10:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Lakers -7.5, Over/Under: 236.5
On the day of the Trade Deadline, a pair of contenders look to make the necessary improvements to solidify their respective arsenals, as the Los Angeles Lakers play host to the Houston Rockets from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. Of these two teams, the Rockets (32-18, 4th in Western Conference) have already made a move, involving themselves in a four-team trade alongside the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Atlanta Hawks, in an attempt to both shed salary and improve the roster. Granted, that’s easier said than done, but that was the mandate handed down to General Manager, Daryl Morey, who has long been one of the more active and aggressive executives in the league. With All-Stars, James Harden (35.8 PTS, 43.6% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 7.3 AST, 1.7 STL, 1.0 BLK, 29.2 PER) and Russell Westbrook (26.4 PTS, 45.4% FG, 23.4% 3FG, 8.0 REB, 7.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 20.6 PER), aged thirty and thirty-one years, there is a prevailing sense within the franchise that their championship window could indeed be running out, and the time is now to supply them with the requisite reinforcements to maximize their prime together. After all, this is a team that has been knocking on the proverbial door for quite some time now; Houston was eliminated in heartbreaking fashion by the Golden State warriors in each of the previous two Playoffs, and with their longtime nemesis dissolved due to injury and defection the opportunity is here for the taking. That’s why Morey sent veteran Point Guard, Chris Paul, packing to Oklahoma City in the deal that netted the erstwhile yet explosive Westbrook, with the hopes that the former MVP will shake things up just enough while rekindling his prior chemistry with Harden, whom was his teammate with the Thunder from 2009 to 2012. Granted, Westbrook’s presence certainly does alter this team’s chemistry, though it’s still open for debate as to whether or not Mike D’Antoni’s squad is better off for it. The offensive guru’s attack revolves around spacing and three-point shooting, while creating a high volume of looks by attacking early in the shot clock. Westbrook though, is far from a shooter, and eve D’Antoni’s magic hasn’t managed to make a sniper out of the 23.4% shooter. Instead, the machine who miraculously AVERAGED a Triple-Double in each of the past three seasons has effected the game in other ways, taking advantage of said spacing with relentless drives to the rim. And for that matter, he hasn’t taken anything away from the league’s two-time reigning scoring , Harden, who is one again pacing the NBA at 35.8 Points per Game on an average of 23.7 Attempts, which is just 0.8 fewer than in 2018-2019. Even with those two stars aside, the Rockets were still in need of help, particularly on the defensive end of the court, making it a bit surprising that they parted ways with nearly all of their size, trading away Centers, Clint Capela (13.9 PTS, 62.9% FG, 13.8 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.8 BLK, 20.7 PER) and Nene, in that aforementioned multi-team deal. Capela, a solid deterrent at the rim and an active presence on the glass was bit head-scratching, for despite being on a relatively affordable contract, his role within D’Antoni’s designs was always murky at best given the emphasis placed on the perimeter. Veteran (and injury-prone) Center, Tyson Chandler (1.4 PTS, 77.8% FG, 2.6 REB, 10.8 PER) and the incoming Jordan Bell (3.1 PTS, 53.3% FG, 22.2% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 0.5 AST, 14.3 PER) is all they really have now in the way of true size, though the latter is more of an athletic, bouncy Forward than an true big. The big get for Houston apart from some future Second Round Picks, is Robert Covington (12.8 PTS, 43.5% FG, 34.6% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.9 BLK, 13.7 PER), a solid 3 & D specialist who should fit right in with this Offense in the same manner that Trevor Ariza once did. The 29-Year Old is a career 35.8% shooter from beyond the arc, while also being selected to the All-Defensive First Team back in 2017-2018. The question though remains: though Covington will alleviate the pressure on the perimeter from Harden and Westbrook, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, the Rockets may have really hurt themselves in terms of size and defending the rim, particularly in the event that they match up with larger teams in the Playoffs, such as the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, or their opponent tonight, the Lakers. D’Antoni has had success in the past with smaller lineups and that appears to be what he’s going to be doing moving forward, and we’ll have to wait and see if this latest move from Morey is indeed the last piece in completing an elusive puzzle, or another attempt at throwing an idea against the wall in hopes that it will stick. Winners of six of their last eight games, the Rockets bested the Charlotte Hornets 125-110 on Tuesday Night, overcoming a 22-34 deficit in the First Quarter, to outscore the visitors 103-76 the rest of the way. Harden, led the way with a game-high Forty Points, knocking down 14-of-15 Free-Throws (93.3%), nearly accumulating a Triple-Double with Nine Rebounds and Twelve Assists. With Westbrook missing the affair with a sprained left thumb, the rest of the team stepped up, including Danuel House (10.6 PTS, 42.7% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 11.4 PER), who scored Twenty-Two Points on 8-of-13 shooting (61.5%). The versatile P.J. Tucker (7.4 PTS, 43.6% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 7.2 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 8.8 PER), who figures to see a lot of time as a makeshift Center in those small-ball lineups, got reacquainted with the position, totaling Thirteen Points and Ten Rebounds.
