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Back-to-Back Preview: Timberwolves and Jazz

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Who wants another Laker blowout?

I hope you all raised your hands, because you're getting one tonight whether you like it or not. The traveling clown show known as the Minnesota Timberwolves visits Staples this evening, and they're every bit as horrid as their 3-19 record would lead you to think. Under the tutelage of new coach Kurt Rambis, the T-Pups have been outscored by nearly 11 points per game, an even worse clip than that of the New Jersey Nets. You've gotta give them credit: they've come by their 0.136 winning percentage honestly.

After tonight's scrimmage, however, it's time to get back to work. The Lakers immediately hit the road for date number two with the Utah Jazz tomorrow night, followed by four more away games in distant time zones. Accordingly, against the low-grade Timberwolves it would behoove them not to monkey around. Drop the hammer early, and rest the starters as much as possible. They'll need their strength for the journey ahead.

Where do you even start with a team like Minnesota? With over a quarter of the season in the books, they've been bad enough to prompt John Hollinger to inquire, at column length, whether they'll prove to be one of the worst teams in NBA history. They recently had a string of 15 consecutive losses; the Lakers, by stark comparison, haven't lost 15 games in the last nine calendar months, even when you include all four of last year's playoff series. Minnesota's at or close to the bottom in about a dozen key statistical categories.

The Wolves' most acute failing has been an almost complete inability to put the ball in the hoop. Rambis has attempted to install the Triangle Offense he learned under Phil Jackson, but the results have not been sexy. Minny has an Offensive Rating of only 97.2, fourth-worst in the league. It's not surprising that the Triangle hasn't yielded instant returns - it's a hard offense to pick up and requires versatile, experienced players - but what the Wolves have been leaving on the court is some truly ugly crap.

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Anthony Macri of Basketball Prospectus yesterday published an excellent piece analyzing why, on an X's and O's level, the Minnesota Triangle hasn't been working. I recommend you read the whole thing - I always learn something new whenever I read Macri's work - but here are a few money quotes.

Though Minnesota looks moderately comfortable running the read-and-react triangle, players are not always purposeful in their cuts and seem to rush through the options. Watch the next time they run a man off the elbow for a handoff - that player goes past and just floats to the next option. If the Wolves instead took their time and explored each cut and exploited each movement, they would find there are a lot of points waiting to be discovered....

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is hesitation on the part of multiple players in Minnesota to execute what Tex Winter called the "ping pass." This offense, by design, is one where the ball should be moved within two seconds of its being received (either by the pass or by the attacking dribble). The Timberwolves have too many players interested in stopping the ball. This is an offense-killer in the triangle and something that needs to be fixed in order for the Wolves to really make progress.

It'll be odd but interesting to see a team other than the Lakers run the Triangle. One would think the Lakers have a big head start in defending it, as it's the offense they run in practice every day. That cuts both ways, of course - the Timberwolves will arrive with some advance intel about the Laker offense - but the experience gap is massive.

Minny's primary offensive options are center Al Jefferson and rookie point guard Jonny Flynn. Jefferson was playing like a breakout star last year before suffering a season-ending ACL tear after 50 games. He's back but hasn't yet returned to pre-injury form. A heavier reliance on midrange jumpers has hurt his shooting numbers, and as an undersized center he's the type to struggle against the tall and lanky Laker bigs.

Flynn hasn't set the league afire like fellow rookies Brandon Jennings and Tyreke Evans, but he's had his moments, as when he held his own against Deron Williams in an upset win over Utah last weekend. He's been one of the most turnover-prone point guards in the NBA, a big reason why the Timberwolves are one of the most turnover-prone teams. He also has terrible defensive numbers; Minny is much better defensively when backup Ramon Sessions is on the floor. Sessions offers the added benefit of being one of the better rebounding guards around.

Much-needed reinforcement for Jefferson and Flynn has lately arrived in the form of Kevin Love. Tonight will be Love's fifth game back after recovering from a broken hand, and so far he's looking like the Wolves' best player even though Rambis hasn't started him yet. Per 40 minutes of play he's averaging 22 points on 69% True Shooting. Like Jefferson, he's short for his position and will have problems with whoever's guarding him this evening, but he's strong and a phenomenal position rebounder. If the Lakers are as indifferent on the defensive glass as they were in the first half against the Jazz, Love will find garbage points available in bunches.

