10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Lakers -3, Over/Under: 219.5
It may seem like the NBA Finals just wrapped up a few weeks ago (seventy-one days to be exact), but the National Basketball Association is right back at it, kicking off their 2020-2021 Season with none other than the Battle of Los Angeles as the Clippers and Lakers face off at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. Though these teams appeared destined to meet in the Western Conference Finals, the Clippers (49-23, 2nd in Western Conference in 2019-2020) failed to hold up their end of the bargain, as they blew a commanding 3-1 series lead in the Western Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets in embarrassing fashion, leading to major changes within the organization (which we’ll get into shortly). Los Angeles made a statement in the Offseason in their swoop to acquire All-Stars, Kawhi Leonard (27.1 PTS, 47.0% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.8 STL, 26.9 PER in 2019-2020) and Paul George (21.5 PTS, 43.9% FG, 41.2% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 21.1 PER in 2019-2020), morphing a Playoff regular into a bonafide championship contender. By and large, this was a team that coasted throughout the campaign despite never truly reaching their lofty potential, with both Leonard and George missing time for a variety reasons. Nevertheless, they managed to obtain the Second Seed out West, while averaging 116.3 points per game (4th Overall) and ranking third in field goal percentage Defense (43.8%). Furthermore, both Leonard and George were selected as All-Stars, with the former earning All-NBA (2nd Team) and All-Defense (2nd Team) honors, while (Forward) Montrezl Harrell (18.6 PTS, 58.0% FG, 7.1 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.1 BLK, 23.2 PER in 2019-2020) garnered the Sixth Man of the Year award. After disposing of the Dallas Mavericks in the First Round of the Playoffs, the Clippers raced out to a 3-1 advantage against the Nuggets, only to lose control of the series as they relinquished Halftime leads in each of the final three contests, outscored by an average of 21.3 points in the Second Half. Things came to a head in Game Seven, where they were outscored 50-33 after intermission, shooting a woeful 37.8% from the field, including 9-of-35 from beyond the arc (25.7%), with Leonard and George struggling in particular with a combined twenty-four points on 10-of-38 shooting (26.3%).
As you can imagine, such a performance demanded change with (Head Coach) Doc Rivers paying the price, parting ways with the franchise after seven years of service. While he was absolutely successful in his time with the team (564-356, .631), the former Coach of the Year will undoubtedly be remembered for routinely coming up short in the Postseason; that 3-1 collapse wasn’t even the first of it’s kind during his tenure with the Clippers, for they suffered the same fate in 2015 against the Houston Rockets. Replacing Rivers is Tyronn Lue, who had spent last season as an assistant under his frequent mentor, and will now be looking to refocus a talented group that suffered one of the most sensational mental breakdowns in the history of the NBA. The 43-year old must be eager to take the reins of a contender once again, particularly after how his tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers ended, and with his innate ability to communicate with his players there is reason for optimism for Los Angeles’ other team. However, they underwent some considerable roster turnover as well, parting ways with many members of their Bench, including JaMychal Green (6.8 PTS, 42.9% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 6.2 REB, 11.1 PER in 2019-2020) and Landry Shamet (9.3 PTS, 40.4% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 1.9 REB, 1.9 AST, 8.5 PER in 2019-2020), along with the aforementioned Harrell, but welcomed the sharpshooting Luke Kennard (15.8 PTS, 44.2% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 4.1 AST, 14.4 PER in 2019-2020) and veteran defensive stalwart, Serge Ibaka (15.4 PTS, 51.2% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 17.3 PER in 2019-2020) via Free Agency. Of course, Lue’s biggest task will be in maximizing the partnership of Leonard and George, and finding a way to motivate them past last season’s brutal performance in the Playoffs. For his part, George has cemented his commitment to the franchise, signing a lucrative four-year/$176.2 million contract extension with a Player Option in 2024. The same cannot be said for Leonard, who could leave the club via Player Option after this season, making it all the more important that Lue gets immediate results. His first test will come against a familiar face, with former charge, LeBron James sitting on the opposite bench; Lue rode the four-time MVP to a Larry O’Brien Trophy in a shocking upset of the record-breaking Golden State Warriors, coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals. Los Angeles split their four meetings with their fellow STAPLES Center residents, with the affairs proving to be box office material in being decided by an average of a single point.
