Los Angeles fell to the Denver Nuggets 124-107 on Sunday, but the new-look Lakers showed flashes of what they can be this season and how they can compliment the best player in the world.
James was on the floor for just 15 minutes, finishing with 9 points on 2-of-6 shooting, to go with three rebounds and three assists.
He didn’t have the ball in his hands as much as he did during his time in Cleveland, with Rajon Rondo and even Brandon Ingram often initiating the offence.
The Lakers want to ease the load on James’ shoulders by surrounding him with playmakers rather than just shooters, and Rondo, who had 11 assists in 23 minutes on Sunday, clearly has the chops to take over the reins at times.
Ingram, meanwhile, looked like a primary scorer as he dropped 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting, while showing promising chemistry with James, who looked to get the third-year forward involved by finding him on cuts.
The offence in general looked to go up-tempo as much as possible by pushing the pace off rebounds and made baskets.
Between James, Rondo, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball – who missed Sunday’s game as he continues to recover from surgery for a torn left meniscus – the Lakers have plenty of high IQ players, versatile players.
On his part, James acknowledged he’s on a new chapter in his career and in a situation that feels foreign to him right now.
“It always feels different for me anytime you change uniforms,” he said. “It felt different when I changed from a St. Vincent-St. Mary jersey to a Cavs jersey, from a Cavs jersey to a Heat jersey, back to a Cavs jersey and now being a Laker.
“So, it definitely feels different, and it’ll take a little bit of time getting used to.”
For Leonard, it wasn’t just his first appearance in a Raptors uniform, but his first competitive game since January as a mysterious quad injury kept him shelved for all but nine contests last season.
Leonard’s fit with the Raptors will be important, but first and foremost, Toronto need him back at full strength and looking like himself, which is an MVP calibre player.
One preseason game isn’t going to answer that question, but in the 122-104 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday, Leonard mostly looked like his usual self.
He didn’t shoot well, going 3-of-8 from the field, 0-of-4 from long range and 6-of-11 at the free throw line, but in the 19 minutes he played in the first half, Leonard appeared to move well and showed few signs of any lingering injury.
He was aggressive in attacking the basket and showed off his footwork on a few step-back jumpers. He also had a steal in which he anticipated a pass and went coast-to-coast before being fouled.
“Yeah, you know it’s going to take time to get my rhythm, but I felt great being out there and just being able to compete,” Leonard said. “It was important just for me getting acclimated to the team. Like I was saying, in game play calls, seeing what everyone does on the floor, so it was important.”
Toronto could once again be in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating this season, but with Leonard now in the fold, their defence may arguably end up being their biggest strength.
The Raptors have a number of long players that can switch and play multiple positions, which should allow them to compete with the best teams in the league.
It may take some time for their defensive chemistry to peak, but the pieces are there for them to thrive on that end.
Boston will have a healthy Irving and Gordon Hayward to begin the year after the team fell one win shy of reaching the NBA Finals last season without their two stars.
With their mix of veteran All-Stars and young phenoms, Irving is confident the Celtics can at least make the two-time defending champions sweat.
“Until we get to the start of the season, I think we have the talent to compete with them,” Irving said. “Obviously the quote of me saying ‘I feel like we could beat them in a seven-game series’ because I really do feel like that.”
See Irving’s full comments in the video below.