It's strange to contemplate but nonetheless true: at this odd moment in history, the Minnesota Timberwolves might command more respect around the NBA than the Los Angeles Lakers. They might, is what I'm saying. At the very least, the trajectories of the two organizations are converging. Long handicapped by bad management and a location that makes them repellent to free agents, the Timberwolves have drafted and developed their way to apparent respectability. Perhaps that's just what happens when you're terrible and picking in the top six every year, but they've made some nice little roster moves to surround their lottery talent with quality role players, and they were (eventually) smart enough to ditch Kurt Rambis in favor of Rick Adelman. The man many Laker fans hoped would become the next coach of the purple and gold has the Wolves playing surprisingly adequate ball. We're none of us hearing or making so many David Kahn jokes these days.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are struggling to avoid an existential crisis. Their loss to the Milwaukee Bucks last night was a low point of the season, though one suspects it won't ultimately qualify as the low point. They've lost four straight on the road. The offense is bad, yes, but all the talk of their failing to hit 100 points has occluded how badly the defense has slipped. For a couple weeks now opponents have been taking apart the much-hyped Mike Brown D. A Bucks team on the tail end of a back-to-back and playing without Andrew Bogut had no problem whatsoever scoring on the Lake Show. The record is creeping down toward 0.500. You get the sense the Lakers need to stabilize things fast, or the season could spiral beyond the point of rescue.
The Wolves' 9-10 record is a bit misleading. Three of their losses came in December, when they lost to the Thunder, Bucks and Heat by nine points total. Since then they've blended a few embarrassing defeats (to the Cavaliers and Raptors, for instance) with victories over opponents both dreadful (the Wizards and Pistons) and not (the Spurs and Mavericks twice each). And they've done so despite injuries to guys they were counting on to be big contributors. Michael Beasley has played only eight games because of a sprained right foot. Jose Juan Barea, like Beasley an old friend of Andrew Bynum, is out indefinitely with a hurt hamstring.
The engine of the Timberwolves' surge is Kevin Love. Now in his fourth season, the UCLA product is as officially a franchise player as one can be. He's top five in the NBA in minutes played, points, rebounds and PER, and this past week he signed a four-year extension worth more than $60 million. Love has a bigger role in the Minnesota offense than he ever did under Rambis. Although his raw shooting percentage (44 percent) looks bad, his three-point game would be the envy of most shooting guards, and he gets to the free-throw line just an insane amount. Against a Pau Gasol who looked gassed last night in Milwaukee he could have his way physically.
Perhaps a bigger test for the Lakers will be Ricky Rubio. You can pretty much always say that about the opponent's point guard, but few of them are as much fun to watch as the young Spaniard. He'll test the Lakers' always-stout pick and roll defense and probably make us wish he were still back in Spain. At age 21 Rubio is already atop the league tables in assists and steals, and how is that even possible? I'm not sure but it's starting to feel like the Lakers are the only team in the NBA without an awesome point guard.
(Seriously, though. Are any of the Lakers' point guards even in the top 50 for the position? Can we at least bring Jordan Farmar back?)
Beyond the Love-Rubio core, Adelman likes to spread out the playing time. Luke Ridnour is putting up 12 points a game and has settled nicely into a productive mid-career phase. After Love he's the Wolves' main three-point threat. Rookie Derrick Williams is struggling with his shot but rebounds well and shows good all-around promise. In Darko Milicic and Anthony Tolliver Adelman has a couple big men who specialize in defending the paint. In Anthony Randolph he has a talented but bracingly erratic frontcourt reserve. In Nikola Pekovic he has a Montenegran who's shooting over 60 percent this season.
The Wolves' major weakness is at shooting guard. Wesley Johnson and Wayne Ellington are reasonably famous names but haven't come close to living up to their draft positions. Johnson is an especially curious case. The fourth overall pick in 2010, he's lugging around a sub-43 percent effective field-goal mark. His best game as a pro, however, came against the Lakers last March, when he scored 29 in a loss at Staples. For reasons I've never really understood Stu Lantz loooves Wesley Johnson, and I'm interested to see whether the kid's horrible season will keep Stu from raving about him endlessly.
At the moment the Lakers' issues are too numerous to list. The offense has no spacing or rhythm. They take way too long to get into their sets. They're getting nothing from the point-guard or small-forward positions. They've shot below 50 percent on twos in seven straight games, and let's not even mention the three-point shooting. But again, the defense is now just as much a problem. They're routinely getting ripped up at that end, and this is supposed to be Mike Brown's strength.
With Rick Adelman sitting on the opposite bench this afternoon, we'll get ourselves a glimpse at what could've been. It might not be too pleasant.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.