Preseason: What We Learned

The Lakers ended their preseason on Friday going 3-5 in Byron Scott’s first 8 games as the Lakers’ head coach.  Of course, the records don’t matter in the preseason, especially considering the inconsistent rotations that teams use.  Coach Scott decided to do a quarter-by-quarter rotation in the first four games, so that he could see certain player combinations for longer stretches of time.  Kobe Bryant sat out the final two games of the preseason, and was yanked in overtime against the Suns after playing 34 minutes.  And, unfortunately, injury woes hit the Lakers yet again.

In spite of all this, the preseason can be a great tool for measuring the quality and potential of a team.  Here’s what we learned.

Point Guards

Playing point guard for the Lakers has proven dangerous over the last couple of years.  In the 2012-2013 season, Steve Nash fractured his leg in the 2nd game of the season, and finished the year on the bench with nerve and hamstring issues.  Steve Blake was right there with him on the bench with a hamstring injury of his own.

Last year, every single player who played point guard for the Lakers fell to injury at some point.  Nash’s nerve issues limited him to 15 games the entire season, Blake lost time to problems with an elbow ligament, Jordan Farmar had recurring hamstring issues, Xavier Henry injured his knee and wrist, and Kobe of course fell to a fractured knee after playing just 6 games.

It didn’t take long for this year’s point guards to follow suit.  Jeremy Lin sat a few games with an ankle injury, Ronnie Price suffered a bone bruise in his knee during the final preseason game, and Steve Nash was recently ruled out for the entire season due to his recurring nerve injuries. The good news is that Lin played the last two preseason games and looked good doing it, and that Price’s injury shouldn’t keep him out for very long.  He very well could have had a worse injury and the Lakers are fortunate that he didn’t.

Offense

There has been plenty of talk about how the Lakers don’t have much talent, and I can’t seem to figure out why.  Kobe is clearly capable of putting up big numbers, as his last three games saw him score 27, 26, and 27 points.  He also showed that he can still deliver in the clutch against Phoenix, where he made 3 jumpers and 2 free throws down the stretch to keep the Lakers in the lead.  Carlos Boozer has been solid, with his best performance coming in a win against Utah, where he scored 19 points and grabbed 9 rebounds.  Jeremy Lin has shown a terrific ability to get in the paint and cause havoc by finishing at the rim (he was 2nd in FG% at the rim behind LeBron James last year) and using penetration to create open shots for his teammates on the perimeter.  Jordan Hill consistently made mid-range jumpers on top of his famous spin-move jump-hook combination, and will always score on put-backs after offensive rebounds.

The big question mark in the starting line-up will be Wesley Johnson.  It’s clear that he has learned a few moves from his workouts with Kobe this summer, as he tried a few pull-up jumpers and turnaround J’s each game.  He actually knocked down those shots with a fair amount of consistency, but only time will tell if he can keep that up.  As we saw in the Phoenix game, he still has some trouble with poise.  He dropped a few passes, with one even going out of bounds, and he missed two late free throws that ultimately allowed Phoenix to force overtime.  The strange part is that he hit two incredibly tough 3-pointers in a row in overtime, so I guess at the very least he is showing effort to make up for his mishaps.  There is no doubt Wesley has lots of potential, and his athleticism makes him a monster in transition.  His defense is good, but with his wingspan and jumping ability, he can be a lock-down defender.  There is no indication yet of whether he can reach his potential, but having Kobe and Byron Scott constantly pushing him gives me reason for optimism.

The bench looks superb.  First of all, Julius Randle is already proving why he should have gone higher in the draft.  He’s shown flashes of Charles Barkley, taking the ball end-to-end with ease.  He’s improved quickly and tremendously at taking and making mid-range jumpers.  His face-up and post games are not quite polished, but his left-handedness and unique rhythm make him extremely tough for slow bigs to guard.  Ed Davis has proven that he can be the Lakers’ rim protector, and he looked great in the pick and roll.  Jordan Clarkson looks poised and active on both ends of the floor.  He’s entirely unafraid to shoot at all times, and that’s rare for a second-round pick.

