The Los Angeles Lakers sit at 14 signed players, leaving them a single spot to fill out before locking in their roster for the season. Their depth chart is currently a mix-and-match of veterans, fresh talent and prospects that are left over from the previous three seasons. Despite the team still having a handful of veteran's minimum players, their flexibility is now compromised by the number of young players they've compiled. This, from what we can glean from general manager Mitch Kupchak's most recent comments on Robert Upshaw and the potential of adding to the roster elsewhere, is one of the reasons they've yet to finalize their 15th player.
Upshaw makes a great deal of sense as the final prospect for the Lakers, and he's coming off what was a successful Las Vegas Summer League run. He's still very much a project player, but he's the kind that's worth the attention of a franchise. Put another way, Jim Buss loves developing big men, and Upshaw is the best prospect he's gotten a chance to oversee since Andrew Bynum. There are red flags regarding Robert's off-court decisions, though, which will continue to be an asterisk in any conversation about his place in the NBA.
Perhaps that's the entire reason why the Lakers haven't finalized the partially guaranteed contract they reportedly had on the table for him hours after his first Summer League game. There's no telling what kind of conversations Upshaw's agent and Kupchak have had regarding their future together, but keeping the contract as his prize for proving himself through the offseason works as a great carrot on a stick. If it's a negotiation tactic and Upshaw really is as interested in developing with the Lakers, as he's said in the past, then he'll have to keep his head down and build on what he showed in Las Vegas. Mitch has to proceed cautiously and doesn't appear to be taking Upshaw's previous transgressions lightly.
Training camp is another time when the Lakers will get a closer look at talent still floating in the aftermath of the offseason. Keeping a place open for a player they feel is more worthy of the spot than Upshaw, and at least holding what will be an open competition for the final spot on the roster, could bring out the best of the prospects they'll work with.
The roster could use an additional backcourt player, as Kupchak alluded to, as well. Byron Scott was remorseful after running Kobe Bryant into the ground, realizing the consequence of playing Kobe over 34 minutes per game along with five instances of playing over 39 minutes. Bryant is projected to line up as the Lakers' starting small forward, with Nick Young set to stagger minutes with him. L.A.'s wing options outside of that come down to rookie Anthony Brown, and possibly Jabari Brown who spent time at the three during Summer League. Jabari seemed indifferent about playing shooting guard or small forward, looking at the roles as interchangeable.
That means D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson are set to play significant minutes, which wouldn't be the worst thing to jump start their on-court development. Having additional depth besides Lou Williams and Jabari would be beneficial for the Lakers. Shoveling minutes on young players -- especially one-and-done guards like Russell -- could be draining in their first passage through the daunting 82-game season. Preventing Kobe and Nick from stretching their minutes by covering for a dinged-up or struggling backcourt might be good enough reason to add a guard. What kind of quality backup point guard can the Lakers find at this stage, though?
Ultimately this situation can serve as a lesson for the Lakers, who've quietly been signing tiny deals for developing draftees over the last few years. Even those low-risk contracts come with baggage they may feel weighed down by in the future. It's not surprising the team was seeking ways to trade Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre and Young in hopes of creating roster and salary space during the early stages of free agency. The Lakers are overloaded with developing frontcourt players, with their best available basketball prospect being a true seven-footer. Flexibility is key in every aspect of a team's roster, and there's still the possibility of the Lakers making room via trade before moving on to their other options.
What happens with the final roster slot is one of the last remaining areas of interest with the group the Lakers have put together. It's probably in the Lakers' best interest to wait until at least training camp and preseason before finalizing a decision, but will another team try to slide in to grab and take a shot at Upshaw after his play in Las Vegas? Lakers training camp opens in September, which should bring some clarity to the situation.