After losing to the Timberwolves on opening night, the Lakers are 0-1. The last time they were at or above .500 (0-0 does not count) was actually December 20, 2013 when they were 13-13. That…that was a long time ago. Mike D’Antoni was head coach, Pau Gasol anchored the pivot, and Kobe Bryant had already played in all of the 6 games he’d appear in that season (he broke a bone in his knee three days earlier against the Grizzlies).
That stat interests me because tonight the Lakers have a chance to get back there against the Kings. Sacramento, like the Lakers (and, if we’re honest, like the Wolves), are looking to take a major step forward this year by outperforming expectations. They hope to make the playoffs. And they assembled a veteran heavy roster and retained George Karl to get there.
While the Kings have been a lottery team since they fell off the map as a contender after the Webber/Vlade/Peja teams, they have decided that they would de-invest in youth heading into this season. Yes, DeMarcus Cousins remains, but he’s a vet now, a Team USA participant who made his first all-star team last year. The only other young players of note on the team are Ben McLemore (3rd year) and rookie Willie Cauly-Stein.
The rest of the team consists of names any NBA fan knows fairly well. Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, Darren Collison, Marco Bellineli, and Caron Butler. Add in solid veterans Kosta Koufos and Omri Casspi, and that’s an entire rotation full of guys all with at least 6 years of experience. As many of these guys enter or are right in their prime, the Kings clearly want to win now. With a new arena coming next season, it’s probably less a want and more a need, actually.
Looking at their roster and comparing it to the Lakers’, it is easy to see that the Kings should be favored. Or, at least it is easy to me. They have the best player (Cousins) and more capable veterans. While I like the long term outlook of Russell and Randle more than WCS and McLemore, this game isn’t going to come down to who has the better long term prospects.
No, this game will come down to whether Roy Hibbert can contain Cousins, how Kobe defends Rudy Gay, whether the Lakers’ bench wings (Lou, Nick Young) can outdo the Kings’ ones (Collison, Belinelli), and if the Lakers’ three young players can be more efficient than they were in the opener.
None of those things are going to be easy. In the Kings’ opener — a loss to the Clippers — Cousins hit 4 three pointers and scored 32 points. He also pulled down 13 rebounds, including 3 offensive. Rudy Gay, meanwhile, scored 16 points while Collison and Belinelli combined for 22. Considering the Clippers are a better defensive team than the Lakers, it’s easy to see these numbers being exceeded tonight.
The Lakers, then, will need to counter. And while it’s easy to look at Kobe to be the ballast, I will instead look at the young players. Against the Wolves, Randle (5-13), Clarkson (5-12), and Russell (2-7) all shot poorly. The Kings offer good defenders, but LA’s trio can and will need to be better. Randle will need to finish better inside (Cousins, WCS, and Koufos will be lurking, though) and Clarkson will need to find easier looks than the ones he got against Minnesota. As for Russell, hopefully having the ball in his hands more will lead to more of an early rhythm that can lead to some makable looks.
Another key area will be the backboards. Against the Clippers, the Kings pulled down 12 offensive rebounds and won the battle on the glass. The Lakers, meanwhile, were much better on the glass than the Wolves, pulling down 15 ORebs of their own. If either team can keep up that level of pressure on their opponent’s glass while keeping their own backboards secure, they will have a big leg up in getting this win.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.