10:35 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Rockets -6, Over/Under: 223
A pair of rebuilding teams look to get off to a positive start tonight at STAPLES Center, as the fledgling Los Angeles Lakers host the new-look Houston Rockets in their Season Opener. The 2015-16 campaign was as disappointing as they come for the Rockets (41-41, 8th in Western Conference last season) who after making a surprise trip to the Western Conference Finals, stumbled their way through a Regular Season marred by a coaching change, injuries, and lockerroom turmoil. Granted, they managed to sneak into the Playoffs at 41-41, but all that did was grant them a Gentleman’s Sweep courtesy of the Golden State Warriors. With the culture behind the scenes reportedly toxic, Management set forth to wipe the proverbial slate clean, letting declining Center Dwight Howard leave in Free Agency, and hired Mike D’Antoni as Head Coach, a move that was met with a cautious response from the fan base. It was a curious hire to say the least, since Houston was one of the more prolific offensive teams in the league a year ago; the Rockets averaged 106.5 points (4th Overall) on a 51.6% Effective Field Goal Percentage (7th Overall), while netting 10.7 three-pointers per game (3rd Overall), and knocking down 20.4 free-throws a night (3rd Overall). However, they didn’t move the ball all that well (22.2, 16th Overall), and were very careless with the basketball, committing an alarming 15.9 turnovers per contest (27th Overall). Oh, and they didn’t seem to be interested in playing much defense, for they relinquished 106.4 points (25th Overall) on 51.6% Effective Field Goal Shooting (23rd Overall), and finished in the bottom third in three-pointers (9.7, 28th Overall), free-throws (18.6, 23rd Overall), and assists (24.6, 29th Overall) allowed. So with all that said, D’Antoni was the obvious choice to right this ship, correct? Don’t worry, if you’re as perplexed as we are, we won’t hold it against you. The bloom has been off this guy’s flower for quite a while now, for since revolutionizing offensive basketball and guiding the Phoenix Suns to four consecutive Playoff appearances from 2004 to 2008, D’Antoni has floundered to a dismal 188-254 record (.425) in stays with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, while failing to win a single postseason game in two opportunities. He’s been largely panned as a one-trick pony, a coach that neglects the defensive end of the floor altogether in favor of a high-speed offensive attack. So basically, you can expect him to not only magnify his team’s strengths, but their weaknesses as well; the Rockets operated at the seventh-fastest Pace in the league a year ago, averaging 97.6 possessions per forty-eight minutes, and you can expect that figure to get cranked up a good bit. Essentially, he’s the basketball equivalent of Chip Kelly This is all good news for erstwhile Shooting Guard James Harden, who never met a shot he didn’t like. With Howard gone, you have to imagine that the bearded four-time All-Star will relish in his opportunity to enjoy more possessions. The definition of a high-volume scorer, Harden averaged a career-high 29.0 points on 51.2% effective field goal shooting, along with 6.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. However, he was a major reason as to why the Rockets committed so many turnovers, as he coughed up the rock a staggering 4.6 times a night. Few players in the league have a brighter Green Light to shoot than this guy, and with D’Antoni helming the attack, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if he led the league in field goals and free-throws attempted for a second consecutive term.
Meanwhile, it’s finally happened, folks, for the Lakers (17-65, 15th in Western Conference last season) have finally given in to a proper rebuilding project, and all it took was the worst season in franchise history. Thanks to the waning years of the Kobe Bryant Era, Los Angeles put this off for far too long, as giving their Talisman a season-long celebration/sendoff meant that they had to put off facing the future for yet another year. Well, the future has finally arrived; Management cleaned out the Coaching Staff, giving former Laker and most recently Warriors’ Assistant Luke Walton his first Head Coaching Gig, while amassing a young core of players highlighted by a pair of No. Two Overall Picks. As a result, the expectations are practically on the ground floor. After all, this is Year Zero, meaning that it’s all about the development of their young talent opposed to wins, which should be interesting considering we’re talking about one of the most successful franchises in sports. Patience has rarely been a part of their DNA. Indeed, this past Summer served as a cold dose of reality, for even though they were loaded with money to spend in Free Agency, they failed to sign nary an All-Star, settling for the likes of veterans such as Luol Deng (12.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 steals), Jose Calderon (7.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists), and Timofey Mozgov (6.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 0.8 blocks) instead. Waitaminute, Mozgov??? WTF??? That’s what happens when you go 65-181 over the last three years. Keep in mind that this is a franchise that has won sixty-five or more games in a SINGLE SEASON four times. The bottom line is that this has become very much a What Have You Done for Me Lately business, and the last three years have not left a favorable opinion of the organization, at least among players in the league. However, that may be a blessing in disguise, for the cutting room floor will serve as the training ground of their young prospects, who will be given every opportunity to succeed and fail. Sophomore Point Guard D’Angelo Russell (13.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists) and Rookie Wingman Brandon Ingram are the names you need to know, as the Front Office believes their both tabbed for greatness. Russell had his ups and downs in his first year as a professional, and was almost certainly held back by former Head Coach Byron Scott’s antiquated coaching methods, but possesses quite a unique skill-set, including excellent court vision and size for the position, along with an ability to play adeptly in the post and beyond the arc. Many believe that his rookie campaign was the humbling experience he so desperately needed to mature. The real gem though, is Ingram, who the team selected Second Overall after spending one impressive term at Duke. The lithe 6-9, 190 lbs Forward still needs to mature from a physical perspective, but his sweet shooting stroke is beyond his years. Throw third-year Combo Guard Jordan Clarkson (15.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists) into the mix and the Lakers have one of the more interesting young groups in the league today. Which is precisely where Walton comes into play; at 36-years old, the former Laker isn’t that much older than some of his charges, and for all intents and purposes looks like he can still play, but the two years spent on Golden State’s Bench mentoring their own young stars is what drew the Front Office to him. An old school, disciplinarian stuck in his ways didn’t work for the young guys, so perhaps somebody a bit more contemporary will bring the best out of these kids. A young coach that can grow on the job with young players? Tim will tell, but one thing is for certain: there will be many losses before the wins follow.
Predicted Outcome: Rockets 116, Lakers 104