What Have We Learned? 5 Lakers Observations from the Early Season

LeBron James’ minutes, Anthony Davis’ dominance, and more observations from the Lakers’ first five games.

Early returns have skewed largely positive for the Los Angeles Lakers. Emphasis on large.

On the negative side, they were manhandled by the Denver Nuggets, suffered a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings, and eked out wins over the shorthanded Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic. Their hot shooting hasn’t carried over from the preseason. Transition defense remains an oft-lamented but unresolved issue. Multiple rotation players already populate the injury report.

The Lakers have good reasons to believe their (current) issues will subside. LeBron James and Anthony Davis look outstanding. Their defense has been dynamite in critical situations. Overall, a 3-2 record and 16th-ranked net rating (-0.8) seems just about right for Darvin Ham’s squad.

Here are five observations about the Lakers as their four-game road trip commences in Orlando on Saturday.

Five Lakers thoughts

No. 5: Austin Reaves is coming along

It’s been a rough go for Reaves. On the heels of a conference finals run in June and the FIBA World Cup in August/September, Reaves looked worryingly, prematurely, cooked four games into his third season. He had averaged 12.0 points and 2.5 assists and missed 16 of his 19 3-point attempts. He was being targeted on defense and routinely bodied or blown-by. He was subbed out for crunch time on three occasions. (The Lakers might’ve expected a slow start; they held him out of the first preseason game and initially limited him in training camp.)

Shooting slumps happen. But Reaves was playing uncharacteristically sloppy and indecisive — seemingly slow to move and process. (A Lakers fan friend sent me a text during Wednesday’s win inquiring whether the Monstars sapped his talent). Through it all, Reaves tried his darndest to contribute in other ways — hustling, tipping boards, making the right play — albeit to limited effectiveness.

“It’s gonna take a little bit for his legs to get underneath him,” said LeBron. “But the competitiveness and what he brings to our team goes without question. We could care less if he’s not making shots cause he does so many other things out on the floor.”

Finally, late in the third quarter of the Clippers game (shortly after I received the text) — after a five-turnover first half — he rediscovered his talent. On subsequent possessions, he dropped Norman Powell and hit a J, then drilled

another.

In the span of minutes, the clouds cleared for Reaves — and LeBron came flying out of the sky. Reaves hit the 38-year-old with an electrifying alley-oop that, for the first time this season, truly sent Crypto.com Arena into a frenzy. That’s more like it.

“It felt really good to see a shot go in,” Reaves acknowledged. “Made my first one then I missed like six in a row. But coming off the ball screen middle jumper and then the baseline jumper, it just felt good. Shoutout to (D’Angelo Russell) for constantly being in my ear this whole time like, ‘Forget all of it. You’re a really good basketball player. Don’t let that slip. You go do what you’re supposed to do.’

Reaves was a star in overtime. He nailed a signature and-1 floater, another pull-up, and two huge free throws. He finished with 15 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals. He didn’t commit a turnover after halftime.

“You go through stretches like this and you fight your way out and that’s what I’m doing.”

We can dissect the Lakers from countless angles, but, ultimately, they won’t be a top-tier ballclub in the West unless Reaves is a consistently dynamic playmaker and third-scorer.

No. 4: Defensive depth

The Lakers’ depth has already been put to the test. So far, they’ve largely passed — especially on the defensive end.

Christian Wood, playing on the veteran’s minimum, has been a mini-revelation. His defensive rebounding and rim protection in lineups alongside Anthony Davis have rendered him an early crunch time staple (Wood pledged to prove he’s a winning player with the Lakers. He’s keeping his word).

Wood’s defense — including a gutsy fourth-quarter effort on Kevin Durant — has enabled the Lakers to deploy lineups with multiple bigs without sacrificing spacing, speed, or versatility. Units with Davis and Wood boast a +34.7 net rating, and that figure nearly doubles with LeBron involved. That combo has fueled the Lakers’ late-game success.

Jaxson Hayes has held his own, too. Down late in the third quarter and facing a 12th straight defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers, Ham utilized a three-center lineup featuring Davis, Wood, and Hayes. The Lakers made a 15-5 game-changing push.

Like Wood, Cam Reddish is striving to alter his perception under the guise of LeBron and the spotlight of Los Angeles. It hasn’t been pretty — 31.6% from the field — but that’s a good thing. Ham (and the rest of the league) want to see Reddish embrace the dirty work.

Despite only scoring 8 points, Reddish had arguably the most important performance of his career against the Clippers. On a night the Lakers were down multiple key wings and playing a team flush with them, Reddish was a lengthy defensive pest for 37 minutes.

“If you’re a student of the game, you watched tonight’s game you saw the impact Jax and Cam made on the game,” said LeBron.

