Yes, yes, I know we're all excited to have NBA basketball back, but I want you to make me a promise. No matter what happens Tuesday night, do not overreact. We do this every year. Remember when the San Antonio Spurs walloped the Golden State Warriors in the first game of the Kevin Durant era? Or when Kawhi Leonard beat the Los Angeles Lakers without Paul George? There are 1,230 games in a typical NBA regular season. Tonight's slate represents roughly 0.16 percent of them. We have a lot of basketball in front of us.
Tonight is just the appetizer. The main course will be served over the next six months. But shoot, just because you've got a steak coming doesn't mean you can't enjoy a shrimp cocktail. You shouldn't overreact to opening night, but you can certainly make money off of it. We've got two marquee games on the slate, and here's how you can cash in on the action.
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Brooklyn Nets at Milwaukee Bucks: Bucks -1
I'd blame no one for leaning Brooklyn here. Kevin Durant alone gave the Bucks problems. Factor in a healthy James Harden and Brooklyn's firepower even without Kyrie Irving is terrifying. Still, I'm leaning Milwaukee for a few reasons, many of which boil down to factors outside the control of the teams in question.
The Bucks went 61-8 at home in their first two regular seasons under Mike Budenholzer. Last season was something of an outlier for a variety of reasons, but with a deeper and healthier roster, their home-court advantage remains among the league's best.
Continuity matters a fair bit here as well, especially so early in the season. The Bucks know who they are. They figured it out in the postseason, and since George Hill has been a Buck in the past, Grayson Allen is the only key offseason addition the Bucks need to integrate into the rotation. Brooklyn has more questions to work through. We assume Patty Mills is starting in place of Kyrie Irving, but how long will he need to adjust to playing in such an isolation-heavy offense? How is the front-court rotation going to shake out? You could even argue there's a bit of mental exhaustion this team needs to shake off early on. A training camp filled with questions about Kyrie Irving can't have been easy.
But ultimately, the biggest factor working for Milwaukee is that its roster makes slightly more sense for the regular season whereas Brooklyn's makes more sense for the playoffs. Remember, the Nets and Bucks played each other twice in May last season. Harden missed those games, but the other stars were healthy. Milwaukee won them both. The Nets aren't going to switch-hunt as aggressively in this game as they would in the postseason. They aren't going to drop as deep into the paint in the half-court against Giannis Antetokounmpo as they did in the second round last season. This is a low-stakes regular-season game. Teams approach those differently. Brooklyn has the personnel to give Milwaukee fits. They're just going to be more aggressive about it when it really counts. That gives the Bucks the edge here.
Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers: Warriors +3.5
Let's ignore the winless preseason that the Lakers just stumbled through for a moment (though it supports the cause). LeBron James has never been a particularly fast starter, at least when it comes to opening nights. Considering the following:
- James has changed teams three times, ahead of the 2010-11, 2014-15 and 2018-19 seasons. He lost opening night in all three seasons.
- James has never won an opening night game as a member of the Lakers. That includes his first game alongside Anthony Davis during the 2019-20 campaign.
- These early struggles even apply to the postseason. James is 29-21 in Game 1 of the 50 postseason series he's participated in. That's a winning percentage of 58 percent. He's well into the 60s, or higher, in all other specific stages of a playoff series.
Obviously, LeBron figures things out. He just typically takes time to do so. But if that disappointing preseason is any indication, the Lakers haven't done so yet. That's OK. Russell Westbrook is an extraordinarily difficult player to integrate into an existing team context because of his limitations as a shooter and his sky-high usage rate. The Lakers are still dealing with a number of injuries to their supporting cast and have to figure out a complicated rotation comprised mostly of minimum-salary players. LeBron is going to figure it out like he always does. History just says not to bet on him doing so on opening night.