There is no shortage of storylines as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers kick off their 2015-2016 season on Wednesday night at Staples Center.
The Timberwolves were struck by tragedy this week. Team president and head coach Flip Saunders, who had previously served as head coach when Minnesota reached the Western Conference Finals in 2004, died on Sunday at the age of 60. Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in August and had been receiving treatment. On Friday, team owner Glen Taylor announced that Saunders would not return as coach, after being hospitalized since September.
Former NBA Coach of the Year Sam Mitchell, who previously played under Saunders, takes over as head coach with a heavy heart.
“It’s so hard to say goodbye to #FlipSaunders my coach, my mentor and my friend. God Bless you and your family,” Mitchell posted on Twitter on Wednesday. Mitchell now attempts to fill the shoes of his former coach and continue trying to turn around a team that went 16-66 a season ago.
On the court, it’s a mostly inexperienced group for Minnesota. Mitchell will have nine players on his roster that have two years of NBA experience or less, including No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns from Kentucky and No. 24 overall Tyus Jones (drafted by Cleveland and later traded) from Duke. They join the likes of Ricky Rubio as well as Andrew Wiggins, who averaged 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds, in a Rookie of the Year campaign.
The Wolves also have their share of veteran leadership in Andre Miller (39), Kevin Garnett (39) and Tayshaun Prince (35). Miller, the oldest active player in the league, is entering his 17th NBA season while Garnett, the league’s third-oldest player, enters season No. 21. That ties him for the most NBA seasons in history and when Garnett made his debut in 1995, neither Towns nor Jones, now his teammates, had been born yet.
On the other side of the floor, Kobe Bryant is not too far behind, returning for his 20th NBA season. Bryant last played in January after he tore his rotator cuff, requiring season-ending surgery for the third year in a row. Since returning from a torn Achilles he suffered in 2013, Bryant has played just 41 games over the last two seasons. He averaged 21.1 points per game on 37.8 percent shooting from the field while the team went 12-29 in those 41 games.
This year, Bryant will pass John Stockton for the most seasons with one team, having debuted for the Lakers in 1996. What happens after this season remains uncertain but Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has said this will likely be Bryant’s last season with the Lakers. Bryant is entering the final year of his two-year, $48.5 million contract and is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.
Bryant won’t be the only Laker making a return tonight as 20-year old Julius Randle comes back from a broken leg suffered on opening night last year. Expected to ease the backcourt load on Bryant is second-year guard Jordan Clarkson and No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell, as well as free-agent addition Lou Williams.
"It's good to be around them and get that youthful energy," the 37-year-old Bryant said. "I'm excited for them. This is the beginning of their careers and their journey."
As as Russell and Towns both debut tonight, it will be the first time in the modern NBA draft era that the two top picks from that year’s draft face each other to open the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Russell will start at point guard for the Lakers with Clarkson, Bryant, Randle and center Roy Hibbert on the floor.
Head coach Byron Scott begins his second season at the helm after a franchise-worst 21-61 record in his rookie season. The Lakers have beaten Minnesota 15 out of the last 17 matchups between these two teams in Los Angeles. These two teams last met at Staples Center in April, with Los Angeles winning, 106-98.
Tip-Off: 10:30 p.m.
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