It’s been a long time — at least in Lakers fan years — since the team went into the season as the favorites to win the NBA title. What has it been, five years? But that is the situation tonight at Staples Center, and having the Lakers back on top feels comfortable, like a broken-in pair of Chuck Taylor high-tops.
Tonight the Lakers open the season against the Portland Trailblazers (a game broadcast nationally on TNT), the first real step in the long road to what fans and players both hope will be a return to the NBA Finals. But with a different outcome this time. And with fewer Bill Engvall promos along the way.
The Lakers open against a Trailblazers team that looks like a younger, less experienced version of the Lakers. Big young center in the paint? Check. Deep roster? Check. Good athletes all over the court? Check. A fan base very excited about the future? Check.
"They are the present," said Portland Coach Nate McMillan. "And we are the future."
Being the team of now, the Lakers come in with far more experience — they went to the Finals last year, they have guys with rings like Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. The Trailblazers are young and raw, they didn’t even make the playoffs last year and even with Greg Oden now suited up it is more likely they barely make the playoffs this season. The Blazers are staring two rookies tonight, Oden and Nicolas Batum. Ah, but three years from now these two teams could resume one of the most heated rivalries of a decade ago.
And that rivalry will be anchored right in the middle — Oden vs. Andrew Bynum. Two of the best young centers in the game. Tonight will be the opening bell in what could be a 10-round (year) heavyweight battle for the ages. That said, Bynum comes in having been through some tests against Shaq, Dwight Howard, Yao Ming and others, he should have an experience advantage. He should be able to school the young rookie on a few things.
The other place this game will be won and lost is with the play of the benches — these are two of the NBA’s deeper teams. The Lakers bring in the loves-to-fast-break group of Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Trevor Ariza. The Blazers counter with the showmanship of Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Channing Frye, Travis Outlaw and Joel Przybilla. When the two benches are on the court, this is going to be an up-and-down shootout that should be very entertaining.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30, providing the first TNT game doesn’t run long. So, you can safely bet on 7:45.