California: home of NBA’s have and have nots

When thinking about the sporting landscape of California, it’s easy to overlook basketball. Played indoors, sheltered from the omnipresent California sunshine, one can forget that basketball is quickly becoming a part of the state’s fabric.

On Wednesday, Oct. 19, the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers squared off for a preseason game at Valley View Casino Center. While the game was still a largely superfluous exhibition, it provided a chance for fans from both regions of California to get a glimpse at their favorite team before the season tips off for real. At the game’s conclusion, the scoreboard indicated that the Warriors had won 123-112. However, in the case of the preseason, the final score pales in comparison to what actually happened on the court.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this game was the way that Lakers’ first year head coach Luke Walton utilized rookie Brandon Ingram. After playing collegiate basketball for one year at Duke University, the 6-foot-9-inch Ingram declared for the 2016 NBA Draft. He was taken with the second overall pick in the draft by the Lakers, immediately launching even the most rational of fans into full-fledged Ingram believers. With his 21-point, seven rebound outing at Valley View, the 19-year-old Ingram showed why fans all across Southern California were going lala about the Lakers’ future.

Although his size makes him an unconventional player for the position, Ingram played as Los Angeles’ point guard for several stretches throughout the night. He also showed nice touch on his outside shot, canning two of three shots from beyond the three point arc.

Ingram spoke in the locker room after the game about his shooting and what he feels comfortable with thus far in his young NBA career.

“I like to take my shots off the dribble,” Ingram said. “That’s what I’ve been getting used to. But I’m trying to get used to doing the catch and shoot thing.”

Along with Ingram, the Lakers got encouraging performances from guards D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young. Both shot 50 percent on three pointers, while Russell had nine assists and Young had a team-high two steals. After the 17 win debacle of 2015-16, Laker supporters should be happy if this year’s team can bring home 25 victories.

To do that, Los Angeles will need improvement from the trio of young, returning players they have — Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle — as well as newly signed center Timofey Mozgov. New additions Luol Deng and Jose Calderon could also be looked to for veteran leadership, as they will likely be asked to play limited roles on the court in order to open playing time for the youngsters.

While the Lakers are searching for ways to go from laughingstock to championship contender again, the Golden State Warriors find themselves in an entirely different situation. Coming off a record breaking year, in which they eclipsed the all-time mark of 72 wins in a season before famously blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, the Warriors geared up for another title run by acquiring one of the best scorers the league has ever seen.

Kevin Durant was brought in by the Warriors front office this summer as a way to ensure that the team will have the talent advantage over every single team in the NBA. Along with being unquestionably one of the best players of his generation, Durant also fits perfectly with Golden State’s playing style.

A borderline seven foot tall wing player with a 38 percent career clip from three point range, Durant is the prototypical player for the Warriors’ jumpshot oriented offense, as well as their switch-happy defense. He had 27 points and six rebounds against the Lakers in the teams’ meeting in San Diego.

Again, the importance of things like winning and losing or individual stats is virtually non-existent in the preseason. What the preseason can provide is opportunities for the NBA to showcase its product in places it normally can’t during the regular season, such as San Diego.

What’s more, preseason games can give players and coaches a chance to return to a familiar setting. This was the case at Valley View Casino Center. Walton, now a 36-year-old NBA golden boy, was once a student at University of San Diego High School. During his time as a basketball player there, Walton won state championships in the same building he found himself coaching on Oct. 19.

Warriors’ assistant coach Mike Brown, a graduate of the University of San Diego, said that being in town allowed him to return to his old stomping grounds and take the temperature of this year’s Torero basketball team.

“I had a chance to go up and visit Lamont [Smith] and Ky [Snyder] and those guys at USD,” Brown said. “I watched practice. They got big time talent coming in. I’m excited for them.”

Blake Griffin hopes to rebound from a tough 2015-16 season. Photo courtesy of Verse Photography/Wikimedia Commons

Fans of California’s other NBA teams, the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings, should also have reasons to be excited about the 2016-17 campaign. For the Clippers, the season represents yet another opportunity to finally reach the first conference championship series in team history. Getting an entire season of Blake Griffin at full health, combined with the steady presence of Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, the explosiveness of DeAndre Jordan, and a revamped second unit, could combine to form the best season since the franchise moved from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984.

For Kings fans, the tumultuous nature of the last few seasons can surely bring its fair share of doubt. However, with the underbelly of the Western Conference’s middle tier becoming softer and softer, it’s not entirely out of the question to imagine Sacramento snagging the eight seed in the playoffs.

Losing Durant almost surely will bring harsh regression to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the playoff holdover Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks could both be an injury away from falling into the lottery. The sheer presence of DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings’ immensely talented  enigmatic center, as the best player on the floor in most games could lift Sacramento to the 40 or so wins they’ll need to sneak into shouting distance of the postseason.

One of the more compelling things about the NBA is that on a macro level it is the easiest sport to predict, while on a micro level there are so many different things that can happen. Barring a catastrophic meltdown on either side, we know the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet in the NBA Finals for a third straight summer.

We know that Stephen Curry will effortlessly drain shots from places that no coach would advise shooting from. We know that Luke Walton will charm the media in many a post or pre-game press conference. We can almost surely bet that Cousins will do the opposite.

What we don’t know for sure, though, are things like how Brandon Ingram will fare playing alongside Russell, Clarkson, and Randle, or how much he’ll even share the court with those guys at all. We can only speculate, for now, about how the Clippers would do in a hypothetical second round playoff series. Would a win result in a contract extension for Griffin? Would a loss bring a full scale reconstruction of the team?

We have no idea if the Kings will make it all the way through the season with the same head coach, or if Cousins will remain happy enough to stay with the team.


Kings’ center DeMarcus Cousins won a gold medal in Rio. Photo courtesy of Michael Tipton/Wikimedia Commons

Such is the beauty of the NBA. On any given night, there is some storyline or matchup that can temporarily take our minds off the fact that Golden State and Cleveland is the only matchup that truly matters.

Until we see that seemingly inevitable third installment of the Steph vs. LeBron championship bout, we must distract ourselves with things like Brandon Ingram’s jump shot and Doc Rivers’ general manager prowess. No matter what, NBA fans from here to Sacramento will be entertained.

Written by Matthew Roberson, Sports Editor