Lakers return to glory hinges on following one major Timberwolves strategy

The Minnesota Timberwolves are going to the Western Conference Finals because of an approach that the Los Angeles Lakers can learn from—and have previously embraced.
Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves
Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves / David Berding/GettyImages

Less than 18 months removed from being unanimously ridiculed for the price that the franchise paid to acquire Rudy Gobert, the Minnesota Timberwolves are headed to the Western Conference Finals. It’s a stunning twist of fate, as Minnesota defeated the same team that took down the Los Angeles Lakers a round prior: The defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets.

While some might lament what could’ve been given the Nuggets’ exit from the playoffs just one round after defeating the Lakers, there’s a bigger takeaway: Minnesota has provided Los Angeles with the blueprint for a resurgence.

The most obvious caveat here is that finding an Anthony Edwards is a whole lot easier said than done. With that out of the way, Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinal between the Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets proved just how deep, committed, and talented Minnesota is beyond its franchise player.

Moreover, the approach that got the Timberwolves to their first Conference Finals appearance since 2004 is one that the Lakers have the resources to recreate.

Lakers need to be as committed on defense as Minnesota has managed to be

For all of the feats of generational athleticism and mesmerizing shotmaking that make Edwards great, there’s a grit and determination in the locker room that drives his and his team’s success. No matter who Minnesota is playing, defensive intensity is a guarantee across all five positions.

The end result of that commitment has been Minnesota ranking No. 1 in the regular season in Defensive Rating and bullying teams en route to the Conference Finals during the playoffs.

One of the primary elements of what the Timberwolves do well on defense is limiting access to easy points inside. Minnesota ranked No. 2 in the NBA in points allowed in the paint in 2023-24 at just 46.1 per game. It was also fourth in the Association in second chance points allowed.

By comparison, the Lakers ranked 16th and 27th in those same areas.

With Rudy Gobert patrolling the paint and the abundance of committed defenders around him playing their part in keeping teams out of it, the Timberwolves have forced even the best of teams and players to settle for jumpers. That may not sound like a big deal in a league full of shooters, but when a team needs an easy bucket and can't get inside, it can change the momentum of a game.

This is something that the Lakers have the personnel to accomplish. Anthony Davis, for instance, has finished top-five in Defensive Player of the Year voting on four separate occasions. He's one of the best shot-blockers of his generation, and the intimidation factor he brings is the perfect foundation for success.

The proof is in the simple fact that Davis was that foundational piece when the Lakers won the NBA championship in 2020—playing very similarly to how the Timberwolves are now.

Finding the right pieces to complement Anthony Davis

The 2019-20 Lakers were very clearly built around the combined efforts of Davis and LeBron James. The two averaged a combined 51.4 points per game in the regular season, with that number jumping to 55.3 points per contest during the postseason.

The supporting cast that surrounded Davis and James, however, is what often goes underrated.

Players such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, and Rajon Rondo all share a specific trait. For whatever their offensive limitations may be, they all have the reputation of being committed and knowledgeable defenders.

While Green, Howard, and Rondo were all well over 30, the inability to replace the positives that they provided has been a critical issue for the Lakers in recent seasons.

Caldwell-Pope had a polarizing tenure in Los Angeles, but his defense and quality three-point shooting in the postseason—37.8 percent on 5.7 attempts— were massive. Caruso averaged just 24.3 minutes per game that postseason, but his defensive intensity made him a fan favorite and a vital piece of the puzzle.

The Lakers may not have had the athletes that the Timberwolves have, but the approach to winning was far more similar than it may seem on the surface.

With James and Davis, the Lakers had their own version of the Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns pairing. The expectation existed of elite production on a nightly basis, and those two delivered—with no slight to them, even more consistently than Edwards and Towns have been able to.

There may not have been a Gobert or a Jaden McDaniels on the roster, but the collective efforts of the players in the lineup simulated their effect—and it’s half past time the Lakers get back to it.

How do the Lakers get back to what won them a ring?

With a 6’9” James and 6’10” Davis leading the charge, the Lakers have the foundational pieces to overwhelm teams with their size. Austin Reaves has adequate size at the two-spot, standing at 6’5”. 6’3” D’Angelo Russell, albeit with a player option, and 6’8” Rui Hachimura were at least ideal for their respective positions.

So why were the Lakers in the bottom-half of the NBA in Defensive Rating this season?

To some extent, it comes down to a matter of culture and commitment. A recent report that Davis wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye with Darvin Ham certainly lends credence to that belief, especially when one considers that the Lakers team that reached the Conference Finals just one year ago were, at their best, dominant on defense.

The 2023 Lakers held the Memphis Grizzlies to 85 points in a closeout game, and limited the Golden State Warriors to 101 points or less in three of the final four games of the Western Conference Semifinals.

A year later, the Lakers seemed to do well on defense against the Nuggets—if one chooses to ignore the 56 offensive rebounds allowed across five playoff games. Or the fact that Denver, an erratic three-point shooting team that chose to live with inconsistency from deep, managed to average 55.2 points in the paint per game during that fateful series—still the worst mark of any team this postseason.

The Lakers team that refused to allow teams to score easy buckets became a team that couldn’t stop the opposition from scoring within the three-point line.

In order to get back to what this team has been and could still be, the Lakers need to invest in defensive-minded players. Davis can be an anchor, but having role players whose primary motivation is going out and locking an opponent down is not a luxury for a winning team—it’s a necessity.

Finding a carbon copy of the players who make the Timberwolves great is an impossible task, but embracing the value of size and defensive enthusiasm should be at the top of the Lakers’ list of priorities this offseason.