Phoenix Suns: First Look at Rivalry with Los Angeles Lakers for 2021-22

The calm days before the NBA starts back up always seem like the slowest for me. When a new season begins, the excitement that comes with it never gets old, and I only call this period “calm” because relatively speaking—things will not exactly settle down from here on out. This might feel unfortunate for Phoenix Suns fans grieving through the Deandre Ayton craziness which ensued yesterday, but let’s avoid that for now.

With only a few hours until the season tips off, it feels more beneficial to concentrate on the Suns purely from a basketball standpoint. Phoenix once again carries a roster able to contend for a championship this year. However, nearly all their opponents beefed up their teams this summer, including the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now as twin juggernauts, both Phoenix and Los Angeles look ready to trade heavy blows with each other as the 2021-22 season progresses. Here’s how they stack up head-to-head with their first game only a few days away.

Phoenix Suns vs Los Angeles Lakers: LA has new Advantages and Disadvantages

Before diving into anything else, one needs to acknowledge that the Suns will bring a more fluid offense than the Lakers into their first matchup on Oct. 22. Phoenix carries this advantage due to their continuity, with almost all their players from last year returning, and Los Angeles undergoing a re-cast. But even with just the fundamentals considered, this matchup feels more intriguing than ever.

Beside their injuries woes, minimal floor spacing and an exhausted LeBron James ended up sending the Lakers home early during last year’s postseason. During that first round series, the Suns frequently badgered James by clogging up his driving lanes with two or three defenders. It wore him down, and kept him from attacking inside.

But this year, Russel Westbrook‘s skills and Anthony Davis’s willingness to play the center spot can change all that.

Davis playing the five remains a hot discussion topic, and most expect him to occasionally start at the position during the season, and more so when Trevor Ariza returns. Doing so will dramatically improve Los Angeles’s spacing from last year, when they lazily plugged two big men down low that often lacked proper shooting touch.

Davis playing center also positions him to use his quickness vs slower footed centers on a more consistent basis, just generally wreaking more havoc down low.

Westbrook on the other hand, even if just for a moment, even if it only happened during a preseason game, still showed his willingness to serve as an off-ball cutter and play patiently within a half-court setting. This happened primarily during Los Angeles’s preseason contest against the Sacramento Kings, where the Lakers also set a few re-screens for Westbrook to open up even wider cutting lanes.

With these off-ball cuts, this new Lakers offense also seems fixated on off-ball movement to avoid its spacing concerns. However, it remains to be seen how this might play out over an 82-game season, as Westbrook faces more disciplined and intense defenders, able to fight under screens and force him into bad shots.

Los Angeles ditching its hesitant 3-point bombers from last year also poises to alleviate their floor spacing issues. Last season, the team’s percentages from range warranted great concern, but so did the hesitancy to shoot for players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. They both looked lost on the court, and mentally elsewhere during most Laker games. It worsened to a point where James even scolded KCP for passing up shots after their second postseason game against the Suns.

But this season, the Lakers will enjoy unwaveringly confidence from no-hesitation shooters like Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, and Malik Monk.

Anthony, Monk, and Kendrick Nunn carry solid mid-range jumpers as well, which feels huge compared to last year’s roster which lacked players able to use smaller gaps in defenses to their advantage. This all makes the Lakers much more dynamic on paper.

In theory, these jump shooters and offensive creators will also reduce the production drop off whenever James goes to the bench. They create for themselves, rather than sitting around and waiting to play off James/Davis.

At the defensive end though, expect the Lakers to digress this year. Although Dwight Howard’s return will allow them to maintain rim protection with Davis off the floor, they have no way to play in between big and small.

With Ariza out, the Lakers lack some much needed wing depth outside James. Whenever he sits, Los Angeles can only run with two bigs and a myriad of guards, or one true big, those same guards, and Anthony at the wing.

