The Lakers have had plenty of ambiguity to deal with in terms of their minutes at small forward in the days post-Rick Fox. Lamar Odom, Luke Walton and Trevor Ariza all faced obstacles to claiming and keeping their spots at the 3. Ron Artest, before and after his quest for World Peace, wavered between ineffectiveness and excellence while nestled between Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in the line-up. Contributors like Vladimir Radmanovic, Devean George, Matt Barnes and the immortal Jumaine Jones sauntered in and out of the rotation, with the fan base left questioning whether or not these players were worthy of a supporting role on Phil Jackson's bench.
Entering the 2013-2014 season, Lakers fans everywhere dream about the day that those were the pervading questions revolving around LA's small forwards. Now, the questions have devolved down to whether or not the team has any legitimate small forwards...at all.
Metta World Peace, a casualty of the amnesty provision, was cut in the offseason largely due to his $7 million dollar contract that would have cost the Lakers potentially triple that amount in luxury taxes. However, as cumbersome as MWP's contract was compared to his diminishing returns on the court, there's no doubt that he is still worthy of a spot in most NBA rotations. His departure left the Lakers without any viable in-house options at the 3, especially with Kobe Bryant on the shelf with a torn Achilles. The LA front office thus spent the summer looking for bargain bin swingmen with the limited financial assets they had.
The result is a smorgasbord of reclamation projects, busted lottery picks and anonymous faces, none of which--in my mind, anyway--are particularly inspiring options. Be forewarned Rollers: this is going to be very, very depressing.
Young has long been one of the most frustrating swingmen in basketball. He's long, athletic and at times, explosive, with a lethal scoring touch that can make him one of the most potent players in the league. His quickness and strength are sometimes underrated, but there's no doubt that he has the natural gifts to be an at least adequate defensive player. He is ideal size for a shooting guard, but could play small forward if it were ever required of him--which is the exact situation he's in. Even from his time at USC, Young looked like an NBA player in the making.
But here we are, in his seventh season, on his fourth team, a veteran's minimum contract and another poor season away from a ticket to the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball League. Despite all of this, Young is likely the opening night starting small forward. If that doesn't inspire hope in your hearts, I'm not sure what will.
Let's go ahead with the positives, first. Young has 53 career games scoring 20 points or more. He's a career .374 shooter from distance and is just two years removed from a two-season span in which he shot .395. As expected, Young is a fantastic free throw shooter (at a career .827 clip), though he doesn't get to the line nearly enough considering his quickness and speed. Though he is known as a long range shooter, he's a surprisingly able and willing mid-range shooter as well. Young is a pure scorer in the mold of Jamal Crawford who, when on a streak, can seal a game single-handedly. Most importantly, he's 28 years old with his NBA future on the line. If he doesn't show an ability to stay in the Lakers rotation this year, especially with the starting small forward spot gifted to him, his career could be in jeopardy.
And all that is because he has been, for lack of a cohesive term, a disappointing bonehead for the majority of his career.
Young is the most offensive type of defender: capable but apathetic. Not having seen every minute of his defense, I'd venture to guess that most of them, like the sample size I've witnessed, would show Young with his hands at his sides in one-on-one situations...or him halfway down the court feigning disappointment that he didn't get back on D. He hedges too hard in help situations, has shoddy footwork on pick-and-roll or driving situations and just generally looks like he would want to be anywhere else besides guarding another player.
Offensively, don't be tricked by his gaudy averages, which include four of his six seasons in double digit scoring. He's notched league average PERs his entire career, which is probably a symptom of the fact that he's a career .427 shooter from the field and one of the most emphatic ball-stoppers in all of basketball. Young has averaged a remarkable 1 assist per game in his career, which is all the more astonishing considering that his usage rate is generally 3 to 8 percent above the NBA norm. For the layman, this means don't give the ball to Young if you want it back.
Worse yet, none of this is a secret. Young has been very publicly criticized his entire career, by coaches and fans alike. He has left every city he's ever played in (except for Clipper Nation, oddly enough) as a reviled figure who simply did not improve in any way regardless of the disapproval laid at his feet game after game. I can't say this for sure, but it seems like he doesn't care to become a better basketball player. That is, in many ways, worse than not having any talent in the first place.
