The Los Angeles Lakers completed their preseason with a record of 2-6, slightly worse that their 3-5 record a year ago. It would have been nice to finish strong to build momentum to start the regular season, but the opposite occurred as they lost their last five games. There were positives, however, including Nick Young’s resurgence, D’Angelo Russell’s increased assists, the moderately improved team defense, and the consistent play of the second unit, but overall the outlook for the season is murky.
The lack of clarity is caused in part by the fact that the free agents they signed played very little in the preseason, thus one cannot judge what impact they will have, if any, once the games start to count. Luol Deng and Jose Calderon played in only four of the eight games and averaged a mere 18.5 and 12.6 minutes, respectively. Timofey Mozgov played in seven games but like Deng averaged only 18 minutes. Deng and Mozgov are expected to receive far more playing time once the season starts.
In addition, instead of making the last two games a preview of how they will play in the regular season, which is the norm, the coaching staff followed the same plan as before and continued to experiment to the very end. There were different starting lineups and rotations every game, and an unusual amount minutes were given to players vying for the 15th roster spot.
The Lakers are unprepared for the regular season, but it is going to start anyway. Given their relative dearth of talent compared to other teams, their fate will be determined by the degree of improvement shown among their many young players over the course of the season, which is impossible to predict. While no one is expecting much from the Lakers, there are five specific things they can do to stay competitive.
A big issue in the preseason was turnovers. The Lakers routinely had 20 plus turnovers a night. More often than not the turnovers led to easy, fast-break baskets for the other team. They also came at inopportune times, such as, for example, towards the end of fairly close games the Lakers might have won had they protected the ball better.
The worst offenders are D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Marcelo Huertas. They are the three best passers who will lead the team in assists, but that doesn’t excuse the turnovers. Russell and Randle tend to be lazy and telegraph their passes, and Randle also loses the ball a lot when he is out of control driving recklessly to the basket. Huertas often jumps in the air with no place to go and at the last second is forced to throw a desperation pass which is far too often stolen.
With their modest talent, the Lakers are not a team that can win when they turn the ball over 20 times a game. Conversely, if they limit turnovers to the 10-12 range, it should help them remain competitive in most games.
2. Free Throws
Another major factor in the preseason was missed free throws. There were games when they missed nearly 50 percent of their attempts, which had a major impact on the final score. Even players who are normally reliable from the line like Nick Young and Lou Williams did poorly at times. The Lakers will need all the points they can muster to stay in games this season, and they can ill afford to fail to convert on their free throws.
The Lakers have very few players who are likely to hit 80 percent or better from the line this season. Jose Calderon will hit the mark if he plays, and Lou Williams is likely to get there too. Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson may get close. However, key members of the rotation like Randle, Huertas, Larry Nance, Jr., Tarik Black, and Brandon Ingram rarely make more than one of two free throws.
With the Lakers trailing by two points at the end of the final preseason game Randle went to the line, missed both attempts, and the game was over. This was embarrassing for Randle, and it simply cannot happen during the regular season.
3.Defend Without Fouling
A common theme of the preseason was the team’s inability to defend without fouling. Preseason opponents averaged 24.5 free throws per game against the Lakers, sixth most in the league. This was the point Coach Luke Walton stressed more often than any other in his post-game comments.
While they consistently allowed their opponents to score more than 100 points a game in the preseason, the Lakers’ defense did seem a little improved over last year. When Mozgov and Deng play more, the defense should be even better. Unfortunately for the Lakers, nearly every team shoots free throws better than they do so they simply must learn to defend without fouling to avoid giving teams easy points. Randle and Black, in particular, tend to get in foul trouble a lot, and when they have to go to the bench, it will hurt the team.
The Lakers will not win many games this season if they continue to send their opponents to the free throw line 25 times or more in a game. In particular, they have to stop making silly fouls by reaching in on opposing players driving to the basket.
4. Offensive Rebounds
A consistent problem for the Lakers this preseason was the number of offensive rebounds they lost to other teams. There were games when opponents were grabbing two, three and even four offensive rebounds in a single possession. The Lakers have enough issues as it is, and they simply cannot allow opposing teams to regularly grab offensive rebounds and get multiple shots per possession.
Much of the burden will fall to the projected starters at center and power forward, Mozgov and Randle. Mozgov has never been a volume rebounder so the Lakers will have to hope he does better. Randle cannot take long stretches of a game off as he is prone to do, he has to remain focused and give maximum effort on the boards at all times. With the second unit, Black and Nance will have to make rebounding a priority.
5. Start Strong in the First Quarter
Last season, the Lakers developed a terrible habit of starting games with little energy and falling behind quickly, which more often than not meant the game was over by the end of the first quarter. Unfortunately, while some things have changed, one problem that remained the same this preseason was this pattern of getting off to very slow starts. The Lakers do not have the firepower to fall behind by double digits in the first six minutes and hope to come back on a regular basis.
Typically the opposing team has exploded for the first eight or ten points before the Lakers calm down and score at all. As noted above, Deng and Mozgov are supposed to add stability to the defense, but neither played much in the preseason. It is expected that Deng will play at least 30 minutes a contest when games start to count and Mozgov will play at least 25.
In addition, it looks like Coach Walton plans on starting Lou Williams at shooting guard, one of the worst defenders on the squad if not the worst. If Nick Young is playing as well as the coaching staff has indicated, including on defense, and they want Clarkson coming off the bench, it might make sense to start Young instead of Williams.