Hard to believe the regular season is already here. Way back in April, Kobe said goodbye with a 60 point farewell and since then we’ve seen the Lakers fire Byron Scott, hire Luke Walton, draft Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac, sign (and trade for) veterans in free agency, play summer league, go through training camp, and play 8 preseason games. Through it all fans have been waiting to get to this point where the games actually matter.
Now they will.
We already covered our big picture thoughts for the season, so I won’t rehash those now. There is a general excitement to watch this team play and, while there is not a lot of hope for a huge bounce back in terms of wins, I think expecting some good progress throughout the campaign is more than fair.
That, of course, begins tonight with a match up against the Rockets. Rather than get into what they present as a team, do yourself a favor and watch this breakdown from Pete Zayas of @LakerFilmRoom who does a great job of showing fans what Houston likes to do on both sides of the floor:
Keeping those tendencies in mind, I think the biggest goal for tonight is managing the pace of the game. The Lakers, like the Rockets, want to play fast — but not to the same extreme. The Lakers must be cognizant of not getting too caught up in the tempo the Rockets play, focusing instead on being smart and selective in how often they try to get out in the open court.
Obviously the way the Rockets play will put a stress on the Lakers’ defensive continuity, forcing them to help, recover, and rotate with precision. When at their best, Houston will put teams in position to make a series of difficult choices with the intent of getting either a shot at the rim or behind the arc. The Lakers must do a good job of covering up the rim to force kick-outs and then closing out with effectiveness to run shooters off the line and into the mid-range.
Further, the Lakers must curtail their fouling. All preseason Luke Walton noted that his team was fouling too much, citing a combination of getting stuck in bad positions and then reverting to bad habits. James Harden is one of the league’s best (if not the best) at drawing fouls. Whoever draws the defensive assignment tonight must play him tightly, but must not reach or contest shots so aggressively that they draw contact. It is a fine line to walk when defending Harden, but there is a blueprint and it must be followed or he will torch you. And he still might torch you anyway.
Offensively, the Lakers had an up and down preseason, but as we have covered there are some encouraging trends developing. Against the Rockets, it is important to build on those guiding principles to try and expose their flaws. Guys like Harden, Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson already do not have strong defensive pedigrees, but get them moving off the ball and they all can lose connectivity which will compromise the team’s scheme. Cut hard, screen hard, and move the ball onto the open man in order to get this team into their rotations. Then, when the opening presents itself, be ready to attack.
In terms of specific actions, I’d like to see more P&R to force their big men to hedge and recover. When their big men step out, I’d love to see pocket bounce passes to split the defense and get into opportunities where the team can play 4 on 3 behind the high hedge. This may also be a game where Julius Randle’s tendency to slip screens actually aids him. If his man does hedge high, he can get a quick first step into the teeth of the defense where he can use his passing ability to pick out shooters in the corners. Deng, Ingram, Young, and Lou can all feast if Houston takes too aggressive an approach with Randle (or Nance) sliding into the FT line area with options in front.
Lastly, I just want to see this team play hard and be scheme committed. So often we talk about process vs. results and being able to invest in what the team is doing even if the outcome isn’t what we want. With Walton now in charge, I get the sense there is more buy-in than in previous seasons. I would like to see that hold and for the players to continue to work their scheme and force the Rockets to continue to have to play through possessions until the end. No more letting teams off the hook by settling for bad shots or drifting into low efficiency isolations with too much time on the clock.
And with that, enjoy the game, folks. The new season is here and I can’t wait to see how it goes.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on ESPN.