Meanwhile, though they’ve spent virtually the entire season thus far atop the West, the Lakers (38-11, 1st in Western Conference) have still been active in discussions of ways to improve their roster. Of course, this is a team that underwent a whirlwind of change in the Offseason, shedding virtually their entire roster in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans for All-Star Forward, Anthony Davis (26.4 PTS, 51.2% FG, 31.5% 3FG, 9.1 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.5 STL, 2.4 BLK, 28.1 PER), whom they desperately attempted to acquire at the 2019 Trade Deadline. Alongside four-time MVP Forward, LeBron James (25.2 PTS, 49.3% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 7.7 REB, 10.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 26.0 PER), Davis has Los Angeles marching to the Playoffs for the first time since 2013, as one of the league’s most successful franchises looks to put their most disappointing era behind them. Though Davis is the major piece of their Offseason Renovation, there are a wealth of new faces at STAPLES Center this year, including new Head Coach, Frank Vogel, who has spent much of the term tinkering with different lineups within the rotation, sharpshooting, 3 & D extraordinaire, Danny Green (8.7 PTS, 41.7% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 11.7 PER), who has provided the precious spacing that the team sorely missed last year, and even veteran Center, Dwight Howard (7.5 PTS, 73.1% FG, 7.7 REB, 1.4 BLK, 18.6 PER), who has emerged from NBA purgatory reborn in a crucial role off the Bench. Needless to say, this incarnation of the roster is far more in line with what the club envisioned when they convinced James to sign his name on the dotted line in the Summer of 2018; the Lakers rank in the Top-10 in a slew of categories, including Points (114.3) and Points Allowed (106.8), Field Goal Percentage For (48.6%) and Against (44.3%), Rebounds (46.1), Assists (26.0), Steals (8.4), and Blocks (7.1). So with a four-game lead in the standings, why exactly has General Manager, Rob Pelinka, been searching for upgrades to his team, and does he even need to at this point? Well, the prevailing theory has long been that Los Angeles is need of a veteran Point Guard who can alleviate the playmaking burden that been carried by James, who at 35-Years Old has assumed those duties to great effect, leading the league with a career-high 10.7 Assists. As you can imagine, the Offense is far less efficient without him on the floor, and it’s probably not ideal to have him carrying such a burden heading into the Playoffs. The club has discussed a potential move for the resurrected Derrick Rose, who has flourished now that he’s free of injury in Detroit, as well as entertained the idea of signing Free Agent Darren Collison, who retired at the age of during the Offseason. Both players would come relatively cheap and no doubt be a boon to their rotation, though the former would likely cost them the services of young Swingman, Kyle Kuzma (13.1 PTS, 43.7% FG, 33.7% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 1.1 AST, 12.2 PER), who is the last remaining young asset left after the aforementioned Davis Trade. The idea is that any deal that the Lakers make to improve themselves will involve sacrificing the 24-Year Old former Second Round Pick. Sure, he’s performed well in his role and is an intriguing piece down the road, but they can turn him into another veteran that can help them win now, they likely won’t hesitate to do so. Again, James is thirty-five, and with two years left on his contract, Pelinka and the Front Office will try to give him everything he needs to win his fourth NBA Title and the franchise’s seventeenth. Keep in mind that at the time of printing, they have yet to pull the trigger on any move, so by the time you read this they may look a bit different. In the meantime, when we last saw the Lakers they hammered the San Antonio Spurs, 129-102, thanks to a cavalcade of three-pointers in the Fourth Quarter, where they outscored the visitors 42-28. Los Angeles was 8-of-13 from downtown (61.5%) during the final period, with James going on a tear knocking down 5-of-6 attempts on his own (83.3%). He scored Nineteen of his game-high Thirty-Six Points in the final stanza, to go along with Seven Rebounds and Nine Assists. Davis scored Eighteen Points on 8-of-12 shooting (66.7%), while Kuzma added Eighteen of his own with Twelve Rebounds and Four Assists off the Bench. Howard also performed well in a reserve role, totaling Twelve Points and Ten Rebounds on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting (100.0%).