As the Los Angeles Lakers approach the end of yet another tumultuous offseason that witnessed innumerable ups and downs, including the retention of the Lakers' draft pick, the surprise draft choice of D'Angelo Russell over Jahlil Okafor, and the vagaries of a stressful and at times embarrassing free agency saga that was finally resolved in a manner more or less acceptable to all of the parties involved, the team faces yet another series of storylines in winnowing what will likely be a 20-man training camp roster down to 15 players. With the recent signing of Metta World Peace, the roster now stands at 19, and we can begin to give serious thought to the final shape the roster will take once the regular season opens. To bring this into focus, here's what the Lakers' depth chart should look like heading into camp:
|Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String||Fifth String|
|PG||D'Angelo Russell||Marcelo Huertas||--||--||--|
|SG||Jordan Clarkson||Lou Williams||Jabari Brown||Michael Frazier II||--|
|SF||Kobe Bryant||Nick Young||Metta World Peace||Anthony Brown||Jonathan Holmes|
|PF||Julius Randle||Brandon Bass||Ryan Kelly||Larry Nance, Jr.||--|
|C||Roy Hibbert||Tarik Black||Robert Sacre||Robert Upshaw||--|
Constructing this depth chart in and of itself requires a number of assumptions, each of them worthy of their own extended analysis, but let us proceed with the current one for the sake of the article. At any rate, the Lakers' training camp this season has significantly more intrigue than most in prior years, those being largely humdrum affairs, because the filler at the bottom of the roster is unusually skilled. Frazier, Holmes, and Upshaw were all top-60 prospects in both DraftExpress' and ESPN's rankings, and no player with a non-guaranteed deal on the team can fairly be construed as a mere camp body. Indeed, you could construct a decent argument for why each and every player listed above should make the team, partly a sign of how poor the Lakers' overall talent base is, but more a credit to the rather solid job Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the front office have done in getting notable undrafted free agents.
It should be noted that this competition is not necessarily a zero-sum game. The D-Fenders, the Lakers' D-League affiliate, receive priority on any players that the Lakers cut from training camp, something especially relevant for the aforementioned crop of undrafted free agents. This arrangement isn't ideal, as other teams could obtain those cut players on waivers, merely call them up from the D-Fenders, or those players could simply not want to go to the D-League, but it is certainly something that should be factored into the roster calculus. As we saw last season with Jabari Brown, who was on the parent team during training camp, was cut and went to the D-Fenders, then ultimately made the long trek from 10-day call-up to a multi-year deal, the process certainly can end up working out for the benefit of all of the parties involved.
Let us begin then by removing from consideration those whose roster spots should be all but secure. Putting Kobe, Russell, Clarkson, Williams, Young, Randle, Bass, and Hibbert in this category is a fairly safe assumption for reasons that don't really need to be elaborated on here. As recent draft picks, we can likely add Anthony Brown and Nance to this mix as well; it is practically unheard of for teams to cut players selected that high during their first training camp, especially unbelievable in Nance's case because of his guaranteed contract and less so but still out of the realm of possibility with Brown.
With those names out of the way, we are left with the following questions:
Will Marcelo Huertas make the team?
The easiest question to answer of the bunch, Huertas' possible spot on the team should be more or less safe. Yes, his contract is fully non-guaranteed, so it's definitely fair to at least raise the question, but color me doubtful that a European star would have been willing to cross the pond for considerably less financial security without a reasonably solid chance of making the team. Helping Huertas' cause is that he is the only true backup point guard on the entire roster depending on how you slot Clarkson and Russell, so he actually fills a genuine need on the team. In addition, Huertas' pick-and-roll heavy game should translate generally well to the NBA, problems with his defense notwithstanding. Compared to veteran roster filler like last year's Ronnie Price, Huertas making the team should evoke few complaints.
Who between Jabari Brown or Michael Frazier will claim the fifth guard spot?
