The Los Angeles Lakers completed their first week of preseason games with a subpar 1-3 record. They started with a blowout loss to a very good Denver Nuggets team, improved in the next two games, but ended the week with a disappointing defeat at the hands of the Clippers.
With all the roster changes this summer, the team does not look cohesive at the moment. The week was punctuated by positives and negatives. With Lonzo Ball not playing, rookie Moritz Wagner out with a knee injury, and many other key players (including LeBron James) seeing limited action, it was an imperfect sampling from which to draw any definite conclusions.
Still, here is what has been revealed so far.
What Went Right: LeBron James has been as good as everyone expected. He will turn 34 in December but shows no sign of slowing down. James only played in three games, at 15 minutes per contest, and averaged 13.3 points, 3.3 assists and 3 rebounds. James will do his part, but the key will be if the players around him can learn to use his presence to elevate their own games.
What Went Wrong: Defense. The Lakers allowed opponents to score 124, 113, 123, and 103 points in four contests. The lowly Sacramento Kings nearly shot the Lakers out of Staples Center in the first quarter of their matchup, registering 39 points.
Even when the Lakers won, head coach Luke Walton preferred to dwell on their defensive deficiencies. JaVale McGee has been a good rim protector, recording five blocks in one game and altering shots throughout his time on the court.
Otherwise, the interior defense has been a mess. The perimeter defense has been consistently poor, as opponents are getting (and making) too many uncontested shots.
What Went Right: JaVale McGee. It has been a long time since the Lakers had a true shot blocker and strong finisher at the rim in the pick-and-roll offense. In limited minutes, McGee had a gam- high 17 points in the preseason opener and 15 points the second game.
He didn’t play much in the third contest because both Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball were out, so the pick-and-roll was shut down. McGee finished the week with 8 points and 9 rebounds against the Clippers, including one very impressive drive to the basket for a dunk.
McGee has changed the narrative that surrounded him, but there were questions about his durability, conditioning and focus. He worked hard over the summer and looks highly motivated at the moment. He is poised to have a career year if he stays healthy.
What Went Wrong: Too many fouls, which continues an alarming trend from last season when the Lakers ranked 24th in the league while averaging nearly 22 fouls a game. In the first two preseason contests this year, they committed a whopping 61 fouls which led to 68 free throws for the opponent. Things were not much better in the final two games of the week.
There have been times this past week where it felt like the Lakers were committing a foul on almost every defensive possession. It interrupts the flow of the game, and for a team that wants to play fast and run up and down the court, it undermines that style of play.
What Went Right: Brandon Ingram has enjoyed a good preseason thus far. In the first game he scored 16 points in limited minutes on 50 percent shooting from the floor. It was the third game when he really exploded, scoring a team-high 31 points and grabbing 9 rebounds in the Lakers’ first preseason victory.
Ingram did not shoot well against the Clippers, but he remained aggressive and made some good defensive plays. The Lakers need Ingram to emerge as the team’s second scoring option, and it looks like he is up to the task.
Most of his points have come at the rim, however, as he has yet to make a single three-point shot and only attempted one. Ingram showed late in his rookie season and all of last year that he is adept at cutting to the rim off ball or driving to the basket himself.
The question is whether he can continue to do that, take the hits over and over again in the lane, and stay healthy. Ingram looks stronger but is still known by some as “Slender Man” for a good reason.
What Went Wrong: Three-Point Shooting, a category in which the Lakers struggled as a group last season when they finished 29th out of 30 teams. They did nothing to address the issue this summer, which most opined was a mistake by the front office. So far in preseason those fears seem legitimate.
Kyle Kuzma is leading the team with a decent 35 percent shooting from deep, but Josh Hart is shooting only 31 percent. Lance Stephenson made only 20 percent from three point range this past week, and Kentavious Caldwell Pope shot at an almost invisible 14 percent.
Even rookie Svi Mykhailliuk, who the Lakers were hoping would provide fire power off the bench, only connected on 20 percent of his long range attempts. The Lakers will not shoot this poorly during the year, but the odds of them improving over their 34.5 percent team average last year do not look good at the moment.
What Went Right: Josh Hart, who finished last season on a high note and went on to become MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League. Still, some questioned how he would look this year against real NBA competition, but so far in the preseason, the answer is that he looks quite good.
In fact, after starting two preseason games in place of a slumping Kentavious Caldwell Pope, the two are locked in a battle to see who will be the starting shooting guard when the regular season begins. Hart is playing a team-leading 27 minutes a game, averaging a solid 11.5 points on 44.1 percent shooting overall, and his defense continues to impress.
What Went Wrong: Kentavious Caldwell Pope, who has really struggled in the preseason thus far. If things don’t improve quickly, he is in jeopardy of losing his starting role when the season begins.
In 23.3 minutes of playing time, he is shooting only 36 percent from the field. He has also struggled on defense, committing too many silly fouls. Caldwell-Pope was the team’s biggest disappointment this past week.
What Went Right: Rajon Rondo, who has been everything that was advertised as a leader, a ball-handler, and someone who excels at setting up his teammates for easy buckets. In the first preseason game, Rondo led the team in assists with 11 and in rebounding with 7.
He came back in the second game and scored 11 points while making a couple of three-point shots, to go along with 7 assists. With Rondo on the floor, JaVale McGee has shined in the pick-and-roll offense. Rondo rested and did not play in the third contest but had 10 assists in the fourth game, 8 of which came in the first half.
What Went Wrong: Kyle Kuzma, who has been good but not the vastly improved player that everyone was expecting. Last year, he was supremely confident and aggressive, playing in attack mode every minute of every game.
This preseason he looks more docile, lacking the confidence and assertiveness that Ingram has demonstrated. The Lakers want to play Kuzma as much as possible but he doesn’t have a regular position or role, which can be unsettling.
He also has to contend on the second unit with Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, who dominate the ball. Finally, Kuzma is struggling to play the center position in a small-ball lineup, which saps a lot of his energy and focus.
In summary, after showing good improvement in the second and third games of the week, the Lakers finished with a disappointing effort against the Clippers.
There were good moments this week for individual players, but the Lakers rarely played well as a team. The coaches experimented with different rotations, shuffling players in and out of the lineup.
It will be interesting to see if Walton continues to try new alignments in the remaining preseason games or if, with only two preseason contests left, he goes with the set rotations he intends to use when the regular season begins.
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