. There have been multiple opportunities for the Wolves to throw a wrench into their dynasty.

  1. July 2014: GM Flip Saunders considered trading MVP-candidate Kevin Love for Klay Thompson & David Lee in the offseason. That never came to fruition. The Warriors instead hired first-time head coach, Steve Kerr, and went on to win the championship less than a year later with Thompson and Lee, the first of their five-year run winning four titles.
  2. February 2020: Right before the pandemic hit, Golden State was going nowhere fast. They were fresh off losing the NBA finals to the Toronto Raptors, Kevin Durant darted for Brooklyn, Steph Curry was hurt, and D’Angelo Russell was tanking them to a league-worst 12-40 record - Worse than the 15-35 Wolves! Just seven months earlier, Gersson Rosas failed to woo D’Lo after a romantic helicopter ride, but that would not deter him. Rosas swung for the fences and acquired Russell, trading away Andrew Wiggins and a barely protected first round pick. A year later, Wiggins was voted as an All-Star starter and played a crucial part in the Warriors 2021 NBA title run.

Despite those failed attempts to stop the Warriors, there have still been some wildly riveting games in recent years. Defeating the 73-9 team on their home court in overtime. Ryan Saunders with an overtime upset against the referee-antagonizing Warriors. A pair of wild clutch time wins in 2023. Similar to Miami, where their fan base might not bat an eye to us, the product on the court has remained scintillating.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

#4 Oklahoma City Thunder

Composite score: 11.0

Historical record: 44-88 (Thunder)
Record since 2021: 7-1 (Wolves)
Postseason record: 2-3 (1998 Sonics); 1-0 (2023 play-in Wolves)

Speaking of dramatic games, the Thunder come in at fourth on this list. Our very own jakesgraphs did a deep dive on the history between these two organizations. I highly recommend you check out this 26-tweet long thread that begins here:

Every time these two Northwest division teams play, there has almost always been drama or some historical significance. A Mike Miller, Ricky Rubio, or Andrew Wiggins game winning three. Unveiling new branding or a new coach. Don’t forget about the first time the Wolves played on Christmas in 2016, where they donned these beauties.

Though there is not much “bad blood” between these organizations, they both hold keys to the future with two top under 25-year-old talents. No, I’m not talking about Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Minnesota’s own Chet Holgrem. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Anthony Edwards are a pair of superstars who are electrifying to watch and will be running the NBA sooner than later. If history tells us anything, we will be seeing game-winning plays or untucked jerseys whenever these two small(er) market friends face off moving forward.

Speaking of our small market friends...

Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

#3 Sacramento Kings

Composite score: 11.8

Historical record: 67-60 (Wolves)
Record since 2021: 5-2 (Wolves)
Postseason record: 4-3 (2004 Wolves)

The Sacramento Kings are the Minnesota Timberwolves brothers in anguish. For every unqualified owner/front office member, draft day blunder, or basketball misfortune one team experiences, the other has gone through a reciprocal bad break. They each even had historical and recent run-ins with potential relocation.

The origin of their basketball rivalry began at the peak of Wolves relevance in 2004. Kevin Garnett was selected as league MVP as his team advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time, setting up a duel against fellow yearly Western Conference playoff competitors, the Kings. It was a back-and-forth series that had plenty of shenanigans from guys like Brad Miller to former Wolf, Anthony Peeler. The epic game seven in Minnesota just barely fell in the home team’s favor, as Chris Webber’s final three-point attempt rimmed out.

The Wolves would go on to miss the next 13 postseasons while the Kings would soon miss the next 16 postseasons.

Just as how both teams suffer at the same time, things seem to go well for both of them at the same time too. Fast forward to 2023: Minnesota made their first consecutive postseason appearance in 19 years while Sacramento finally ended their 16-year postseason drought. Both teams have outstanding young players who earned their first All-Star nods, publicly sharing their affinity for one another. Perhaps the worst of days are behind each franchise.

Sometimes the best rivalries aren’t with your most despised enemies, but with the brothers who share your pain.

(Another personal anecdote: I grew up as a Kings fan due to my geographical location. “The Greatest Show on Court” shaped a lot of early memories of loving basketball - My first jersey was a white Bobby Jackson #24! By the time I was in high school and the two teams faced off in the ‘04 WCSF, my friends had “forced” me into picking between the two. I went with the Wolves, not knowing there was only pain and regret behind either door.)

