The Los Angeles Lakers returned to the court Sunday in their preseason opener, marking the debut of LeBron James in a purple-and-gold uniform.
While the Lakers lost to the Denver Nuggets, 124-107, at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego, they gave a small glimpse of what to expect for the coming season.
LeBron James draws a lot of attention
James' gravity on the basketball court was readily apparent Sunday.
His individual box score wasn't especially impressive—he finished with nine points on 2-of-6 shooting with three assists—but James is a such a significant threat that the Nuggets lost track of other assignments. Brandon Ingram was an early beneficiary of that, getting a layup and a dunk off cuts.
Rajon Rondo dished out the Lakers' first two assists, but James' overall presence is going to give his teammates regular opportunities for easy baskets.
Last year, the Lakers strived to outrun their opponents, primarily because they didn't have a dominant player in the half court. James will change that significantly.
In James' 15 minutes Sunday, the Lakers outscored the Nuggets by one point. In the remaining 33 minutes, the Nuggets outpaced them by 18.
As James and the rest of his teammates build chemistry together, the Lakers should become a dynamic offensive force in the Western Conference.
Defense is a work in progress
The Lakers allowed the Nuggets to score 66 points in the first half. Head coach Luke Walton wants his squad to be among the top defensive teams in the league, but that's going to take some time to come together.
Outside of JaVale McGee, the team doesn't have an established center. Though he'll primarily serve as a shot-blocking threat, McGee was the team's leading scorer with 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting, as he clearly benefited from the Lakers' ball movement.
The Lakers held a five-point advantage in McGee's 20 minutes, but he hasn't averaged more than 11.1 minutes a game since the 2013-14 season.
L.A. occasionally played Kyle Kuzma, Michael Beasley and James at the 5 on defense, while 7-footer Ivica Zubac got seven minutes off the bench. None of them were a match for Nuggets centers Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee, who combined for 25 points in 40 minutes and went a perfect 15-of-15 at the charity stripe.
Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray finished with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting in only 19 minutes, while Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley combined to hit nine of their 12 three-point attempts off the bench.
The Lakers are still learning how to defend together. If Sunday is any indication, that may be a long journey throughout the season.
That journey will likely determine how high L.A. gets in the Western Conference standings and how far it goes in the playoffs.
Incoming veterans a mixed bag
Outside of James, the Lakers got 23 impressive minutes from Rondo, who is gifted at impacting a game without scoring. The same can be said of Lonzo Ball, who sat out against Denver while working his way back slowly from knee surgery.
Rondo dished out 11 assists while scoring only two points. The Lakers had a seven-point advantage during his time on the floor, but they were blitzed by 24 points in the 25 minutes without him. As such, Rondo may be the second-most important Laker this season, at least until Ball can return to form.
Ingram was successful Sunday off the ball, but he struggled at the point with Rondo on the bench. The Lakers should be able to keep their true point guards on the floor all game, staggering Ball and Rondo. Ingram will still be able to operate as a secondary playmaker, but the team may be better off with him as a finisher instead of a creator.
Beasley logged only six minutes before he suffered a head laceration. Lance Stephenson shot well (12 points on 4-of-5 shooting) but seemed lost defensively. The Nuggets dominated the Lakers in Stephenson's 21 minutes, as he finished with a team-worst minus-28 plus/minus.
Based on one preseason game, the Lakers need to clone McGee. Last year, they relied on Brook Lopez and Julius Randle as their primary centers. McGee doesn't have the range or post game of Lopez or the ball-handling and bullying strength of Randle, but he is a tremendous vertical threat for lobs at the basket. He's also a willing screener and cutter.
The big question for McGee is how many minutes he can handle consistently.
Can the Lakers shoot?
The Lakers shot only 34.5 percent from three-point range as a team last season, the second-worst mark in the league. Sunday wasn't especially encouraging, as the team shot 32 percent from deep (8-of-25).
While James converted both of his three-point attempts, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed all four of his. Rookie Svi Mykhailiuk, a deadeye shooter in practice, shot 1-of-5 from deep, while Kuzma went 2-of-6.
The Lakers need steadier hands from both Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma, who are expected to play significant roles this coming season. If Mykhailiuk can find his shot at the NBA level, the Lakers could have a second-round steal.
One game isn't statistically significant, especially in the preseason. Sharing the court with James, who will play more than 15 minutes a night during the regular season, should yield better looks for the shooters.
The Lakers won't challenge the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting percentage. At worst, they'll be a mid-tier shooting team once they settle down and learn how to play with each other.
Sunday's exhibition was symbolically momentous with James making his Lakers debut, but the team has a lot of work to do before it becomes a force in the Western Conference.