The 1-1 Lakers take on the 2-0 Oklahoma City Thunder later this afternoon, and it’s a big, early-season test for Los Angeles, and for Oklahoma City. After the Lakers’ season-opening win at home against Houston, they lost their road opener in Utah. Observers generally are loath to give the Jazz much credit for improvement or see a potential playoff team, but Utah has improved from 38-44 in 2014-2015 to 40-42 last season, and I can see another similar gain this year, and a potential playoff spot. The Lakers’, though, disappointing on Friday with a decidedly poorer performance than in their opener, with their shooting percentage dropping to 38.1% from 50.6% in the opener, while assists were also down and personal fouls up. And, the injury to Brandon Ingram had to have an effect not just on the
court, but also psychologically, to a team thaw saw it’s top draft choice of just two seasons ago, Julius Randle, suffer a season-ending injury in the team’s opener.
But I still have faith that the Lakers are a significantly better squad that last year, talent-wise and in their coaching staff, and that they will rebound against the Thunder, who have their own set of problems, beginning with the free-agent loss of Kevin Durant. At 2-0, one could assume that they’ve rebounded well and are still a top contender, but looking at their actual record makes one stop and wonder. The Thunder won their opener by only six points against the team that has been the worst, least talented in the NBA for several years, the Philadelphia 76ers, and while they may well be improved this year to some extent, they figure to still easily hold on to last place in the Atlantic Division. In fact, Philadelphia could well double their 2015-2016 win total of ten and still end in the division’s cellar, retaining the league’s worst record yet again.
In their second game of the season, the Thunder needed overtime to defeat the Phoenix Suns, a team that only escaped the Pacific Division cellar last season due to that being the same division as the Lakers, who were the only Western Conference team with a worse record than Phoenix. Is Phoenix improved this season? Unlikely, even with the return to health of their best player, point guard Eric Bledsoe.
So, how good, or bad, are the 2-0 Durant-less Thunder? Or, phrased differently, how far can they go on the back of Russell Westbrook? As the season unfolds, I think that the answer will be not far, not far at all. There is some talent in the middle, with Steven Adams and Enos Kanter, but besides those two and Westbrook, the Thunder appear to be a very average team, at best. Maybe Domantas Sabonis has star potential and maybe Alex Abrines can score and will take some pressure off of Westbrook (65 shots taken in his first two games, averaging 40.1 points per game, not to mention a two-game average of 12.5 rebounds and 9.5 assists) but that will take time, lots of time. The Thunder did make one solid off-season pickup with the signing of Victor Oladipo who had his ups-and-downs in
Orlando. He hit for 21 in the Thunder opener, but then hit on only four-of-16 against Phoenix, continuing the trend.
The Lakers may be at full strength for the game, as Jose Calderon will be making his debut for the team after missing the first two games and after a negative MRI, Ingram is listed as probable after leaving Friday’s game with due to his painfully sore knee.
Now if Luke Walton just wises up and starts Jordan Clarkson at the two and leaves the disgusting pile of trojan crap nick young at the airport, the Lakers will be in great shape against the Thunder.