Aside from turnovers, Minnesota's other big, big problem is that they have no shooters to stretch the floor. They both take and make threes at some of the lowest rates in the league. Corey Brewer is the NBA's worst starting shooting guard, and things don't really improve when rookie Wayne Ellington replaces him on the floor. Combined, they're making 18% of their three-point attempts. I repeat: these are professional shooting guards.

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The Wolves' starting small forward is, I kid you not, Damien Wilkins. On any reputable team he'd be a purely garbage-time performer. Oleksiy Pecherov comes off the bench to satisfy the requirement that every NBA franchise have at least one player from the former Soviet Union.

At power forward, Ryan Gomes has been a relative bright spot. He hovers toward the bottom of the top 20 in a number of positional stat rankings. He's basically the only T-Wolf who can hit a three, but he attempts only a couple each game. It seems safe to say that when Ryan Gomes is one of your team's most valuable contributors, you're at or near the bottom of the rebuilding curve.

I should point out a couple things in half-assed defense of Minnesota. One, they're not as bad on D. Please don't think they're any good, mind you, but they're not the fumbling disaster their offensive "attack" is. Two, their recent play has flirted with respectability: over their five most recent games they've been outscored by only 0.02 points per possession against a not-horrible slate of opponents. As mentioned above, they beat Utah at home, and they even stole a win in Denver on November 29th.

Whatever - they're losing tonight, and they're losing big. Rambis will get his championship ring before the game, but that'll be the high point for them. This time tomorrow the Lakers will be 18-3.

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Catching Up With the Jazz

A far sterner challenge awaits the Lakers tomorrow, when they visit SLC for their second game against the Jazz in four days. This will be the Lakers' fourth back-to-back set of the season so far. In their first three they went 2-1 on the back ends. On November 4th, they beat Houston by a point in overtime; on November 13th they got destroyed in Denver; and on November 29th they yawned their way past the Nets. Last year the Lakers were 14-5 in the second games of back-to-backs.

We've talked plenty about the Jazz lately. For a detailed scouting report you can see my preview of Wednesday's matchup here. There's also lots of recappage and highlights available all over SS&R if you want to poke around a bit. The Jazz did, you should know, bounce back nicely from the massacre at Staples by beating Orlando last night, 120-111. They sliced up a good Magic defense for over 1.25 PPP, with Deron Williams (32 points, 15 assists, 8 rebounds, 1 turnover) balling out of his mind.

I think we can assume there won't be any six-point quarters to enjoy tomorrow.

Our sister sites Canis Hoopus and SLC Dunk will have more coverage of these matchups. They both do a fine job and are worth your time to check out. If you decide to wander over and say hello, please be excellent to everyone.

Lakers

Timberwolves

Jazz

RECORD

17-3

3-19

13-9

NET POINTS PER GAME

+9.1 (1st)

-10.9 (30th)

+2.3 (11th)

PACE

95.0 (6th)

94.9 (7th)

91.4 (23rd)

OFFENSIVE RATING

108.8 (11th)

97.2 (29th)

109.1 (10th)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

12.7% (4th)

15.1 (29th)

14.1 (16th)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.27 (25th)

0.24 (29th)

0.31 (16th)

Free-Throw %

75.6 (14th)

72.3 (27th)

75.4 (16th)

Effective FG% (Off.)

50.3 (13th)

46.3 (28th)

51.4 (9th)

True Shooting% (Off.)

54.1 (16th)

49.8 (28th)

55.5 (9th)

Off Rebounding Rate

27.6% (10th)

26.5% (18th)

27.0 (14th)

DEFENSIVE RATING

99.3 (2nd)

108.7 (22nd)

106.9 (17th)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

14.5% (11th)

14.4% (12th)

13.4% (18th)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.27 (5th)

0.30 (13th)

0.34 (25th)

Effective FG% (Def.)

45.5 (1st)

51.3 (24th)

50.2 (20th)

True Shooting% (Def.)

50.0 (1st)

55.6 (23rd)

54.8 (20th)

Def Rebounding Rate

72.2% (23rd)

73.0% (16th)

75.4% (6th)

All statistical terms defined here. Parentheses indicate league rankings. Numbers are courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData and, except for record and net points per game, are through Thursday night's action.