We're back! And it feels good.
One of the most fascinating, controversial and, for lack of a better word, "exciting" Lakers off-seasons is in the books and training camp has officially begun. The countdown clock has started and we're just a few scant weeks away from the 2013-2014 season. To get everyone back up to speed, we'll be running a weekly writer's roundtable of all the fine, fine minds that make Silver Screen & Roll the hub for everything Lakers and asking the most important questions facing the team. This week's query:
Going into training camp, what is the number one personnel item the Lakers must settle?
The Great Mambino
The number one training camp item has to be who is going to take the bulk of the minutes at small forward...or if anyone is going to be able to do so on an NBA starting-caliber level.
Currently, the Lakers have a true All-Star squad of potential SFs on their training camp roster. I write that of course sarcastically, as all starting swingmen working out in El Segundo right now are a crew of scrap heap pick-ups, retreads and former blue chippers, none of whom may be fit to play in the NBA anymore. Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry are both young, athletic and, at least physically, appear to be everything that the Lakers are looking for. Unfortunately for the team, the city of Los Angeles and anyone who cares about quality basketball, these two haven't been able to harness any of the abilities and gifts that both the good lord and the finest collegiate basketball factories have given them. Beyond those two, we're looking at two players who killed it last season...in the Chinese League. Marcus Landry and Shawne Williams are both in camp, and unless both shoot the crap out of the ball from downtown, they shouldn't be under serious consideration to make the team. Nick Young rounds out this group and would appear to have the inside track for the opening night nod at SF. However, there's almost no facet of the basketball game he'll give the Lakers consistency in: shooting, scoring, defending, rebounding, passing or trying. Yes, he can score by the bucketload, but if there's been an epitome of "streak shooter" in the past half decade of the league, Nick Young might give Jamal Crawford a run for his money.
After this quick look at the small forward pool the team is choosing from, it's quite obvious how important it is for Jimmy Buss, GM Mitch Kupchak, and coach Mike D'Antoni to find out who can score and especially defend on a legitimate NBA level. Seeing how poorly Kobe Bryant, the Steves and Jodie Meeks defended on the perimeter last season (and should only get worse with another year), it's up to the small forward rotation to really attempt to shore up the wing defense this year. Of course with the multiple screens employed in today's game, it's not entirely up to one man to hold down outside scorers. However, with the potential starting backcourt on a limited minutes schedule, the Young/Johnson/Henry/Williams/
This is a loaded question because there are a seemingly endless number of things that need figuring out through training camp and preseason. The answers range from who earns more minutes between Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake, to who starts in the frontcourt next to Pau Gasol, to figuring out the lesser of evils between Nick Young and Wesley Johnson. All of these are justifiable as question Numero Uno.
The Lakers have a roster full of guys nobody knows or cares about, and finding out who can play serious minutes off the bench is mission number one through training camp. The starters will sort themselves out, but guys like Elias Harris, Marcus Landry or second-year player Robert Sacre? Those are the question marks that need some sort of answer.
Mike D'Antoni has stated he intends to play an 11-player rotation. Off the top, that's five starters, three of which are already locks (Pau, Kobe once he returns, Nash). It seems like a safe bet to pencil in Wesley Johnson, Steve Blake, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Chris Kaman and Jordan Hill as rotation players, so that brings us up to nine.
If it's an 11-deep rotation, who are the final two that can shoulder a dozen minutes or so on a nightly basis? Is it Marcus Landry, who wound up being the Lakers' Las Vegas Summer League squads leading scorer? Is Elias Harris a viable player to play small forward and power forward minutes? Can Ryan Kelly be a stretch big man and contributor after being drafted with the 48th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft? Is Xavier Henry worth a few tire kicks? Will Shawne Williams be a worthy "veteran" presence who has more NBA experience than most of the Lakers' non-guaranteed training camp invitees?
There's already a sense of what a player like Young will bring to the table, but can one of the unknown players end up playing well enough to be another worthwhile addition in a year where the Lakers are piecing together their roster with unwanted parts? Figuring out who's who and what's what for spots eight, nine and ten in the rotation is something Mike D'Antoni will have the chance to spend time on during the exhibition period.
