For a preseason that started with a lot of hope, the Lakers ended it on quite a down note Friday night in Sacramento.
With two potential starters missing from action, another summer acquisition potentially facing some missed games, and Russell Westbrook limping into the tunnel during the first quarter, the Lakers slogged to a 133-86 loss to the Kings and a 1-5 finish in their exhibitions – with arguably more questions posed than answered.
There’s no straightforward starting lineup, and the Lakers’ “exploratory move” of bringing Westbrook off the bench ended after just a few minutes thanks to an unlucky left hamstring injury. While they started out strong enough, winning the first half of their first four games, the last two exhibitions have served to resurrect old concerns about shooting, turnovers, size and defense – and purely whether this group can win consistently.
Here are some of the lessons learned from the preseason, with the regular season set to begin Tuesday night against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in San Francisco:
1. March to the inevitable with Westbrook
Almost as soon as he had slipped to say the Lakers were considering their options for backcourt starters, Coach Darvin Ham grew bullish on Westbrook, saying as long as the nine-time All-Star played defense and worked on his off-ball offense, he would be in line to be in the group. But in the sixth and final preseason game, Ham and the Lakers acceded to a move that has long been considered by the Lakers: bringing Westbrook off the bench.
It’s probably not fair to say Westbrook has underperformed this preseason: At this point, the Lakers know his strengths and weaknesses. He thrives with the ball in his hands, blazing to the rim off the dribble and in transition, or spraying out passes. He’s not so strong at the complementary parts of the game, leading to a lot of preseason possessions when he was standing to the side, out of the action. It’s telling that in two of his three preseason starts, he took only three shot attempts; in the third, he was just 4 for 12.
Ham appears to now hope that moving Westbrook to the bench will unlock the best parts of his game.
“Just some guys play better off the ball, some guys play better with the ball in their hands,” Ham said. “And through no fault of their own, that’s just how they’re built. You’re not going to have LeBron James play without the ball in his hands for 85 percent of his minutes. At some point, you’ve got to allow him to orchestrate. Same with Russ.”
But the unsaid truth of that sentiment is this: Westbrook and James don’t fit on the court well together. James is a more confident scorer and less erratic ball-handler than Westbrook, and when he takes command, Westbrook doesn’t have a lot to do.
While it’s a good sign for Ham that Westbrook was willing to try a new role off the bench, his logic of, “it’s not a demotion; it’s a realignment,” smacks of semantics. It’s hard to see Westbrook happy with the arrangement long-term, especially if the Lakers struggle out of the gates. Westbrook’s shaky position within the franchise points to an eventual parting of ways. Maybe it should have happened this summer, but the Lakers are still trying to rehabilitate Westbrook’s trade value in hopes of getting a better deal closer to the deadline.
2. Anthony Davis’ position – and health
Whatever happens with the roster and Westbrook, a lot of people within the franchise have one defining belief about the season: As long as Davis is healthy and playing at a high level, the Lakers will be competitive. It’s a little disconcerting, then, that Davis has missed at least two preseason starts that he had hoped to make. Even though missing the game was described as “precautionary,” it’s not particularly reassuring that the Lakers kept Davis’ absence from the trip quiet until Friday (the team departed for Sacramento on Thursday afternoon).
Let’s say that the team and Davis are correct and everything aligns for Tuesday’s opener: What position will he play? Ham’s lineups and words have strongly suggested Davis could be the starting center, which he said was under “heavy consideration.” Davis gave a tepid endorsement of that idea on Wednesday night.
“At the end of the day, I trust Coach’s decision,” he said. “I mean, I’m pretty sure he heard A.D. wants to play the four, so he knows where I stand, but at the end of the day, I want to win, so if that’s me playing the five, that’s what it’s got to be.”
Ham and Davis have cited that many bigs – like Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid – are perimeter-oriented these days, so it might not be as physically demanding to play center as it was earlier in Davis’ career. Playing Davis at center might allow the Lakers to keep better shooters on the floor, but like anything, it’s a balancing act. Wherever he plays, he’s simply got to be on the court after missing more than half of the last two seasons combined.
3. Guard rotation roulette
There are a lot of compelling role players on the roster – the problem is so many of them are guards. How do you divide minutes between the hot-shooting Kendrick Nunn, the hard-guarding Patrick Beverley, the athletic Lonnie Walker IV, the scrappy Dennis Schröder and the utilitarian Austin Reaves?
Reaves and Walker can play some wing minutes, leaving four viable guards (including Westbrook) to split the rotation in the backcourt. But so many of them need the ball, and playing them together can create awkward size gaps. It doesn’t seem viable to play all of those guards together in a single rotation, and yet Ham has said he wants to lock in starting lineups and rotations when the season starts.
Depending on the severity of Schröder’s finger injury and Westbrook’s hamstring injury, some decisions might be made for the coaching staff when the season starts. But it’s hard to imagine everyone’s going to be happy – and it’s also clear that the Lakers’ defensive rebounding will be a struggle all season long: In their first five preseason games, they ranked 24th in rebounding percentage (48.3) and opponents averaged 12 offensive rebounds.
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“The biggest thing for me when we go small is the rebounding,” Ham said. “And just whether we’re small, big or whatnot – because sometimes it becomes a size issue and other times it’s just an effort issue – and we got to commit to that segment of our defense, finishing the defense.”
4. LeBron still in form
After shooting 0 for 7 in his first game, James was the Lakers’ best, most consistent player of the preseason. That’s the most fundamental piece of the franchise, which sets the stage for any other move the Lakers might make.
General Manager Rob Pelinka promised on media day that the team is committed to making deals that will make the team competitive around James, which could include draft picks. As long as James is playing at an All-NBA level, he’s going to be held accountable for that position. James turns 38 in December, and any season could well be the last of his prime – the Lakers have to make win-now moves if they still believe he’s good enough to win them a championship (as he was just two years ago).
If James gets hurt or shows obvious signs of decline, that eases the pressure to make moves – but it might be the unfortunate signal that the Lakers’ title window has closed for the time being. Every impressive game by James keeps hope alive that the franchise can contend if they put the right pieces around him.