Timberwolves Season Series Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

This is the eighth part in our series previewing each of the Timberwolves’ opponents and the upcoming season series.

Let’s take a look at the Los Angeles Lakers and how they’ll match-up with the Timberwolves during the 2016-17 season, in light of the season series from a year ago.

Tale of the tape: In the 2015-16 season, the Timberwolves managed to win the season series against the Lakers, two games to one. However, the Lakers may have been the closest match-up of all.

The three games ended in a combined six points difference between the teams, as both Minnesota’s victories were reached by a single point and one of the games went to overtime. The only loss in the season series was handed to the Wolves in the third encounter between the teams.

Kobe Bryant ended his career against the Timberwolves in fashion by scoring 38 points on 10-for-21 shooting from the field, ultimately guiding his team to victory in the third and final meeting between the two teams.

What’s new? Probably the right answer to this would be era. One of the all-time best players to ever wear the Lakers uniform has officially retired in Bryant and the team is turning a new page.

It would be too much to hope that it can make the playoffs this year or even the year after (unless, of course, Lakers acquire some big fish in free-agency upcoming summer). However, with a market as appealing as Los Angeles, one of the most decorated teams of all-time is unlikely to stay at the bottom for long.

Departures. Well, Kobe Bryant, of course.  He may have not been the most efficient player over the last few seasons, but he definitely proved that he’s called a living legend for a reason.

A portion of memorable games at the age of 37, including a 60-point performance in his farewell match against the Jazz (which ultimately even finished in a win) – the Black Mamba remained a superstar of the league until the final buzzer of his last game. For many reasons his retirement is a sad and unpleasant fact for the organization. However, we do have to admit that Lakers, with the way they were playing the last few seasons, probably needed a fresh start.

Other notable leavers include Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert. The former is not actually leaving L.A. as he’ll be joining the Clippers, while the latter is moving to the Eastern Conference and will play for the Charlotte Hornets.

Bass and Hibbert have something in common, however: they both are looking to rehabilitate themselves after an abysmal season both team-wise and individually. Hibbert’s scoring average last season was the lowest in his career — even worse than during his rookie season, when he averaged nearly 10 minutes per game less. And although both these names may still mean something on paper, with the way they’ve played last season, the Lakers certainly won’t miss either of these players much.

The same can probably be said about Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre, who also left the team in the off-season.

Arrivals. Coach Luke Walton. It’s always a risky move choosing a former assistant coach of another NBA team as your new head coach; it’s simply hard to know how much of that other team’s success can be attributed to them.

Therefore, it is often a gamble, hoping that the former assistant is actually ready to make a step forward. You can go very wrong with such decisions, like the Denver Nuggets did hiring Brian Shaw. You can hit the jackpot, of course, like the Hornets did hiring Steve Clifford (although, he surely had more than enough experience as a basketball coach, just not as the head coach).

Will Walton be another bust or will he emerge as one of the league’s premier coaches in several years? It’s quite early to say, although Lakers needed a change in the coaching department and, seeing how well Walton managed the Warriors while Steve Kerr was out, gives the Lakers fans a reason to be excited about this move.

Brandon Ingram. Similarly to the 76ers and Ben Simmons, the Lakers will surely expect big things from the second-overall pick right out of the gate. However, even though he may just be the most talented guy in the 2016 draft class and have the biggest potential, he will need some time to adjust to a higher level. He’s listed at 6′-9″ and will probably play most of his time at forward, yet he weighs merely 190 pounds – many point guards in the league are heavier than that. Strength and experience will definitely be important issues at first.

However, Ingram has an impressive skill set already and the speed at which he seems to be improving provides a lot of hope that he may become the next big thing in L.A. Lakers are very happy with their pick, as they should be, but they will have to be patient at first. Ingram’s development will take time.

Luol Deng. While Deng surely seems like a solid enforcement to the squad, his inconsistency and poor performance for the majority of 2016 playoffs with the Heat raise some questions. If he’ll be able to play at his best, he may just be the best player on the team this season. If not, however, the stories of Bass and Hibbert may be repeated sooner than any Lakers supporter would wish.

Timofey Mozgov and Yi Jianlian. The first one is kind of a strange case. Mozgov certainly had his fair amount of good games with the Nuggets or even Cavs, while David Blatt was still the head coach. However, he didn’t really contribute much to the championship-winning team once Tyronn Lue took over as head coach. Mozgov can be a reliable center, yet a four-year, $64 million dollar contract, even at these skyrocketed prices, seems like a massive over-payment.

The deal with the Chinese superstar is much better from the team’s point of view, as Yi’s salary is completely dependent on how many games he is going to play next season. And yet, even though this speaks volumes about the Lakers confidence in Mozgov and how they are playing it safe with Yi, I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter actually played better than the Russian.

Other acquisitions include veteran Spanish point guard Jose Calderon and several other players who haven’t yet carved the names for themselves in the NBA, many of whom will probably be cut from the final roster, as Lakers are currently sitting at 20 players.

What’s the same? The Jordan ClarksonD’Angelo Russell duo. While the Lakers’ back court will certainly be lacking in experience, it would be hard to find a better place for them to develop than the team they’re on. Russell didn’t really perform at the level he was expected to last year, so he’ll have a lot to prove. Louis Williams will also remain to be a significant figure for the team alongside its youngsters — at least on the offensive side of the ball.

Julius Randle. Having had his fair share of injuries in the beginning of his NBA career, Randle will hope that this year is finally going to be his time to shine. However, even though Mozgov, Yi and Ingram may not seem like the top-tier big men, Randle will certainly have to deliver if he’s about to get many minutes on the court.

Metta World Peace. The veteran should be an important figure in the locker team. Lakers have lots of young talent and although Metta isn’t really the best example to follow off the court, he most certainly does know a lot about winning and being successful on it.

October 28, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9) controls the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Keys to victory. Ricky Rubio. Surely, the Spanish point guard was among the leading distributors in the whole league last season with an average of 8.7 assists per game. However, his numbers against the Lakers went through the roof, at 13.7 assists per contest.

The games against Lakers will most likely again be fast-paced with both teams scoring well above 100 points and Rubio’s ability to find his open teammates may prove crucial in that type of play. And if he has an another outburst like in the season opener last year, when Ricky not only dished out 14 assists but also scored 28 points, it would most certainly be welcomed.

A lot will also depend on the fight in the paint – Lakers have a nice mixture of youth, talent and experience at power forward and center, so the Minnesota’s big men, particularly Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng, will have to make sure they hold their ground.

Prediction. The Wolves are the favorites on paper, but last season’s match-up proved that Lakers aren’t going to surrender without a fight. Minnesota should win the season series, however, I wouldn’t bet on a sweep.

My prediction is three wins in the four encounters between the two teams.

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