Records: Lakers 21-14 (4th in West), Kings 12-23 (14th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.1 (17th in NBA), Kings 100.7 (24th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.6 (11th in NBA), Kings 108.7 (28th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Kings: Isaiah Thomas, Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (probable); Kings: J.J. Hickson (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: Not much new on the Lakers’ front. While trades are still on the minds of the fans, health is still on the minds of the players. Andrew Bynum’s knee looks to be in good shape and he says that it feels as good as ever. Kobe, meanwhile, is still dealing with the repercussions of his concussion, missing shootaround today in favor of seeing a neurologist to look into the neck pain he’s still feeling. Kobe’s expected to play tonight – and will still be decked out in his Phantom of the Mamba mask – so there’s not too much to be worried about from that standpoint. I’m hoping (like I’m sure we all are) he can get past this soon and that the lingering effects of the hit he took almost a week ago can finally wear off.
The Kings Coming in: First, the good news: the Kings, the city of Sacramento, and the NBA have tentatively agreed on a deal that would finance a new arena to be built that would keep the team in the state capital. Regardless of how you feel about that team due to old rivalries with the Lakers, this is a wonderful development for the organization and their fans. I’ll never forget the last regular season game they played there last season (coincidentally against the Lakers), where the announcers had a tear-filled and heartfelt signoff to what was assumed their last game in Sacramento, with Derek Fisher joining in a circle with Kings players as a show of unity after the buzzer sounded. That scene reminded me of how much a team could mean to a city. So now to have such significant progress made towards having them stay, I can only feel good for their fans.
Of course, what also matters is how the team plays on the court and that still isn’t that great. The Kings lost 6 straight before bookending the all-star break with back to back wins, but last night fell to the Clippers in Sacramento. And while there are bright spots on the roster – rookie guard Isaiah Thomas was rookie of the month for the Western Conference for February and DeMarcus Cousins continues to develop into a beast of a big man – there’s still much work to do and some concerning trends to address. Tyreke Evans’ game has plateaued (or even regressed) since his rookie season as he’s shooting a lower percentage, assisting less, and turning the ball over just as frequently. Marcus Thornton is proving to be a good scorer, but he’s a volume shooter whose shooting percentage is also down from last year’s stretch of 27 games with the Kings. Meanwhile, Jimmer Freddette is struggling in all the ways scouts thought he might, as he has trouble creating separation off the dribble and is shooting under 40% on the season.
This lack of solid play on the wings makes it hard to win on a nightly basis and is complicated by the fact that most of these guys prefer to play in isolation rather than in a more structured, team-oriented offense. Basically, these players love to create their owns shots, but do a poor job of converting them at a high enough rate to produce even a league average offense. When you combine that with poor defense across the entire roster, you have a bad record. To be fair, though, Keith Smart has done a better job of getting through to the players than the dismissed Paul Westphal, but the results haven’t yet followed.
Keys to game: While these two teams have already met once this year – a 100-91 Kings win in the middle game of the Lakers back to back to back to start the season – I’d just as quickly throw out the results of that contest as lend a lot of credence to them. Remember, that was the Kings’ home opener, the Lakers were without Andrew Bynum, were still starting Devin Ebanks, and were fresh off a condensed training camp with only marginal familiarity with their offensive and defensive schemes. To say things have changed since that game would be a major understatement.
Tonight, then, offers a new contest between two pretty different teams. A few things I’ll be watching for:
- The Bynum/Cousins match up intrigues me to no end. Bynum will need to use his size to his advantage and do his work before he catches the ball because Cousins has the strength to keep Drew from simply backing him down for easy baskets. It will be interesting to see if Bynum can draw fouls on Cousins (he averages 5 fouls per 36 minutes) and then use that to his advantage to draw softer coverage. On the other end of the floor, Cousins has been better at taking more shots closer to the rim (6.8 this year compared to 4.1 last), but he’s only converting at 52% on the season at that range. Bynum’s length and defensive presence should continue to bother Cousins in close, but Bynum will need to work to keep Cousins off the glass and not just rely on his length to outrebound the young King (Cousins has the 3rd best offensive rebound rate in the league).
- Outside of Cousins, the Kings’ big men (Chuck Hayes, Jason Thompson, J.J. Hickson) all lack good size, so the Lakers need to make a concerted effort of going inside. I know this is a key every night, but tonight this is especially true. Even though Hayes is one of the better low post defenders in the league, he’s listed at 6’6″ and that’s simply too small to keep Bynum and Gasol from getting good looks at the rim should they be willing to fight for position. I’m hoping to see a more post-centric offense and for the bigs to make themselves available to the guards and wings to make it happen.
- Rebounding will be very important tonight. The Kings are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league (it’s not just Cousins) and need to be accounted for on the glass. Their wings are “power” players and are good athletes who will sneak in for rebounds when they bounce long. Their bigs are active in the paint and will go to the ball to rebound out of their area. The same can be said on the other end of the floor, though. The Lakers are also one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league and the Kings are the 5th worst defensive rebounding team. If the Lakers can get second chance opportunities and make the Kings get multiple stops on a single possession, the game should tilt in the Lakers’ favor.
- Isaiah Thomas’ presence in the starting lineup means that the game will be much faster tonight. He’s the classic waterbug PG that pushes the pace in the open floor and darts into open creases in the defense to draw attention. He’s a nifty finisher around the rim and is not afraid to attack in isolation or coming off a pick. The Lakers must not let him collapse the D, and should play off him to make him a long jumpshooter when he’s in the half court. In transition, the Lakers must hustle back and build a wall until everyone can recover and set up.
Ultimately, this is a game the Lakers need to get and it being a home game, the expectation should be for the team to come out rested and ready to go (but you know, that actually needs to happen). If it does, the Lakers should be able to impose their will over the course of the game. If they don’t, the Kings have the athletes and talent to keep the game close and pull out another win.
Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on Fox Sports West. If you’re an out of towner, don’t forget that your cable or satellite provider should be offering a free preview of League Pass (through March 4th) as well. Also, as always, listen live on ESPN Radio 710am.