NBA stars Ben Simmons, Kawhi Leonard, and Jamal Murray all return to the court for the first time in over a year.

The NBA preseason is rarely important. Stars either sit out or play a limited number of minutes. Nobody is concerned about the outcome. Moreover, unlike in the NFL, back-of-the-rotation roster spots are typically decided in the offseason, with only an occasional slot determined by preseason performance. For the most part, these games have little bearing on the upcoming regular season.

However, Monday was potentially the most important night in NBA preseason history. Three players, all of whom missed last season, returned to the court for their respective teams. The Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, the Brooklyn Nets’ Ben Simmons, and the Denver Nuggets             Jamal Murray all played in their first professional basketball games in over a year, and the Los Angeles Lakers also showed off their new-look roster under first-time head coach Darvin Ham.

The Ben Simmons encounter

Simmons gave us a little bit of everything in the Nets’ loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, some of his quick thinking was on display with this lovely dime.

In retrospect, the boos should have been fairly predictable. After all, Nets fans aren’t known for packing their stadium, and Philadelphia is just a short drive away. Given the low preseason ticket prices, there were almost certainly a large number of Philadelphia fans in the stands for the game. In a more typical game, Simmons will most likely be cheered on by a more welcoming crowd.

His overall performance was mixed. He’s still a hesitant scorer, and Philadelphia scored at will in the blowout, but no one expected the old Simmons to show up on the first night of the preseason. It will take time for him and his new teammates to figure out how to coexist. Those teammates appear to be eager to contribute. In the early going, Kyrie Irving was noticeably deferential in allowing Simmons to play point guard. If that’s the strategy Brooklyn intends to employ this season, Simmons will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself as a Net.

Murray is in good shape

Murray’s explosiveness, ability to change directions and scoring craft are all demonstrated in one clip. Murray scored 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting in 15 minutes of action, and that’s about all we can expect from him for the time being. Coach Michael Malone has stated that he will begin the season on a minutes limit that will most likely be in the 20s, and given the limited rewards of trying in the preseason, 15 will most likely be his cap for the next two weeks.

On the other made a strong first impression in his first game action since April 2021. Denver won’t ask Murray to carry the kind of load that most star guards do with Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. on his team. The Nuggets will be fine if he can build on this performance.

Kawhi Leonard’s up-and-down return

Kawhi Leonard had an uneven night. He got things started right away with a 3-pointer on the game’s first possession.

But what happens next? He missed his next five field goal attempts. He hit his final two shots of the game, including a nice turnaround that was classic Kawhi, before calling the game off after 16 minutes. It’s difficult to conclude any Leonard preseason game. He’s cautious at best, and he’d never show off his full athletic ability in a meaningless game just to send a message.

When we see Leonard play real games against real opponents, we’ll know where he is in his rehabilitation.The same can be said for Damian Lillard of Portland, who played more minutes and took more shots but showed the same rust Leonard does after missing most of last season with an abdominal injury.

Looking good in Los Angeles

After the starters were done for the night, things went downhill in the second half, but there was a lot to like in Darvin Ham’s head-coaching debut. The offense was quick and selfless. LeBron James wasn’t himself, missing all seven of his field goal attempts, but Russell Westbrook made up for it with a quiet but productive first half. At the very least, he demonstrated that he still has plenty of bursts. More importantly, Westbrook only attempted three shots while dishing out three assists. It would be foolish to judge defense and effort in a preseason game, but in one half of action, Westbrook appeared more open to the idea of playing a role rather than leading the team. With Kendrick Nunn shining in his return to the court and Dennis Schroder on the way, the Lakers have more ball-handling guards than they can handle. If Westbrook wants to be a part of this team, he’ll have to play the kind of unselfish basketball he did on Monday night.