1. As always, everything in the Lakers’ universe revolves around Kobe Bryant, who this season will set a record for most seasons played with one franchise in NBA history, passing John Stockton with the Utah Jazz (19).
Bryant returned to the court this preseason after nearly nine months rehabbing a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder but missed the Lakers’ final three preseason games with a lower leg bruise. Still, the 37-year-old showed progress in limited action: Bryant averaged 13 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the floor in 18.1 minutes.
Bryant had previously said that letting the team’s fledgling guard duo of D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson handle the ball so much will allow him to catch and shoot more often, saving his body from further wear and tear. Sure enough, we saw that play out, and it would be nice to see more of it in the regular season. However, there were times when Bryant reverted to his old self and fired away. Bryant and the Lakers will likely walk this line for the entire season.
All told, Bryant never played more than 22 minutes in a preseason game, and coach Byron Scott’s “hard cap” for Bryant could keep the Lakers’ star between 28-30 minutes a game this season. But Bryant has never been one to hold back, even when it’s for his own good.
2. Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft, started five preseason games, came off the bench in two and will start for the Lakers in Wednesday’s season-opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The former Ohio State guard struggled at Las Vegas Summer League — he shot just 12 percent from 3-point range and had nearly twice as many turnovers (26) as assists (16) in five games — but was a bit better in seven preseason outings, averaging 6.9 points, 3.3 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 1.3 turnovers per game. He also showed off jaw-dropping court vision at times, creating some fabulous highlights that spread like wildfire across social media. Bryant is already calling Russell one of the best playmakers in the NBA.
Russell had his share of turnovers and shot just 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3, but that’s to be expected for a 19-year-old. Given the Lakers’ uncertain future, it would be in the franchise’s best interest to let Russell play through his mistakes.
3. The preseason was the first time to really see what Julius Randle could do.
In eight preseason games — all starts — Randle, who suffered a broken leg in his NBA debut last season, showed glimpses of why the Lakers picked him seventh overall in the 2014 draft. You just don’t see such good ball-handling, especially when bringing the ball up the court, from a 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward. His ability to crash the glass — he averaged 5.6 rebounds in preseason play to go along with 11.4 points — and simply out-muscle and out-leap opponents was also impressive.
The next step for the 20-year-old? Developing footwork and a midrange jumper. Scouts say Randle plays “bully ball” and needs more finesse in his game. If he can develop those skills, the Lakers could have something truly special on their hands.
4. We could focus on Clarkson here, since he averaged 12 points per game and looked steady throughout eight preseason games. But we know what the second-year guard can do, and it’s why he has locked up a starting spot.
Williams, last season’s Sixth Man of the Year with Toronto, led the Lakers with 16.8 points per game in the preseason, displaying his ability to ignite a scoring flurry at a moment’s notice. He’ll come off the bench and provide a much-needed spark, though it remains to be seen how he and Nick Young — a fellow reserve gunner — will mesh.
Hibbert provided a much-needed presence in the middle for a team that finished fourth to last last season in defending shots inside of five feet. The 7-foot-2 center led the Lakers with 8.5 rebounds per game and 1.5 blocks per game in eight preseason games, all starts. His role now is to simply play defense, but he also showed he’s still a capable scorer, as he was in Indiana before things went sour with the Pacers. Is he back in All-Star form, contending for defensive player of the year? We’ll see.
Bass is a steady, hard-working veteran who added 6.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game off the bench during the preseason, which is the kind of production we should probably expect from him this season. His main role will be to back up Randle, but if the NBA sophomore struggles, Scott might lean on the established Bass instead.
5. Lastly, we turn our focus to Scott’s biggest focus: defense.
The Lakers were abysmal last season on that end of the court. They ranked 29th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency, and this preseason wasn’t much of an improvement, especially after the Golden State Warriors rang up 136 points in the Lakers’ preseason finale.
With so many young players, new players and a 37-year-old Bryant, plus the fact that the Lakers are in a conference filled with so many elite scorers, it’s hard to envision the Lakers improving much on defense this season.
One bonus is having World Peace, a former defensive player of the year. But much has changed in the decade since the forward won the award, and it’s unrealistic to expect the 35-year-old to be the player he once was.
In all, the Lakers finished 21-61 last season, and ESPN projects them to have 27 wins this season. What seems clear is that this team just doesn’t have enough talent to make the playoffs in the deep Western Conference, and, barring an absolute miracle, the Lakers will be sitting out of the postseason for the third straight season.
There are plenty of other storylines to follow throughout this season, including how the kids develop and whether the Lakers can stay healthy after leading the league in games missed because of injury the past two seasons. But most of all, this season will be about Bryant and how he fares in what could be his farewell tour. May he finish it on two feet, please.