What We Learned From Lakers Preseason Opener
LeBron James, JaVale McGee
Harry How-Getty Images

The 2018-19 campaign is finally off and running as the Los Angeles Lakers played their first preseason game. They ultimately fell to the Denver Nuggets, 124-107, in a game filled with understandably sloppy play peppered with a few bright spots.

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Preseason in the NBA can be misleading. Success or failure here isn’t always a good predictor of what will happen in the regular season. Minutes are distributed differently than they will be when the games count and coaches feel empowered to go mad scientist with different plays and lineups.

Lakers head coach Luke Walton certainly did his fair share of tinkering, for better or worse, but this is the time for it.

All that being said, our first glimpse at the new-look Lakers did provide plenty to take away. The sample size is ridiculously small so take everything with a grain of salt, but here’s what we learned on Sunday night.

Defense Is A Work In Progress: Last season, the Lakers’ calling card was their defense. They finished 12th in Defensive Rating by using plenty of versatile lineups that allowed them to switch like crazy.

At their best, all five players moved as one, flying all over the floor and shutting off their opponent’s first, second, and even third options, forcing them into emergency situations. This allowed the Lakers to get valuable stops, which sparked their transition offense.

This was crucial because the Lakers’ halfcourt offense was poor, and as such they had to level the playing field by getting into transition more than any team in the league.

On Sunday night, that vaunted Lakers defense was largely missing in action despite the team spending most of training camp focused on that end of the floor. Assignments were consistently missed as the Denver Nuggets lit the Lakers up from beyond the arc, led by Juancho Hernangomez, who was 5-of-8 from deep.

The Nuggets, despite only hitting 35 percent from three (it felt like they never missed), got a number of wide-open looks thanks to miscues from Los Angeles. When the Lakers did manage to chase the Nuggets off the arc they struggled to defend the paint without fouling, gifting them 35 free throw attempts.

The Lakers still managed to score 22 fast-break points to just 16 from Denver. But the disparity there is going to need to be much greater while Los Angeles is figuring out their halfcourt offense, and especially when Los Angeles shoots just 32 percent from three and 73 percent from the line.

In order to get out and run, the Lakers first have to get stops, and that’s going to be a work in progress as the new personnel get used to playing with each other. More time on the practice floor will help, as will the eventual return of Lonzo Ball.

Size Matters: During the offseason the Lakers opted to spend less on the center position than any team in the league. With rookie Moe Wagner sidelined due to injury, only JaVale McGee and Ivica Zubac remain as true fives.

Let’s start with the good. McGee was a revelation. He brought energy, had excellent gravity on his explosive dives to the rim, and established himself as a lob threat from the opening seconds. McGee led the team in points with 17 and looked right at home out-sprinting Jokic down the floor to generate open looks.

James and Rajon Rondo found him multiple times for easy dunks, and it’s easy to see him becoming a favorite touchdown target of Ball when he returns. When McGee left the game, however, things fell apart.

A small lineup featuring a bulked-up Kyle Kuzma at Center was a problem, as Nikola Jokic bullied him in the post and found open shooters when the Lakers doubled. Jokic is one of the most difficult bigs in the league to go small against because of his passing skill, so don’t write off this strategy altogether, but tonight it didn’t work.

Michael Beasley made a few plays as the team’s de facto five but a head laceration ended his night early. Ultimately, in order to play small, the Lakers need the offensive boost from going small and stretching the floor to outweigh the advantage they are giving their opponents. That didn’t happen against the Nuggets, but again, the sample size at this point is about as big as Mugsy Bogues.

In the second half, Walton countered Jokic’s size by turning to Zubac, but the Croatian big man couldn’t hold his ground on defense and looked shaky on offense. Zubac had a nice summer for Croatia and got a vote of confidence from the Lakers when they kept him over Thomas Bryant, but he didn’t impress in limited minutes.

Wagner has to be licking his chops and hoping to heal fast because the backup big role appears to be there for the taking.

Hints Of Brilliance: The defense was poor. The offense was ugly. The Nuggets, who largely have the same team as last season, looked much more in sync than the Lakers did. None of these things should be surprising, nor should the final score.

And yet, there is still so much to be excited about. James was clearly coasting, as he should in a preseason game at this stage in his career. Even so, his connection with Brandon Ingram is already blossoming, and he found the young swingman multiple times on cuts, including a no-look pass that was the play of the game.

Kuzma and Josh Hart weren’t able to truly showcase their offseason improvement, but Ingram did, looking comfortable slashing off the ball and showcasing his ability to generate shots for teammates when he drove into the paint and kicked the ball out to Beasley for three. A breakout season from him would go a long way towards legitimizing the Lakers as a contender.

Rondo’s 11 assists were a good sign, even if his defense wasn’t on par with what it used to be. He made a few highlight-reel passes simply by thinking the game a step or two ahead of anyone else. Rondo even pulled off some shenanigans while the Nuggets were shooting free throws and attempting the customary high fives after each shot, first trying to get in on the action and then using his body to step in front and block the high five attempt.

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk only hit one of his five attempts from three, but the one he did hit was a gorgeous step-back jumper off the dribble that should have counted for at least 5 points if degree of difficulty was factored in.

Lance Stephenson had it going, which won’t happen every night but when he’s on he is a thrill and was doing his part to keep the young guys in the right spots and moving the ball.

The questions revolving around the decisions the Lakers’ made in free agency are fair, but the plus side of having a squad full of characters is the quirky fun that they can bring to the court.

It’s going to take time for them to learn how to play together, and there will be a rollercoaster of highs and lows throughout each game, but it’s also going to be a lot of fun watching it all come together.

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