The Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves will square off Wednesday night in a game that can have serious implications on draft positioning. Though rooting for your own team to lose is a mortal sin in the sports fandom bible, Los Angeles is getting dangerously close to losing its top five protected first-round draft pick to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Lakers’ schedule is highly unfavorable down the stretch with one more matchup against Philadelphia and Minnesota and two games versus the Sacramento Kings to close out the season. The season series between the two teams is tied at one win apiece with the Lakers victorious in the last game.
Frontcourt: Head coach Flip Saunders was ridiculed on draft night two years ago when he dealt the ninth pick, Trey Burke, for the 14th and 21st overall picks in the 2013 draft. Those picks turned out to be Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad, both of whom have manifested into quite productive players. Muhammad has already been pronounced out for the season, but Dieng has remained a fixture in the Timberwolves’ starting lineup for largely the entire season. The usual starting center Nikola Pekovic has struggled with an array of injuries this season, which has allowed Dieng to really blossom. The 6-foot-11 center is averaging a steady 9.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game in just 30.2 minutes and has emerged as an elite rim protector, a skill Pekovic has never adopted.
It’s quite rare for a rebuilding franchise to fork over first-round picks for unproven, young players, especially one who has spent the majority of his NBA career in the D-League. But, that is exactly what Saunders did to acquire former 15th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Adreian Payne. Payne appeared in a mere three games for the Atlanta Hawks, logging 6.3 minutes per game compared to 17 and 24, respectively, with his new team. The 24-year-old rookie tends to drift in and out of games, primarily on defense, often losing sight of the ball when defending off the ball. Payne was an extremely efficient scorer at Michigan State both at the rim and behind the three-point arc. NBA level defenses, however, have exposed Payne this season though as he’s shooting just 41.8 percent from the field this year.
The consensus Rookie of the Year pick for almost the entire 2014-15 season has been the man Minnesota acquired in exchange for Kevin Love, Andrew Wiggins. The return on disgruntled superstars is historically unfavorable, but the Love-Wiggins deal is shaping up to be the diamond in the rough. Wiggins has played flat out brilliantly after a somewhat rocky start, finally living up to the hype that surrounded him in high school. What Minnesota has offered Wiggins is a platform to make mistakes without the pressure of being in the fish bowl like he would have in the wine and gold. The most intriguing aspect of Wiggins’ game, though, is his unexpected versatility. He’s already an above-average wing defender and has added a sneaky nice post game on offense. Outside shooting will certainly come along as Wiggins progresses in his career, but if not, his footwork and explosiveness alone should suffice in his quest to evolve into a 20+-point scorer.
Backcourt: A homeless man’s James Harden and NBA journeyman, Kevin Martin is expected to start at shooting guard health permitting. Injuries have plagued the 32-year-old’s career and are probably the reason why he’s stuck on such a paltry Timberwolves team. Martin was shopped hard before the trade deadline, with no biters because he’s never played a full 82 games season, even before the days of resting healthy players. At his apex, Martin is an outstanding scorer who can get to the rim with ease, while maintaining a deadly outside stroke. In fact, he ranked in the top 3 in both three-pointers and free throws made during the 2010-2011 season, a feat Harden has yet to accomplish. Martin is averaging 20.2 points per game in 33 total contests this season.
With three hours remaining before the November 1st extension deadline, Minnesota and franchise cornerstone Ricky Rubio reached a four-year deal paying him upwards of $56 million. Timberwolves fans were ecstatic to lock up one of the premier playmakers in the league, dreaming how well he could complement Wiggins. Rubio has failed to stay on the court this season, though, participating in 22 games thus far. Instead, Minnesota’s lottery pick Zach LaVine has adopted the starter’s duties and was presented with an opportunity to showcase his talents. The high-flyer has embarked on a roller coaster season of some tremendous high ups and some valley deep lows. He turns the ball over quite a bit with inflated minutes, yet he has managed to post several wildly impressive performances, his best coming against the Lakers when he recorded a career-high 28 points. Don’t expect much playmaking from the young point guard, but be prepared for a few highlight reel dunks.
Keys To Victory:
Exploit LaVine: Byron Scott has elected to insert both Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson into the starting lineup, creating a sizable tandem. Blanketing and trapping the inexperienced LaVine will almost certainly lead to multiple turnovers. LaVine was most recently exposed versus the defense heavy backcourt of the Utah Jazz, turning the ball over seven times.
The Second Unit: Minnesota’s bench is extremely thin. With a myriad of lingering injuries, Saunders was forced to cut his rotation to seven players last game and still pull out the victory. Los Angeles’ bench is shockingly productive, especially with Jordan Hill, Ed Davis and Wayne Ellington all now reserves. If this unit can come in and provide a spark, the Lakers should defeat the Timberwolves handily.
Offensive Efficiency: The Timberwolves are an atrocious defensive team, allowing the most points per game in the NBA. The Lakers, on the other hand, owned one of the top offenses in the league until midway through the season when Kobe Bryant and Nick Young suffered injuries. Since, Los Angeles’ offense has been stagnant in stretches, so developing a rhythm right off the bat is vital to jump start the unit.
Los Angeles Lakers (18-51)at Minnesota Timberwolves (16-54)
5:00 PM PST, March 25, 2015
Target Center, Minneapolis, MN
TV: TWC SN
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Timberwolves Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Zach LaVine
SG: Kevin Martin
SF: Andrew Wiggins
PF: Adreian Payne
C: Gorgui Dieng
Key Reserves: PG: Lorenzo Brown SG: Sean Kilpatrick SF: Chase Budinger
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: Jordan Clarkson
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Ryan Kelly
C: Tarik Black
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