The entire NBA certainly welcomed the highly anticipated All-Star break in New Orleans, as it allowed players a chance to rest, recuperate and have a fresh mindset heading into the final stretch of the regular season. 58 games into the season, the Los Angeles Lakers hang on to a 19-39 record, as head coach Luke Walton is pushing for production from his young core.
All-Star weekend not only was a welcomed break, but it also brought about a shake-up in the NBA, as the NBA trade deadline allowed a chance for contending teams to make some last acquisitions. Although the Lakers did end up making two trades before the deadline, perhaps their biggest acquisition came from the front office.
Governor Jeanie Buss decided that it was time to move the franchise in a new direction, firing general manager Mitch Kupchak and stripping her brother, Jim Buss, of his title as vice president of basketball operations.
She also announced that the recently hired advisor would magically take over as the president of basketball operations. Earvin “Magic” Johnson not only called Jeanie Buss her sister but stated that he is as excited as a little kid for this new venture.
Johnson wasted no time in his newfound role, as he traded sixth-man Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets (for Corey Brewer and a first-round pick) and acquired 22-year-old Tyler Ennis for guard Marcelo Huertas. While there wasn’t any big-time shake up for the Lakers, perhaps the best news all week was how Paul George is reportedly hell-bent on joining the Lakers.
Their first matchup following the All-Star break comes at the Chesapeake Energy Arena, as the Lakers take on Russell Westbrook and the new-look Oklahoma City Thunder.
Westbrook is the beginning and end of this Thunder team, as the triple-double machine continually sets the pace for this team and how far they will go. The MVP frontrunner has recorded two consecutive triple-doubles against the Lakers but will see the debut of some new teammates Friday night.
Now in his ninth season, the six-time All-Star returns from an All-Star weekend that featured a lot of controversy surrounding he and Kevin Durant. While their in-game lob seemed to cause a short break in all the hoopla, Westbrook is still left with quite the load in the Thunder. This season, he is averaging 31.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists per game.
Westbrook’s dancing partner, Cameron Payne, who held a prevalent ball-handling role, was sent to Chicago in a package deal. Without him backing up Westbrook when he needs his rest, it appears shooting guard Victor Oladipo may transition back into a point guard-type role.
Oladipo has provided a consistent second punch for the Thunder all season long, with an explosiveness and improved three-point shot that has helped space the floor. He is shooting a career-high 35.4 percent from three-point range while posting 16.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
Shooting guard Alex Abrines wraps up the Thunder backcourt, which has turned seemingly thin following the trade deadline. Abrines is a spot up shooter and has surprise verticality.
The Lakers backcourt also took a blow, as they had to depart with a prominent bench player as well. D’Angelo Russell, who had a strong showing in the Rising Stars Challenge, returns to a team at a key point in his career. With Williams traded to the Rockets, he and the young core will have the reigns during late-game scenarios and won’t have Williams to bail them out.
Russell’s points, rebounds, and assists averages have all increased in fewer minutes played, but his field goal and three-point percentage have declined. Many have patiently waited for Russell to take a bigger jump his sophomore season, in all facets of the game.
Shooting guard Nick Young was a hot commodity during the final stretch of the trade deadline, as the Lakers were considering taking on a second-round pick for the shooter. Young has put together a strong campaign in a contract year but will remain with the Lakers for the duration of the regular season.
With the departure of Williams, Jordan Clarkson now has the reigns to lead the scoring attack for the Lakers, although Walton hopes in a controlled manner. Both Walton and Johnson have high hopes defensively for Clarkson, as they believe he can hone in his all-around game tremendously.
We won’t see the debut of Tyler Ennis tonight, who will presumably take over the backup point guard duties should he be needed. With Huertas gone and Ennis not playing, Jose Calderon will likely get the remaining minutes in the rotation.
The trade deadline heavily bolstered the frontcourt of the Thunder, as they were able to acquire Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson from the Chicago Bulls. It remains to be seen if they will be inserted into the starting lineup, especially once they get acclimated to their new teammates.
