The Los Angeles Lakers came away with a loss in their most highly anticipated preseason game in recent memory, as the new-look team led by superstar LeBron James fell to the Denver Nuggets 124-107 on Sunday night in San Diego.
There was a charge in the atmosphere at the Valley View Casino Center as the Lakers fans got their first look at James actually playing basketball for the team. The once-proud franchise has struggled for relevancy for several years now, and the hope is the 33-year-old James—along with a promising young core of players—can one day deliver the team's 17th NBA championship (and maybe more).
LeBron James Comments on Team After 1st Game
The Lakers have plenty of work to do to get back into contention, as evidenced by the preseason loss to a strong Nuggets team. James finished with nine points, three rebounds and three assists in 15 minutes. He was glad to get back out there, even for just a short spurt.
"It was great to get back on the floor and start a new journey for myself," James said after the game, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin.
While the Lakers played well with James on the court, the second unit struggled during the game. The Lakers padded out their roster with an eclectic group featuring Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley as well as some rookies and other cheap, young players. As Lakers.com's Mike Trudell noted, there were some issues with the second unit:
Mike Trudell @LakersReporter
Similar pattern here from the 1st half, where LAL’s starters played pretty well, then the bench gave up a lead. Lance Stephenson has had the ball the most initiating offense. Second unit will be quite different when Lonzo returns (and either he or Rondo leads the bench group).
It's going to take time for the new team to figure out how to play together, and James is aware of the team's need to improve, per Trudell:
Mike Trudell @LakersReporter
LeBron echoed his own comments last week that this roster is going to need some time to gel. Liked some things tonight, others clearly need work. Said LAL are behind teams like Denver who have roster continuity and know what they’re doing. LAL trying to add 1 thing at a time.
And which aspects of the game do the Lakers need to work on, you might ask?
"Everything," James said, per McMenamin. "Everything. Got to get better at everything."
Lakers Testing Kyle Kuzma as Center
The Lakers roster skews heavily toward swingmen and guards. As far as center goes, the only natural fits at that position are McGee and 21-year-old Ivica Zubac. Head coach Luke Walton has plans to work on a number of small-ball lineups and play quick, open-court basketball this season.
At least one of those lineup combinations could feature Kuzma as the resident big man on the court. Lakers.com's Joey Ramirez reports Kuzma has been practicing at center this preseason.
“I’ve never really played the five before,” Kuzma said, per Ramirez. “I think it’ll be good for us having a small-ball unit, getting out and running and gunning.”
A lineup with Kuzma at center would naturally have to be a quick, slight unit, as Kuzma cuts a relatively lean 6'9" figure. Many NBA teams are moving toward smaller lineups and faster play, but playing a natural small forward/shooting guard at the five seems like quite a departure for a Lakers franchise that has featured several historically great centers and won its most recent championships with the likes of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol as the key big men.
In any case, it's just one option of many, and Walton doesn't necessarily seem married to the idea.
“The coverages and things like that are obviously different for him at the five spot,” Walton said, per Ramirez. “He’s been good. It hasn’t been a ton of reps, but we’ve had him out there trying to see if it could possibly work.”
The Lakers came out of their first preseason game mostly unscathed, though Beasley did have to leave the game early with a head laceration.
Beasley did not have any concussion-like symptoms, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk, and will be re-evaluated Monday.
There was a worrying sign as he left the court though, per The Athletic's Bill Oram:
Beasley scored four points and had one block in only six minutes of play. A head cut shouldn't keep him out too long provided there was no concussion. The Lakers will be counting on Beasley for some size and scoring punch off the bench this season.
As for the other Lakers, Lonzo Ball is still working his way back into the team. He did not play in the preseason opener, but it looks like he could be very close to a return after offseason knee surgery. Here he is putting in some work before Sunday's game, per Youngmisuk:
Ball isn't the only one with knee troubles on the team. Lakers first-round pick Moritz Wagner is out for the preseason with a knee contusion, per Trudell. Wagner is a seven-foot power forward from Germany who played his college basketball at Michigan.