With five preseason games in the bank, and one remaining on Thursday in Palm Springs, the Lakers have been attempting to accomplish two often disparate things at the same time: build cohesion and manage minutes.
So far, it’s working quite well!
Because of some playing time limitations, coach Darvin Ham hasn't had the luxury of using his most-likely combinations of players very often. And yet, several different groups have looked terrific together, before the bulk of second half preseason action has been ceded to younger players unlikely to feature in the regular season.
In fact, L.A. went off for 70-point first half scoring outputs against both Brooklyn and Golden State, not to mention a 40-point third quarter against Sacramento. Then against Milwaukee, even with four regulars out, L.A. went toe-to-toe with one of the Eastern Conference favorites for the first half.
Of the 12 players with a viable argument to be in the regular rotation, six have played all five games: D'Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Taurean Prince, Rui Hachimura, Max Christie and Christian Wood. Anthony Davis has played four, Gabe Vincent three, LeBron James, Austin Reaves and Cam Reddish two apiece, and Jarred Vanderbilt one.
Vanderbilt is the only injury concern heading into Thursday's game, in which he won't play; he's been dealing with left heel soreness, and is set to be re-evaluated on Friday. Vincent, meanwhile, missed the last two games with lower back soreness, but he's listed as day-to-day. Rookie Jalen Hood-Schifino is also listed as day-to-day with a right knee contusion.
The limited action from LeBron – in Year 21 of his remarkable career – and Reaves – fresh off big minutes for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup – was preplanned, and the Lakers know what they'll be getting out of them come Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a deep well of length, size and skill after trade deadline and offseason upgrades has come to roost...but it all starts with Anthony Davis.
AD, clearly the best defensive player in the NBA last postseason, has also been outstanding on offense this preseason, shooting 54.5% overall, 50 percent on 3's and 88.9% from the free throw line towards 14.3 points in just 17.0 minutes. Extrapolate his production to 36 minutes, and he'd be at 30.2 points, 13.2 boards, not to mention 5.3 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.6 steals, for a +13.2 plus/minus.
Much has been made about Ham saying he wanted Davis to attempt six triples per game, but it's not about the attempts. Ham really just wants Davis to know he has the green light.
"I want him to be aggressive from all three levels," he said after Tuesday's practice. "I don't want him to second guess a shot."
Davis has been one of many beneficiaries of Ham switching the Lakers to more 5-out sets, as opposed to the 4-out and 1-in (a big in the paint) sets that permeated much of the 2022-23 season.
"Just gives us a little more space," said Reaves. "With AD shooting it how he's shooting it. If he does that, he's basically unguardable."
Reaves will be flanked by Russell in the backcourt, and both guards have been lights out in the preseason. Reaves shot 68.6% from the field and 62.5% from 3 in his two games, and Russell 60.9% and 55.6%, respectively, and each maintained a strong assist-to-turnover ratio as well.
"He seems to be in a great space," said Reaves of his partner. "The freedom he's playing with. The leadership - he's always boosting your confidence. I think he's gonna have a huge year for us."
Ham has opted to be coy about his fifth starter, but Taurean Prince has thus far stepped into that spot impressively in the absence of Vanderbilt.
After a rough preseason opener at Golden State – Prince fouled out in 13 minutes and hit just 1 of 5 FG's – the former Timberwolves wing has shot the ball very well, and stoutly defended his position. Prince has drilled 11 of 20 triples since the opener, reaching double figures in three straight games, and picked up a pair of steals against both the Kings and Warriors.
Hachimura has also impressed in his minutes, but he seems likely to remain in his bench role where he can attack mismatches, and still have a good chance to finish games depending on the opposition.
The plan for Thursday's preseason finale will be to simulate a regular season contest for three quarters.
Then it's off to the races.
"We feel like we can compete with anybody," Reaves concluded. "We just have to handle our business. We know what we need to be successful, it’s on us to go do it."