LOS ANGELES — The Lakers have played just two preseason games, and preseason contests matter as much as the new basketball Yeezys. Maybe even less. If that’s possible. So take any sweeping conclusions with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt.
That said, after LeBron James’ preseason debut at home Tuesday night, here are five takeaways about these Lakers so far.
1) LeBron is very, very good at basketball. Thanks, Capt. Obvious. We know that like we know Meryl Streep will get nominated for an Oscar.
Still, watching him take over a game — even a preseason game — reminds us of what a force of nature he can be. And why nobody wants to pick against these Lakers.
Tuesday night against Denver the Lakers got off to a slow start, with LeBron deferring (there was a concerted effort to get Brandon Ingram into a playmaking role) and the offense looking slow and stagnant. Out of an early timeout, LeBron decided it was time to flex his muscles. First, the Lakers ran a horns set with LeBron on one elbow, and he made a clever pass to the cutting JaVale McGee for a bucket. Then LeBron rebounded the ball and led the break before hitting a running jumper that has been a staple his entire career. Next play he gets the rebound and finds Josh Hart on the leak out — LeBron took over, the team got three quick buckets, and the Lakers looked fast and efficient. Plus, he did things like this.
Already you can see how much LeBron is going to have to carry for the Lakers to succeed this season. As SI’s Ben Golliver of noted the Lakers are +14 in two games with LeBron on the court and -33 when he is on the bench (he’s been on the bench for twice as many minutes as he’s played). Yes, there is a lot of noise in that stat — who LeBron is with on the court matters in the mix — but when he is out this team looks lost and when he is in, they make plays.
Bottom line, the Lakers’ playoff hopes are all about LeBron taking over stretches of games. Two preseason games in, we know he can still do this as well as anyone.
2) Does Luke Walton trust the young Lakers or veteran Lakers more? Tuesday night, Walton started second-year player Josh Hart at the two guard spot over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. It’s just one preseason game, but that’s a very good sign.
There are a few big questions about these Lakers, but none matters more to the team’s future than this: Does Walton trust and lean on the young Lakers — Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, etc. — when the pressure is on, or does he go with the veterans such as Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson?
So far things seem split, but starting Hart over KCP is a sign which direction things are going.
“Whenever I start, I’m usually a little more aggressive on the offensive end,” Hart said after the game. “It was really good to get out and run with those guys. I didn’t have the opportunity to get out and run with those guys as much in the first game, so it was good to get out there with the ball movement.”
None of those veterans on one-year deals are part of the future in Los Angeles. For the Lakers’ long-term success with LeBron (the three seasons after this one), they need this young core to become guys who can give quality minutes on a contending team. Ingram is at the top of that list, he needs to prove to be a No. 2 or No. 3 option on a title team, which is why we saw such a concerted effort to get him the ball early. Ingram said after the game he and LeBron are developing some real chemistry.
Rondo and McGee have played well so far as starters and both certainly have key roles on this team. However, for the long-haul, it has to be the youth. Expect Walton to lean on those young stars more and more as the season goes on… if he doesn’t, that’s a troubling sign.
3) When they ran, the Lakers’ had moments of genuine promise. The Lakers’ spurts in this game came when they ran — the passing was sharp, the ball moved, and the energy was up. The Lakers looked dynamic in transition.
That should only get better when Lonzo Ball returns to the rotation.
The Lakers’ chemistry is a work in progress, but when they get out and run they have a real flow — and they’re fun. If the Lakers are going to succeed this year they will be playing at one of the faster paces in the NBA.
4) To run consistently requires defense and rebounding, and the Lakers have not been dedicated to that. The best transition teams — from the Showtime Lakers through the current Warriors — know that to truly be elite in transition means getting stops. For the second game in a row, the Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets carved up the Lakers’ defense with their passing, although the Lakers thought Game 2 went better than their first preseason game. Still, the Lakers were not consistently communicating well on screens or closing out on shooters. When the Lakers did play good defense and force a miss, they too often struggled to secure the defensive rebound, and so the process restarted itself.
Denver is an elite offense that makes a lot of defenses look bad, but in a deep West the Lakers are going to run into great offenses, or at least good ones, every night. The Laker defense was solid last season, it cannot take a step back.
The Lakers’ got boards and made stops in stretches (which led to their transition game), but it wasn’t consistent. The issues were particularly noticeable when they went small. Which brings us to…
5) Los Angeles is trying to make small ball work, but they have a way to go. It’s a strange thing to type, but the Lakers really need JaVale McGee right now. After him, the Lakers are thin at center and the quality drops off fast.
Luke Walton knew that going into camp, which is why the Kyle Kuzma at center experiment continues — sliding a natural three down to the five slot is a fun preseason experiment, but defensively it can’t last. For two games in a row, Nikola Jokic has eaten Kuzma’s lunch. Granted, Jokic is a top 20-25 NBA player (and on the rise) who a lot of regular centers struggle to slow down, but even if Kuzma is matched up against a natural four he will struggle to stop them. It’s not his game.
To reiterate a theme here, Lakers’ offense looks great when they get out in transition — we’ve covered that in No. 3 above — and the small ball look is an effort to capitalize on it. However, the small ball lineups may require a superhuman LeBron (something that can happen nightly) to really work for now. The Lakers will be fun and fast when they go small, but if it’s just a shootout and they don’t get some stops it doesn’t help as much as it should.