With the Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill signings official, the Lakers have made great strides in improving what has been their bête noire for the past few years: the bench unit. Not since the '07-'08 season, when the Lakers featured one of the league's best reserve squads, could this be considered one of the team's strengths. That unit, moreover, had four main contributors -- Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf, and Luke Walton -- that were homegrown draft picks, a testament to the power of the draft, especially as far as the edges of the rotation are concerned. The Lakers have always carried the label of a "top heavy" team since then, and it is no accident that the decline of the bench has coincided with the Lakers' perpetual absence from the first round, justified as it is with the two additional banners hanging in Staples Center.
At least for the frontcourt now, the Lakers are in as good of a situation as any in the league: Jamison and Hill both coming off the bench allows us to conceive of a situation in which both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum (or Dwight Howard) are sitting and the Lakers are not getting gruesomely annihilated on the court. Outside of the bigs, however, there are far more question marks, and whether the Lakers' recent drafting can pan out in a manner similar to '07-'08 will have a significant impact on the shape of the bench next year, as will the subsidiary actors in a possible Dwight Howard trade, which is holding off efforts to improve the bench elsewhere. After the jump, we will review the primary positional battles at play, the possible solutions that remain on the free agent market, and the ramifications of a Howard deal on all of the above.
Before we start, let us review the most recent depth chart:
|PG||Steve Nash||Steve Blake||Darius Morris|
|SG||Kobe Bryant||Andrew Goudelock||Darius Johnson-Odom|
|SF||Metta World Peace||Devin Ebanks||Christian Eyenga|
|PF||Pau Gasol||Antawn Jamison||Josh McRoberts|
|C||Andrew Bynum||Jordan Hill||Robert Sacre|
DJO and Sacre still need to be signed, but we can assume that both will be invited to training camp, so this is all largely a moot point. Regardless, the Lakers' roster currently stands at 15, and that carries with it its own complications, even if it is a question that ultimately does not need to be resolved until training camp. There will be have to be decisions made in order to clear the glut at most of the reserve spots, and this is essentially the last item of note for the Lakers in the offseason other than consummating a Howard deal. It is likely the case that the losers of most of the positional battles are not only out of the rotation, but traded to clear space on the roster for other additions. As such, at every spot besides the aforementioned frontcourt rotation, the Lakers have question marks, and we can arrive at a set of pertinent questions about the roster:
Who will be Kobe's primary backup?
The Lakers have done a stellar job this offseason in all respects, so it is hard to treat this as a knock against the organization, especially since the situation could very well resolve itself in a favorable manner, but Kobe really needs a true backup going into next year. It should be a universally accepted notion that Kobe cannot play as much as he did last year and maintain his effectiveness, and as such, acquiring someone who consistently play fifteen minutes a night or so as a two guard off the bench is a big need.
As for solutions, let us first get this out of the way: Andrew Goudelock is emphatically not a two guard. He listed as such above for the sake of convenience, but there is little chance that he is the long-term backup at the position. His size is the greatest limiting factor, and even against opposing bench units, his already fairly poor defensive prowess will be even more exposed against wings. This is unfortunate since he is not a point guard either: his court vision is lacking and at best, he fills the profile of a lead guard that would be most comfortable at the head of one Phil Jackson's teams, not the current iteration of the Lakers. Now, if Darius Morris, who has filled out his body considerably this offseason, gets the gig as Steve Nash's backup, this conversation will be very different, as Morris can cross match against wings while Goudelock checks point guards, but that is another topic altogether.
Past Goudelock, we have Johnson-Odom, but his fate next season is almost certainly going to be riding the pine and getting reps in the D-League. DJO does not have Goudelock's weaknesses at the position defensively, as while he stands at 6'2'', his longer wingspan, tougher frame, and solid overall athleticism allow him to compensate quite well for his height deficiency. On offense, DJO already appears to be Goudelock's superior with regards to distributing off the pick-and-roll, but a lack of experience and polish will prevent DJO from getting any rotation time unless he blows away the coaching staff in training camp.
As a result, without the benefit of a free agent signing or trade, the most likely candidate for the position is Devin Ebanks, who started at the position for a protracted period last season when Kobe was out with injury. Ebanks can defend the position and he clearly has gotten better over the course of the previous two seasons, so it would not be outlandish to expect him to enter the rotation in his third year. If he improved from behind the arc, his place would be all but cemented, although we have no way of knowing this until the start of preseason due to Ebanks not participating in summer league. In any case, of all the internal solutions, Ebanks is the best available, except for the outstanding problem that Ebanks has not officially inked his qualifying offer due to the team wanting to use him as a trade chip in what undoubtedly will be a Howard deal.
