Like a large percentage of the league still just getting their feet wet one week into training camp and the preseason, the Lakers are in the middle of trying to figure things out.
The team’s rotation is currently reminiscent of a choose your own adventure tale, screens set in-game lack the necessary oomph, and players — young and old — are experiencing the natural growing pains that come with being new teammates.
To be clear, it is not out of the ordinary for there to be more questions than answers at this stage for any team. Especially when weighing important contextual nuggets like two of the club’s primary ballhandlers — and stars — in LeBron James and Russell Westbrook have yet to log a single minute through their first two preseason games.
However, even in games where the end result is ultimately meaningless, there are still valuable kernels of truth worth unearthing, in addition to dissecting off-the-court happenings that can throw a wrench in the plans even before the actual contests start to count.
Let’s take a look at some of the big takeaways from the week that was.
Trevor Ariza Sidelined
When the Lakers first came to terms to bring former fan favorite Trevor Ariza, back into the fold, it was easy to see what role the team envisioned for him — play defense and hit open shots.
At the wrong side of 36, Ariza’s best playing days were already realistically behind him even before he inked his new deal, but his still upright 6’8” frame and 7’2” wingspan projected to give the team the necessary size on the wing and forward spot they sought.
Unfortunately, Ariza’s contributions will be put on hold once the seasons gets underway with the team announcing on Wednesday the veteran had an “arthroscopic debridement procedure” on his right ankle and will be re-evaluated by team doctors in eight weeks.
Outside of losing his on-the-court value for at least two months, Ariza’s absence also creates a set of decisions for Frank Vogel and his staff. How will they slot the rest of their rotation, and specifically a starting five that Ariza reportedly was on the verge of joining?
Vogel likely has a choice of two routes now to consider:
- Commit to being small, which will most likely see a James/Anthony Davis front court supplemented by a trio of guards, or...
- The inclusion of a traditional center alongside Davis.
The former will safely project to produce a potent offense, and optimal spacing for the team’s stars to operate within. However — as we’ve gotten signs of through two preseason games as the team gets dominated on the glass — their lack of size on the perimeter and on the boards could make the scoring upside a wash. And while going “big” could shore up the interior rim protection, the team would potentially face the same (or worse) clunky half-court issues that have hindered them the past two seasons.
Whichever option the coaching staff ultimately goes in there will likely be a direct cause and effect. A player may be squeezed in minutes, an advantage may be lost, or it may just reveal a void that should have been more directly addressed in the first place rather than depending on a 36-year-old to hold down the fort.
The Young Blood
Beyond securing a third star to chase the tandem they already have in-house, the Lakers are also banking on sheer experience to help propel their year. As other teams scour the latest analytical trend or scheme to find an advantage, the Lakers’ market inefficiency is having a roster of veterans rich with mileage and respect.
The beauty of basketball is there is no singular right way to go about roster building, and while the team’s success this year will ultimately come on the backs of those aforementioned veterans, it could be the budding young talent on the squad that helps push them over the finish line.
Albeit with only two preseason games to sample, the trio of Talen Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn have all been bright spots in different ways. For Monk, the variety of his jump-shooting and on-ball creation has been one of the most promising developments for the team.
Fun watching Malik Monk attack off a ball screen. pic.twitter.com/1EKu1D80sZ— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) October 7, 2021
Nunn’s play, on the other-hand, has been highlighted by his two-way potential. Between fighting at the point of attack and putting on the jets in his rotations, scouts have reportedly “loved” the toughness he has shown on the defensive end.
When it comes to what Talen Horton-Tucker has shown, his encouraging moments have been more subtle, but the flashes where he bulldozes to the rim coupled with his continuing to show growth on the other end continue to be enticing.
Still, it is the moments of poise that have stood out most.
With James and Westbrook still having yet to play, Horton-Tucker has been handed the keys on most possessions to create on-ball and be tasked with making correct decisions. While his inexperience in this role still show up in the form of turnovers or questionable shot selection, there have been examples of things starting to “click” that are worth celebrating.
One of the fun things about preseason is getting a glimpse (albeit small) of a young player on the verge figuring things out. THT made the "right play" more often on Sunday.— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) October 6, 2021
Picks up his dribble after the stonewall, but is patient, and his backdoor find helps lead to free-throws pic.twitter.com/opT2b5JZV1
From luring in the extra defender on a drive to create a better chance for a teammate, rotating on the wing or understanding that the first shot isn't always the best shot, flashes like these are the things that shape a promising player into a winning one. That’s exactly what the Lakers are hoping will be the case for the 20-year-old in his most important season yet, and he’s shown some signs that he could reward their faith so far.
The (big) Bigs and Rim-Running
What is the point of analyzing preseason basketball? This is a common question that often circulates around NBA circles during this stage of the year, and one which the answer is largely in the eye of the beholder.
Without actual stakes, games are sloppy, stars are limited — if not completely absent — and because of this, the actual results are difficult to suss out for future indicators. There are elements however, like where teams slot their players spatially on the floor, and what those players are able to do athletically in those areas, that perhaps can be translatable to regular season.
In terms of what “looks different” so far for the Lakers, one of the most glaring things is the utilization and size of their centers. The Lakers’ bigs are not only once again big with the inclusions of Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, but also able to athletically provide a new vertical plane to throw and catch passes.
Through the two first preseason contests, Howard and Jordan have flashed a little of everything in terms of new ingredients for the team. Beyond just occupying the traditional dunker spot on the floor — unlike Marc Gasol last season — the dump-off and lob pass is more of a threat to the opposing defense, and the duo have also introduced rim-running back into the Lakers’ early offense.
Even if Howard and Jordan prove to not be the finishers or athletes they once were, the combination of their reputation and sheer mass is often enough to still force the opposition to tag and stick them a little closer on their rolls. This in turn can create an extra moment of reprieve for teammates to attack without the primary rim protection present, as well as use their size to gobble up extra chances once they slither free.
Although Anthony Davis at center will continue to be the talking point of the season — and for good reason given his individual and team success there— the value of having jumbo sized innings eaters is still a valuable option, even if it’s not the sexiest one.
While it is easy to get worked up after a few preseason hiccups or pleasant surprises, there are still many steps, reps and games the Lakers will need to notch in their belts before any concrete conclusions could be made about the trajectory of their year.
Until then, every new development, lineup or extra pass is an exciting breadcrumb to latch on to, and to follow en route to what the future may hold for this team.