Lakers see positive signs despite slow preseason start

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook reacts during a preseason game against Phoenix in Las Vegas.
Lakers guard Russell Westbrook scored 11 points in the first quarter of a loss to Phoenix on Wednesday.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Hey, everyone, an it’s Dan Woike writing the Lakers newsletter from Las Vegas. I had to pawn my shoes to get a computer after some very, very, very unlikely rolls of the dice, but we figured out a way to get it done.

Because in the end, this is a results business, right?

Well … maybe not always.

Bust or building?

For all the places to make the argument, Las Vegas might be the worst.

There are no moral victories at the felt tables — either you beat the dealer and your stack grows or you lose and it goes away, the most cut-and-dry transaction you could imagine.

Yet after the Lakers lost another preseason game, this one to Minnesota on Thursday night, Lakers coach Darvin Ham tried to contextualize his team’s goals a week into its preseason games.


“I know, like, we’re the Lakers and all of that. And obviously, we want to put our best foot forward at all times,” Ham said at the end of his news conference. “But we have to have this time in terms of figuring out our roster. And a lot of these young guys and some of the guys who don’t play as much [need] to have a platform to see if they can, indeed, help us. I can’t reiterate that enough. Just keep this time in perspective in terms of us figuring things out and putting in a new system and getting our main guys as well as the guys who are going to be supporting players comfortable with what we’re doing.”

Ham has repeatedly said he doesn’t want the Lakers to get accustomed to losing — they haven’t won a preseason game since 2020 — but there’s been optimism within the organization about how the Lakers looked in their three games so far this year.

When you get into the reasons why, it’s hard not to sound like you’re making excuses for the organization. Saying wins and losses don’t matter in the preseason is only true to an extent. Last year’s winless preseason was a pretty strong indicator of the problems that followed.

Yet the Lakers do feel things are trending differently this fall.

For one, their starting groups have performed well in their limited moments, building leads against Sacramento and Phoenix before the team’s second and third units ceded the leads in the second half. While the Russell Westbrook situation is far from settled, Ham’s system has aided him in flashing some positive signs in his two appearances this preseason. The driving lanes do appear to be bigger, and Westbrook confidently shooting corner three-pointers in the first quarter against Phoenix is a welcome sign.

A trade is still certainly possible (more on this below), but there’s a reasonable amount of confidence that it’s worth at least seeing how things can work out with Westbrook in purple and gold.

The Lakers have shot the ball extremely poorly through three games — maybe a cold streak or maybe a sign of a roster deficiency — but the defensive activity levels have been high. If they’re telling the truth about Anthony Davis’ lower back tightness (that it’s minor and fully precautionary), there’s probably no reason to freak out.

They’ve been pleased with Kendrick Nunn’s efficiency, James’ energy and Patrick Beverley’s fit among other long-term signs that have the Lakers encouraged. Even though rookie Max Christie has shot only 28%, his shot quality, athleticism and strength have impressed team staffers.

But don’t think the losses go unnoticed. Returning Lakers players saw how early losses set the tone last season.

“Every time you’re taking the floor, you’re trying to win,” guard Austin Reaves said before Wednesday’s game loss to the Phoenix Suns. “So if you get a couple wins in the preseason, you get a feel for how to win games, how to close games, how to stretch or how to get a lead early in the game and maintain that lead. So that experience will definitely carry over before the regular season starts. So that’s the main thing. The goal is to win every time you take the floor.”

And on that front, the Lakers still haven’t succeeded.

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The good news

Maybe the most encouraging signs came 20 minutes away from the Las Vegas Strip where Victor Wembanyama dominated, the 7-foot-4 18-year-old sending NBA scouts and executives into a frenzy.

I can’t oversell how strange it is to see total consensus among a group of people like this, everyone conceding that they’d never seen anything like the young French prospect.

The fallout? I had several NBA executives tell me that they think it’ll soften the trade market some with teams more willing to slide in order to improve their draft lottery odds. It could give the Lakers more — or cheaper — possibilities on the trade market, though it’s not immediately clear how that will play out.

While the NBA has made tanking less advantageous, you’re definitely going to see teams set next year’s draft as a top priority. Wembanyama is that good. And, just maybe, the Lakers might benefit from it.

Song of the week

Kamera — Wilco (The Unified Version of Everything Version)


The 20th anniversary of my favorite album (or at least one of my top 5) has been released with a ton of alternative takes and live recordings. This version of “Kamera” is just terrific and so different from the one that made it onto the original “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” album.


In case you missed it

Victor Wembanyama, the French teenage star, wows NBA folks in Vegas

LeBron James explains why he wants to buy an NBA team in Las Vegas after he retires

With Anthony Davis sitting out, Darvin Ham must wait for Lakers lineup he really wants

Despite short appearances, Darvin Ham pleased with his big three

Lakers’ Russell Westbrook says he will ‘focus on competing’ and ignore trade rumors

Lakers guard Matt Ryan had a unique path to the NBA, and it involved a cemetery

Patrick Beverley, Darvin Ham stoke competitive fire during Lakers’ preseason workouts

It’s about fit more than talent with the Lakers’ lineup

Until next time...

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