Ever since Dwight Howard decided to leave the Lakers for Houston, analyzing the Lakers' subsequent moves has mostly been a bit of a depressing exercise since the most likely outcome for next season is a bout of mediocrity. Most of the time in the NBA, mediocrity isn't a productive way to spend your time. You aren't maximizing your draft position to get the best possible player and if you don't have existing young players on the roster to develop, you're heading for a few years of maddening play in which you don't have the pieces to compete and can't bottom out to get them. The Lakers have compounded this issue by not having a first rounder in 2015, so their future fortunes are incredibly dependent on their 2014 draft pick and how they conduct their business in free agency in 2014 and 2015.
This is what made Mitch Kupchak's approach to the offseason after the signing of Chris Kaman so interesting. The Lakers have been big on getting reclamation projects from other teams in past years, usually in under-the-radar trades. Earl Clark, Jordan Hill, and Shannon Brown weren't highly considered by their past teams and became significant contributors upon arriving in LA. Clark filled the huge hole in the Lakers' forward rotation last season, Hill became a solid backup at both frontcourt spots, and Brown helped solidify the Lakers' backcourt situation for their championship runs. These were all individual cases, however, in the team only needed one of these guys to step up at any given time.
To illustrate how this definitely isn't the case for the upcoming season, observe the current depth chart:
|Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String||Fifth String|
|PG||Steve Nash||Steve Blake||Jordan Farmar|
|SG||Kobe Bryant||Jodie Meeks||Xavier Henry||Darius Johnson-Odom|
|SF||Nick Young||Wesley Johnson||Elias Harris|
|PF||Jordan Hill||Ryan Kelly||Marcus Landry||Shawne Williams|
|C||Pau Gasol||Chris Kaman||Robert Sacre||Dan Gadzuric||Eric Boateng|
For the two forward positions, the only players who aren't rookies (Kelly, Harris), been awful recently in their careers (Johnson, Williams), or a career D-League player (Landry) are Young and Hill, the latter of whom is injury prone and the former is Nick Young. As mentioned, the Lakers aren't depending on just one guy stepping up at a backup position, as they did with Devin Ebanks last offseason when they let Matt Barnes go as a sign of their confidence in the West Virginia product. When two entire position groups rely on a panoply of untested factors, you have potential for an awful lot of volatility. Let's be clear: the most likely outcome is their past performance continuing to be the reality of their current play, so Kupchak is taking a rather large leap of faith.
But when it comes down to it, isn't that a smart track to take with this roster? Your standard, safe moves aren't going to move the needle on this team and make them anything but first round fodder at best. People often talk of low risk, medium return moves that deep, contending rosters make to give them a possible extra piece on the cheap. This is a series of high risk, medium return moves in which the bigger possibility is causing the team's entire prospects to implode instead of just ignoring the limited effects of a failed ploy and charging forward with the rest of your contending core. So those of you who thought it would have been a better plan for the team to outright tank the season for a stacked 2014 draft, it still is somewhat plausible that that scenario might come about.
On a more optimistic note, being in Mike D'Antoni's offense, especially with an expectation of a more uptempo pace than last season, should aid a lot of these players. A consistent theme in this offseason was youth, athleticism, and shooting, even at the expense of recent performance, and in a high octane, running offense, there are a lot of niches for these guys to fill. If you can get out in transition for easy buckets, nail threes in delayed transition, or hit the boards with energy, there's a spot for you in this offense and nearly all the guys acquired fits at least one of those roles assuming they pan out properly.
With Jordan Farmar at the helm of the bench unit, a group that pushes the pace at every opportunity is the expectation and even an old starting unit that includes Nash, Kobe, and Pau will probably look like cheetahs compared to last year. With only Kobe and Pau left to feed on the block, D'Antoni essentially has unfettered access to his favored sets, namely a lot of high pick-and-roll and threes at every opportunity. This isn't to say that Horns won't continue to be one of the favored halfcourt sets that the Lakers operate out of, especially when Pau and Kaman are forced to share the court together, but to indicate that players that contribute to spacing and energy will likely be paramount in the front office's calculus.
And those are roles that players picked up on the cheap can fill. Landry or Williams could come out of training camp on a tear shooting that extends into the year can work out in a rotation spot and that's not a tall order. In fact, it's probably more than likely that we see someone from the morass of guys at the bottom come out as a respectable shooter or have some other skill that can work as a rotation player. The problems arise when you ask them to assume anything above a limited role. It's one thing to shoot a three and quite another to take up the responsibility of being a primary wing stopper. For the team to advance farther, someone like Wesley Johnson needs to not only upset years of evidence that he is a below average player on both ends, but become a genuine two-way threat. To say that this would be quite the dramatic transformation is a gross understatement.
The Lakers have enough pieces that it's entirely possible that they can be competitive with everyone at full health -- an entirely separate and scary line of thought -- but unless someone among the group of new players on the wing emerges as a much better player than we originally thought, it's not going to produce a whole lot of results in the win column. Blake chronicled the hugely unrealistic line of things that have to occur for this team to make any sort of noise this season and one of the biggest things is the forward rotation emerging as a competent unit, the spot of most of the offseason pickups. The front office essentially had to rebuild both the bench and two position groups from scratch in the offseason and instead of just acquiring some safe and steady options, Kupchak went all-out with a bunch of reclamation projects and rookies. These are usually the decisions on which general managers are especially judged upon, so we will see whether the Laker penchant for restoring the fortunes of rather forgotten players continues this upcoming season.
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