In a word, he is selfish. He only cares about how Nick Young scores the ball, all other facets of the NBA game be damned. Hopefully he will benefit from playing alongside consummate professionals like Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Steve Blake. Young will undoubtedly be an offensive weapon to them, but only as a finisher on set shot plays. Other than that, he could be disruptive on both sides of the ball. I can't imagine him being anything besides incredibly frustrating and disappointing this upcoming season. But at least in that way, he'll be consistent in some regard.
I feel really awful for Wes Johnson. Well, not that awful. He made $4.2 million dollars last season, whereas I am a blogger.
The reason is: on the surface, he looks like the perfect NBA player. I wrote the same about Xavier Henry last week in our shooting guard preview, which was simultaneously a compliment and a sad, sour insult. Johnson stands 6'7", 205 pounds and still has the length, quickness and athleticism of a 26-year-old former 4th overall pick. When he was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves as a 23-year-old junior out of Syracuse, Wes was expected to anchor the perimeter defense, as well as serve as a dead-eye shooter who could also put the ball on the floor. He was, in many ways, exactly what Minny needed to compete.
That never happened. None of it. Johnson's long range stroke abandoned him, as marked by a career .336 3P% (.318 the past two seasons) and a .400 FG%. He isn't much of a ball handler or offensive pivot, nor has he been able to reliably put the ball on the floor and create his own shot. He is, at best, a decent defender, though it says a lot that it wasn't nearly good enough to keep him on the floor, even in spite of his offensive limitations. In my limited experience watching Johnson in his two stops with the Wolves and Phoenix Suns, he frequently looks lost on the floor, as if he got shot out of a big orange cannon onto an NBA court.
There's really no telling if the Lakers will be able to unlock the potential that some still see embedded deep (deep) within Johnson's hide. He signed with the team for a cut-rate veteran's minimum deal, with the organization hoping that he can provide the team with some athleticism and energy at both ends of the court. On one hand, he's a worthy gamble considering the low cost, but there have been so few signs in the past three years that he's anything but a massive draft bust from one of the worst general managers of the past decade in former Minnesota boss David Kahn. On the other hand, he's the fallback plan if Nick Young doesn't work out. Yikes.
This former Memphis Tiger is on a partially guaranteed deal for one reason, and one reason only: he can shoot the damn lights out. In 64 games for the 2010-2011 Mike D'Antoni-led New York Knickerbockers, Williams hit .401 from downtown. Unfortunately for Shawne, that seemed to be the high water mark of his career. He hadn't approached those heights at any point in his career, save for the .365 3P% he hit in just 52 attempts his rookie season. Williams was cut in the middle of the next season by the New Jersey Nets, which may have coincided with drug-related arrests that have followed him his entire career.
The Lakers are banking on the prospect of teaming him with his old coach helping him regain his valuable shooting touch once more. Considering his massive frame (6'9", 225 lbs), he's a huge asset at the 3 for any squad, especially one as hard up for production as the Lakers. Still, considering that Williams has been out of the NBA for a season and a half and that he has only had a blip of success when he was in it, it's hard to say that the team is counting on him for much.
Working down this list has been one of the most depressing ventures of my Silver Screen & Roll career.
I honestly can't give much of an assessment to Carl's little brother because I haven't seen much of him this pre-season. He's played in every game thus far and is obviously a willing shooter from downtown. However, given the players in front of him that the team has much more invested in--including second round draft pick Ryan Kelly, PF Elias Harris and partially guaranteed deals to Xavier Henry and Williams, I don't see Landry making this squad.
Kobe Bryant/Xavier Henry
This pair of shooting guards could see some minutes at small forward this year, seeing as the current crop of candidates have the stability of Greg Oden's knee. Both are the most ideal candidates because of their size and speed and lack of other internal roster options. However, I can't imagine the Lakers putting Kobe in a situation where he'll have to exert even more energy on a bigger, stronger cover. Henry looks to be the obvious candidate here, though it remains to be seen if he'll be able to maintain consistent minutes after what should be some gifted time to begin the season.
The small forward spot seems to have a similar problem to the shooting guard corps: a lot of potential, but ultimately emanating from players that haven't been able to tap their ample talent wells their entire careers. In order for the small forward spot to be anything besides a drain on both sides of the ball for the Lakers, Nick Young must become a valuable contributor and Wes Johnson has to prove he's worthy of an NBA uniform. If those two things don't happen, I don't know where the Lakers turn. The options are limited and resources are scarce. As it stands, we could be looking at one of the worst group of small forwards in the NBA next season.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino