The basketball drought that lasted nearly six months is finally over, and the Los Angeles Lakers will finally take to the hardwood again when the preseason starts on Tuesday. Much has changed since the last time the purple and gold laced up their high tops, so let’s break down some things to watch for this preseason.
Life After Kobe
Kobe Bryant is arguably the greatest Lakers player of all time after spending 20 years in Los Angeles, but the legendary guard retired at the end of last season, leaving a number of questions that will need to be answered.
First and foremost, Bryant left a void in the leadership department, and all indications are that the team will turn to D’Angelo Russell to be their compass on and off the court, which is a lot of pressure to put on a 20-year-old. Russell doesn’t lack confidence, so we should get an early look at how he is handling things during the preseason.
Bryant’s departure also means that there will be a lot more shots to go around. He fired up 17 field goal attempts per game last season, and his likely successor at small forward, Luol Deng, only took about 10. That’s a surplus of at least seven shots to be distributed, and possibly more depending on the tempo that new coach Luke Walton has the Lakers playing at.
Russell and Jordan Clarkson will almost certainly gobble up a few of those extra shot attempts, as will Julius Randle, which should give the Lakers an excellent opportunity to find out exactly what they have in their young core. All three of them will be players to keep a close eye on to see exactly how Bryant’s shots are distributed.
Furthermore, keep an eye on the Lakers ball movement over the next few weeks. Bryant had a habit of making the ball stick, and the new-look Lakers should employ a system that involves quite a bit more passing and cutting.
Luke Walton’s Head Coaching Debut
Luke Walton may have spent much of last season at the helm for the Golden State Warriors, but the credit for those games goes to the team’s official head coach, Steve Kerr, who was out nursing a back injury.
Now, Walton has a team of his own and will get to install an offense and defense of his choosing. While he will almost certainly install pick-and-roll heavy offensive schemes and a switching defense, as the Warriors do, Walton is also a protege of Phil Jackson, so it will be interesting to see if any elements of the triangle bleed into the new Lakers offense.
We have already seen the team practicing HORNS (two high post players) and running Pistol out of it during training camp. And given how little time the team has to practice before they have to start playing games, it’s likely that the preseason will feature a lot of simple actions like these with a few more complex plays sprinkled in.
Of course, Walton brings more than just X’s and O’s to the Lakers. He has been tasked with shifting the team’s culture and connecting with the young players. So far it appears that he is on his way to accomplishing that goal, as second-year wing Anthony Brown told Lakers Nation, “I think the team is more receptive and I think we’re having a little bit more fun. You know, we’re growing together.”
That’s exactly what the Lakers were hoping for when they hired Walton, and it will be interesting to see how the team’s new-found cohesiveness translates onto the court.
Positional Battles Galore
One of the most interesting parts of the NBA preseason is always the positional battles taking place across the league. For the Lakers, it appears that a starting lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Julius Randle, and Timofey Mozgov appears to be about set, though there is some debate over whether or not Larry Nance Jr. might be able to usurp Randle at power forward.
Beyond that, though, there are plenty of spots up for grabs. Jose Calderon and Marcelo Huertas will be competing for the reserve point guard minutes behind Russell, and word out of training camp is that Huertas has looked fantastic. Both are veterans who bring different weapons to the table, with Calderon’s efficient shooting being weighed against Huertas’ crafty passing.
The backup center position will also be heavily contested, with Tarik Black, Yi Jianlian, and Ivica Zubac all being heavily in the mix. Early reports indicate that Yi’s shooting ability is giving him an edge, but Black and Zubac also figure to give Walton a lot to think about.
Embattled wing Nick Young will attempt to play his way back into the rotation after a tumultuous 2015-16 season, but defensive ace Brown will also be out to prove that he is a better shooter than what he showed last season. The lion’s share of the backup wing minute will understandably go to Brandon Ingram, but between the shooting guard and the small forward spots there may be an opportunity for Brown or Young to carve out a minor role.
There are also a handful of dark horse candidates competing for a roster spot, with Metta World Peace, Thomas Robinson, Julian Jacobs, Travis Wear, and Zach Auguste all attempting to make the team with non-guaranteed contracts. The Lakers currently have 14 guaranteed deals on their roster plus Yi seems to be a near-lock to make the team, which brings them to the NBA-maximum of 15. That means that in order for one of the dark horses to make the team, they will have to outplay someone who has a guaranteed deal.
Thomas Robinson impressed during training camp, and Zach Auguste appears to have a bright future, but bumping someone with a guaranteed deal still won’t be easy, but that certainly won’t stop them from trying.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the preseason will be the opportunity to get a glimpse at what the Lakers young players have spent their summers working on. Clarkson, Randle, Russell, Ingram, Nance, and Zubac are all young enough to improve rapidly as they adapt to the NBA game. It takes years to fully develop an NBA player, but one summer of training can still make a huge difference.
This means that they all should have some new tricks to display since the last time we saw them, which is exciting because that means they will be another step closer to morphing into the players that they ultimately will be.
The Lakers are now, for better or worse, built around young players, and their development will determine the future success or failure of the franchise. Preseason, more than anything else, should give us an early look at how the new guard has banded together in a post-Kobe world.
It’s the beginning of a new era of Lakers basketball.