The preseason is not a fortune teller; the preseason is not a tarot card. The wins or losses do not mean anything. The results do not indicate greatness or misery. There is no clue in the preseason about what will happen against the Clippers on opening night. The preseason does not determine playoff seeding six months down the line. The preseason is not a reincarnation of some bad movie. But failure is viral. Failure gives birth to more failure and more failure making it increasingly difficult to overcome the desperation of a terrible start. In that way, this particular preseason which begins on Saturday for the Lakers when they go against the Golden State Warriors matters. It is a test for all involved. It will begin the process that is part of the early season ritual in the NBA, the peeling of the onion, one layer to get to another layer and then it will be clear after five or six games, who stays in the NBA, who goes to the D-League or Europe, whose career gets one more year and whose livelihood, coaches included, is falling away. And who takes Kobe Bryant’s place.
With nearly everyone on a one year contract this Laker preseason is unusual in that there is a heightened awareness of what is at stake. A lot of fisherman, only a few boats. The players have to display their skill level while at the same time repressing their selfish natures and adapt to a sharing offense. The coaches have to play chess, move pieces here and there, decide the perfect fit and hope that when their best player returns it all connects neatly.
Basketball is about principles first and players who fit those principals second so the question about Jordan Farmar has nothing to do with his toughness, athleticism, and experience but that he played last in Turkey away from view. We know he is fast but does he have strength in all of its forms, mental strength, physical strength, adversity strength? How well does he run pick and roll sets? How successful is he at penetrating the lane and on the defensive end staying in front of opposing guards to allow for the rotation of the big men without a shot blocker waiting at the rim? The last time Jordan was with the Lakers he ran the type of offense which used very little of his skill set and it frustrated him despite the team’s success. In the years since, he has matured, but as a player how much of his game has developed, how has he progressed as a point guard?
Who starts in Kobe’s absence? Nick Young seems the obvious choice, he is a lethal shooter but his attention to detail on defense comes and goes and he does not create contact so he rarely shoots free throws. Wes Johnson is a better three than a two. Jodie Meeks is a three point specialist who has trouble finishing at the rim but is a committed defender. Steve Blake is experienced and tough but not particularly quick and he is thirty three years old.
In spite of himself, in spite of his length and ability from the three and the mid range, in spite of his rotations on defense that can disrupt offenses, Wes Johnson does not overwhelm. His game is situational, not predicated on him beating his man but just hanging around the perimeter and waiting to be noticed. His NBA arrival has been pretty much a bore. He is not an effective rebounder which makes you wonder if there is more there, more heart, more desire, more commitment, more guts. This is his third team in four years. Was he just in the wrong systems or was it him, is he an underachiever? Is he mentally disciplined to withstand the pressure when there is the expected adversity, the bad nights on the road? Does he posses the intensity that is the pre-requisite when Kobe is your teammate? At the same position Shawne Williams can hit threes. He has lost weight, but where is his game? Is Jordan Hill the starting power forward or Chris Kaman? This is what preseason is for, to answer the questions that need to be answered, to experiment with the rotations, to make judgments on skill and ability and evaluate needs and then come to a reasonable conclusion. To keep players and send others away.
Basketball is tribal with its own language and customs and culture, it is an extraordinary love. Players travel to the end of the earth to play and sometimes it is painful when their own expectations can not meet reality. But we are not there yet, not with this collection of Laker players who have been together since the beginning of September and have developed symmetry in their habits and relationships and rhythms that reflect off of one another so it is second nature to bend here and bend there, to talk trash on the one hand and encourage on the other, to be less so the other can be more, to trust and share like in a marriage and sadly accept that in a month some of them will be here and some of them will be gone.
In an odd way the construct of preseason is equity: everyone gets something out of it even if it is just a turn to be on a team you will never, ever be on and therein lies the part of the preseason that correlates to making lemonade out of lemons. It is the mother of all chances in which your specialized skill is displayed within the team context and by and large what happens to you here is not personal, what happens to you here is what you make happen here and this is virtuous in a way and very American. Here you work and you practice and you play, here you listen and you put yourself out on the line and even after you give everything, you give more, because, as it was so aptly said a long time ago, success is not in the running, it is in the climbing.