Here are the five biggest story lines for the Lakers this season:
Will Russell Westbrook fit in with Anthony Davis and LeBron James?
It was the biggest news of their offseason, the team pulling off a draft-day shocker by dealing for Westbrook while sending out key role players and longtime Lakers — Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — in a wide-ranging trade that ended up including Montrezl Harrell. It set the Lakers on a path to a huge roster overhaul, a gamble any time but more so considering James’ aging legs and closing window.
Immediately, the move had league sources buzzing about potential “fit” problems — two players in James and Westbrook who are relentless attackers but substandard floor-spacers. Scouts doubted that either could find a way to contribute by playing off the ball while the other dominated possessions.
The preseason provided limited clues to how it will work, save for maybe the most important one — that Westbrook, James and Anthony Davis are all committed to figuring out the right sharing model. From coaches who have witnessed it to players who have participated in it, buy-in is the most important part to figuring things out.
Can Davis bounce back?
Following the championship run in the bubble, Davis had answered most of his critics, the big man committing to winning, hitting big shots and looking like a player who fully understood how to utilize his otherworldly talents.
Yet after he came into training camp last season out of shape, he got off to a slow start and was inconsistent until an Achilles injury cost him most of the season.
Now, entering his third year with the Lakers, some of those questions have resurfaced, with league scouts and executives wondering about Davis’ consistency and his competitiveness. He played in five of the Lakers’ six preseason games, averaging 14.6 points and 6.0 rebounds.
He said he sought to find a rhythm on his way into the preseason but he mostly struggled to score, making only 38.9% from the field and 63.9% from the free-throw line. The Lakers are going to need him to be much better in the regular season.
Will the Lakers return to 2020 physical dominance?
In the aftermath of the Westbrook trade, the thinking was the Lakers would need to play Davis at center more frequently to allow them to get another shooter on the court. The quest for space quickly gave way to the lure of familiarity.
Both Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and coach Frank Vogel have talked about the team using two centers like it did with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard on the way to an NBA title. Maybe it was the late addition of DeAndre Jordan that opened that door fully. Maybe Trevor Ariza’s ankle injury derailed the best option for a small-ball lineup.
While Vogel hasn’t committed to a starting lineup yet, a lot of signs point toward the Lakers trying to bully teams with superior size like they did two seasons ago.
Are the upgrades on offense enough to erase the losses on defense?
The Lakers sacrificed key defenders in players like Dennis Schroder, Alex Caruso and Caldwell-Pope to add more offensive firepower. After living near the top of the league in terms of defensive efficiency, a slide seems inevitable.
For every bit the Lakers are worse defensively, they’ll have to be better on offense, becoming a more potent shooting team, a better attacking group and a faster-paced unit than they were when they could grind out wins.
It’s a good thing the preseason doesn’t count because the Lakers were one of the worst offenses in the NBA during that stretch. Getting Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn and Wayne Ellington back from injuries early should help on the offensive end.
But no one can be sure if it’ll be enough.
Are they too old?
The Lakers left the preseason with James, Davis, Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony healthy, limiting their workloads over the course of six preseason games.
Along the way, they lost Monk to a groin injury, Nunn to an ankle injury and Ellington to a hamstring injury. Ariza underwent ankle surgery and will miss significant time. Same goes for Talen Horton-Tucker after thumb surgery.
The Lakers’ age is a two-pronged issue, with the team forced to be careful with its veterans, which could end up putting additional stress on the rest of their players. It’ll be a tightrope walk all season, with the Lakers trying to maximize the value of experience while keeping everyone as healthy as possible.
For all of the roster decisions, none of it matters if James isn’t healthy enough to perform to his standard.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.