You gotta' know what you're workin' with before you can work it.
I think the number one personnel priority has to be what to do with Chris Kaman. There are other more theoretically important decisions to be made (who will be the starting SF, what will the Lakers do in Kobe's absence), but those challenges are fairly straight-forward; figure out who is the best player for the situation and stick them in there. What to do with Kaman is not straight forward at all. Kaman is a very decent back-to-the-basket center, one who could even be considered starting quality on a bad team. However, the Lakers already have a much better back-to-the-basket center in Pau Gasol, and I'm of the opinion that Gasol and Kaman are far too similar as players to be successful together on the court. On offense, the two will blend decently well, because Kaman has a consistent outside shot, and Gasol is capable of hitting from range as well, so whoever ends up in the post should have space to operate. But at this stage of their careers, both players have extremely limited mobility, and with the increasing popularity of small-ball in the NBA and zone defenses to help neutralize out-matched players in the post, there's just no way in my mind for a Kaman-Gasol pairing to succeed enough on offense to mitigate their weakness on defense.
Kaman is still a good player. He may very well be the best player on the roster who is not destined for the Hall of Fame. He is also the most expensive of all the new one year signings. Are the Lakers comfortable with somebody that good, being paid a decent chunk of change, just picking up the 10-16 minutes a night that Pau Gasol isn't on the court, with Kaman doubling as insurance for the seemingly inevitable Gasol injury spell? It's possible, but it seems more likely that the Lakers intend for Gasol and Kaman to share the court at least some of the time. If so, figuring out a scheme that will stem the effects of their combined defensive limitations will be of monumental importance if the Lakers have any intent of being competitive this season.
The biggest priority for the Lakers right now is figuring out how the forward rotation is going to work going into the season. A big part of this offseason was not only finding more length and athleticism, but acquiring players who are versatile and can man multiple positions. Mike D'Antoni isn't Don Nelson, so we aren't going to see super funky lineups with small forwards occupying the five, especially given that the Lakers have four players with actual center size on the roster, but he also is big on treating positions as less important than the skills players can offer on the floor. The main consideration here, as it is most of the time, is shooting and dynamism. Already one of the stories we're receiving from camp is that D'Antoni is considering Wesley Johnson at the four, which puts into perspective the fact that practically no one on the roster can be pigeonholed into any one position. The projected backup two guards behind Kobe Bryant at the moment aren't Jodie Meeks or Xavier Henry, but rather Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar. Elias Harris, Shawne Williams, and Marcus Landry, all nominally small forwards, are equally likely to spend time at the four as they are at the three and it's a fair argument that they're actually much more effective at that spot.
As a result, there's quite a morass of players for D'Antoni to sort through at the moment. For instance, if Johnson is playing some four in addition to time at the three, is Nick Young now exclusively a small forward? Is there any room for Harris, Landry, or Williams in the rotation is that's the case? Does Ryan Kelly have any chance of cracking the roster given that he might be most ideal as a Channing Frye-esque player at the five, arguably the most crowded position on the team, at the moment? For that matter, is Pau Gasol going to receive 32 minutes solely at the five or does D'Antoni value Chris Kaman's contributions enough to make him more than a 15 minute backup, necessitating a Pau/Kaman frontcourt that might past muster offensively but be potentially disastrous defensively? And doing that further scrambles the rotations by limiting minutes in which D'Antoni can utilize small ball lineups with smaller fours. Finally, what kind of wrench does Kobe's return throw into all of this? There are plenty of minutes to go around without Kobe present, but at least two guys are getting their minutes severely cut when he comes back.
Now, it should be emphasized that all of the above isn't necessarily a bad thing. To the contrary, that there are so many ways to structure the rotation takes a bit of the edge off how scary some of the individual position groups look because so many players can move up or down depending on the situation. This is just something that the coaching staff needs to parse through as camp goes on and it should become easier as they get film to work through in the preseason games and roster cuts occur. It's hard to prognosticate how exactly the rotation turns out because that depends on information we are not really privy to, and it's a very different consideration from who is going to make the roster outright. Regardless, it should be a fairly fascinating process to work through as the Lakers proceed into a season filled with uncertainty.