Until this past season, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves were on parallel paths, losing teams that could not attract marquee free agents and were thus trying to rebuild through the NBA Draft.
Both drafted good, young talent, and while neither team was in playoff contention, by 2017 a bit of a rivalry had developed. The similarities started in 2014 when the Lakers selected Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson while the Timberwolves drafted Andrew Wiggins and UCLA’s Zach Levine.
In 2015, Minnesota used the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to take Karl Anthony Towns while the Lakers used the second pick on D’Angelo Russell. In 2016, the Lakers got Brandon Ingram with the second overall selection while the Timberwolves drafted Kris Dunne fifth.
Despite losing records, the teams often played entertaining games against one another. Russell would battle Wiggins to see who could score the most points and Clarkson would square off against Levine as both were known for speed and attacking the rim. The Lakers had no answer for Towns and the Timberwolves had no answer for Randle.
Their most memorable game was played on April 9, 2017, when Russell hit the game-winning three point shot (which bounced high off the rim before settling down through the hoop as time expired) to offset a combined 81 points from Wiggins and Towns.
It was inevitable that these franchises would one day face the difficult choice between remaining patient while their young core developed or using those assets to trade for a veteran star.
Minnesota made its choice last summer when they traded Levine, Dunne and a lottery pick that became Lauri Markkanen to the Chicago Bulls for four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, who made his first All-NBA team in 2017.
The Timberwolves also traded 26-year-old Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz and replaced him at point guard with 29-year-old Jeff Teague. Minnesota still had its prized possessions, Wiggins and Towns, both former number one picks in the draft.
They were joined in the starting lineup this season by Butler, Teague and Taj Gibson. On paper it looked good, and some expected the Timberwolves to cruise into the playoffs and finish with the fourth or fifth seed in a tough Western Conference. It didn’t happen.
They did see a 16-win improvement, good for a 47-35 record, but it still felt like an up-and-down year as Minnesota barely hung onto the eighth seed — and even that was not determined until the final day of the regular season.
The Timberwolves were overmatched against the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. Towns’ statistics were comparable this season to last year, but they did not increase the way one would expect in his third NBA campaign.
In two games against the Lakers towards the end of the season, Towns was almost unrecognizable. On Feb. 28, he finished with 10 points on 2-of-9 shooting. On April 6, Brook Lopez had him reeling by scoring the first 15 points of the game for the Lakers.
Towns finished with a mere 14 points that night, on 5-for-13 shooting from the field. He looked out of sorts in both contests, which is mostly the way he finished the season and looked in the playoffs.
Against Houston in the first round, Towns averaged 15.2 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting, 27.3 percent from 3-point range, and 73.9 at the free throw line; all dramatically below his season averages.
The drop off for Wiggins was even more pronounced. He has consistently torched the Lakers since entering the NBA, but in the aforementioned February and April games at Staples Center, it was almost shocking.
Wiggins finished with eight points on 4-of-11 shooting in one game and 15 points on 7-for-22 from the field in the other. In both contests he looked listless and disengaged. That is how he looked in the playoffs, too, where he averaged 15.8 points per game. On the season, Wiggins’ scoring average dipped to 17.7 from 23.6 the year prior.
Things are uneasy in the Timberwolves’ world right now. Butler had another All-Star season but their young core did not thrive especially down the stretch. After the Timberwolves were eliminated, Butler, who has one more year on his contract, said he could envision returning to the Chicago Bulls after next season.
Wiggins seemed disgruntled all season with his diminished role and there is speculation he could be traded this offseason, which would have been unimaginable before now.
Long term, are the Timberwolves better off with Butler or might it have been preferable to keep Dunn, who took a big leap this past season? Or Levine, who was still recovering from a knee injury the year before but played well when he finally returned.
And Markkanen, who was one of the NBA’s top rookies. With Butler possibly leaving as a free agent, what went from a young organization on the rise a year ago is today a franchise that is on edge.
What does any of this this have to do with the Los Angeles Lakers? The front office will face another decision this summer. The team has been linked to Southern California native Kawhi Leonard, whose days with the San Antonio Spurs might end soon.
When his team was losing in the playoffs, Leonard was elsewhere, instead of sitting on the bench supporting his teammates.
Furthermoreno, the Lakers have been constantly linked in free agency to Paul George, who is practically Butler’s clone as an NBA player with similar statistics and skills on both ends of the court.
Should the Lakers’ front office be concerned at all by the Timberwolves experience this season, inserting Butler into a young core which in the end did not work as well as many expected?
If nothing else, it should cause the Lakers to think carefully before leaping to trade for Leonard. The Timberwolves were able to get Butler without parting with their two best young players.
The Lakers won’t get that lucky, as a trade for Leonard will likely cost both Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, and the Spurs will also want the team’s first-round draft pick this year.
Leonard was injured during the playoffs in 2017 and has reportedly not yet recovered. The extent and seriousness of the injury has been shrouded in mystery as is his current medical condition. This has to be a red flag.
So, too, does the fact that the Spurs are arguably the best run organization in the NBA, and for there to be such a huge disconnect with Leonard is very unusual. The Lakers should be at least mildly concerned.
Then there is the fact that Leonard can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. If the Lakers were to lose him a year from now on top of trading Ingram and Kuzma, it would be a disaster for the franchise.
A Lakers team with a healthy Leonard, but without Ingram, Kuzma and this year’s draft pick, could possibly make the playoffs next season assuming Julius Randle is re-signed. But there is no reason to believe they would do any better than the Timberwolves just did and they could easily do worse.
The situation with George is different because he can be added without parting with any young players, although his joining the team may put Randle in greater jeopardy. Instead of re-signing Randle to a long-term deal, the front office might prefer to retain the cap flexibility to sign another max free agent in 2019.
There is also the question of whether George is worth $30 million a season against the team’s salary cap for four years. Is he really that good? His five-point, 2-for-16 shooting in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s decisive loss to the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs wasn’t a banner night.
The Lakers have spent five years getting to the point where they have assembled a young group of players who to a man show great promise. The front office should not be in a rush to trade any of them.