DENVER NUGGETS Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

#2 Denver Nuggets

Composite score: 13.8

Historical record: 54-87 (Nuggets)
Record since 2021: 5-3 (Wolves)
Postseason record: 4-1 (2004 Wolves); 1-4 (2023 Nuggets)

Our most recent foe tops in at number two on this list. Aside from the aforementioned Kings, the Nuggets are the only other team that the Wolves have ever bested in the playoffs. Separated by 19 years, the two inverse 4-1 postseason results were nearly identical to one another. In 2004, the Nuggets barely squeaked into the playoffs to snap a 8-year playoff drought, led by sophomore superstar, Carmelo Anthony. Minnesota was the top seed in the Western Conference for the first time and led by soon-to-be-anointed MVP, Kevin Garnett. After two double-digit victories at Target Center, the Wolves dropped a game on the Nuggets home floor before an injury to Anthony resulted in an anticlimactic 5-game series conclusion.

Any of that sound familiar to 2023?

Between those two decades, there was additional fuel to the fire. Let’s start with game 82 of the 2017-2018 season. The Timberwolves were desperately clinging onto their playoff ticket after trying to survive a Jimmy Butler ankle injury. Everything culminated up to a win-or-go-home final game of the season.

Since then, the Nuggets have bypassed the Wolves in most measurable outcomes. At one point, Karl-Anthony Towns versus Nikola Jokić was a legitimate debate. KAT, in particular, seemed to take the on-court battles very seriously. Throw in last summer when Marc Lore & Alex Rodriguez pilfered Denver’s GM, Tim Connelly, there’s even more smoke to be had.

Will it be the Wolves turn to seesaw back on top soon?

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

#1 Memphis Grizzlies

Composite score: 15.5

Historical record: 53-52 (Wolves)
Record since 2021: 4-4 (Tie)
Postseason record: 2-4 (2022 Grizzlies)

It should come as no surprise that the Memphis Grizzlies top this list. There’s no other Western Conference team that has a closer all-time record versus the Timberwolves than the Grizzlies. Even their 2021 playoff battle was closer than what the final 2-4 result shows. It’s hard to say this is just recency bias as both teams are expansion teams, at one point sporting similar vintage 2000s logos. Snarling bear versus snarling wolf. Two-tone faces staring into your soul. Classic.

You immediately look at this matchup and think about the 2022 playoffs. The Wolves taking a surprise 1-0 lead, then subsequently blowing three - THREE - double-digit fourth quarter leads. Not only did the young Grizzlies team defeat the equally young Timberwolves team, they clowned on them along the way.

While you have the image of the former NBA player on the right, Dillon Brooks had plenty of squabbles on the court with a number of different players. Of that weird behavior includes taking out Anthony Edwards’ knees, going after D’Angelo Russell’s knees, punching Ant in the face, and countless others. Employing the most despicable player in the NBA is bound to fuel any embers of a potential rivalry.

Meanwhile in the front-court, you have the current Defensive Player of the Year versus the three-time DPOY, Jaren Jackson Jr. versus Rudy Gobert. We’ve also gotten treated to many battles between KAT and Steven Adams over the years. This season, a new twist is the Wolves now rostering former Memphis fan favorites, Mike Conley Jr. and Kyle Anderson. The surprisingly sweet cherry on top is the friendly rivalry between Karl Towns Sr. and Tee Morant.

There’s the historical significance. Exciting recent battles. Important characters on and off the court. However, what really stands out is their shared timeline. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finished fifth in MVP voting despite missing the postseason while De’Aaron Fox nearly led his team over the defending champions in the first round with just one hand, but who is the biggest competitor to Edwards’ crown as the best under-25 guard in the league?

Ja Morant and Anthony Edwards have a mutual respect for one another. They’re both the clear cut faces of their respective franchises. Each are must-watch League Pass players, prone to performing deft-defying acts on the basketball court that you’ll likely see on the #SCTop10 countdown at the end of the night. The hope they inspire to their fan bases that one day their team will be able to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy is vital.

Above all else, they act as symbolic reminders that their franchises won’t always just be supporting characters in the NBA world, but their future battles will be the main story.

Agree? Disagree? Perhaps you’re one of the older heads who would’ve liked to see the San Antonio Spurs on here for the Duncan versus KG days. Maybe you wanted to see something more recent like the Utah Jazz. How about somewhere in between like the Portland Trail Blazers with the Roy-Foye debacle plus our comments section duel with Blazers Edge?

Share how you would rank the Wolves all-time rivals in the comments section below.