I understand you cannot actually see my face right now, but if you could, you would see that I am smiling. While it is only preseason, the Lakers are back, playing actual basketball that (sort of) matters for the first time since last April. It has been a long time. It has felt like a really, really long time.
The wait is over, though. The Lakers tip off tonight at 7pm PST against the Denver Nuggets*. The game should not be taken too seriously — it is the preseason, after all — but it should be viewed intently. The result may not matter in the big picture, but the process of what this team will become on the floor begins in earnest tonight**. And while that comes with countless caveats — from playing time, to rotations, to the presence of players who will not be on this roster in 4 weeks — I’ll take whatever Lakers’ basketball I can get at this point.
In saying all that, here are a few things worth paying special attention to when the ball tips off:
*Does Kobe look as good when not being defended by his own teammates? Like anyone else who has viewed the clips of Kobe practicing, I have been pleasantly surprised by how he’s looked physically and how well he’s been able to the things that Kobe would normally do on the floor. His post game has looked smooth. His jumper seems to be falling with consistently. His movement with and without the ball has not looked significantly different than I remember from when he was healthy. What needs to be said, though, is that all of this has come in short clips and against defenders who, in reality, are not especially tough match ups for him. No offense to Jordan Clarkson or Wayne Ellington or, even, Nick Young. But none of these guys offer the size or defensive acumen to offer much resistance against Kobe.
Tonight, though, he’ll be facing off against another team with better defenders (hello Arron Afflalo) and doing so in an actual game environment. Needless to say, this is a different test than the one Kobe has been, seemingly, passing with flying colors over the past week of training camp. If he can look as good tonight as he has against his own teammates, it will be further confirmation that he is “feeling like himself”.
*Julius Randle’s overall game. On Saturday the Lakers appeared on NBA TV’s “Real Training Camp” and one of the takeaways from that program was that Julius Randle is both really skilled and prone to getting really tired. Randle flashed a nice face up jumper (something he did not do in the Vegas Summer League), his above average handle, and some nice passing (two things he did show in Vegas). He also get extremely winded during head coach Byron Scott’s conditioning heavy practice, more than once looking out of breath and wanting for an extra couple of minutes of rest as the drills rolled on. This is to be somewhat expected — Randle didn’t do much physical activity at all between finishing his freshman season at Kentucky and when he was drafted and was already a player who could stand to get in better shape as camp approached. Beyond that, Scott’s practices have been heavy handed on the running and conditioning and as a rookie coming into his first camp you would expect there to be some culture shock to how things are done at this level.
In saying all that, I am interested in seeing how Randle plays when the bright lights are finally on and when he has that extra burst of adrenaline from being in game action. I also want to see if his full skill set is on display and what positions he is put in on the floor to use those skills.
*What will the big man rotation look like? Nick Young’s injury has thrown the wing rotation for a loop, but that should not be the case for the bigs. Save for Ryan Kelly, every other big is healthy and how Scott divides the minutes will be something to watch — even if it’s on the preseason. We already know that Boozer and Hill will start, but I’ll be interested in seeing how much burn Randle and Davis get, what combinations of those four (plus Sacre) are put on the floor, and how those pairings play together. Again, what we see tonight shouldn’t be forecasted as what will happen a month from now, but tonight’s action will reflect how Scott sees things early in camp. Hints like this can deepen our analysis and give us some insight we did not have before tonight.
*How much does Nash play and, more important, how does he look when he’s out there? When word came out of Saturday’s practice that Nash “tweaked” his ankle, there was a serious sense of “here we go again” when it comes to the veteran guard’s injury issues. But Nash practiced the next day and said he could have easily participated in Saturday’s evening session. As of now Nash is penciled in as the starter and will be run out there with the first group. I do not expect Nash to play more than 10-15 minutes tonight while Lin and Ronnie Price get heavier workloads. In saying that, though, Nash will see the Nuggets’ first team players and that will give him a nice barometer of where he’s at physically and what stage his game is at. Can he create his own shot? Can he be a semblance of the disruptive offensive player he’s been in the past? Can he get his teammates some open, easy shots? I’ll be very interested in seeing how the 40 year old looks.
*Has Wes Johnson really progressed? I was lukewarm on Wes’ return to the Lakers this summer. After watching Wes for a full season my analysis of his game was pretty simple: he’s a much better athlete than he is a basketball player. He often looked like a player who made up his mind on what he wanted to do early in a play and showed little ability to make the mental adjustments, both within a play and over the course of a game, that define how successful basketball players operate on the court. But Wes spent nearly the entire summer working out with Kobe Bryant, picking #24’s brain and getting schooled on the thinking aspects of the game and ideas like “economy of motion” that are meant to further maximize his physical gifts. People have been looking for Wes to break out since the time he entered the league. And while I think that ship has sailed, it’s not beyond his ability to make marginal improvements around the edges of his game to become a more efficient player than he was last year. Much of that will depend on the mental aspect of the game, however, and I am interested in seeing if he has made strides in that area.
Beyond that, there are many other things to watch — from Jordan Clarkson’s play to how the team is doing defensively to whether or not Ellington and Price impress as much in game action as they have in practices. We’ll have more on all these topics, and more, in the next day or so.
*If you are in the LA market, you can watch the game on TWC Sportsnet. The game can also be viewed in NBA TV if you are not local.
**Practice, of course, is where all the habits of what this team will play like will actually be formed. That said, when the games come, their execution on the floor together will be forged and built in different ways. I am very interested in seeing how this team plays against opponents not wearing Lakers’ practice jerseys.