Preview: Los Angeles Lakers (20-26) @ Minnesota Timberwolves (17-25)


When Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were joined by Karl Malone and Gary Payton in 2003, the basketball world anointed the Lakers the title before they crumbled in the Finals to a greater-than-their-individual-parts Detroit Pistons team. Payton ended up stifled by the triangle offense while showing his age, Malone showed surprising versatility and mortality (through nagging injuries) and the team crumbled under the weight of Bryant and O’Neal’s infighting and their collective old age.

The parallels between the two teams are Bryant and big-name teammates. That’s about it. This mess lost Mike Brown his job already. If you believe what you read, Pau Gasol is succumbing to old age while Bryant is showing heretofore unseen versatility. Howard is the young buck on this squad, and he’s battling through a troubling shoulder injury and in-and-out of the lineup (listed as day to day for tonight). When he is in the game, Dwight Howard is not Shaq.

For all of the hoopla surrounding the idea of teaming up superstars and future hall of famers, it’s more often than not they don’t work out.

Lakers probable starting lineup:

PG Steve Nash

SG Kobe Bryant

SF Metta World Peace

PF Earl Clark

C Dwight Howard Pau Gasol

The conventional wisdom when the Lakers went and got Mike D’Antoni, was Nash would ascend to Phoenix heights. With Howard and Gasol picking and rolling, the offense was supposed to hum. Problems arose when Gasol was moved out of the post, missed time with a concussion and concussion-like symptoms, and then moved out of the starting line-up when D’Antoni decided to “go smaller” with Earl Clark. The Lakers have gone 5-5 starting Clark, which is actually an improvement — they are a game ahead of the Wolves and 4 games out of the 8th seed in the Western Conference. But blaming their troubles on Pau would seem misguided.

The big story in L.A. now is that Kobe is the great facilitator, discovering his inner playmaker and doing his own Steve Nash impression after posting 14, 14, 11 and 9 assists in the last 4 contests. The problem with that would be that Nash plays about as good of defense as Luke Ridnour and if he isn’t throwing up those assist totals, he’s a spot up shooter — a plus-shooting turnstile. Add to that Howard’s impending likely shoulder surgery and Gasol’s troubles and the Lakers could use a lot more of that playmaking from Kobe.

Wolves probable starting lineup:

PG Ricky Rubio

SG Luke Ridnour

SF Andrei Kirilenko

PF Derrick Williams

C Nikola Pekovic

The Wolves would have good use for a plus-shooting turnstile right about now. Chase Budinger would look awfully nice in Ridnour’s starting shooting guard spot — and Ridnour’s been shooting the ball pretty well over the last 5 (41% from 3, 49% overall). The real killer for the Wolves against the Clippers on Wednesday was rebounding. Dante Cunningham played an overextended 35 minutes while Williams collected 5 fouls in 13 minutes. What was interesting was that 10-day contract savior, Chris Johnson failed to get off the bench for even a minute. Speculation includes Johnson’s waifish build being crushed by DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin, but it is just that. Speculation.

The nervousness that the front office will fail to extend Pekovic an offer worth even close to his market value and will instead pursue a trade should remain high as Pek returned from a 5-game absence to post 17 points and 12 rebounds while the Clippers defense sat in his lap all night long. Alexey Shved also made a welcome return Wednesday, scoring 12 points while struggling from 3, going 1-6.

Pek will have to be big again tonight if D-Will continues to struggle. The Wolves will also need more perimeter offense out of Ridnour and Shved (or Barea or Gelabale) because the deep options are so limited. Seeing the cross match-ups of AK on Kobe and the martian formerly known as Ron Artest on Ridnour are always entertaining.

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