Clippers-Lakers preview: Enough waiting already

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The most anticipated NBA season in Clippers history gets started tonight in STAPLES Center. The Clippers are the visiting team, but after sweeping the Lakers last year and with no Kobe Bryant, they'll have plenty of confidence.

2013/2014 NBA Regular Season
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October 29th, 2013, 7:30 PM
STAPLES Center with championship banners
TNT, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Steve Nash
J.J. Redick SG Steve Blake
Jared Dudley SF Nick Young
Blake Griffin PF Shawne Williams
DeAndre Jordan C Pau Gasol
Advanced Stats (2012-2013 Season)
91.1 (19th of 30) Pace 94.4 (5th of 30)
110.6 (4th of 30) ORtg 107.8 (9th of 30)
103.6 (8th of 30) DRtg 106.6 (20th of 30)
Injuries
Maalik Wayns (meniscus surgery) out
Kobe Bryant (achilles) out

The Back Story (2012-13 head to head results):

The Big Picture:

Never have expectations been so high for the Los Angeles Clippers. At the same time, it's been a very long time indeed since expectations have been so very low for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Clippers swept four meetings with the Lakers last season, winning three of the games by double digits, and finished the season 11 games ahead of their city rivals -- obviously a record gap in the standings in the history of the rivalry, at least when the Clippers have been on top. Since then all that has happened is that the Clippers have had a massive upgrade at coach and a infusion of youth and shooting; while the Lakers lost Dwight Howard in free agency and begin the season without Kobe Bryant, as he continues to rehab a ruptured Achilles tendon. So the smart money says that the 11 game record lead will be broken this season. This game will have an interesting subplot as well, as it is the first time the teams have met since Banner-gate, when the Clippers covered the Lakers championship banners during their home games. This one is a Lakers home game, so the banners and the retired jerseys will be up there -- but unless Magic and Kareem and Jerry (in their primes) are planning to suit up, those banners aren't going to help the Lakers much.

The Antagonist:

