The new look Lakers are back in action tonight, visiting New Orleans to face the Pelicans. This is the first night of a back to back for LA, who will visit Minnesota Thursday night before meeting the rest of the league back home in Los Angeles for All-Star Weekend.
First things first, however. The Lakers have a game to play and vs. a team that has a lot to play for. Some might argue the Lakers are playing for a lot too, but more on that in a minute.
The Pelicans want to make the playoffs. Those chances dimmed considerably when DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his achilles tendon, but the team tried to make the best of the situation by packaging a 1st round pick and Omer Asik in a trade for Bulls stretch big man Nikola Mirotic. The Pels then hoped to sway Greg Monroe to join them after being bought out by Phoenix, but he went to Boston instead. NOLA settled, then, for Emeka Okafor (remember him?) who had not played in the league in about a half decade.
Long story long, then, the Pelicans have replaced Cousins with Mirotic and Okafor and will hope that serves as enough of a band-aid next to Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and crew to get this team into the postseason. The fact that they gave up a 1st round pick in this upcoming draft essentially means they have to. Or heads will roll.
Of course the Lakers have made their own changes, swapping Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance for Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye (and a 1st round pick). Thomas played well in his debut, but the Lakers forgot to play defense and the team lost to the Mavs. Some might make the connection to this loss of defensive ability to Thomas’ arrival, but smart people know better.
In case you’re wondering, surrendering 58 points in about a quarter and a half is not good.
So, if you’re looking for keys to tonight’s game, lets start there. The Lakers, especially the starting group — which will not include Thomas — must defend. They have the horses to do that and a group which includes Ingram, Randle, Lopez, Hart, and KCP should not have any excuses to play hard and leverage their size across all 5 positions to contest shots all over the floor.
Offensively, the team must continue to find their rhythm even if the trade can cause some hiccups in that area. Thomas played well in his first game with the team, which is great. He also admitted he’s probably at around 80% of where he was last year and that he’s still trying to gain his rhythm. Working through him while he’s on the court can help him regain his feel/timing/etc, but expecting that to be a linear progression is not quite realistic. There will be fits and starts and it will take some time.
That said, the Lakers best traits on offense are in transition play and little of that is dependent on Thomas. As noted above, if the team is focused on defense they can turn rebounds into fast break chances. They can also impact the game with steals and deflections, ramp up the ball pressure to create more of a frenetic pace, and overall just push the tempo to turn the game in their favor. The Pelicans have athletes who can thrive in this environment as well, so I don’t want to misconstrue this as “if the Lakers can run, they’ll win”.
But the NBA is about turning the game into one where your strengths shine and this is what the Lakers need to do in this game. If they can also slow Davis, that would be ideal. But one thing at a time.
Lastly, Rob Pelinka has gone on record in recent days about the desire to push towards competitiveness in this final stretch of the season, hoping to get within shouting distance of the 8th seed. He specifically mentioned these games vs. the Pelicans and Wolves as contests that would be great to win — they are, after all, above the Lakers in the standings. So, if looking for why these games might matter to the Lakers as much as their opponents, there you go.
Where you can watch: 5pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.