The Lakers are back on American soil, meaning from this point forward -- starting Wednesday against Sacramento in Las Vegas -- their preseason games can again be about prepping for the ones that count, and less about cool photo ops in front of impressive foreign landmarks.
(Though if they'd like to snap a few more location-specific pics in Sin City, here are a few suggestions.)
It's still preseason, so final scores aren't really the point. With opening night two weeks away, the goal for the Lakers is rhythm, in whatever form they can find it. Phil Jackson has been disappointed not necessarily in the quality of his team's effort in practice, but the schedule with which the Lakers have been able to get on the floor, thanks to the European swing. Six games in the next 10 days won't necessarily help matters, either, since more games equal less practice time. If they're to hit the ground running come Oct. 26, the Lakers need to address a few things on the to-do list.
Here are a few things to watch Wednesday night:
Monday, Jackson said he'd try to limit Kobe Bryant to about 16 minutes against Sacramento, and going forward through the preseason. While Bryant hasn't shot the ball well at all (2-18 through the first two games), nobody really cares about his field goal percentage two games into the preseason. It's about freedom and explosion. In the eight-ish minute stints he'll play Wednesday, is Kobe moving with confidence and purpose, or does he look like he's holding back? If he's holding back, is it because he understands discretion is the better part of valor, or because he has no choice?
Is he willing to try to take a defender off the dribble? How much separation can he create on his midrange turnaround jumper? This is the stuff that matters more than what happens once the ball leaves his hands.
New players, new decisions
Tuesday afternoon, I learned something about the triangle from Steve Blake sure to ease concerns about the difficulty in learning the offense. "They say all the time, you can't screw up. Someone might make the wrong cut, but it turns out to be the right cut because everyone else will fill in to where he was supposed to go," he said. "It's OK, because everyone can read off that guy."
If you're waiting for the caveat, here it comes: Players can read off their teammates only if everyone understands the language.
"Right," Blake smiled. "That's the challenge."
One that is magnified when the Lakers use any of their five new players in bulk, as has happened frequently through the first two preseason games, thanks to injuries and the normal practice of extending minutes for reserves during the exhibition season. Nobody expects even heady players like Blake -- let alone rookies like Derrick Caracter or Devin Ebanks -- to understand the offense like Kobe so soon in their triangle education. One way to measure fluency is in the speed with which players make decisions, whether on or off the ball. If a cartoon-like thought bubble forms over a player's head, that's not good.
Derrick Caracter vs. DeMarcus Cousins, and anyone else for that matter
The last time Caracter and Cousins, chosen with the fifth pick by Sacramento in this year's draft, hit the floor in Vegas, both were wading through Summer League play. It wasn't all sunshine and moon pies, but Caracter acquitted himself reasonably well against the very large, very talented Cousins. With Pau Gasol available, it's a scenario unlikely to repeat itself to the same degree Wednesday night, but Caracter still seems likely to play at least a few minutes against the Kentucky product.
With Andrew Bynum on the shelf, Caracter is in line for a few early-season minutes, playing the Josh Powell role on the roster. Matchups like these give a window into his progress thus far, and provide at least a few clues as to how he might hold up when the regular season begins. At this stage of his career, it's not fair to expect him to be an major asset. For a late second-rounder filling a role on a championship team, it's enough simply not to be a liability.
Sounds easy enough, but for most players in his situation, it's not.
Theo Ratliff: Mbenga 2.0, or more?
I was a big fan of D.J. Mbenga the person. In his time here, Mbenga was always willing to share a conversation and some stories, and a good sport when we'd toss a joke in his direction. To say few NBA players have backgrounds as interesting as his is an understatement. But on the floor, D.J. tended to believe his game was more advanced than it was, and often pushed beyond what the coaching staff wanted him to do. As a result, the coaches didn't relish the opportunity to give him more minutes, even when Bynum was out of the lineup.
There will be no problems with Ratliff understanding his role. The Mineral Man is long past the point in his career where he's pushing for bigger and better things on a personal level. Dude wants to play for a winner. At 37, he still moves very well off the ball as a defender, and how well he plays on that side is likely to dictate if he'll get the sort of early-season minutes not afforded Mbenga.