As the second week of the preseason comes to a close and we near the end of the slate of six exhibition games for the purple and gold, the shift up in a gear for the Lakers was apparent with the regular season around the corner. The surest sign of that came in the debut of the new Big Three on Tuesday against the Warriors and their continued play into Thursday’s showdown in Sacramento.
The Lakers are adamant they won’t rush the process but soon the games will start mattering and the statistics will actually count, bringing with it a growing sense of importance and urgency. Every team is playing the balancing act of keeping their players healthy while also ensuring they’ve been on the court long enough to shake loose the offseason rust.
No other team, though, is undergoing the same challenges while also integrating a nearly entirely new roster, including a third superstar. It’s a situation unique to the Lakers, and one that’s underlined much of their preseason as they embark on their question for banner No. 18.
With that in mind, let’s look at the biggest things we learned about the Lakers this week.
Anthony Davis is ready
For all the questions surrounding this Lakers team — their fit, their roster construction and whether their aging roster can still compete at a high level — what has been abundantly clear is that Anthony Davis is back to his old self.
After struggling through the 2020-21 season, Davis took the summer to refocus, doing his work in the shadows before showing the results to the public this fall. Opting to play from the get-go this preseason, Davis has made a statement that he has returned to his best self.
A pair of monster alley-oops on Sunday and Tuesday highlighted the peak physical condition he’s in. After undergoing tons of criticism for entering last season unprepared after the shortened offseason, Davis has made the 2020-21 campaign look like the aberration it will ultimately become in his career.
A fully engaged, fully healthy Davis is an absolute game-changer for the Lakers. At his best inside the bubble, he was the 1B to LeBron James’ 1A, and was every bit as important to winning the title as James was.
That version of Davis can paper over a lot of the cracks that could appear with a roster that may not fit seamlessly this season, and through two weeks of the preseason, it looks like Laker fans will be seeing Davis at his best once again.
Injuries are piling up
The Lakers would have been excused if they thought some good karma would be due their way after a host of injuries decimated the team last season. Instead, the preseason has been a scene all too familiar.
While Ariza’s injury, in a vacuum, was something the Lakers could overcome, the ensuing injuries have created a steep hill to climb. Malik Monk and Talen Horton-Tucker each went down simultaneously with injuries of varying severity. The former’s groin strain ruled him out for the final three preseason games and has his availability for the regular season opener in doubt.
Horton-Tucker, though, was a bigger blow as surgery on his thumb will have him sidelined at least four weeks before being re-evaluated. Kendrick Nunn joined them on the sideline with an ankle sprain before Wayne Ellington followed suit with a Grade 1 hamstring strain.
Both Nunn and Ellington could potentially be ready for the season opener, though the status of both will remain up in the air heading into next week. The silver lining to the situation was that the guard position was perhaps the one place the Lakers could absorb a host of injuries — and that was even before the emergence of Austin Reaves — but it’s certainly less than ideal, and a problem the Lakers are quickly growing quite familiar with.
This is going to take some time
Even in the best-case scenario, the Lakers were going to need time to adjust to one another, the Big Three of Davis, James and Russell Westbrook included. Injuries over the last week, though, have made this preseason anything but the best-case scenario.
The superstars saw the floor as a trio for the first time on Tuesday in a mixed bag of results. But joining them was not the number of shooting guard options most expected the team to have this season. Monk’s hot start had fans optimistic of his fit with the Big Three, as did Nunn’s versatility, Ellington’s shooting or the defense of Ariza or Horton-Tucker.
While Reaves has been perhaps the best story over the entirety of training camp, he is still limited as a rookie. As the team integrates its pieces around its Big Three, more answers will come as to who best complements them and vice versa, but only Kent Bazemore has truly been able to show his skillset alongside the Lakers’ stars — and it has led to positive results as well.
And that doesn’t account for the growing pains Westbrook, James and Davis will have themselves. Of those three, Westbrook has looked the furthest off the mark, struggling with his timing and chemistry alongside his new teammates. Through three games, Westbrook has 20 turnovers to just 15 assists.
While Westbrook is a notoriously slow starter individually, the Lakers are going to test the patience of its fanbase in the opening weeks and months of the season as they acclimate to one another. Injuries haven’t helped speed up the process, but it’s been very clear the team was always going to go about this slowly and make sure they got it right.
With just one preseason game left before they start to count, the Lakers still have lots of open-ended questions they’ll need answers to that weren’t provided to them in the second week of their exhibition slate. The good news is they are treating this season as a marathon, not a sprint, and will have ample time to find those solutions.
For fans, though, the bad news will be some bumps in the road along the way. Hopefully, the individual play from Davis and some glimpses at what could be in store will be enough to placate supporters until the wheels start clicking with the team this season.