By: Yennaedo Balloo
My attendance at the season opening game between the L.A. Clippers and Lakers was a poetic end to an extensive summer of Lakers fan hype. Following the blockbuster trade for Anthony Davis that made a dynamic duo of arguably the two best front court players in the league today, Lakers fans’ confidence remained at a fever pitch throughout the offseason, even in the face of one Kawhi Leonard opting not to join their squad (which, I’ll say one last time: (I told you so). That hype crescendoed and audibly crashed over the course of that game. My seats Tuesday night were surrounded by people clad in fresh minted Davis jerseys, all of whom were very loud when the Lakers took the early lead going by as much as 11 in the first three minutes of play, and all of whom seemed to lose their voices once the Clippers took hold of the lead after the half and refused to relinquish it.
The Lakers did come back within two at a point in the third, but by that point it was clear: the Clippers were controlling the game- not just its tempo, but where the Lakers were getting to put up their shots. The defensive chokehold kept James and Davis to scoreless quarters, and between Beverly and Leonard the Lakers made plenty of trips up the floor only to have to turn back around to try to stop a fast break. Credit to LeBron though: his chase down of the Clippers’ Landry Shamet for the block on a half hearted layup was tremendous and reminds us that LeBron is still a force to be reckoned with.
For the folks that accuse me regularly of being a Lakers hater, here’s the thing: I recognize James and Davis are two of the best players in the league, arguably the two best. What I’ve been skeptical about in the Lakers’ whole team building strategy since the Kawhi pursuit is this: lack of depth. I texted just that one word to a friend who’s a lifelong Lakers fan after the whistle blew: “Depth.” Her retort was that Davis and James had scoring droughts for an entire quarter. I replied that was my point exactly. Your offense should not live and die by two players, even two as talented as Davis and James.You can’t rely on Danny Green going 7 of 9 from deep every night because he’s a notoriously streaky shooter. You definitely can’t rely on KCP for anything other than a corner 3. Not having those options and assets to spread the floor, draw defenders, and then to provide relief and changes on offense is a big problem.
The latter problem compounded when you’re facing off what’s shaping up already to be one of the best defenses in the league. Gosh, could you imagine how good that defense could be if they added, say, a four time All-Defensive Team Player? Oh wait, Paul George is due back by the time the Clippers face the Lakers again on Christmas day.
Okay, so what’s the big point in all this? There’s a general advice of preview for the season to watch for, and a bit of two schools of thought for watching the NBA: there’s going to be teams that are fun to watch and teams that are going to be interesting. The former is the Lakers: Davis is a monster. James is a walking legend in his own time. They’re absolutely electric and explosive, and it’s stunning to see them working together to drive to and destroy the rim.
Interesting might not be as flashy, but what’s at play for a truly interesting team is that each game is the part of a larger narrative that they could be building and that we already see the suspense towards: that title. The Clippers are certainly the favorite in that conversation right now after the statement they made Tuesday night, but there are others. The Utah Jazz have ebbed and flowed from the conversation in this regard and the only reason for the ebb is just how young Donovan Mitchell still is and how crowded the Western Conference is with contenders.
A fun team to watch this year is going to be the Warriors: they’re back to basics and a much deconstructed version of themselves. Steve Kerr’s gone on the record stating it’s unlikely Klay Thompson will play at all this season due to his injury sustained in last year’s playoffs. Curry is still a talent worthy of discussion as an MVP, but MVPs don’t win titles, teams do. It’s entirely possible this new Warriors team is saying farewell to chasing one more year of the dynasty, cashing out at the table and switching to rebuilding mode while they’ve still got healthy stars to bring up young talent. Judging by their lineup, that seems probable and the smart way to go.
One more fun team: the Rockets. I want to draw attention to Damian Lillard who, with a game winning shot at the buzzer, torched the Thunder’s franchise as we’d known it with a single game winning dagger. If Dame didn’t make that shot, the Thunder might not have been nearly as willing to shift into rebuild mode and the Paul George trade would be an impossible fever dream. Instead, we saw not only George go to the Clippers, but Westbrook shipped off to Houston with old pal James Harden. So why are they going to be fun and not necessarily part of that interesting echelon? Because since the two played together years ago on the Thunder their games developed in very different somewhat incompatible ways.
The big thing to watch for and really consider this season with the great “rebalancing” that Kawhi’s decision in July heralded is this: depth, folks. Depth. Who are a team’s top 8 players, and do they have more than one specialty skill in their quiver (looking at you, Kentavious Caldwell Pope, why do you even bother leaving the corner of the court?) The Clippers’ win on Tuesday is significant not as some franchise versus franchise one upmanship, it’s significant as a testament to what it’ll take this year to be successful and really go deep in the playoffs. You need a versatile team and deep bench that can maintain production and tempo for all 48 minutes of play. Kawhi only played 31 minutes compared to James and Davis’ 37 and 36 respectively. The Clippers bench outscored the Lakers’ bench by more or less the margin of victory, double digits.
I’ll cap this off with my prediction for the Western Conference Playoffs teams based on these early showings:
Nuggets, Rockets, Clippers, Lakers, Jazz, Mavericks, Spurs, & Trail Blazers
Mr. Balloo is the hardest working man in show business. Follow Yannaedo on Twitter to keep up to date with his busy schedule, and bookmark Optional Irony for great content including a very special artist interview series!