Lakers season preview: Will new energy solve old problems?

EL SEGUNDO — Tuesday will be another golden night for the Warriors. And several of the Lakers know the feeling.

It was less than two years ago that LeBron James and Anthony Davis gallivanted around a nearly empty home arena with their golfball-sized, diamond-studded rings. Coach Darvin Ham got to experience the feeling a year ago in Milwaukee with the Bucks, a refresher course nearly two decades removed from his title as a player with the Detroit Pistons.

The Lakers could be forgiven for letting their minds drift to old times ahead of their season opener against Golden State, which will receive its championship rings before tip-off. But on the eve of the 2022-23 season, which finds the Lakers humbled and retooling after stumbling in their last campaign, there isn’t room for nostalgia – but how to start getting back toward the top.

“We’re motivated to get back to where we belong,” Davis said Monday after practice. “The last two seasons were not what we envisioned. It was not Lakers basketball and we know that. Not what our organization’s standard is. Our standard is to compete for championships and the last two seasons, we have not.”

There is a lot of new energy in El Segundo: a new coach, new schemes, several new (and younger) players. Even the returning players, James and Davis chief among them, have pledged new dedication to the business of winning, and Russell Westbrook might see a new role coming off the bench that he’s seemingly willing to try.

But a 1-5 preseason – and the injuries that came along with it – haven’t exactly inspired the kind of confidence that accompanies a contender. After a 33-49 season that left them outside of the play-in tournament, the Lakers have yet to show they’re demonstrably stronger while the Western Conference arguably got tougher. Though the team still touts the James-Davis-Westbrook trio as its “Big Three,” there’s a sense that another shoe will eventually drop after the Lakers spent the summer shopping Westbrook.

It might reflect an acceptance of their station, then, that Davis seemed to adopt the mindset of an underdog as the season begins: The first two opponents are the Warriors and the Clippers, the defending champions and one of the conference favorites respectively.

“Our first two games are against two title contenders,” he said. “It’s always good to spoil a ring night. So our mindset is going up and starting this season with a couple W’s.”

The X-factor, as ever, is health. So far, it hasn’t gone to plan: On Monday, the team announced that veteran guard Dennis Schroder will miss three to four weeks after surgery on his right thumb ligament. Troy Brown Jr. is rehabbing from an offseason back injury. The Lakers’ three stars were at least listed on the report albeit as “probable”: James with left foot soreness; Davis with back tightness that kept him out of two preseason games; Westbrook with a left hamstring strain that led to an early exit in their preseason finale on Friday in Sacramento.

Ham, the tough-minded Michigan native brought in to punch up the group, has only been able to see flashes of his vision, with just five preseason quarters of James, Davis and Westbrook playing together. But if that gives him trepidation, he’s not showing it.

“What we get to see in practice and the guys we put together in practice, we know it’ll translate – we have pros,” Ham said. “Tomorrow we get to lace ’em up under the real lights. We’re locked in. We’re pumped. And I see us meshing well on the court.”

One key member of the team is not showing many of his cards: James was short and cliche-heavy with the media after Monday’s practice. After a cold opener to the preseason, he finished his last three exhibitions impressively (58 points in 60 minutes on 58% shooting), bringing faith that he could still produce an All-NBA-caliber season as he chases down Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career scoring record – an eclipse that should happen this season.

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t given glimpses into his mentality. As early as April, James tweeted: “I can/will NOT miss the postseason again for my career! This (expletive) HURT.” James, who turns 38 in December, has only ever missed the playoffs four times in his 19 previous NBA seasons, including twice with the Lakers.

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Asked Monday if his motivation or approach had changed since that declaration: “I haven’t changed at all. I play to win and that’s it.”

This season will test if the Lakers match that same desire to win now as a franchise: General Manager Rob Pelinka announced in September that the Lakers were ready to make deals that could help them contend, but so far, they’ve opted to hold on to their first-round draft picks in 2027 and 2029, conscious of the dwindling future assets that could help them swing a big deal.

In the meantime, the Lakers need to find a path to stay reasonably competitive. Davis also impressed in preseason play, scoring 58 points in his 64 minutes across just three games, bringing forth some of the old edge that defined his stellar first season in L.A. in 2019-20.

Davis said it’s impossible to forecast how watching another champion take their rings will make him feel. But at the moment, he – and the Lakers – feel hungry.

“I know how it felt on our ring night,” he said. “I want that feeling again.”

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