The Lakers have played two preseason games. I watched both—DVR’d both; I lead a full life—and can confidently report that the Lakers are fun. And fast. They run, they shuttle personnel in and out, and they switch roles/positional assignments. That is by design. Like the many rapid-fire story lines associated with the team, these Lakers are a blur. Whatever happens, whether they’re good or bad, they won’t be boring.
Admittedly, this kind of conclusion has become something of a pattern for me the past few years. Two seasons ago, I declared that the Lakers loved basketball again. Last year, I trumpeted their return to relevance. I was perhaps premature on one or both accounts. But not this time! This time they will be entertaining and relevant. I’m sure of it. With one reservation.
The Lakers are short on big men in a conference loaded with them. (I have them easily in the bottom three in the West at the position.) In the offseason, the Lakers signed JaVale McGee away from the Warriors. It didn’t seem to require much convincing. It took only one year and $2.39 million to get McGee to flee NorCal for SoCal. McGee played 65 games and averaged fewer than 10 minutes for Golden State a year ago. The Lakers also have Ivica Zubac. It’s true. I had totally forgotten until I saw him just the other day in a scrimmage. After that, things get a bit dicey at center for a team that has high hopes now that the King makes his home in Los Angeles.
In fairness, it is still really early. There is a lot we don’t know and have yet to learn. But so far this preseason, as best I can tell, the organization’s plan at center goes something like this: Luke Walton will figure it out.
On the day after the Lakers played their first preseason game against the Denver Nuggets in San Diego, Walton was asked a bunch of questions about his team’s performance. The Lakers lost, not that preseason results matter. What matters is guys getting some work in and the coaches trying different approaches. The Lakers have tinkered with putting Kyle Kuzma at center when they go small—and also because, as previously mentioned, they’re a bit thin there. The team’s first-round pick, Moritz Wagner, has been dealing with a knee injury since Summer League and has already been ruled out for the preseason, further decreasing the team’s depth. Large(ish), warm bodies are in short supply.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thought Kuzma was a good defender last year—and that’s when he wasn’t playing out of position. By his own admission, defense was an area he needed to upgrade. It should also be noted that Kuzma was really excited to tell everyone about all the work he put in on his game during the summer—“as a guard.” So naturally he’s an emergency center now.
Which brings us back to Walton. Hey, someone asked, how’d Kuz look at the 5?
“He was alright on offense,” Walton said.
“Defensively he was giving effort.”
“Which, again, is the no. 1 thing.”
Coaches at all levels use the same shorthand. It’s true from youth leagues to the pros. “Giving effort” as a compliment and underlining it as “the no. 1 thing” is never a good sign. It’s what a coach says right before he gives the kid a pat on the head for trying hard and takes him for ice cream.
Walton has been asked about Kuzma and the makeshift center rotation almost daily, and his answer has frequently been the same. In consecutive days after camp opened, Walton said Kuzma had been “alright,” emphasized that he was “competing,” and reiterated that “he’s working on his game.” Walton acknowledged that Kuzma has been tasked with learning a completely new position on the fly—no easy thing, especially on defense where the head coach said “coverages and things like that are obviously different from the 5 spot.” Walton gave Kuzma slightly better marks when the Nuggets and Lakers had a preseason rematch at Staples Center on Tuesday, telling reporters that he thought “Kuz at the 5 was much better tonight, he was fronting, had his hands up and was a lot better.”
Kuzma’s offseason body transformation has been a major preseason talking point. He said he put on 15 pounds of muscle, which the second-year guard/wing/center (?) finds useful when he’s “hitting guys on offense in the post” or “guarding guys and leading them to a spot or taking blows.” Walton said he noticed the added bulk right away: “He’s much more of a man right now, physically.” The 23-year-old does look bigger and stronger, though I’m always wary of athletes who come back from the offseason and peddle the “I’m in the best shape of my life” trope.
A year ago, Kuzma was listed at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds. Even with the ostensible 15 extra pounds, he’s still undersized for the 5 (he picked up two quick fouls early in the second Denver game trying to guard Nikola Jokic)—but he’s also faster than most. That’s the trade-off. When the Lakers went small on Tuesday, Kuzma pushed it himself at times. On other occasions, he flew down the court, serving as a safety valve along the wing—like when he was in good position on a fast break that ultimately ended with a monster LeBron dunk.
