Luke Walton tests variety of lineups: 'We're not gonna overreact'

Walton: It's a 'good feeling' seeing LeBron in Lakers jersey (1:21)

Luke Walton expresses his thoughts on LeBron James' debut and how he will impact the team going forward. (1:21)

SAN DIEGO -- The Los Angeles Lakers ' much-anticipated first preseason game opened with a bang as JaVale McGee tapped the opening tip toward LeBron James, who watched Rajon Rondo take the ball and throw an alley-oop to a twisting McGee from near half court for the Lakers' first points.

The start to the Lakers' 2018-19 preseason could not have been scripted much better. However, the Lakers' 124-107 loss to the Denver Nuggets proved that Luke Walton's team has a ton to work on and is far away from where it wants to be.

With a multitude of ball handlers and an interesting combination of veterans to go with young developing prospects, many around the league wanted to see how the Lakers' pieces would fit on the court.

In the Lakers' first dress rehearsal, Walton did as he said he would: he'd tinker with a variety of lineups, including small-ball units that saw Kyle Kuzma and Michael Beasley try to hold the fort down at center against the likes of Nikola Jokic.

The result was a sloppy and uneven game as the Lakers fell behind by 15 in the second quarter, come back to take a two-point lead in the third only to trail by 23 in the fourth.

"There were tough moments out there," Walton said afterward. "But we're gonna stick with it. We're not gonna overreact. A lot of these guys are playing out of position. They've had some reps in practice with it but haven't gone against other NBA guys. We knew that it could get frustrating and it was at times, but we also had moments when it was really good when we got stops and were able to get out and run and see what that could look like.

"And then I thought we had four or five chances to have more possessions like that that we let rebounds hit the ground and we weren't the ones to go get them so we fought really hard defensively, but we didn't finish out the possessions. There were some highlights and lowlights to those lineups."

The Lakers played with the frenetic pace that they envision, almost trying to force the issue at times as evidenced by the first nine players to play combining for 18 of the Lakers' 21 turnovers. The Lakers did outscore Denver 22-16 in fast-break points.

And there were moments when the team's length and energy caused havoc as Brandon Ingram used all of his massive wingspan to cause a deflection before turning it into a transition bucket on the other end.

But the Lakers at times looked slow on their defensive rotations, giving a potent Denver defense too many open shots. The Nuggets buried eight 3-pointers in the first half before finishing with 13 for the game. Juan Hernangomez drilled 5 of 8 by himself, several coming too open for the Lakers' liking.

While all eyes were on James making his Lakers' debut, several Lakers observers wanted to see how the pieces would fit around James. James made a concerted effort to find Ingram often, and the third-year forward made 7-of-14 shots and scored 16 points while also playing some point guard when James and Rondo were on the bench.

Rondo (two points, 11 assists, seven rebounds) did a lot of talking, particularly on the bench to his teammates during timeouts.

Kuzma scored 15 points, eight coming in a spurt that helped the Lakers take a brief lead in the third. But the Lakers already have seen what Kuzma can do offensively. It was how he handled playing center for the first time in an NBA game that they wanted to take a hard look.

Walton started Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, James and McGee, who was the biggest bright spot for the Lakers of the night as the center threw down alley-oop dunks and made 8-of-10 shots and had 17 points and seven rebounds.

Walton's first small-ball lineup featured Kuzma at center with Rondo, Josh Hart, Lance Stephenson and James. Then Walton tried Beasley at center with Kuzma, Ingram, Stephenson and Hart on the floor.

Beasley lasted only six minutes before having to leave the game because of a head laceration. But the Lakers got a decent look at some of their small-ball variations and what they need to work on.

"I saw just a whole bunch of guys who hadn't played with each other yet," McGee said when asked for his observation of the Lakers' smaller lineups. "Once everybody gets comfortable with each other, I feel like it's gonna be real good."

So what tips did McGee offer Kuzma and Beasley on playing center?

"Be fast rather than strong," McGee said. "I feel like big men don't like it when they're getting fronted by smaller guys and they just staying real, real aggressive. That's definitely a positive."

To be fair, the Lakers didn't have much installed as the new roster was learning how to play together while trying to defend an up-and-coming Denver core of players that is more familiar with one another.

"I mean they did well," James said of his thoughts on the small-ball units. "Some of them did better than others, but we can work [on] them. Some of the lineups that we had on the floor, we hadn't even practiced. It's good to see that we can have the ability to do that."

Walton played six of his rotation players for 20 minutes or longer in hopes of developing chemistry and he will have plenty of opportunities this week to figure out his rotation with three more games coming up against Denver, Sacramento and the Clippers by Saturday night.

When asked how far away he is from having his rotation set, Walton didn't hesitate. "Pretty far away," the Lakers' coach said.