The Lakers preseason opened with a 124-107 to the Nuggets on Sunday. The game was close for small portions and the Lakers starters performed well, but overall the bench units got shellacked and that was that. The game did offer some entertaining moments and it was wonderful to see LeBron James suit up for the first time, but it was pretty evident all night the Lakers have a fair amount of work to do on both sides of the ball as they push toward opening night in two weeks.
With that, here’s a tidy list of 10 things from the game — what I liked, what I didn’t like, and some things that fall in the middle…
- Let’s start with LeBron since that’s where most things Lakers will this year. He played at about 60% speed most of the night. He was not super aggressive offensively in looking for his own shot, taking only 6 shots in 15 minutes and making only 2 of them (both of them 3-pointers). He had a couple of good back-side defensive rotations as the primary PF in most lineups. He passed well from all over the floor, as is expected. Overall, a fine debut, but there’s absolutely nothing conclusive the be gleaned from this performance. Remember, last year LeBron didn’t play a single preseason game and if he weren’t on a brand new team this year with a need to both incorporate him to what the team is doing on both sides of the ball and to develop chemistry with his new teammates, he probably wouldn’t be playing this preseason either. In other words, I think it’s sort of a double edged sword where he has to get some minutes but he understands his body best and isn’t going to exert himself too much. It is what it is.
- Brandon Ingram looked good overall. Forget the good stat-line (16 points on 7-14 shooting, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals) for a moment and simply watch what was happening on the floor. He moved well, got to his spots offensively, had a nice understanding of where his scoring opportunities would come from, passed the ball well, and continued to show an improved understanding of how to leverage his length on both sides of the ball. Defensively he had a nice off-ball steal by playing in-between help on the weak-side by deflecting a cross-court pass and he also had a very nice on ball blocked shot of Juancho Hernangomez. Like LeBron, conclusions cannot be drawn off a single game, but Ingram looks confident in how he can impact a game.
- Rajon Rondo looked like he can get 10 assists in his sleep playing 25 minutes a night. He had 11 in 23 minutes vs. Denver, showing his veteran savvy and understanding of where the defensive gaps were + where his teammates were or how to pass them into a scoring chance. He also did a good job of passing ahead when the opportunity was there, allowing teammates open court chances vs. a not-yet-set defense. As a scorer, however, he only tallied 2 points on 1-3 shooting. Combine that with his 7 rebounds and, well, it was a typical Rondo night.
- JaVale McGee can finish, man. A team high 17 points on 8-10 shooting, mostly on dunks. His catch radius is ridiculous, his hands are good, and his legs remain springy. Lobs, shovel passes on dives, over-the-top throws…JaVale caught them all and finished with authority. You can see how he’ll help this team even if his production will not be this way every game.
- As a team, the Lakers defense was poor and I’d say that even if the Nuggets didn’t put up a 124 spot on them. The team closed out short and allowed Nuggets players to walk into 3’s. They miscommunicated on switches and allowed some easy baskets as a result. There were a few times where players didn’t make the extra rotation or were confused about whose rotation it actually was. These are the growing pains of a new team, but that’s not all of it. The change from mostly young players with fresh legs to veteran players with more miles *could* end up being a thing this year. The 1st preseason game is never a good way to judge a players’ wind or willingness to go the extra mile so I’m not coming to any conclusions by any means. But the short closeouts and missing rotations can be symptoms of guys not making the effort or showing a “fake hustle” to act like they’re trying when, in fact, they’re not. I’m not saying that’s what the Lakers were doing. I’m also not saying they weren’t.
- KCP played pretty poorly overall, I thought. He wasn’t as active defensively as I’d hoped and he had a bad shooting night too (0-5 from the field with 4 of those shots from deep). I think Hart was the better player, even though he was part of some dreadful performing bench units (while the starters as a lineup were a net positive).
- Kuzma played okay overall, but shot poorly and, for this game at least, looked like he still has some work to do on shot selection. I’d like to see him use a shot fake more vs. hard closeouts and for him to move the ball more in general, but I also understand his gifts as a scorer can cut against these ideas. What I will say, though, is that Kuzma continues to be a super smooth athlete who moves so well that he could easily be a guy 3-4 inches shorter. He’s always on the balls of his feet and seems to glide to spots on the floor, changing direction effortlessly, and able to shoot comfortably off the wrong foot or attacking at weird angles. He has a gift in this way and when you apply this as the backdrop to his game, you can understand his offensive mindset better.
- The refs’ points of emphasis on cutting down on grabbing/holding/hooking by defensive players was on full display. There were a ton of touch fouls called this game and several players and both head coaches (as well as those earning the whistle) were talking to the refs asking “is this how it’s going to be?” with how tight these infractions were being called. The players need to adjust. I do not think these calls are going away in order to establish new norms.
- Lance Stephenson shot well, hitting 4 of his 5 shots and scoring 12 points. He also held the ball *a lot* and dribbled the air out of it on a few possessions. That’s all I’ll say at this point, but it brings me to my next point…
- I thought the Lakers missed Lonzo, as as I noted in my preview, I wish he’d have been able to play. While Rondo was fine as a starter, the bench units looked unorganized and out of sync. They did not play with the same verve offensively and didn’t have that same pop defensively. Lonzo helps in both areas and especially as a ball mover offensively to get the team moving better and into their sets. I think Lonzo’s quick decision making stands in stark contrast to how Lance held the ball to seek out ways to attack his own man. Long term, I actually hope to see Lonzo back as the starter, Rondo playing with the bench unit, and Lance with ball in his hands less as a primary initiator.
There’s much more to talk about, but I’ll leave it here. The Lakers play again on Tuesday and we’ll see if any strides are made.
What I will say, however, is that the import of this game and the results are not very high. The guys are not in game shape (Ingram and Kuzma, for example, were huffing after a few transition plays) and several of the veterans — most notably LeBron — were pacing themselves. It’s hard to get an accurate view of where a team is when fatigue or operating capacity is artificially low.