Any Howard deal thus impacts the Lakers' situation on the wings in a number of ways: Ebanks is held in limbo until the situation is resolved, and the Lakers have declined to pursue anyone in free agency at the position because the likely return along with Howard in any possible deal is Jason Richardson. Although Richardson's contract is rather onerous and his mediocre defense is troublesome, he would be significantly better than any of the other options available. The last time he was in Phoenix in a backcourt alongside Nash, he shot 47% from the field and his combination of long-distance shooting and finishing ability was an especially good complement to a point guard of Nash's talents. As a backup in LA, Richardson would make the Lakers' bench unit quite fearsome on offense, and that he can play either wing position is another bonus.
The Lakers' reticence to fill a roster spot with another backup two guard is understandable in this light, particularly since nearly all of the good options have disappeared off the market. Brandon Rush is the sole quality two guard available, and as a restricted free agent, the Lakers have no means through which to obtain him other than fanciful sign-and-trade scenarios with Golden State. Even if the Warriors were to use their midlevel exception on someone like Carl Landry and lock themselves into a hard cap, a mini midlevel offer would be matched without hesitation. Kupchak has pulled off some fairly spectacular deals this offseason, whether it has been snagging Nash or getting Jamison to come for far below his market value, but this is an obstacle that is probably too high even for him. Extricating a restricted free agent from his squad requires a massive offer sheet, as we have seen this offseason with nearly every RFA on the market.
Of the remaining two guards available, the best ones are likely Jodie Meeks, the catch-and-shoot specialist who last played for the Sixers; Leandro Barbosa, a former Sixth Man of the Year in Phoenix with Nash in '06-'07 but an awful defensive player; and Mickael Pietrus, an able wing defender but his offense has slipped in recent years. None of them are better than Richardson, nor are they that much better than Ebanks that picking them up would be viewed as a necessity before they leave the market. Of the three, Meeks' youth and shooting ability probably give him the edge here, especially given Barbosa's defensive limitations and Pietrus' injury woes. Regardless, the Lakers will likely sit and wait for a Howard deal and only pursue another player only if it clear that Richardson will not be the one backing up Kobe next season.
What happens with the rest of the wing rotation?
The Lakers have some flexibility here, as Ebanks can play either the two or the three, even if one would think he would be better at the latter if his shooting and dribbling skills have not developed this offseason. Similarly, Christian Eyenga, who likely will be Ebanks' chief competition during training camp, can do the same, although he too is more of a natural three. So whether the Lakers do pull off a Howard deal and Richardson is part of the incoming package or stand pat with Bynum and sign someone like Jodie Meeks, the situation remains the same in that Ebanks and Eyenga will be competing against each other to be the fourth wing in the overall rotation. Same applies if the latter scenario occurs and the Lakers go after a player who is a three such as Carlos Delfino. The only case in which the above will not happen is that the Lakers bring in no one to help buttress the rotation, so Ebanks and Eyenga become the backup wings by default. The Lakers would probably give a training camp invite to someone to offer some competition at the spot -- Elijah Millsap anyone? -- but of all the possibilities above, it remains the most unlikely.
The larger point here is that acquiring a backup two guard is doubly important since it allows Ebanks and Eyenga to shift to their proper positions, and alleviates the Lakers of the need to throw two relatively untested players into the primary rotation of a championship contender. Now, this certainly does not mean that neither will be able to contribute next season, Ebanks in particular, but someone like Richardson would offer a great deal more certainty and assurance about the bench going into next season.
Who backs up Steve Nash?
This issue is much more simple: the winner of the training camp battle between Steve Blake and Darius Morris will get the nod. The only alternative is obtaining a combo guard who can play both backcourt spots, but that ship sailed when Delonte West, the only such player on the market who fit that description, returned to Dallas. As with Kobe, Nash's minutes have to be limited to preserve his back and general efficacy, and the Lakers need a serviceable enough backup to run the show in his absence. Now, the word "serviceable" has hardly been a fitting way of describing Steve Blake's game in a Laker uniform, as his sub-10 PER and abysmal shooting numbers can attest. He was billed as an ideal triangle point guard upon his signing and failed miserably at that role. He similarly failed as a lead guard of a more conventional system last year. That the ship can be turned around at age 32 is rather doubtful despite the bench being better than ever after the Jamison acquisition and Blake's role minimized to that of a fifteen minute backup.