Meanwhile, the the NBA’s longest season (due to the four-month suspension caused by COVID-19) culminated with a familiar scene as the Lakers (52-19, 1st in Western Conference in 2019-2020) were crowned champions for the seventeenth time in franchise history, pulling into a tie with the Boston Celtics for the most in NBA history. Indeed, it was a vindicating moment for arguably the Association’s most decorated club, who won their first Larry O’Brien Trophy since 2010 after returning to the Playoffs following a seven-year absence, which was remarkably the longest in franchise history. Every gamble that they made seemed to pay off, from completely reassembling the Supporting Cast around LeBron James (25.3 PTS, 49.3% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 7.8 REB, 10.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 25.5 PER in 2019-2020), trading virtually their entire young talent base (and a war chest of Draft picks) to the New Orleans Pelicans for the services of Anthony Davis (26.1 PTS, 50.3% FG, 33.0% 3FG, 9.3 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.5 STL, 2.3 BLK, 27.4 PER in 2019-2020), adding veterans such as Dwight Howard (7.5 PTS, 72.9% FG, 7.3 REB, 1.1 BLK, 18.7 PER in 2019-2020) and Danny Green (8.0 PTS, 41.6% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 10.8 PER in 2019-2020) to fill out the rotation, and hiring (Head Coach) Frank Vogel to put it all together. One of the favorites entering the Postseason, Los Angeles ran roughshod over their competition, dismissing each of the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, and Denver Nuggets in five games apiece, before eliminating the undermanned Miami Heat in six outings in the NBA Finals. The dynamic duo of James and Davis reigned supreme in the Playoffs, with the tandem combining for averages of 55.3 points, 20.5 rebounds, 12.3 assists, 2.4 steals, and 2.3 blocks during that twenty-one game stretch, while a slew of veterans enjoyed their respective moments in the sun en route to championship glory.
So with only a little more than two months to enjoy their success, how do the Lakers stack up heading into 2020-2021 you ask? Well given what has happened around the NBA over the past seventy-one days it’s awfully difficult not to place them on the short-list of championship contenders once again. Rather than simply sit on their hands and run it back with the same roster, Los Angeles was one of the most active teams during this brief Offseason, retooling their rotation in many areas as they got younger and more athletic following a number of transactions. They said goodbye to a host of veterans, including Rajon Rondo (7.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 5.0 AST, 12.4 PER in 2019-2020) and JaVale McGee (6.6 PTS, 63.7% FG, 5.7 REB, 1.4 BLK, 19.4 PER in 2019-2020), along with Howard and Green, adding sparkplug (Point Guard) Dennis Schroder (18.9 PTS, 46.9% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 4.0 AST, 16.7 PER in 2019-2020), and the aforementioned Harrell, as well as veterans Wesley Matthews (7.4 PTS, 39.6% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 1.4 AST, 8.1 PER in 2019-2020) and Marc Gasol (7.5 PTS, 42.7% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 3.3 AST, 11.8 PER in 2019-2020). And if that wasn’t enough, (General Manager) Rob Pelinka maintained the services of Markieff Morris (5.3 PTS, 40.6% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 11.5 PER 2019-2020) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (9.3 PTS, 46.7% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 1.6 AST, 11.0 PER in 2019-2020), who both came up big in the Playoffs for the Purple & Gold. In many ways, this rotation appears younger and more athletic than it’s predecessor, and with the likes Schroder and Harrell in the mix, Vogel will be happy to see a rotation that isn’t so desperate to rely upon the playmaking talents of James. Granted, the 36-year old led the NBA in assists for the first time in his illustrious career last year, but there were many instances in which the Lakers looked utterly lost on the offensive end of the court without him to inspire them. Schroder in particular should be a boon to the rotation, whether he’s starting or coming off the bench; the 27-year old is quicker than a hiccup, and is coming off a season in which he shot a career-high 38.5% from beyond the arc. Together he and Harrell should be able to create their own offense, while appearing to be seamless fits alongside James and Davis. And speaking of the Big Two, both players committed their future to the franchise in the Offseason, with the former signing two-year/$85.6 million contract extension and the latter putting pen to paper on a monster five-year/$189.9 million contract keeping them together until 2023.