The Lakers have issues, and that's putting it mildly. They were a poor defensive team last year, and that was WITH Dwight Howard patrolling the paint and Metta World Peace taking tough assignments. Neither Dwight nor Metta were in their DPOY prime form last season -- but they were a hell of a lot better than the guys the Lakers got to replace them. It's a little funny to see the Lakers using something of a desperation strategy -- they're the last chance saloon for a bunch of players who've been waived or ignored by other teams. Shawne Williams -- who wasn't in the league last season, and was barely in the league when he was in the league if you catch my meaning -- is expected to start at power forward. Wesley Johnson, Nick Young and Xavier Henry are all former first round picks on minimum deals -- and that's as good as it gets for the LAL at small forward, at least until Kobe gets back. Still, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are both crafty veterans who can still play, and Mike D'Antoni's offense will have them shooting lots of threes -- anything can happen if the shots are falling. The Lakers are clearly outmanned in this game, as they will be most nights at least as long as Bryant is out -- but you know they'll want to win, and anything can happen.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. Looking at the numbers, one would expect the Clippers offense to run roughshod over the Lakers defense tonight. The Clippers fourth rated offense got better in the off-season (at least on paper) while the Lakers 20th rated defense got much, much worse (again, on paper). That's a formula for fun in Clips Nation.
  • TNT Game. The Clippers are starting their season, but we won't actually be listening to Ralph and Mike during the game until Friday (unless you want to turn on the radio). That's because the Clippers are on national TV, on TNT, tonight and Thursday. With Charles Barkley coming out and picking the Clippers to win the Western Conference, maybe we'll be a little less frustrated with the Inside the NBA crew this year. But probably not.
  • Early season breaks. Not that the Clippers can't handle the Lakers with or without Bryant in the lineup, but it goes without saying that they are not nearly as dangerous without him. This is one of at least three games in their first 13 where their opponent will be missing a vital All-NBA component, as they'll also face Oklahoma City twice in November before Russell Westbrook is back. These sorts of breaks can be very important at the end of the season -- but you have to take advantage of them.
  • Bryant. No one has any clue when Bryant will be back -- if they say they have a clue, they're lying (like when Jim Buss said "I would bet a lot of money that this guy comes back probably in preseason" -- turns out Jimmy would have lost a lot of money). He hasn't gone full speed yet, and isn't particularly close to practicing as far as I know. We all know that he's a physical marvel and willing to play through pain, but this is about healing, not just about pain management. If he comes back too soon, he could re-injure himself. Players in their mid-thirties basically never come all the way back from a ruptured Achilles. He could certainly be the first -- I don't put anything past him -- but he could be out a while. I think there was a LOT of incentive to make it back for opening day, just to say "Look at what a badass I am, I made it back for opening day." But where is the incentive now? It's not necessarily in his nature, but the smart play would definitely be to take this very slow and not risk anything.
  • Rivers and the Lakers. Doc Rivers has plenty of experience coaching against the Lakers, having twice led his Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals against them. Then again, without Bryant tonight, only Pau Gasol and the returned Jordan Farmar were with the Lakers in these meetings. Still, Rivers can bring a little Celtics-Lakers energy to the Clippers-Lakers rivalry.
  • Former Clippers. The Lakers will feature three former Clippers somewhat prominently in tonight's game. Steve Blake and Nick Young are expected to start at the wings, while Chris Kaman is expected to come off the bench. Kaman has been battling an illness ever since the Lakers returned from the pre-season trip to China and missed the last several pre-season games. He's not expected to be in the starting lineup, but he is expected to play. Neither Young nor Blake spent much time with the Clippers -- they were trade deadline acquisitions that moved on at the end of the season. Kaman however is the longest tenured Clipper of all time, having played eight seasons with the team after being drafted in 2003.
  • Front court battle. If indeed Kaman comes off the bench, the Lakers will be giving up some size to the Clippers. Williams is listed at 6'9, 230 -- how he handles Blake Griffin remains to be seen. Gasol is plenty long, but has been playing power forward, not center, for the past several seasons. Even when he played with Lamar Odom in LA, it was usually Odom defending the 5 spot. He'll give away quite a bit of strength to DeAndre Jordan. On the other end, Gasol will be a VERY tough cover (and a nice challenge) for Jordan.
  • Speaking of Jordan. After all the big off-season talk, the "Big Three" stuff and the terrific pre-season, it's time for DeAndre Jordan to justify Rivers' confidence in him in a real game. Of course, we've seen Jordan play great early in the season only to fade later, so he'll need to sustain his focus to make real progress, but it all starts with the first game.
  • Passing bigs. Gasol and Griffin are two of the best playmaking bigs in the NBA. Look for each of them to play a major role in triggering the offense for their teams.
  • White point guards named Steve. For some reason, I can't really put my finger on it, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for white point guards named Steve. Because the Lakers wings are so monumentally bad without Kobe, the Steves (Nash and Blake) will form the Lakers backcourt. Neither is a great defender, and Chris Paul and J.J. Redick really should have a field day. Seriously, though. Who on the Lakers is going to guard Chris Paul? That's kind of a big deal.
  • Here comes Mr. Jordan. This game features three of the five active NBA players named Jordan: Jordan Farmar and Jordan Hill and DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers. The other two are Jordan Hamilton and Jordan Crawford. This is the kind of hard-hitting, in-depth stuff you can only get at Clips Nation.
  • Three point shooting. Mike D'Antoni's system relies on quick shots and spreading the floor. The Lakers took the third most threes in the league last season, and bear in mind that the two teams ahead of them, Houston and New York, both broke the all time record for three point attempts in a season. The personnel last season wasn't a great fit -- Bryant and MWP are mediocre at best from deep. Young and Blake and Nash will all have the green light (and Young wouldn't care if he didn't) as will Farmar when he comes in. Doc Rivers has made defending the three point line a priority -- this is a good test right off the bat.
  • Pau and Blake. Gasol and Griffin have had some major battles over the last few seasons. If Williams can't handle Blake (as I suspect) then the task will fall to Pau. Could we have some more poster dunks coming?
  • The rotation. The Clippers played a ten-man rotation all last season under Vinny Del Negro. His hockey-line-shift approach of running his entire second unit for extended minutes in the second quarter was not exactly in the mainstream of the NBA, but it must be said that he had success with it for much of the regular season. In Boston, Rivers tended to have a shorter rotation, and while he does have some depth to call on, it may be best to keep a starter or to on the floor at all times. This is the first game that counts so we're going to get our first real look at game day rotations from Doc.
  • Bad blood. Unwanted pats on the head, poster dunks, flagrant fouls, disappearing banners -- these teams don't like each other. Almost every time these teams have met, there has been some significant tension. There's no reason to think tonight will be any different, especially with emotions high on opening night and the perceived snub of the banner incident fresh in the Lakers' minds.
  • Connections. Lots and lots and lots of connections in this one. We've already mentioned the three former Clippers on the Lakers. Matt Barnes and Antawn Jamison are former Lakers. In addition, Clippers associate head coach Alvin Gentry was Mike D'Antoni's top assistant when D'Antoni coached in Phoenix, and eventually took over the top job for the Suns after the Terry Porter experiment.
  • Get the Lakers perspective at Silver Screen and Roll.
  • Random reference: Sorry folks, I haven't yet settled on a theme for this section this year. In years past I've done movie quotes, song lyrics, and urban dictionary definitions. Any ideas for new themes? Or do you want to see one of those revived? The Lakers (since it's a made up word) are always one of the most difficult ones, so I'm not sad to take a pass on this today.
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