The picture is far from complete, but after three preseason games we’re starting to get a clearer view of this incarnation of the Lakers. The win against the Denver Nuggets was an entertaining one that featured some good play up and down the roster and ended when a unit of deep reserves and Steve Blake got a couple of timely defensive stops to close the door on a Nuggets’ surge. But while the win was nice — the Lakers are now 2 and 1 in this exhibition season — the bigger, more important takeaways come from some of the trends that are starting to develop.
While we don’t yet have a complete picture of this group, we are starting to gather clearer bits of information of what they can be and how they may get their. Good and bad individual performances, personnel groupings that show promise, and hints at a style of play are all coming into focus. This is both exciting and revealing as the intel we’re gaining now can help inform us of how things may be a month from now.
On that note, a few thoughts not only from the win versus the Nuggets, but from the preseason at large to this point…
*Mike D’Antoni started both Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman and the results were pretty darn good on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the duo showed that they both have the requisite feel to interchange between the low and high post and that diversity gave the team a nice flow when playing through their big men. In the early stages, both bigs had nice dishes to each other in high-low actions that led to easy baskets and it was easy to see that having two multi-skilled bigs who are comfortable playing out to 18 feet will have its advantages offensively.
Defensively, the duo wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined they would be, but a lot of that likely had to do with the Nuggets’ plan of attack. Rather than attack Pau and Kaman in the P&R, Denver chose to isolate their big men against them in the mid and low post. They had some success on the block with JaVale McGee and from mid-range with J.J. Hickson and Kenneth Faried, but these were mostly low efficiency plays that allowed the Lakers’ bigs to play to their defensive strengths. An area that did surprise me, though, was how well Pau and Kaman communicated in handling their switch offs and how they dealt with getting back in transition. Kaman showed good feel in when he should run back vs. when he should try for offensive rebounds and by making mostly correct choices he was able to establish a nice presence in the paint to help slow down the Nuggets’ transition game. If both bigs can continue to play smart team D in both the half court and in transition, we may see much more of this pairing moving forward.
*With Kaman and Pau playing a lot together, Jordan Hill played a lot of C with Shawne Williams manning the PF slot and this also produced some good results. It’s early still, but Hill seems much more comfortable doing the things that are asked of centers in this offense rather than playing the in-between game that is needed of PF’s so this is something to continue to watch moving forward. Last season I noted that Hill is more of a small ball C in this offense and so far this preseason that is holding up. With Williams stretching the floor, Hill was freed up to work closer to the paint more often which translated to a better presence on the offensive glass and more of his trademark hustle plays.
Defensively this duo covered a lot of ground and showed good athleticism. Hill was very active in going after blocks on penetration and Williams showed a nice ability to help in the paint while also having the quickness to recover back to the wing when needed. If both can continue to be semi-reliable two way players, the Lakers will have a nice foursome of big men to rotate around, mixing and matching into different personnel groupings.
*Speaking of defense, I like what I see from this team so far. They’re far from perfect and it’s easy to see where some of the individual failings of the guys will create issues for the team. That said, the team’s scheme looks solid and it’s much easier to identify what they’re trying to accomplish on that side of the ball. Through three games it’s clear they want to force penetration to the baseline and shade ball handlers in the P&R to go in that direction. Big men are actively dropping below the pick when the guards shade and the back side wings are rotating to the middle to help on the screener should he dive hard to the rim or float into open space for a jumper. On several possessions last night, the team moved on a string and made crisp rotations to shut down the progressions within Denver’s offense. The “it’s only preseason” caveats still apply, but these are things that weren’t done very well or very often last season.
Another thing that stands out defensively is that the Lakers have more foot speed on the floor at any given time. Last year Earl Clark’s athleticism stood out when viewed through the prism of what his teammates offered (to be fair, Clark is a good athlete anyway, but compared to who he shared the floor with he might as well have been LeBron on some defensive possessions). This year, though, the Lakers guys like Williams, Young, Johnson, Henry, and Farmar as new additions. Add them to Hill and even Steve Blake (who always hustles and is very smart in how he moves around the floor) and the team simply looks faster. Even though these guys aren’t necessarily the caliber of individual defenders as guys like Ron, the fact is they move around the floor better and have much more foot speed. Those latter qualities are also key components to creating a good defense, especially if they can be channeled into good effort with understanding of where to be. So far this preseason, the Lakers are showing that mix of better athleticism and a want to execute and the results have been solid.
*Offensively, I like that the team is using a mix of different attacks to get the ball into the hands of their scorers. In the second Nuggets’ game, the team really tried to establish Gasol in the post against the smaller Faried and went to that match up several times throughout the game. Pau responded well by using his size advantage to create good looks from the left block and it was nice to see him be assertive considering the size discrepancy. But the team also did a good job of running P&R’s to set up Kaman for mid-range jumpers, ran several baseline screen and pin down actions to free Nick Young, and also ran dribble hand-offs into P&R’s to get their guards going into space where they could either get into the lane or shoot open jumpers while their defenders trailed the action.
*Speaking of Nick Young, I like that he’s not always settling for the long two point jumper. Several times over these first few games he’s come off picks and turned the corner hard looking to get into the paint. In this most recent game he used the bounce to get into the teeth of the D and then surprised everyone with nifty passes to an open big man for an easy basket. Combine these plays for others with him drawing contact and generating FT attempts and he deserves some praise for his overall offensive work. Don’t get me wrong, he still frustrates with too many long 2 point attempts, but he is what he is and that will always be a part of his game.
*Lastly, the end of the players battling for the final roster spots are starting to distinguish themselves from one another. On the positive end, Xavier Henry’s aggressiveness continues to stand out. He’s assertive when he has the ball and is really finding ways to get to the basket and either score or get fouled. He’s not a playmaker for others, and that may end up hurting him down the line, but as long as he can keep finding ways to get efficient shots up (lay ups or FT’s), he’ll be okay. Elias Harris isn’t doing anything great, but he’s also not doing anything poorly. He’s looked solid defensively and doesn’t try to step out of his comfort zone offensively. In Tuesday’s game he had a nice post up play where he was fouled and was in on a big defensive stop where he forced a steal. Solid yet unspectacular play won’t necessarily earn him minutes, but it may help him make the team.
On the other end of the spectrum is Marcus Landry. Landry plays hard and competes on both sides of the ball, but he’s been billed as a shooter yet can’t seem to knock down the open shots this offense is generating for him. As the big man/wing on the weak side of the offense, he’s a guy that should feast on the open jumpers that come out of P&R’s and ball reversals when the defense has to help on the strong side. Instead, he’s shot the ball poorly and hasn’t flashed any of the in-between game that he did during summer league to diversify his offensive attack. Landry’s performance makes me wish even more that Ryan Kelly were healthy to see what he could do with the offensive opportunities that Landry has gotten. Hopefully Kelly is ready to go soon so we can see what the rookie from Duke can do with some of these open shots.