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Preseason Kickoff: Timberwolves vs. Lakers

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The preseason begins tonight in Anaheim at 9 pm CST as the Wolves take on Lonzo Ball and the Los Angeles Lakers.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves-Media Day Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

What: Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Los Angeles Lakers

When: 9 pm CST

Where: Honda Center, Anaheim

Television: NBA TV, FOX Sports North

Two-thirds of the Wolves preseason will be played in China against the best team in basketball, the Golden State Warriors. The first leg of the preseason will, however, be played tonight in Anaheim against one of the worst teams in the league, the Los Angeles Baller Brand Lakers.

We are in a weird world in 2017. In this weird world that can be driven by Instagram, shoe deals, and loud Dads watching the Lakers may actually be more attractive to the casual basketball fan than the two China matchups against the defending champs.

While the Warriors are dominant, arrogant, and damn good, in ways they are old news. Conversely, these Lakers are new. Much like the all-encompassing facelift the Wolves underwent this summer, L.A. has undergone their own kind of rebrand.

Over the past year, the Lakers have exorcised much of their 1990s identity and replaced it with an infusion, straight to the vein, of 2017 popular culture. Much of the Buss family, Mitch Kupchak, and Kobe Bryant have essentially been stricken from the Lakers 2017 identity, replaced by something completely different. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are, now, calling the shots and Lonzo Ball will be taking them.

While Magic is an engaging celebrity and Pelinka is “LA handsome” the team's true intrigue starts with Ball. An intrigue that extends beyond the basketball court. Lonzo and his family are simply captivating.

If you hate 2017, you probably hate what the Ball’s and Big Baller Brand represent. In nature, the Ball Family parallels the Kardashians in their pointless yet famous nature. However the Ball family has one member that actually has an identifiable talent, and that is Lonzo. Amidst the noise, Ball is more than just a meme or a hairdo. On the court, he is definitively a treasure to watch play the game of basketball. Ball effectively blurs the lines of idiotic pop culture, a la the Kardashians, with the poetic beauty of basketball like the Warriors.

I believe, around these parts, many of us can appreciate the attraction of Lonzo Ball on the court. The parallels between Ricky Rubio and Ball are there. As basketball players, both are remarkably distinct, and while the two certainly have their differences there is the undeniable truth that, like Rubio, Lonzo Ball is not like anybody else. He is just Lonzo. And the Wolves will get the first taste of his game tonight.

Starting Lineups

As happenstance would have it, the first Wolves game without Rubio on the roster since 2011 matches up the new Wolves with the league’s new maestro of the point guard position. Ball will be the chief ball handler of the Los Angeles backcourt, playing hoops only as he can.

Ball is, of course, not the only shiny new toy on either of these teams. The Lakers also added Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez while the Wolves will be starting two players dawning a new uniform for the first time in Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler.

Wolves Starters (statistics from 2016-17)

PG - Jeff Teague: 15.3 PPG, 7.8 APG, 4.0 RPG, 35.7 3P%, 22.1 USG%, .146 WS/48

SG- Andrew Wiggins: 23.6 PPG, 2.3 APG, 4.0 RPG, 35.6 3P%, 29.0 USG%, .066 WS/48

SF- Jimmy Butler: 23.9 PPG, 5.5 APG, 6.2 RPG, 36.7 3P%, 26.5 USG%, .236 WS/48

PF- Gorgui Dieng: 10.0 PPG, 1.9 APG, 7.9 RPG, 37.2 3P%, 14.0 USG%, .103 WS/48

C- Karl-Anthony Towns: 25.1 PPG, 2.7 APG, 12.3 RPG, 36.7 3P%, 27.5 USG%, .201 WS/48

Lakers Starters (statistics from 2016-17)

PG- Lonzo Ball: *14.6 PPG, 7.6 APG, 6.0 RPG, 41.2 3P%, 18.1 USG%, .214 WS/48

SG- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: 13.8 PPG, 2.5 APG, 3.3 RPG, 35.0 3P%, 19.2 USG%, .086 WS/48

SF- Brandon Ingram: 9.4 PPG, 2.1 APG, 4.0 RPG, 29.4 3P%, 16.0 USG%, -.001 WS/48

PF- Julius Randle: 13.2 PPG, 3.6 APG, 8.6 RPG, 27.0 3P%, 21.4 USG%, .080 WS/48

C- Brook Lopez: 20.5 PPG, 2.3 APG, 5.4 RPG, 34.6 3P%, 29.2 USG%, .104 WS/48

*Statistics from freshman year at UCLA

What To Watch For In The Wolves Offense

Offensive possession distribution.

While the preseason is rarely indicative of anything, simply playing a game will begin to answer questions that have burned all summer for the Wolves. One of those questions being: how will the offensive possessions be distributed?

While theoretically, each offensive possession is a probing for the best possible look, possessions are often dominated (or used) by one or two players. Last season, Wiggins and Towns were the dominators for Minnesota while Butler and Teague were similarly ball dominant in Chicago and Indiana.

Usage Percentage (USG%) is a metric that estimates the percentage of team possessions a player "uses" while he is in the game. In an egalitarian offense, the average player would have a USG% of 20.0 but Minnesota’s starting lineup holds four players who are anything but equal opportunity players.

Between just Teague (22.1), Wiggins (29.0), Butler (26.5), and Towns (27.5) those four players USG% exceeds 100 percent. While Gorgui Dieng is an ideal low-usage fifth starter — with a USG% of 14.0 last season — there simply are not enough possessions for the Wolves starters to play in the same manner they did last season. Tonight’s game will allow fans to glean an idea of what this new distribution will look like. Realistically, this will take a chunk of the season to figure out but tonight is a start.

What To Watch For In The Wolves Defense

Defending stretchy big men.

Brook Lopez morphed into a stretch-five in Brooklyn last season, firing over five three-point attempts per game. The only big men in the league to shoot a higher total of threes than Lopez last season were players who profile as almost exclusively stretch forwards — Ryan Anderson, Ersan Ilyasova, and Kevin Love.

The presence of a stretch big on the opponent was a contributor to Minnesota’s dismal defense in 2016-17. This season, contesting three-point attempts will certainly be a point of emphasis. Since Coach Thibodeau arrived, he has harped on the need to run players off the three-point line, instead preferring contested two-point shots. While this is a team-wide issue, Towns, Dieng, and the Wolves other bigs particularly could stand to improve in this area. Lopez will be the first test.

Additionally, it will be telling to see which of the bigs between Towns, Dieng, and Gibson will be chasing Lopez out to the perimeter. Last season, Dieng often assigned the duty of checking the opposing center but this season could be different. If Towns’ awareness has improved he could take on this role, and also the presence of Gibson may entirely shake up how the Wolves matchup on that end. Again, tonight’s game will be a sneak peek.

Minutes Distribution and Rest

Last preseason saw a fairly equal distribution between the minutes of the five starters and five bench players, this year the minutes may be distributed even further. While the opportunity to play in China is an honor, international travel is a bear.

The Wolves play tonight at 9 pm CST and then are immediately getting on a flight to China. While the Wolves will have four days between their games in California and China, body clocks will certainly be a factor — the games against the Warriors will be played at 1 am and 6 am CST. Thibs will need to balance his desire to see his players perform with the additional rest his players will need.

Weird timing or not, basketball is back. Get ready for your first taste of the new Wolves tonight and enjoy what Lonzo Ball can bring to the basketball court.