The Los Angeles Lakers will look to start the new year fresh with a matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The two teams have finished their 2017’s in vastly different ways. The Lakers have been reeling recently, losing nine of ten. They’ve been playing the past four games without Lonzo Ball and Brook Lopez, and were missing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for the most recent game against the Houston Rockets.
The Lakers have had absences, rotation changes, and a notable change in their offensive style and execution. It hasn’t gone well, but surprisingly the offense has somehow stayed afloat. LA’s offensive efficiency the past four games has actually been better than the previous 31. The half court offense has been atrocious, scoring 6.3 points less than the expectation per game (worst in the NBA over a full year). Lonzo missing and no quality point guards being available should hurt the half court offense, but the team has had long stretches of complete dismay and disorganization.
However, the team’s transition offense has improved substantially. They’re scoring at a rate since Lonzo and Lopez’s absences that would be third best in the NBA. I’d venture to guess a sudden drop in pass ahead turnovers actually did the team some good in terms of their transition efficiency.
So overall it hasn’t been pretty, but the team has held together offensively (although the bar was already low).
Where the Lakers have fallen apart has been their defense. They’ve given up 1.098 points per possession over the past four games (and 1.152 PPP against Minnesota) and conceded 22.5, 11.7, 8.2, and 19.6 points more in those games than the expectation based on the possessions they faced. Both the PPP and DPOE figures would be dead last by far over a full season. This Lakers defense was a top ten defense, but it’s been completely overmatched recently.
On the other side, the Timberwolves have won seven of their last nine games. Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns lead the way for the TWolves and are 7th and 14th respectively in the NBA in points over expectation (POE).
Andrew Wiggins is also a big part of the Wolves team, but his impact has rivaled that of Brandon Ingram. Both players are scoring 16-18 points, and both are doing so at a rate of inefficiency worse than most of the NBA. The two players are putting up the counting stats, but are scoring less than average players would be expected to score if they were given the same opportunity.
What To Watch For
The Lakers are going to miss Brook Lopez in this game. One big weak area for KAT is his spot up defense. He can find himself lost at times and has been punished by opposing big men that can shoot. For the Lakers to win, they’re going to need players to step up. Kuzma and Ingram will likely both need to be clicking. Minnesota has the third worst transition defense, so capitalizing in that component of the game will also be important. The Timberwolves are efficient from many players and in many play types offensively, but if they can bait Andrew Wiggins into playing isolation basketball it may help the Lakers. He’s scoring 0.533 points per possession so far this season in iso, shooting 10/49 along with 4 turnovers.
In a time of year where we’re all looking to be better versions of ourselves, let’s hope this Lakers’ unit can do the same. That’s what it’s going to take. If Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram can turn a corner and Julius can turn the minutes corner, the team will have even more to build upon to finish out the season.
The spread currently has Minnesota to win by 10.5. My model has them as 9.5 point favorites after home court, rest, and injuries are taken into account. Teague, KCP, Lopez, and Ball are all expected to be out. Both teams are operating without any rest, but in those conditions I’d give the edge to the home team and the team that’s more healthy/not in jail.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm PST start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.