After one of the most exciting offseasons in their impressive history, the Los Angeles Lakers are finally set to take the floor once again. There are plenty of new faces, a King on the throne, and a group of returning youngsters itching to prove themselves.
A new era is dawning, and Sunday will provide our first glimpse at the future of the Lakers. Here are five things to watch for when they open the preseason in San Diego against the Denver Nuggets.
LeBron James’ Minutes: The Lakers rocked the NBA world when they signed LeBron James in free agency. At 33 years old with plenty of mileage (thanks, in part, to eight straight trips to the NBA Finals), the Lakers will need to do what they can to preserve their star and prolong his effectiveness.
James is obsessed with treating his body right and spends ungodly sums every year to keep himself in peak condition, but that can only delay the inevitable. Father Time, as Lakers fans know all too well, is undefeated.
That said, James turned in one of the best seasons of his incredible career in 2017-18, playing in all 82 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers. His defense did drop off significantly (28th percentile per Synergy after being in the 82nd percentile in 2016-17), but the hope is that on a Lakers team filled with creators James won’t have to do all of the lifting on the offensive end.
He has already stated that he doesn’t feel like he need preseason to get ready, so keep an eye on how many minutes James does – or rather, doesn’t – play. The hour glass will eventually run out and the Lakers might as well preserve as much sand for the playoffs as possible.
Center scramble: There is perhaps no greater sign of the shift in the way basketball is played than the Lakers’ center position. The franchise known for dominant big men like Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and George Mikan will spend less money on centers than any team in the NBA.
Between JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and Moe Wagner, L.A. is spending less than five percent of the salary cap on true center. Furthermore, Wagner is both currently unavailable due to injury and a stretch to be considered a traditional five.
It’s a small world after all, which means that we could see the likes of James, Michael Beasley and Kyle Kuzma lining up as the team’s de facto center early and often. McGee has averaged just over 10 minutes per game during his last five seasons and Zubac struggled last season, which means head coach Luke Walton will have to get creative with his lineups.
Pay particular attention to what the guards do when the Lakers go small in the middle, as Rajon Rondo, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are all excellent at hitting the glass.
When McGee or Zubac is on the floor you may see more traditional tactics with the guard checking down to the ball after the big secures the rebound, but when they go small expect to see them dive into the paint to grab the ball while the bigs focus on boxing out and creating space.
Positional battles: Competition, the Lakers believe, is a good thing that can help bring out the best in their players. With a deep roster full of players who are deserving of minutes, Walton is going to have some difficult decisions to make.
Caldwell-Pope vs. Hart, Ball vs. Rondo, Beasley vs. Lance Stephenson vs. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, McGee vs Zubac, and many more.
With plenty of worthy players and a finite amount of minutes to go around, it’s going to be a dogfight during the preseason as everyone looks to carve out their role and minutes. Pay close attention to not just individuals, but how Walton experiments with different units.
Sometimes, group chemistry can trump individual talent, as we saw at the beginning of last season when Walton felt that Larry Nance Jr.’s versatile defense was a better fit with the starting five than Julius Randle.
The Lakers have said that four of the five starting spots (James’ is secure) are up for grabs and we won’t know who wins them until the dust settles, and perhaps more importantly, who Walton trusts to close games in crunch time.
Defense: Last season’s team made huge strides on the defensive end of the floor, jumping up to 13th in Defensive Rating after finishing dead last the season before. Switching was key to their success as versatile defenders like Nance, Ball, Randle, Brandon Ingram, Hart, and the rest were able to kill pick and roll attacks with their ability to guard multiple positions.
Defensive stops allowed the team to get out and run in transition, which they did on a league-leading 19.5 percent of their offensive possessions.
During preseason there will be plenty of miscues thanks to the team integrating so many new faces, but keep an eye on the Lakers’ defensive efficiency. It’s the end of the floor that Walton has focused on during training camp, and James has already drawn comparisons between this year’s Lakers and the early days of his Miami Heat teams, who relied on defensive pressure to force turnovers and allow them to get easy baskets in transition.
The Lakers’ halfcourt offense wasn’t pretty last season, and while James and the other incoming veterans should help that, defense is still going to need to be their hallmark if they hope to find success.
The Kids Are Alright: The Lakers young core, consisting of Ingram, Ball, Hart and Kuzma, have earned a reputation as tireless workers. Clint Parks, who is Kuzma’s friend and trainer, recently shared with Lakers Nation that Kuzma has been putting himself through three-a-day workouts while radically changing his diet in order to hit another level this season.
Similar stories have emerged about the rest of the group and Media Day showed the impressive results, as both Ball and Kuzma had noticeably added muscle to their frame.
Preseason will provide an opportunity for them to show off their improved games, and it’s going to be critical for the Lakers moving forward that they hit their ceilings.
With James in town there is plenty of pressure on the kids to develop, but if they can hit the next level in their development not only will the team be better but the Lakers will also become an even more attractive free agent destination next summer, when they have a max salary slot to attract the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, etc.
Here are some things to watch for individual players:
Ball: He tweaked his jump shot a little over the summer and got stronger, so improved efficiency is going to be key. Once he’s ready to play (he’s still ramping up after offseason knee surgery), his shot will be an important storyline.
Kuzma: According to Parks, Kuzma spent much of his summer preparing to take his defensive game up a notch. It was a concern last season, so he comes back for his second year with improved conditioning and some extra reps at defending perimeter players, who he figures to switch onto frequently.
His offensive production should be there but watch Kuzma’s both on and off ball defense, as even moderate improvement would increase his impact tremendously.
Hart: After getting unleashed at the end of last season, Hart went into the summer with momentum and proved himself by winning the MVP award for the Las Vegas Summer League.
He’s worked on his ball handling a lot this offseason as well as his defense, so look for him to take on a larger role in the Lakers attack. If he can prove he’s the better fit, Hart may just steal the starting shooting guard spot from Caldwell-Pope.
Ingram: Unlike Ball, Hart and Kuzma, the versatile Ingram didn’t lock in on any particular part of his game to improve this summer. Instead, he took an all-around approach, which makes sense for a player with his diverse skills.
Ingram has shown slow but steady development throughout his two seasons with the Lakers and his third year could prove to be his breakout campaign. Watch how he relocates off the ball when defenses are keyed on James, as Ingram could become deadly as a slasher diving to the rim and in catch-and-shoot situations.
Also, don’t count out rookie Svi Mykhailiuk, who could insert himself into the conversation to be part of the young core. He’s drawn rave reviews in training camp after an impressive Summer League.