Lakers begin 2023-24 season against defending champs

The Lakers will try to get revenge against the team that ousted them in the playoffs, the Denver Nuggets.

Well, the 2023-24 NBA season has arrived. And unlike the start of last season, the Los Angeles Lakers have realistic expectations for a championship. The Lakers are always huge in free agency and trade rumors but, after a ton of speculation, the team will run it back with their core mostly intact.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves, and Max Christie are holdovers from the start of last season. Coming over through trade last midseason were Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, and Jarred Vanderbilt (who is out for the season opener and is listed as day-to-day). Free agent signings from last summer were Taurean Prince, Gabe Vincent, Jaxson Hayes, Cam Reddish, and Christian Wood. And their rookies are Jalen Hood-Schifino (with their own selection at #17) and Maxwell Lewis (second round pick that was acquired from Denver; more on them in a bit!).

The Lakers lost Dennis Schroder (Toronto), Malik Beasley (Milwaukee), Troy Brown (Minnesota), Mo Bamba (Philadelphia) and Lonnie Walker IV (Brooklyn). Patrick Beverley (traded for Bamba), Kendrick Nunn (traded for Hachimura), Thomas Bryant (traded to… Denver), and Russell Westbrook (traded for Vanderbilt, Russell, and Beasley) were all dealt last midseason.

L.A. went through a lot of players in an attempt to salvage last season (shoutout, Matt Ryan!) and were finally successful after the trading deadline and All-Star break. The Lakers went 16-7 after said break and climbed from 13th to the 7th seed by the postseason. Then from there, they won the play-in game against Minnesota, took care of the banged-up Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, and then unseated the Golden State Warriors in the West semis. A conference finals berth was not what we reasonably expected at the beginning of last year.

But now with a deeper team, this squad has its best chance since the bubble championship. Now eyes will be on the Lakers. And even with Denver winning last season, parity is alive and well in the National Basketball Association.

Speaking of Denver, guess who the Lakers draw on Opening Night? For the second straight year, the Lakers begin the season against the defending champions on the road. And the Lake Show would like to get some retribution after the Nuggets ushered them out of the West Finals quickly with a four-game broom job.

While I did say parity is alive, how can any team stop Nikola Jokic (two-time MVP that nearly averaged a triple-double at 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game last season)? Jokic is a triple-double machine and he just knows where all his teammates are on the court. And he can score pretty much however he wants. In the post? He’ll put up a nifty hook shot. Midrange? No problem. A three-pointer with the clock running out? Ask Anthony Davis.

Every championship team with a superstar has a sterling supporting cast. Jamal Murray (20.0 points and 6.2 assists per game) came back from a torn ACL and worked his way back to become the threat that he was pre-injury; I think 32.5 points per game against the Lakers in that four-game series is legitimate. Michael Porter, Jr. (17.4 points per) has become a scary third option with his ability to shoot over everyone and his improved defense. Aaron Gordon (16.3 points per game) will do all the dirty work and can outjump everyone. And ex-Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (10.8 points while shooting .423 from three) has thrived in Denver with his perimeter shooting and defense.

Glue guy Bruce Brown cashed in on his championship run as he signed with Indiana but Christian Braun has always been ready to step up. Zeke Nnaji also cashed in recently with a four-year extension with the Nuggets. Veterans Reggie Jackson and Deandre Jordan are there as well as youngsters like rookie Julian Strawther (who was outstanding in the preseason) and Peyton Watson. Denver’s bench admittedly doesn’t look as terrifying as last season (with Brown and Jeff Green gone) but their starting five is as deadly as they come. And I’m sure they’ll figure it out in the games to come. Plus the season hasn’t started yet so who am I to say if their bench isn’t as potent?

As I said earlier, the Lakers have heightened expectations and there’s plenty to be excited about. We get a full year with this crop of Lakers. The team will only go as far as Anthony Davis can take them. LeBron James is in his 21st season and he’s still one of the best players in the league. Austin Reaves had quite a 2022-23 season and he followed it up by being one of the best players in Team USA last summer. Rui Hachimura has taken to working out with LeBron James. D’Angelo Russell vowed to improve defensively and he showed that in the preseason. We’ll see what the hard-nosed players like Gabe Vincent and Taurean Prince will bring to the table. And we have a potentially good three-point shooting Laker team this year (.361 in preseason)?! Let’s hope so!

There’s no doubt that the first game of the season hardly tells us how a team will look come April through June. But the Lakers can set the tone by defeating the champions. How to defeat the Nuggets? The short and easy way to say it is to let Jokic score and hold down the others. But I mentioned Jamal Murray doing damage to them in the postseason; can the Laker guards limit him? The Lakers prided themselves on defense last year (4th in defensive rating after the all-star break) and they look to lean into that again this season so this will be quite the test for them.

Both teams will feel it out for a while as, again, this is the first game of the season. I do think it’s imperative for the Lakers to win so they can carry momentum and get off to a good start. It’s not often 2-10 teams make the postseason, you know.

Either way, it’s good to have men’s professional basketball back. Let’s see if the Lakers can follow up on their near-miraculous 2022-23 campaign.

Will the follow-up include Championship #18? Stay tuned for the next 6-8 months.