After an offseason that was endlessly dissected by local and national media alike, the Lakers had the unfamiliar weight of expectations upon them entering the preseason.
No one determines the success of preseason solely on outcomes, but there are markers of individual growth and lineup chemistry that each team hopes to see as they prepare for the games that really matter.
The Lakers, more than most teams, had a ton of questions about what the on-court product would look like after acquiring LeBron James and three new free agents, and jettisoning the bulk of their frontcourt from a year ago. Therefore, it’s unfair to have expected Los Angeles to look like a finely-tuned outfit right out of the gate. But, it is worth considering if the Lakers have shown enough in the preseason to offer hope they'll be contenders this year.
Let’s start with the offense.
Boy, is it fun to watch the Lakers run. Los Angeles started 19.5 percent of its plays in transition last season, most in the league, and this was before adding LeBron James and Rajon Rondo. Silver Screen & Roll’s Alex Regla has written about how both Rondo and James will bolster the team’s transition game, and the preseason has borne that out.
The Lakers lead the league in fast-break points per game (23.4) thus far. There is a commitment to running on every play, whether make or miss, and that has persisted regardless of which units are on the floor. With Lonzo Ball back in the lineup, the transition frequency only figures to increase; in Ball’s return Wednesday against Golden State, the Lakers had 38 fast-break points, their highest total of the preseason. Their pace is also second in the league at 113.6 possessions per 48 minutes. This is a wholly unsustainable improvement from their 2017-18 pace of 101, but serves as a positive indicator of Los Angeles’ desire to play fast.
The high volume of transition opportunities hasn’t necessarily yielded a lot of 3-pointers on offense. The Lakers lead the league in points in the paint in the preseason, but have only averaged 23.0 threes per game, one more than the last-place San Antonio Spurs. The low attempt rate is complemented by poor shooting, as Los Angeles is making 29.6 percent of its shots from beyond the arc. (To be fair, shooting tends to improve as the year goes on, and seven other teams are also shooting below 30 percent from three.)
There were concerns over the offseason that the Lakers didn’t exactly construct the most modern, shooting-stuffed around LeBron James. Despite their excellence in transition, the Lakers have not yet been able to ease those concerns. Two is less than three, and the team’s inefficient offense has been an unfortunate reminder of that.
On defense, Los Angeles has been something of a mixed bag. Denver was a particularly tough test, but even Sacramento managed to put up 123 points while fielding a Stockton Kings lineup for much of the second half. Poor interior defense, mostly a consequence of the team’s personnel, has manifested itself in a lack of defensive rebounding and lots of opponent points in the paint.
Nevertheless, the Lakers have mitigated those weaknesses by being active on defense. Brandon Ingram has exemplified the team’s ability to use its length for blocks and steals, and L.A.’s pace naturally inflates point totals. The Lakers will have to cut down on their fouling; like many other teams, they’re adjusting to the new points of emphasis on freedom of movement, but they’ll have to figure out a way to pressure their opponents without being too aggressive. They’ve been essentially an average defense to this point, and there is clearly room for improvement.
The Lakers have looked better as the preseason has gone on, and their worst effort was the game when James didn’t play. Los Angeles has struggled whenever James is on the bench, a common theme of all LeBron teams. However, that started to improve Wednesday with Ball back in the lineup.
Ball helped juice up the defense, especially impressive since it came against the Warriors. Kyle Kuzma also seemed more comfortable next to his fellow sophomore after a rocky start to the preseason, working in a two-man game that had been absent before. Ball also provides another creator, allowing Ingram to attack rather than focus on playmaking. Ingram has been a monster drawing contact and even converting from the foul line, which hasn’t been easy for him in NBA so far.
This preseason has mostly shown that the Lakers are a work in progress on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the team has some definite strengths, but they haven’t learned many sets, meaning that halfcourt execution is still a ways away. Defensively, the search for effective rotations continues.
The clearest conclusion of the preseason has been that Los Angeles has little margin for error. Despite the depth the Lakers possess at every position, they are still incredibly dependent on a few players to make things work. Unless there is a dramatic roster shakeup, this preseason takeaway could resurface when the games actually matter.