McDermott is a deadly three-point shooter, who didn’t see a consistent rotation spot during his tenure with the Bulls. With a quick and precise release, he can get hot as quickly as Kyle Korver. Gibson is the definition of hustle, as he never gives up on a rebound or loose ball. His desire and ferociousness are welcomed sight for the Thunder, as the can benefit from his grittiness on the court.
Small forward Andre Roberson was also mentioned in all the trade rumors, but the Thunder stated they are heavily invested in re-signing the free agent to be. His defense prowess, constant hustle, and backdoor players require constant attention on the court, as he benefits from a lot of easy baskets while the attention is on Westbrook.
Domantis Sabonis was also seen during the Rising Stars Challenge, as the left-handed power forward is sneaky, with a soft touch around the basket. He has soft hands around the basket while stretching the floor in pick-and-rolls with Westbrook.
Small forward Jerami Grant is another versatile player for the Thunder, who was also acquired via a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this season. Grant plays well around the rim, displaying a motor to challenge all shots around the rim and dunk home any drive to the lane.
While Enes Kanter is on the cusp of returning to the Thunder, young center Steven Adams has taken on a roll. With perhaps the best chemistry with Westbrook, they have a strong connection during pick-and-roll scenarios, as Adams is a well to get around.
Brandon Ingram, perhaps the most mentioned Lakers player during the deadline, should see an increased workload for the rest of the season. Ingram was the breaking point in discussions with DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings, while also being mentioned in the Paul George trade rumors. The rookie appreciated not being dealt earlier this week, as Johnson and the Lakers understand the potential the lanky player has in store.
Julius Randle and Tarik Black will face a physical frontcourt in the Thunder, but the Thunder also need to be aware of the low-post scoring for the Lakers. Randle continues to show signs of a raging bull when driving to the basket, while Black crashes the offense glass with power and provides strong help-side defense.
Ivica Zubac and his soft hands can certainly make an impact tonight around the paint, as his high basketball IQ puts him in many slashing scenarios around the rim. While the guards of the Lakers draw a lot of attention, Black and Zubac can benefit from easy baskets, and dump offs near the rim.
Corey Brewer is also set to make his Lakers debut tonight, in a role the Lakers certainly need. Throughout his career, the NCAA champion has brought his defensive effort each and every night, which is certainly an example to set for this young team. Brewer also fills the wings well, while his ability to cut to the basket and break out on the wings should provide easy transition opportunities. Larry Nance Jr. rounds out the rotation for the Lakers, as the second-year player continues to demonstrate how valuable he is to the second unit and overall success of this team.
Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov may see more of a reduction in their minutes over the final 24 games of the regular season, as Walton experiments with his roster.
Three Keys To Victory:
Start Out Strong:
It is no secret the Lakers haven’t been exactly consistent with their road starts this season. The Thunder have a hectic environment to play in, meaning they must shake the early nerves if they miss some open shots in the first quarter.
Help The Helper:
Westbrook will be responsible for a majority of their offensive executions while playing for long spurts. The big men of the Lakers will need to help out on Westbrook when he drives to the rim, whether it is off the pick-and-roll or off an isolation. With the bigs helping out, the weak side defender has to communicate and be in a position to help out.
Play At Your Pace:
When the Thunder gets in an up and down game, they can go cold for portions of the game. Their offense isn’t exactly ideal, with a lack of three-point shooting. If the Lakers can play at their pace and have the young guys use that athleticism, they can create an early lead.
Los Angeles Lakers (19-39) Vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (32-25)
5:00 P.M. PST, February 24th, 2018
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
TV: Spectrum Sportsnet
Radio: 710 AM (ESPN)/ 1330 KWKW (Spanish)
Projected Thunder Starting Lineup:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Victor Oladipo
SF: Andre Roberson
PF: Domantas Sabonis
C: Steven Adams
Key Reserves: Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: D’Angelo Russell
SG: Nick Young
SF: Brandon Ingram
PF: Julius Randle
C: Tarik Black
Key Reserves: Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Ivica Zubac, Luol Deng