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The NBA preseason officially got underway Sunday with two championship favorites — the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers — facing off. It’s tough to draw too many meaningful takeaways when almost the entire core rotation for both teams sat out — LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza for the Lakers; Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Patty Mills, Blake Griffin and Joe Harris for the Nets. Still, we got a first look at a few new players for each team and some ideas about how they might start to fit together.
The Brooklyn Nets really upgraded their depth
The two most impressive players for the Nets in their 123-97 blowout of the Lakers were rookies Cam Thomas (21 points on 14 shots) and Day’ron Sharpe (13 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals). Neither is likely to play many meaningful minutes for this season on a deep, veteran team with championship aspirations. But seeing them work as the tip of the spear in this first game was a nice reminder of how much depth the Nets have added.
Six players who should feature heavily in the Nets’ rotation during the season did not play in this game. But they still started Bruce Brown, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap. Aldridge didn’t do a ton but with the threat of his shooting, he won’t have to this season. Brown and Millsap combined for 22 points on 9-of-19 from the field, including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, adding 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks.
Nicolas Claxton played just 13 minutes because of foul trouble but his energy and athleticism will keep him in the rotation this season and we also saw DeAndre’ Bembry and Jevon Carter playing solid minutes and bringing defensive intensity.
The Nets spread minutes around a fair bit last season, but mostly out of necessity. With so much injury time missed for their core trio, they had to dig deep — one of the reasons you saw Tyler Johnson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot combining for nearly 2000 regular-season minutes, or Mike James becoming a regular rotation piece during the playoffs. The Nets have more depth to weather those kinds of storms this season and, at full strength, they’re as scary top-to-bottom as any team in the league.
Anthony Davis may not be playing center as much as he says
A big talking point for the Lakers this summer has been Anthony Davis’ willingness to start at and play a lot more minutes at center. But the Lakers also added DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard this summer and for this preseason opener, Jordan started at the 5 with Davis at the 4. In this first preseason game, Howard and Jordan combined to play just over 30 minutes but a decent amount of that overlapped with Davis’ minutes.
In theory, 30-35 minutes per game, combined, for Howard and Jordan in the regular season would leave 12-18 for Davis to play as the lone big man. It makes sense that the Lakers would want to lean move heavily on those lineups in specific situations, but in the grand scheme of things, it may not matter much either way. The Lakers outscored opponents by an average of 4.9 points per 100 possessions last season when Davis played without another big — Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond or Montrezl Harrell. When they played Davis next to one of those other centers, they were plus-3.9. That’s a fairly narrow margin, all else being equal, and Davis’ minutes at center across the entire season aren’t going to matter nearly as much in specific, hypothetical playoff matchups.
Malik Monk is going to be a huge piece for the Lakers
The acquisition of Monk didn’t get a ton of attention for the Lakers this offseason, overshadowed by Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Jordan and Howard, and the fact that last season was really the first time in Monk’s four-year career he’d been a net positive. But if he keeps playing like he did last year, he could be a game-changer.
In the absence of the other Lakers’ stars, Monk led them in scoring against the Nets, putting up 15 points on 6-of-12 from the field in just over 20 minutes. All three of his 3-pointers came off the dribble and most of his scoring opportunities were self-created. He has a ton to offer the Lakers’ as an off-ball threat — he made 41.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s last season — but his upside as an ancillary creator could be enormous. LeBron, Davis and Westbrook will draw an enormous amount of defensive attention but Monk’s value is not just about hitting open shots, it’s also about creating them when the defense is bent and the ball is swung to him.
His offensive package of self-creation and spot-up shooting is more advanced than Kendrick Nunn or Talen Horton-Tucker and much more flexible and uptempo than Carmelo Anthony. Even in a bench role, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him up his 11.7-points-per-game average from last season and be on the court a lot in clutch situations.
This week on The Long Two, Ben Ladner breaks down the implications of another serious lower-body injury for Zion Williamson and the new max extension for Michael Porter Jr.
We rolled out our annual ranking of the best young players in the NBA last week. Remember to check out the full 25-under-25 list and dive into our profiles for the top five players, announced Friday.
Me on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (No. 5), who has every tool you want.
Bryan Toporek on Trae Young (No. 4), who is preparing an encore for last year’s postseason run.
Ben Ladner on Zion Williamson (No. 3), who is still just scratching the surface of his talent.
Matthew Miranda on Jayson Tatum (No. 2), who has already cemented himself as a star.
And Micah Wimmer on Luka Doncic (No. 1), who just keeps smashing expectations.