For the second consecutive season, a Los Angeles Lakers team featuring Russell Westbrook has opened its season against the Golden State Warriors, and for the second consecutive season, the Warriors have left that opener as the victor. Golden State defeated Los Angeles 123-109 on opening night after raising the fourth championship banner of the Stephen Curry era into the rafters.
Curry led the way with 33 points for Golden State, but it was a balanced attack and, more importantly, a voracious defense that led to the win. The Warriors held the Lakers to just 25 percent shooting from behind the arc, and that poor spacing allowed them to protect the rim without worrying about the Lakers punishing them from deep. LeBron James and Anthony Davis scored their typical point totals but did so inefficiently, and the rest of the Laker roster disappointed greatly offensively.
Things don’t get any easier for the Lakers, who have to face the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday. The Warriors have a major test of their own coming Thursday when they face the Denver Nuggets and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. The Lakers and Warriors will see each other three more times this season, and if the Lakers hope to compete with the defending champions in any of those games, they’re going to need a whole lot more out of their support cast. Here are the biggest takeaways from the first Western Conference clash of the season.
Pelinka’s predictable problem
Every single successful James-led team has had one thing in common: shooting. The formula is obvious. James is arguably the greatest offensive initiator in NBA history. He bends defenses to wherever he stands on the court. Put enough shooting around him and he’ll either glide to the rim with little resistance or carve you up by passing to the players your help defenders have left. The Heat and Cavaliers built entire rosters around this principle. The 2020 Lakers got there eventually.
So how did Rob Pelinka build the 2022-23 Lakers? Without a single elite 3-point shooter. That is a statistical fact. Patrick Beverley entered the season with the best career 3-point percentage on this roster at 37.8 percent. The majority of the role players are well below league-average. The Lakers are overflowing with ball-handlers, a strange choice for a roster that already employs James and Russell Westbrook, but sorely lacking in shooters.
Those limitations were on full display against Golden State. The Lakers started 2-of-20 from behind the arc and wound up shooting 25 percent from deep overall. Had the Warriors not dealt with their own shooting woes early, this would’ve turned into a blowout in the first half. James and Davis eventually padded their stats with strong fourth quarters, but during the competitive portion of the game, they both found crowded paints waiting for them when trying to score inside.
This roster-building approach simply makes life harder for James and Davis. It made little sense in the offseason and the doubters were proven correct on opening night. Speaking of doubters, we have to address the elephant in the room here.
All things considered, Russell Westbrook wasn’t bad in the season-opener. The stat line of 19 points, 11 rebounds and three assists doesn’t quite do him justice. The notable number here is 12: the number of field goals Westbrook attempted in the game. He averaged nearly 16 of them a year ago, many of which were bad shots. There were a couple of duds in this one, including an air-balled 3-pointer, but generally, Westbrook was aggressive with the ball and tried to attack the basket rather than settling for inefficient jumpers. He didn’t force the issue on the bad shots he’s been missing for his entire career.
That hardly makes his night perfect. Westbrook’s defense remains inattentive at best. The Warriors had no fear in sagging off of Westbrook when he didn’t have the ball, and we’ve yet to see all that much from him as a cutter. This is going to be a work in progress, for as long as Westbrook remains on the team. A lot of the bad stuff that Westbrook brought last season was absent against Golden State Tuesday. It just wasn’t replaced by the good things Westbrook will need to provide to justify minutes in this rotation. By Westbrook standards, it was a quiet night. That’s not perfect, but it’s better than a loud night would have been.
But it’s hard not to draw a connection between the shooting woes we’ve covered and Westbrook’s $47 million salary. Having that albatross on their books is what forced the Lakers to resort to minimum-salary dice rolls and veterans on the trade market. They couldn’t add the shooting they needed because Westbrook remains in place. Only time will tell if the Lakers relent on Indiana’s demand of two first-round picks for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner. Tuesday did little to suggest that wouldn’t be their best move right now.
The Warriors’ bench is golden
Steve Kerr said before the game that he planned to put time restrictions on Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, and that he did. Green played 25 minutes. Thompson played 20. Curry was the only Warrior to reach 30 minutes, and that had little to do with the lopsided score in the second half. The Warriors are just so deep that they can freely use 10 or 11 players.
In addition to their starters, five different reserves played at least one full quarter: Jonathan Kuminga, James Wiseman, JaMychal Green, Donte DiVincenzo and Jordan Poole. All but Kuminga scored at least eight points. Toss in the eight minutes Moses Moody gave the Warriors and they reached 11 players in the actual rotation. Golden State is going to be balancing all 11 of them as the season wears on, and that doesn’t even account for the possibility of Andre Iguodala playing minutes later on.
The Warriors have always relied on deep benches. Their motto is “strength in numbers” for a reason. But this season is unique in all of the youth the Warriors have accumulated. This is a somewhat transitional season for Golden State. The Warriors won the championship last season thanks largely to their veterans. Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody are going to have to transition into meaningful roles over the next few seasons. Poole already has a $140 million contract. The Warriors have to figure out, here and now, how they plan to use all of those youngsters so that they can dictate which veterans they choose to keep.
One game won’t offer any meaningful insight into that thought process, but it is further proof of the ways in which the Warriors will manage its bench. They have a dozen players who are going to see minutes this season, many of whom are playing for long-term roles. That is going to mean some regular-season sacrifice, but it will be well worth it if some of those youngsters are able to contribute once the playoffs arrive.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism