Just who are the Lakers?
Part of their task as they push through the preseason is answering that question.
"The thing with us right now is we don't have an identity," said point guard D'Angelo Russell, who led the team with 33 points during the Lakers' 124-115 exhibition win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night. "Other teams, they got star players, they got glue guys, [people] know what they're capable of. … When you say other teams, you know they're scrappy or teams execute. When you say the Lakers right now, you don't really know. We're just trying to find it."
As the picture starts to clarify, it's Coach Luke Walton's philosophy that it follows. On Sunday night at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Walton worked to hammer home some of those points. He wanted a strong defensive performance. He wanted to limit fouls. He wanted active ball movement. And even though these games don't count, he wanted a win.
Whatever this team's identity is as it claws out of the basement of the NBA standings, it can't be about losing.
So, late in the fourth quarter, Walton returned to a lineup consisting mostly of Sunday night's starters — Nick Young, Julius Randle, Lou Williams and Russell returned, joined by reserve Thomas Robinson.
"[On Friday night] we lost a game I felt like we should've won," Walton said. "I also wanted to get ourselves to start getting familiar with that feeling of finishing ballgames, and how much better that feels on the way home than a loss."
Sunday's game still showed plenty that needed fixing. The Lakers fouled too much and were out-rebounded, 54-29. Some of their activity defensively, which led to 13 steals, helped counteract the rebounding discrepancy.
As the Lakers work to correct those issues, and as they learn Walton's offense and what he wants on defense, he's in no hurry to set a starting five. Sunday's lineup included Timofey Mozgov along with Williams, Young, Randle and Russell, with Young starting for injured small forward Luol Deng.
"We have so much work to do, honestly, we're going to take it as it comes," Walton said. "I know the goal is to be ready, ready by Game 1 of the NBA season, but we're looking big picture. We're going to keep going at whatever pace we need to go at."
If that means he doesn't have a set starting lineup by Oct. 26, then so be it.
"If not, we'll go out and I expect us to still compete our tails off on both ends of the floor and play to win," Walton said. "It'll be with a simpler playbook on offense, a simpler playbook on defense and we'll kind of just take it as it comes."
In the meantime, he'll keep chiseling the Lakers into the image he wants, and they'll keep searching for that themselves.
"We don't want rebuilding as an excuse for losing," Russell said. "We're rebuilding, but we still find a way to win games. We're capable. We have pieces. We don't have like an all-star guy or anything like that. Hopefully we have some potential guys, but we're taking everything seriously."