Timberwolves vs. Lakers Tilt a Tale of Then vs. Now
In the second half of this condensed NBA season, youth will be served.
Call it parity if you wish, but the 149-day lockout was a massive step toward evening the playing field—if only for this season.
Teams with younger stars have had a distinct advantage this year: the impressive starts by the Indiana Pacers, the Philadelphia 76ers and others didn't occur by mere chance.
With 66 games compressed into 124 days, experience and guile are no longer the most important characteristics of a successful team. In the NBA, "experience" is just a euphemism for the word "old", and over the next two months, old legs will get weary while younger teams will rule the day.
Youth and experience are set to do battle tonight as the Minnesota Timberwolves will square off against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center.
Tonight's outcome won't give us a definitive answer as to which team will be better down the stretch. But don't be surprised if the Timberwolves make a clear statement to the Lakers—and to the rest of the league—that a changing of the guard might be in order.
At the very least, maybe we'll learn tonight that David Kahn was right all along.
Kahn, the oft-maligned president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, has been the punchline of more than a few jokes since he assumed his duties nearly three years ago.
To be fair, he's given aspiring comedians quite a bit of material. In his first two seasons at the helm, the Timberwolves were 32-132.
But halfway through this season, Minnesota has already notched more victories than it did all of last year. And with the team eyeing its first playoff bid in eight seasons, it's Kahn who just might have the last laugh.
For the first time since the days of Kevin Garnett, Minnesota's games now qualify as must-see TV. Season ticket sales for the Timberwolves are at their highest level since 2005-06. And rookie point guard Ricky Rubio is single-handedly responsible for thousands of NBA League Pass subscriptions across the world.
The Timberwolves aren't just primed for success this season. Truth be told, outside of the perennial contenders, Minnesota is the team that is best positioned for future success.
It felt strange to type that last sentence. It probably feels even stranger reading it. After all, this is the same franchise that was once forced to forfeit three first-round picks after entering a secret agreement to sign...Joe Smith.
But more than a decade after those shady backroom shenanigans, it looks like the Timberwolves may have finally figured it out.
In 2008, Minnesota traded the draft rights for O.J. Mayo to the Memphis Grizzlies for the rights to Kevin Love. As with any personnel decision involving the Timberwolves, the move was widely criticized at the time. Four years later, Love is the best power forward on the planet.
Rubio—drafted during Kahn's first year with the team—has been in the NBA for all of two months, and he has already become one of the league's premier playmakers. And if Derrick Williams ever figures out the nuances of the small forward position, Minnesota will be a serious problem in the Western Conference for years to come.
Most importantly, they've been able to reconfigure their roster while also being fiscally responsible. The Timberwolves' core group (Love, Rubio, Williams) is locked up for the next three seasons, and the team has virtually no dead weight on their salary cap.
Even if they extend a qualifying offer to Anthony Randolph after the season, Minnesota will still have roughly $10 million to work with in free agency this summer. Of course, convincing players to come to Minnesota will be a task, but it's a task made much easier by the emergence of Love and Rubio.
But while the Timberwolves may be the poster children for the next generation, the league's other franchise that got its start in Minnesota is one of the last vestiges of the old guard in the NBA.
Two years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers were fresh off of their second consecutive NBA title. But for Lakers fans, that championship parade now seems like nothing more than a distant memory.
The last 10 months have not been kind to the franchise that once made its home in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." Last May, the Dallas Mavericks dismantled them in the second round of the playoffs. Former head coach Phil Jackson—who led the team to five titles and seven NBA Finals appearances—decided to retire to his ranch in Montana. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant went to Germany last summer to have a mysterious procedure done on his ailing right knee.
Two weeks before Christmas, the team's fortunes appeared to take a turn for the better. On December 9, New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul was mere hours from becoming the newest member of the Lakers. But shortly after the trade was agreed to in principle, the NBA—de facto owners of the Hornets—nixed the three-team deal due to "basketball reasons."
Paul would eventually wind up in L.A., but as a member of the other team that calls Staples Center home. Not only did the move make the Los Angeles Clippers instant contenders, it relegated the Lakers—once the darlings of Hollywood—to the role of understudy due to the theatrics of Lob City.
Meanwhile, Lamar Odom—who was part of the original Chris Paul negotiations—was so distraught by the non-trade that the team felt compelled to move him to the Dallas Mavericks for basically nothing in return.
Clearly, part of the Lakers motivation to acquire Paul was to turn the keys of the franchise over to him once Bryant retires. But the trade would have also reshaped a team that was—and still is—in desperate need of an overhaul. Nine of the 14 players on the Lakers' roster are over the age of 30, and five of those players have 10 or more NBA seasons to their credit.
And with an older roster typically comes higher salaries: Los Angeles is already committed to nearly $68 million in payroll next season (for only seven players)—a figure that doesn't include Andrew Bynum's $16.5 million option.
Bryant has two years left on his contract and, as we witnessed in last weekend's All-Star Game, still has a competitive fire that is matched by few others. If championships were won based on the sheer will of each team's best player, the Lakers would have won the last 10 titles.
Bryant has shown flashes of dominance this season, but while the mind may be willing, the body is definitely weak. And weakness is a trait hard to hide in a league where young, hungry lions (or wolves, in this case) are quick to pounce on any visible flaw.
It almost seems premature to sound the death knell for Los Angeles considering that they have three players (Bryant, Bynum, Pau Gasol) who could start for virtually every team in the league. But unless Heaven and Earth are both moved and Orlando's Dwight Howard somehow winds up in purple and gold, when the story of this era is finally written, the 2011-12 season could very well be considered the Lakers' denouement.
Some 20 years ago, there seemed to be a natural progression when it came to the changing of the guard. Before winning six titles in eight seasons, the Michael Jordan-led Bulls had to earn their playoff stripes in classic battles against the Detroit Pistons.
The figurative passing of the torch is a little less ceremonial in today's NBA. These days, a young, upstart team like the Timberwolves just might snatch the torch right out of the Lakers' aging hands.
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