“I just try to talk to them, even throughout the course of a game,” Davis told ClutchPoints postgame about leading Wood, Hayes and Reddish on defense. “Just being defensive-minded. The reads you gotta make on certain players. Not going under (Paul George) and (Kawhi Leonard). Pick-up points for certain players. Boxing out. Things like that. Little schemes. Tools that they can use to be better.

“C-Wood took on the challenge a couple times this year already. Cam also locked in defensively tonight. It’s just a mindset. A thing you have to get used to. Because, for people who, like, have a reputation of not being able to defend, teams are gonna try to target. And you gotta take on that matchup that, ‘You’re not just gonna go by me. You’re not just gonna bully me.’ They took on the challenge and proved tonight that they can sit down and play defense.”

Max Christie made a tangible defensive impact in his first rotation minutes of the season on Wednesday. With Gabe Vincent set to miss at least two weeks, the sophomore (whom Ham called a “jewel” of the franchise) should see plenty of burn in November.

“We had four guys out of our rotation that didn’t play,” LeBron said after the Clippers game. “But when you have Max Christie who stays ready, Cam Reddish was big-time … Jax was big for us in the minutes we gave us. We needed that.”

The Lakers’ offseason moves were premised on continuity, depth, and athleticism. It’s already paying dividends.

No. 3: D’Angelo Russell is bringing the energy

“Just finding a way to be energy. If that’s setting an extra possession, tipping the ball out on an offensive rebound, diving for the ball, being in a help position. Things like that.”

Russell was specifically talking about fitting into multiple-big lineups, but it could apply to his broader approach since camp began.

Russell was engaged and lights-out in the preseason. After a rickety opening night (for everybody) in Denver, he’s actively making plays on both ends while setting the tone with his activity and communication. He’s averaging 21.5 points and 7.0 assists over the last four games. He’s made 6 of his last 13 3-point attempts and 20 of his last 31 shot attempts overall.

Russell — as he previewed in the preseason — has been wreaking havoc defensively. His head is on a swivel and he’s using his length and IQ to clog lanes, poke balls free, etc. On the other end, he’s been a vocal orchestrator and deft cutter/spacer.

Of any Lakers player, Russell — at 27, one of the veteran leaders on this team — has had by far the most positively demonstrative body language. Chest pumps, hyping up, instructing from the sideline, all that good stuff. The Lakers have needed it.

No. 2: Anthony Davis is getting it done. Full stop.

All the pressure is on AD this season. His scoreless second half against the Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets was an inauspicious start.

Here are AD’s box scores since:

  • 30 points, 10-for-17 FG, 12 rebounds, 6 stocks (steals plus blocks)
  • 30 points, 11-for-22 FG, 16 rebounds, 5 stocks
  • 26 points, 12-for-18 FG, 19 rebounds, 4 stocks
  • 27 points, 10-for-18 FG, 1o rebounds, 5 stocks

At the moment, there’s nothing for Stephen A. to loudly nit-pick at 8:30 in the morning. AD is doing it all. On both ends.

No. 1: LeBron James, still reigning supreme

LeBron’s minutes have been a talking point … but that’s all they are, for now.

James expressed mild displeasure — though not bemusement — about playing under 30 minutes on opening night. Minutes before, Ham indicated that would be the blueprint for the regular season.

Ham re-framed the plan within 48 hours: The Lakers will communicate with LeBron and his medical team on a daily basis and generally strive to keep his minutes down. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, he’s going to be out there.

As it happens, the Lakers have only played close games since the Denver loss. Fortunately, LeBron is pretty good at coming out of those situations as the winner.

“I’m a competitor,” LeBron said after dropping 35 points on the Clippers, including 14 in the final period and overtime. “The fourth quarter is winning time for me, I’ve always thrived in that position.”

On his 42 minutes: “We’re trying to compete for a championship, so there’s gonna a line that we want to kind of stay at. Some games its gonna be dictated on its own. Some days, we’ll have that ability to not have my minutes up as much.”

Ham has admitted that his and LeBron’s competitive juices have superseded long-term minutes concerns. He’s strategically pocketed three to four timeouts to buy LeBron extra rest late in games.

“He’s been phenomenal down the stretch,” added Davis. “I think (the coaches) are kind of banking minutes early on and then letting Bron just kind of flow throughout the fourth quarter.”

LeBron is averaging 35.6 minutes per game — a tick higher than his untenable total from 2022-23. However, his usage rate (29.4) is far lower than last year’s figure (33.3).

“If we keep the game close, I feel like in the fourth quarter, that’s when I’m at my best,” James said. “If the game is close, I can make plays to help us win the ballgame, no matter who is out on the floor for us.”

In a tight Western Conference, banking early-season wins could determine home-court advantage. The Lakers are keenly aware of this after their 2-10 start last season required them to scrap and claw into the play-in zone.

Now, if only the Lakers can pocket a few stress-free wins.

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