There will be plenty of drama surrounding opening night’s contest between the Lakers and the Rockets, but it probably won’t include the kind created by a close game where we wonder who will win or lose.
While Kobe Bryant’s return after appearing in just six games last season due to injury would be exciting for basketball fans under any circumstances, the fact that it comes at home against Dwight Howard, who bolted L.A. in free agency after one disastrous season, makes it an especially compelling matchup.
By now, you’ve certainly heard about the messy way things ended between Howard and the Lakers, with Bryant essentially sabotaging the team’s free agent pitch meeting to try and help Dwight make his decision to leave that much easier. The two couldn’t have differed any more greatly from a personality standpoint, and the combination of Bryant’s ruthlessness with the opportunity to win by playing with a deeper roster in Houston was worth leaving $30 million on the table to do so in Howard’s eyes.
Beyond seeing how that plays out when the two are on the court, there are a few other things to watch.
The Lakers are expected to have a down season again, thanks to the roster continuing to be in somewhat of a state of flux. The team added pieces to plug holes as a kind of short-term fix until it can once again attract a star free agent or two to come to Los Angeles, two of the more prominent being Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin, both of whom will be in the starting lineup for this one.
But L.A. is missing guys, too. Steve Nash is done for good, thanks to his nerve issue never quite being settled to the point where he could play on anything resembling a consistent basis. Nick Young is out for a bit after suffering torn ligaments in his thumb during practice, and others like Ronnie Price, Xavier Henry and Ryan Kelly have been dealing with injuries that should keep them sidelined for most (if not all) of this opening night contest.
The fact that the bulk of those players we just mentioned are so far from being recognizable by the casual fan tells you just how far this Lakers team has fallen.
Things aren’t nearly as bad in Houston, though the Rockets had a lackluster offseason that, at least on paper, undoubtedly left the team worse.
Houston swung for the fences in free agency, attempting to add a third star player next to Howard and James Harden to truly vault the team to a level of legitimate contention. But after striking out with Carmelo Anthony and coming close with Chris Bosh before Miami offered him max money to stay, the Rockets let Chandler Parsons go to the Mavericks for nothing in return, and traded a reliable defensive big man in Omer Asik away to the Pelicans for a future first round pick.
The Rockets tried to add some depth by overpaying for Trevor Ariza (again), and trading for veteran shooter Jason Terry. But that’s about it, and while Harden may not have seen the value in all that Parsons gave the team, the likelihood exists that it will be difficult for Houston to be as good as it was a season ago — when the team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
None of that should matter tonight, however, against a Lakers team that will have all kinds of trouble slowing Houston offensively. The Rockets averaged a ridiculous 130.7 points per game in their three wins against L.A. last year, and barring an unexpected, transcendent performance from Bryant, Houston should end up pulling away somewhat convincingly.