The remaining spots will be filled by Nick Young and Xavier Henry.  While we know Xavier can get to the rim, draw fouls, and hit the 3-ball, it’s Nick Young we’re really excited for – Swaggy P is back! Unfortunately, Young suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb during training camp, but he should be back some time in November.  Last year, Swaggy led the Lakers in scoring with 17.9 ppg off the bench.  He’s a serious candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, and is one of the most entertaining players in the NBA.  But, most importantly, his presence on the bench will take pressure off of Randle, who should be able to succeed in a big way off the bench in his rookie year.

So, it seems to me the Lakers have plenty of offensive talent.  And, that’s the only kind of talent that really matters, because defense is NOT just about individual play.

Defense

The mantra going into this season has been defense and rebounding.  As a Pat Riley disciple, Scott knows that these two areas are what win championships, and I expect the Lakers to thrive as a result.  In the preseason I saw dramatic improvement.  The Lakers got demolished in two straight games against the Warriors, giving up 120 and 116.  Then, they let the Jazz score 119.  But in the final four games, they didn’t allow their opponents to reach 100, at least within the first 4 quarters (the Suns reached 114 after a 20, yes twenty, point overtime).

The Lakers have already shown a willingness to have active hands and active feet. As a result, they accumulated 37 steals over those last four games.  Rotations have been slow as expected, given the new coaching staff and new players, but frankly they look better than they ever did under Mike D’Antoni.

The standouts so far have been Ronnie Price and Ed Davis.  Price has played pesky defense – the kind that makes opponents frustrated.  It’s been a while since the Lakers have had a terrific defensive point guard, and the difference is staggering.  The ability to at least slow opposing point guards is crucial for a team without rim protection.  That extra second it takes someone to get by Price can be the difference between a wide-open layup and a blocked shot.  Speaking of which, Davis has been terrific.  His best sequence came against the Portland Trail Blazers: He blocked one shot, fell out of bounds, got back up, and got back into the paint just soon enough to block a second shot and give the Lakers the ball.  This kind of effort from a big man is refreshing, and his rim protection is a huge upgrade on last year.

Transition defense was not good, however.  The Lakers got caught time and time again being unaware or late getting back and gave up some incredibly easy buckets.  This is an issue that plagues a lot of teams, but I expect it to improve greatly over the course of the year.  You can be sure Scott will emphasize it every day in practice, and that is probably the most important part.  There is no secret to transition defense, no exotic scheme – it’s all about communication and effort, and with B. Scott at the helm, I am not concerned.

Kobe is Fine, Stop Asking

Kobe feels fine.  Kobe says he’s 100%. Kobe feels like he can do whatever he wants.  Kobe says he’s ready to go. Do these headlines look familiar?

Kobe was asked about his health approximately 5483922903 times (I counted) during the preseason, and it’s starting to become clear that he just might be healthy.  I know that must be hard to believe given his long recovery time and incredible work ethic, but rest assured that the media did a thorough investigation and the facts are there.

What to Expect This Year

Most NBA analysts will tell you the Lakers have no chance at making the playoffs.  The West is surely too deep, and Kobe’s old, right?  From my perspective, there are 7 clear playoff-caliber teams (in order from best to worst): San Antonio, Oklahoma City, LA Clippers, Golden State, Dallas, Memphis, and Portland.  The teams on the fringe are Phoenix, New Orleans, Houston and the Lakers.  You could actually make the case that Portland isn’t a lock because their great record last year was mostly a result of a ridiculous start.  They didn’t play great as time went on, and the additions of Steve Blake and Chris Kaman might not be that influential. Phoenix doesn’t have a clear star who can take over at the end of games, New Orleans has had major health issues and doesn’t have an established star, and Houston lost it’s 3 best role players in Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, and Omer Asik after getting bounced in the 1st round last year.

So, there is at least one spot that is clearly up for grabs, and I think the Lakers have a shot at it.  They already have an identity of playing gritty basketball, and if they can stay healthy, I think they can do some real damage in the West.  The Lakers’ early schedule is tough and we will get a pretty good look at just how much work needs to be done for this team to make the playoffs.  But at this point it seems to me that it’s a possibility.  And as long as Kobe is playing, you can never count the Lakers out.