Across both these potential lineups, glaring weak points on defense exist, with pressure likely falling onto abysmal defenders Monk or Anthony. Two rotation players struggling to defend will not sink the Lakers, especially with Frank Vogel at the helm. But if opposing teams hunt Melo and Monk, it still puts Los Angeles at risk nonetheless.

The bigger problem deals with their overall lacking size to defend the wings. The Lakers experienced this beforehand when they stuck the six-foot-four Caldwell-Pope on Kawhi Leonard during some regular season matchups vs the Clippers last year, where KCP never managed to bother The Klaw due to his inferior height. Against elite wings, watch for that issue to arise again as long as Ariza stays sidelined.

Phoenix Suns vs Los Angeles Lakers: How PHX will Respond to LA’s Updated Roster

With Devin Booker being one of those formerly mentioned elite wings, this matchup grows more interesting.

Westbrook only stands a few inches shorter than Booker, but he often looses his focus when not defending at the point of attack. So with that, expect Booker’s slippery of-ball movement give Brodie some serious trouble.

Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker cannot step up to cover him due to their injuries, and the likelihood of James doing it himself feels slim, with the King more built to play paint defense rather than chasing Booker around at his extended age. With Kent Bazemore as the only remaining player somewhat able to match him, expect Booker to consistently torch the Lakers this year.

Chris Paul vs Westbrook one-on-one strikes as an even matchup from a general standpoint. Although Westbrook out-duelled Paul during their prior postseason matchups, CP3 should still find ways to knife around Westbrook with his offensive craftiness. That is, unless Vogel decides to unleash Avery Bradley fresh off of waivers, who owns a more complete defensive game than Westbrook.

Regardless, Westbrook’s relationship with Ayton on the court carries even greater weight. The Suns stand filled to the brim with athletic wings, all gravitating around Ayton—a mobile center with mastered verticality.

This makes for a disastrous recipe on Westbrook’s behalf, as it allows the Suns to implement drop coverages that force Westbrook into bad looks. He shot 35.0 percent from the field and turned the ball over five times during his lone game against Ayton and the Suns last year for this very reason.

Phoenix built a wall against him in that game, and it worked. However, that strategy only pays off when your opponents lack playmakers along the wing, and with him now on the Lakers rather than the Washington Wizards, he might still prove effective as a distributor, which the Suns need to watch out for.

But overall, due to cohesion, spacing, and all of the aforementioned factors, the Suns offense will likely flow easily as per usual, while  the Lakers try to figure theirs out as they go. The Suns have something to combat almost everything this new Lakers team might throw at them, which naturally feels encouraging.

Phoenix Suns vs Los Angeles Lakers: A Consistent Downfall

Pressure at the frontcourt became an achilles heal for the Suns during the NBA Finals. Phoenix still carries several solid wing defenders, and Ayton applies great size and versatility. But when put to the test last year, the constant rim pressure from Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks just drowned out the Suns. Ayton easily fell into foul trouble trying to stop the Greek Freak one-on-one, and when he sat it, essentially became an easy whistle or dunk every time they threw the ball down low.

The injury to Dario Saric definitely hurt, as the Suns never carried enough bodies to throw at Antetokounmpo to ever bother him. The same thing occurred from time to time when playing against Davis last year.

During the 2020-21 regular season, AD dropped 42 points on the Suns even while returning from injury. Also during the playoffs, he put up back to back 34-point games, attacking just like Antetokounmpo by drawing fouls and bullying smaller defenders.

This athletic pressure likely only increases this year though with Davis fully healthy, James being his natural self, and Westbrook joining as an elite penetrator.

The Suns will struggle with this onslaught against their rim from so many different angles, especially when Ayton sits. The JaVale McGee signing helps maintain some physical imposition, but at his extended age, he can only do so much.

The Lakers will start with clunky offense, but they carry the talent and pure size advantage to overwhelm the Suns. Phoenix strikes as a more precise unit though, which kills you with their fluidity, floor spacing, and defensive instincts.

The first game between these two might go either way. But how these two teams evolve across the season will dictate this rivalry’s ultimate result.