Frank Vogel smiled when he was asked for the Lakers’ starting lineup Saturday night before their first preseason game against the Golden State Warriors.
It’s a question he has fielded constantly since becoming the head coach and he finally had to respond with something beyond a shoulder shrug with his Lakers taking the court for the first time.
“We’re going to start LeBron [James], Avery Bradley, Danny Green, Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee,” Vogel said before cautioning not to read too much into his decision.
“We’re going to mix it up every night throughout the preseason and potentially into the season. The guys are going to have opportunities to start just to see different [combinations]. The preseason is just about combinations.”
It may have been the first combination of the first preseason game but if it’s any indication of what is to come for the Lakers, Vogel will have plenty to smile about this season. The Lakers defeated the Warriors 123-101 in the first game held at the new $1.4-billion Chase Center in San Francisco, but preseason wins and losses don’t mean much once the regular season starts. The chemistry built between players that will see the floor when the games matter is the only worthwhile takeaway this time of year.
One week after the start of training camp, all the new pieces the Lakers hoped would find a way to fit at some point, came together seamlessly. James and Davis looked like they had been teammates for years, connecting on several highlight reel plays and sending fans into a frenzy on social media as the Lakers took an early 18-point lead and Davis scored 17 first-quarter points.
“I’m excited about what we can be, we got a little bit of a taste of it tonight,” Vogel said. “[Davis] is a monster. It’s going be very difficult to slow him down with what we have around him. I’m excited about what he’s going to do and Lakers fans should be too.”
One of those excited fans was Magic Johnson, who resigned as the team’s president of basketball operations in April after failing to pull off a trade for Davis.
“Laker Nation, I just watched LeBron and Anthony Davis put on a show in the 1st quarter of the Lakers vs. Warriors exhibition game. Watch out rest of the NBA!” Johnson tweeted. “I think LeBron is going to average close to a triple double this season. His passing was on point and Anthony Davis was dominant in that 1st quarter.”
When the Lakers traded Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks for Davis in June, many wondered if that package was too much for one player. The team was effectively trading their future to go all-in on the present. Davis showed why that was a gamble worth making every time.
Davis isn’t just a good player, he’s a transcendent player. In the history of the NBA and ABA, the top three players in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) are Michael Jordan (27.91), James (27.59) and Davis (27.42). Over the last six seasons, James and Davis have finished in the top eight in PER.
There were moments in the first half when the Lakers and Warriors had their starters on the court and Davis outshined everyone, including James and Stephen Curry, and showed why he was in the “best player in the NBA” conversation two seasons ago. Every Lakers championship team has been led by a Hall of Fame tandem and James and Davis might be the best statistical pairing in league history. But it’s one thing to be a great pair on paper, it’s another to bring that to life on the court and the relationship that James and Davis had prior to their arrival in Los Angeles has fast-tracked their connection on the court.
“It’s been very good because of the relationship we had before becoming teammates,” James said. “We’re able to be straightforward with one another and not sugarcoat anything and not take anything personal. We’re able to take constructive criticism. I can get in his ear and he can get in my ear but it’s all to make each other better and challenge each other, which will ultimately be better for the team.”
Davis, who finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes, was never far from James on Saturday. Their lockers were across from each other, they sit next to each other on the bench and were talking about the game as they walked back to the locker room together after the game.
“Even when we’re on the floor we’re talking,” Davis said. “If he’s on the floor or I’m on the bench, we’re talking and trying to help each other out. The more we can do that, the easier the game will be for us and our teammates.”
This is the honeymoon phase for these new-look Lakers. Vogel is the first to admit that’s nothing new this time of year as he has yet to divvy up minutes or name a definitive starting lineup but there’s a sense in the locker room that the players have bought into what this team could be and have accepted their roles. The hierarchy of this team is clearly in place with James and Davis and everyone is beginning to fall in line behind them and buying into the plan that was put in place when all these new pieces were brought together this summer.
“It comes from the communication we had over the summer when guys signed,” James said. “It came from the mini-camp that we had in [Las] Vegas but it also came from the guys being professionals and guys knowing their roles and playing their roles to a high level. It’s not always going to be great but the best thing about our teams is that we can communicate with one another and figure out ways to get better. Having a veteran ball club like this helps a lot.”