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Don’t panic about the Lakers just yet

The Lakers may be winless in the preseason, but the games they’re playing in barely resemble what the real ones will look like.

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

A couple of months ago, I joined a rec league basketball team. Made up of adults past their (nonexistent) physical prime looking for a way to stay in shape, the squad has little to nothing in common with the 2020-21 Los Angeles Lakers.

Except for one thing.

Just like a handful of the new-look Lakers, we coalesced from the league’s free-agent list, meaning none of us had ever had the chance to play together before.

In our first couple of games, players struggled through offensive possessions as members far out of their depth attempted to make something happen out of nothing. We were bad, and it didn’t look like things were going to get much better.

Going up against the top-ranked team in the league last week, I expected to get boat raced. However, upon arrival, I learned we’d added another player off the waiver wire after a couple of our former members succumbed to frustration and/or injury.

To my surprise, the new addition changed everything. His ability to handle the ball and penetrate the defense led to a 20-point victory. It wasn’t that he was taking every shot, or even doing all of the offensive heavy lifting, it was only that the rest of us no longer had to perform tasks we were ill-equipped to take on. After almost two months of weekly games, we were starting to learn how to play together.

There are two statistics that define the Lakers’ preseason so far. The first, which has certainly been front of mind for those of us who’ve suffered through watching all 192 minutes of them, is that they’ve been outscored by a combined 74 points. For any team supposed to be this good, a regular-season stretch this bad would provide cause to rethink the organizational mission, or perhaps just fire the head coach. They look flat-out bad.

The second is that LeBron James, the team’s best and most important player, has played in one game for 18 minutes. The Lakers’ success this season revolves around LeBron James’ ability to play at a high level. While Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis are also important to the team’s chances of winning at the highest level, their roles should curtail LeBron’s, and not the other way around.

This team isn’t built to succeed without its star trio, so why should they be expected to in preseason games, especially when they’re barely on the floor, and have yet to play a single second together? If anything, their lack of success so far can be taken as an indictment of the supporting cast’s ability to win without its leaders, but didn’t we know that already?

Like my infinitely inferior, ground-bound rec league squad, these Lakers are suffering from a radical lack of continuity. Without a center-star’s gravitational pull organizing the remaining players’ orbit, the team’s found itself drifting off onto the wrong side of blowouts. Not only do these games not count, but they’re also relevantly dissimilar from real NBA basketball in some meaningful ways.

When LeBron is off the court, many of the team’s other members have found themselves in roles they’d otherwise never encounter. Presuming full health from the team’s big three, not a minute of meaningful basketball should be played without LeBron or Westbrook on the floor this season. Therefore, Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, Austin Reaves, Chaundee Brown, Travelin Queen, or Rajon Rondo’s ability to orchestrate offense for those around them will be tangential at most to the Lakers’ chances of winning games this season.

Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, and Anthony Davis have been among the team’s standouts so far, playing roles they’ve grown accustomed to over thousands of NBA minutes. Howard’s protected the paint, cleaned the glass, and rolled hard to the rim while providing energy on both ends.

Melo’s lightning in a bottle catch-and-shoot brilliance has been momentarily mesmerizing, even if his ill-advised attempts occasionally go awry.

Anthony Davis is superlatively talented, even at half-speed, and will only look better as the recipient of arguably basketball’s greatest passer ever. Those who have thrived have done so while playing just as they always have.

LeBron, even when he did play, has yet to show up in full force. As the 19-year veteran is well within his right to, he treated his first preseason game like a glorified shootaround, afterward saying he has “nothing” left to learn from preseason games at this stage of his career.

It showed on the floor. Of his dozen shot attempts, only four went in, and almost all were jumpers, uncharacteristic for the sovereign ruler of the restricted area for almost the entire past two decades. It’s not unreasonable for LeBron to take his time to find his footing along with the rest of the Lakers, for they all have plenty of it.

And for the two games in which he’s played, the team’s most glaring eyesore has been their newly acquired superstar, Russell Westbrook. Alarmingly, he’s turned the ball over 15 times in his 43 minutes, offset by just 9 assists. He’s forced passes into double coverage and even fired them at no one in particular, almost like he doesn’t know where his teammates are, which is probably because... he doesn’t know where his teammates are as the team learns an entirely new offense. As a notoriously slow starter whose greatest strength is his ability to raise a team’s floor by playing at warp speed, it will likely take some time for him to develop some chemistry with his teammates, especially with those non-LeBron units he’s expected to lead. Whether or not Westbrook ultimately gels with the Lakers will not be answered in the preseason, and probably not for a few months.

The last time the Lakers made fundamental changes to their roster’s structure, it took a while for things to even themselves out. In 2018-19, LeBron’s first year with the team, they got off to a 2-5 start before eventually taking over first place in the Western Conference. While their run at the playoffs was undermined by LeBron’s untimely groin injury, it wasn’t the lack of early-season success that ultimately undid them. If this team falls far short of their aims, it will be due to the kind of dramatic injuries that plagued them in two of the last three seasons, and not because of some string of preseason stumbles.

So far, the Lakers have already suffered four injuries to key rotation players. Trevor Ariza will miss at least two months to recover from ankle surgery, Malik Monk’s groin strain has him sidelined for at least a week, Talen Horton-Tucker’s surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb will keep him out of the lineup for six-to-eight weeks, and Kendrick Nunn will miss the Lakers’ fifth preseason game with an ankle sprain of undisclosed severity. While injury concerns for the oldest team in the association are legitimate, they are distinct from the worries that have arisen from their preseason performances. In the coming months, the Lakers will have plenty of time to figure out ways to gel so long as the 11 other uninjured players on their current roster can keep themselves available for on-court action.

The 82-game season is a marathon, not a sprint, with plenty of time for Frank Vogel to optimize lineups around his stars in preparation for a playoff push. We haven’t seen anything to suggest they’ll be able to replicate the basketball nirvana of 2019-20’s bubble run, but there’s just as little to go on to say that they won’t.

Just like my team did, only time will tell if the Lakers can begin to cohere when their centerpiece re-enters the picture. However, unlike us amateurs, the Lakers will get to play with LeBron James. That, in and of itself, should help them sort a whole lot out when the games start to count.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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