LOS ANGELES — As a general rule of thumb, preseason games don’t matter... That is, unless they do.
Without an impact on standings, statistics, or year-end awards, teams and the individual players that they consist of have little to play for. In the preseason, a team’s most important players scarcely cross past 20 minutes of run, and the bulk of lineups that they do appear in may not even remotely resemble those that assemble during official regular season contests.
However, the preseason — especially in the early games where stars’ nights are over by halftime — can function as a stress test for a team’s structural stability. Even if there are few observations that can be consistently and directly relied upon to update our regular season expectations for individual players, a team’s structure does begin to reveal its true self when it does finally take the court for the first time.
And with the Lakers consisting of about as many of their championship-winning pieces as the ship of Theseus did original planks by the end of its journey, the exact form of this team’s rotation is still very much up in the air.
Against the Kings, the Lakers came out of the gates with verve, displaying strong, diverse offensive concepts that were, quite frankly, scarcely seen in Frank Vogel’s tenure as the team’s head coach. Although the offense couldn’t convert scores at an efficient clip or run plays with the decisiveness of a well-seasoned squad, they looked like they were headed in the right direction.
And after a season of misfortunes, the opener attracted a considerable crowd of faithful followers eagerly anticipating any and all signs of mere competency.
It’s pretty packed in here for a preseason game. Lakers fans are ready for real basketball pic.twitter.com/Oulk33XKqf— Cooper Halpern (@CooperHalpern) October 4, 2022
The Lakers’ Big 3 didn’t quite play up to their top-billing in this season’s debut performance, but they made their impact felt in their short time on the court. LeBron James was uncharacteristically inefficient in his 0-7 outing, but showed off enough athleticism — highlighted by a missed one-handed runner in the first quarter — to make you wonder if he might have another couple of decades left in his body. Anthony Davis casually gobbled up a game-high 11 boards in only 15 minutes, but failed to play with the same amount of force by asserting his size with the ball in his hands on the offensive end, though he did drill a pair of triples. Russell Westbrook even demonstrated his brand new willingness as a screener and defender to varying degrees of success: his off-ball offensive effort led him to two easy baskets in the first half, but the Kings’ guards exposed his inattentiveness on the other end of the floor on a handful of occasions, leading to clean looks and second chances.
By no means was the first half perfect, but it stood in stark contrast with what we saw of the 33-49 Lakers of last season. At the end of those first two quarters, the Lakers led by five despite lackluster shooting efficiency from the vast majority of the lineup.
And then they lost by 30...
With the Big 3 on the bench, the Lakers were outscored by a Sacramento Kings’ unit made of mostly bench players and NBA hopefuls by a margin of 64-29.
After all that progress, the second half reminded Lakers fans of what happens when the team has to play without their stars. What transpired was the result of a bunch of square pegs trying to jam their way into round holes — misshapen pieces trying to plug gaps bigger than they’ll ever be.
To perhaps clarify that abstract image, I watched two-way rookie Scottie Pippen Jr. take a running hook shot that barely grazed the backboard before caroming out of bounds.
I watched Max Christie commit one of the more perplexing turnovers I have ever seen. I still have no idea what could possibly have been his intended target within a sea of black and purple jerseys.
Kendrick Nunn even averaged a turnover every four minutes during his 20 on the court.
Altogether, the Lakers’ second-half looks at the rim were often forced — if they even got that far in the possession; they turned the ball over a whopping 20 times (almost three-times as many as the Kings had) by the time the final buzzer rang.
And despite Darvin Ham’s postgame protestations of great pleasure from what he saw from the team’s defensively staunch first half, the fans in attendance could not have disagreed more.
Aaaand the Lakers are getting booed off the floor in the first preseason game of the season— Cooper Halpern (@CooperHalpern) October 4, 2022
Letting out more than a year’s worth of frustrations, Lakers fans let the franchise know that they’d tired of a non-competitive product, even if it was only for a half of basketball to close out a preseason game.
Last year, the Lakers brushed aside any concerns of preseason underperformance before going on to have the most disappointing season in franchise history. This year, they won’t be afforded the same luxury by a fanbase who has tired of losing, especially in such consistently lackluster fashion.
Without a crystal ball to inform us as to whether the team’s Big 2 will be available enough to carry them into contention, the Lakers’ season-long outlook remains murky. However, if they can’t stay on the floor, the opener made it pretty clear that the Lakers don’t have the horses to hang with the depth other contenders already boast.
Maybe they can swing a trade before the deadline to bring in a couple of surer hands in exchange for the last of their fungible draft equity, or maybe Darvin Ham’s system grows stronger as the days go by since its initial implementation.
But if they don’t, and LeBron and/or AD miss time, the second half of the preseason opener made it clear that the Lakers are a whole lot closer to where they finished last season than the exuberant optimism emanating from the franchise would seem to suggest.
It seems unwise to doubt what LeBron and AD can do when they do take the court together, but given their track record in recent seasons, it’d be even more so to bank on them doing so particularly often. Last season, they played just 22 games together after sharing the floor for 27 in the season before.
With the first (unofficial) game in the books, the only thing I’m comfortable committing to is that this isn’t a roster capable of supporting the team’s stars in a way that can carry them past the best in the West, or against lesser foes when their top dogs do inevitably sit.
Cooper is a lifelong Lakers fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.