Unfortunately, Blake might have to fill this spot if Morris hasn't progressed far enough in his development to unseat him. We saw flashes of what he could do in summer league: he attacked the rim ably with his larger frame enabling him to absorb more contact, bullied smaller guards on drives, and once the floor finally opened up with some real shooters on the final day, ran a decent drive and kick game. Whether he can put all of this together by the time training camp rolls around is another issue entirely, as Morris is still very young -- he would be entering his senior year at Michigan had he not declared a year ago. He certainly has the talent to take over Blake's spot and then some, but whether this is the case next season rather than the one after is an open question.
Something that might work in Morris' favor is that the structure of the current bench -- Ebanks, Eyenga, Jamison, and Hill -- is one that would lend itself to an uptempo, change-of-pace attack, similar to how Phil loosened the reins of the bench unit and allowed them some freedom from the triangle in '07-'08. If anything, Morris has demonstrated that he can push the pace, and he was particularly good at driving coast to coast off rebounds and operating in transition. Pau can also pair well with this kind of play, especially given how often he was leading the break himself last year, as can any possible acquisitions on the wing, Richardson, Meeks, or otherwise. Whether Brown elects to do this with the bench, a development that could also ease Nash's transition whenever he is paired with the bench players, run a more structured system such as the Princeton offense with Eddie Jordan being a possible addition to the staff, or even do both, is something that we will have to wait until preseason to determine.
We could include Goudelock as a possible option for the position here, but he sunk a lot of the cachet he once had in his brutal summer league performance. The Lakers are no longer asking their points to just walk the ball up, pass it to the wing and go stand in the corner, and at best, Goudelock's role, should he receive minutes at all, will be that of a spot-up shooter. That simply isn't adequate nowadays. Granted, neither Blake or Morris are paragons at running the pick-and-roll or distributing the rock, but they are far ahead of Goudelock's shoot-first mentality in this regard.
Lastly, who is the fifth big off the bench?
Or better phrased as: what on earth do the Lakers do with Josh McRoberts? He was their "big" free agent acquisition last offseason, and is currently planted firmly behind Jamison and Hill in the rotation. Just from a simple financial perspective, the Lakers would undoubtedly prefer to throw a bone to the far cheaper Robert Sacre and have him fill the D.J. Mbenga role: coming in for spot duty at the end of quarters or if the starters have foul trouble. McRoberts' salary isn't outrageous by any means, but coughing up $6 million after the luxury tax is accounted for is a hefty price for someone who will be riding the pine on most nights. In an ideal world, the Lakers would flip McRoberts' expiring deal for help on the wing, but after McRoberts blew apart his trade value last year -- this is the same guy who was nearly dealt for O.J. Mayo after all -- such a scenario appears to be unlikely. At the very least, this applies to any straight-up deal for McRoberts, as he very well could be collateral in a possible Howard transaction.
Now, compared to the other rotation issues listed above, this is relatively minor, but if anyone is unnecessarily taking up a roster spot and blocking a possible acquisition at a position of need, it is McRoberts. One would imagine that having a point guard of Nash's quality could enable him to return to the very respectable per minute numbers that he had in his Indiana days, but with two superior options in Jamison and Hill in front of him, it is doubtful he ever will receive the opportunity to do so. If McRoberts is not moved by the start of the season, it may behoove the Lakers to buy out his contract in order to make more room on the rest of the roster, an unfortunate fate for a player who could be a very good member of the regular bench unit.
As for the actual spot, it is likely that Sacre makes the team given that Jim Buss and Mike Brown were singing his praises the entire summer league, although they might extend an invite to another big to give him some competition. Julian Khazzouh, an interesting option Mark wrote the other day, could be a possibility, and his shooting ability does fill a need on the team. Either way, as mentioned above, the two would be competing for a very limited position, and barring injury, it ultimately is more a question of who the Lakers value in the long-term -- as Jamison could be gone after next year -- rather than the present.
By this point, it is fairly clear that a Howard deal essentially addresses the grand majority of the questions above via alleviating the Lakers of the glut they have in the roster and bringing over a quality rotation piece in Jason Richardson. Certainly, that the trade does this is supposition -- one would expect some combination of Blake, McRoberts, and Ebanks to be on their way out regardless -- but it does explain why the Lakers are waiting to see if a deal can be consummated rather than try to drink from an increasingly dry well of free agents. With Jamison and Hill in the fold and the bench mostly solidified, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss have the luxury of more or less calling Rob Hennigan's bluff that he will keep Howard into the regular season. Naturally, if the trade occurs, the Lakers will benefit tremendously, but even if it does not, the seeds are present for not only a very good starting unit, but a bench squad that might be the best the Lakers have had since the last unit that actually deserved the moniker "bench mob."
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