Kuzma also gave Trey Lyles periodic fits on Tuesday. With Lyles guarding him on the perimeter, Kuzma gave a quick side step to create space and threw a beautiful pass to Alex Caruso, who was cutting along the baseline. Offensively, you could see it working in certain situations, or at the very least making for quality League Pass viewing. Defense is another matter. Kuzma called the experiment “a work in progress.” He’s never played center, except in “high school, but that don’t really count.” No, it probably doesn’t.
“You’re the anchor of the defense,” Kuzma said about the challenges of playing center. “That 5 position calls out pick-and-roll screens. That 5 is usually around the rim, so you see everything in the backcourt and everything. Watching film has really helped in that area, trying to be that anchor at the 5 in training camp.”
Walton doesn’t have a lot of options. He ran Michael Beasley out at the 5 in both Denver games. It was part of the mix-and-match, trial-and-error approach at the position. On Tuesday, the Lakers tried all sorts of big man combinations. They played Kuzma and Beasley together, Beasley and McGee, McGee and Kuzma. Through it all, they moved LeBron around.
As expected, there were a few hiccups along the way, which Walton ascribed to hesitation and lack of communication. That’s where he’s counting on LeBron and Rajon Rondo to act as defensive patches who can cover up the Lakers’ interior deficiencies. Walton called their communication brilliant, while James likened the duo to Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp.
LeBron can guard all five positions and has made the chase-down block an art form. But despite his singular talent, it’s important to remember that James’s teams have not recently acquitted themselves well defensively. Last season, the Cavaliers were 29th in defensive rating; only the Suns were worse. The year before that, the Cavs finished 22nd. They were 10th in 2015-16, but that was the outlier during LeBron’s second tour in Cleveland. In his first year back, 2014-15, the Cavs were 20th in defensive rating. His teams haven’t been consistent top-tier defenses since he took his Miami sabbatical (the Heat finished in the top 10 in defensive rating in three of his four years there; the fourth year, they were 11th).
Walton expects that there will be times when James is pressed into guarding the center position. “If Kuzma is our 5, and LeBron is our 4, but we’re switching everything 1 through 5, occasionally [James] is guarding the 5,” Walton said. “We don’t really call it that, aside from letting guys have a label in terms of where they’re supposed to be on the court. There’s times he’ll be guarding centers. There’s times he’ll be guarding point guards and every other position out there.”
Of course, there is only so much that even LeBron can be reasonably expected to do. He is a superstar, but he is not superhuman (despite outward appearances). He can play all five positions—just not at once. McGee figures to start most games at center for the Lakers, but he’s never played a full season and he’s appeared in 65 or more games in just half of his 10 years in the league. He also hasn’t averaged more than 20 minutes since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign. Walton said McGee has looked “good in real life and on the tape” so far this preseason, particularly on defense where he “did a good job, when we did ask him to switch, of keeping guys in front.”
Walton wasn’t lying. McGee led the team in scoring in both games against the Nuggets. He was particularly active on Tuesday. McGee threw down an alley-oop from Rondo and another dunk on a quick touch pass from Brandon Ingram. He also had eight rebounds and five blocks—including two in quick succession on consecutive Nuggets shots. As preseason performances go, it couldn’t have been more entertaining—and it made for some good, GIF-able moments.
The question is how sustainable that kind of effort will be. When I asked the head coach how many minutes he could squeeze out of McGee each game, he didn’t have a number in mind and said it would be subject to the night and matchup.
“It will change game to game,” Walton said. “We’re going to play fast. We’re going to get guys in and out. We want to use our depth to our advantage and come in waves. It will be different for most players from one night to the next.”
There will be games, Walton imagined, where he might use 11 or 12 players. Along the way, he’ll have to figure out how many of those he can add together to come up with the 48 minutes per night the Lakers have to fill at center. When Rob Pelinka was recently asked about those rotations and the potential pratfalls, he didn’t seem too worried. The general manager said “Luke is perfectly positioned” and “understands the modern player” and added that “our roster and its strengths actually lines up perfectly with our coach and his strengths.”
Magic Johnson went further. He said some people “think it’s a problem when you have a lot of talent.” Not so, Magic explained. In fact, he said, the Lakers “want a lot of talent.” As for how to deploy that embarrassment of talent, Johnson insisted Walton has it covered.
“He’ll know how to put them in a winning position,” Magic said.
It’s a neat trick if Walton can pull it off. The head coach told his guys not to worry about positional labels. He figures “they’re all basketball players. They want to be on the court.” So far, no one has balked. “If they revolt and start telling us they don’t like it,” Walton said, “we’ll have those conversations.” He laughed when he said it. So did the rest of us. Early October allows for that kind of thing.