L.A. Lakers at Minnesota
Time: 8 PM CT (TNT)
Spread: MIN -9.5
Odds c/o 5dimes
The Lakers made some waves at the trade deadline in dealing Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson for Cleveland Cavaliers guard Isaiah Thomas. Thomas will serve as a big scorer and spark off the bench behind rookie Lonzo Ball, though he has struggled mightily since leaving the Boston Celtics and has his clear defensive limitations as a 5-foot-9 guard. Even so, to obtain a player who finished top-5 in MVP voting a year ago at the low cost of Clarkson and Nance has to be seen as a good move for L.A. The only outstanding issue is that Thomas is a defensive nightmare, and the Lakers are already putrid on that end of the court. Ball has been injured and Josh Hart is getting the starting nod of late, and the Lakers have been thriving. It casts some doubt on the rookie, but a lot of it is just a shift in the frontcourt.
Some changes-in-guard: Over the last 10 games, Utah product and rookie Kyle Kuzma has tailed off quite a bit. He is averaging 11 points, three rebounds and 1.2 assists over his last 10 games while playing just 23.3 minutes a night. It is possible he has hit the rookie wall, especially looking at his 41.8 percent shooting percentage, which has been just 35.7 over the Lakers last three games. Kuzma’s minutes are declining, but Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle are thriving.
Brandon Ingram is coming on strong, however, and has averaged 17 points and 5.8 assists over the Lakers last five games. He posted 26 points on 9 of 12 shooting in the win over Phoenix.
Julius Randle has seen an uptick in playing time and is averaging 18.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 27 minutes a night over the Lakers’ past 10 games. Randle had 19 points, 12 rebounds and two assists in the 102-99 victory over Brooklyn on Feb. 2, and he has averaged 19.2 points and nine rebounds over his last five games. He had 21 points, five assists and eight boards in the win over Phoenix.
Perhaps he is being showcased for an eventual trade, or it is really just the decline of Kuzma’s rookie season. It is difficult to tell which, if not both, is the case.
The fact that Randle has come on in Kuzma’s decline is no accident, but the Lakers have been winning more games with the more-experienced Randle seeing the bulk of the minutes at the 4-spot. L.A.’s defense has been so poor already, that it can only improve even if Randle is defensively undersized as a power forward. Nance Jr’s departure does clear the frontcourt crowding up some.
The Lakers have the different cogs to rotate in at forward, and if Kuzma begins (or continues?) to hit a rookie wall it will only result in more minutes for the more-productive veterans. That is to say, the Lakers may win a few extra games despite being in an overall tank effort, simply because Randle is a rougher and better interior player than Kuzma, and Nance Jr. is a better defender than both, but defense is a clear non-issue given the trade for Thomas, and the Lakers are still in a rebuild. So, there is that.
Minnesota is building towards a meaningful future with two of the league’s brightest stars in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, alongside established veteran All-Star Jimmy Butler. The Wolves occupy the No. 4 spot in the West and would have ?home-court advantage if the playoffs began today.?Tom Thibodeau finally has the veteran leaders to lead his strong young core. Towns is averaging 20.5 points, 11.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks pregame with a team-high PER of 23.0.
Butler has reduced his scoring load from a season ago with the pitiful Chicago Bulls, but is playing strong two-way basketball and still tallying 20 points per night.?Andrew Wiggins has made meaningful strides as a playmaker and defender, with the cost that he is averaging fewer points than last season, but the Wolves are a better more well-rounded team this season.
Credit some of that to unheralded additions Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. Gibson has relegated the once-promising Gorgui Dieng to the bench, while Teague has seamlessly replaced Ricky Rubio at the point guard position. Jamal Crawford is not seeing a lot of minutes (17 per game), but is still a viable scorer off the bench and he can get hot at any time.
The Wolves have sufficient depth and leadership to finally cash in on its potential, and developing consistency on both ends of the court is next on Thibodeau’s checklist for his rising Wolves. The team is off to a great start for a young ball club and could be one of the most feared by the time the postseason finally arrives in 2018. The Wolves are hot and on the rise.