Past their styles of play, Brown and Frazier have a fairly analogous role on the team: they're both slightly undersized two guards who can't move up or down a position and will take whatever minutes are available behind Russell, Clarkson, Williams, and Huertas in the guard rotation. Brown has the benefits of incumbency, a strong relationship with one of the Lakers' proverbial core players of the future in Clarkson, and a season of honing his craft in the D-League and the NBA proper. Now, we shouldn't read all that much into the all-garbage time games Brown ultimately got to play with the Lakers, but neither should we dismiss them entirely; Brown showed a knack for putting the ball in the basket in transition and from range that could plausibly translate in year two.
Frazier's main advantage over Brown is that he's a purer shooter. Indeed, during the '13-14 season when he had significantly better offensive options around him at Florida than in the '14-15 year, he was a bonafide elite shooter from behind the arc. He's perhaps slightly more athletic than Brown, although he's not quite as able at creating off the dribble, favoring mostly straight-line drives to the rim. In the NBA, one would have to imagine that he's chiefly a spot-up shooter who might be able to provide dividends on the defensive end down the road because of his length and decent athleticism. Byron Scott's system hasn't exactly been conducive toward generating those kinds of open spot-up opportunities from behind the arc, but that shouldn't detract all that much from the value Frazier can provide.
This might be the hardest roster decision to properly prognosticate on since it ultimately comes down to a pure question of merit. Put simply, the guy who has the best camp will make the team. They both have the same projected role, it's fairly implausible that the team carries both of them on the parent roster because of that redundancy, and neither has a clear talent advantage over the other. Thankfully, the loser of the contest is probably one of the more likely candidates to head to the D-Fenders, and if the Lakers' injury luck is anything like recent years, they might need his services during the upcoming season.
How will the roster crunch at both forward spots be resolved?
This was a far simpler question to resolve before Metta World Peace entered the conversation and made it a practical certainty that he can only make the team by knocking off one of the promising young players we've been discussing. Beforehand, it was largely a matter of whether Holmes could outplay Kelly, who regressed significantly last season and projects as the third string forward behind Randle and Bass. With Nance now in the fold as a developmental prospect and Holmes theoretically able to play either forward spot, there would be little to no reason to keep Kelly around unless he had a great camp. It's a pity that a guy who looked rather competent under Mike D'Antoni can't stick, but it's hard to see how he fits into the team's current framework.
Now, however, Holmes more or less can't make the team unless he outplays both Kelly and MWP, or another young player gets the boot. Further complicating things is that Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reports that MWP is expected to make the team. To a certain extent, one can understand the team's reasoning: there's precious few actual threes on the roster, Metta has apparently already taken up a mentor role for the team's young players, and he'll add another tie to the team's recent championships that has recently been whittled to just Kobe. That noted, it's hard to see how he couldn't do several of these functions as a player development coach, and at age 35, he probably doesn't have a whole lot left in the tank. Assuming that the depth chart above is reasonably accurate, MWP would only get spot minutes regardless and it's hard to imagine how he's any better than Nick Young.
In an ideal world, MWP is simply here to push the kids during camp, tell the media some appropriately kooky quotes, and transition to the coaching staff after he gets waived and collects a check for his troubles. But considering that Byron seems to loathe giving Young a role in the rotation, that makes Metta the veteran rotation option that Byron would likely prefer over even thinking of giving Brown or Holmes minutes. This leaves Holmes in the cold, and while he's a prime candidate to go to the D-League, he's also significantly more likely to be poached either on waivers or from the D-Fenders outright than the Lakers' other young players. Holmes had a early second-round grade from DraftExpress, higher than both Frazier and Upshaw and without the latter's personal issues; sacrificing such a prospect for whatever intangible benefits World Peace can bring to the team, benefits that he could just as easily provide as an assistant, appears to be rather unwarranted.
Which centers will make the final roster?
That Sacre has been the second-longest tenured Laker on the roster will probably look like a historical accident in a few years, although to his credit, Sacre has played pretty decently for a guy taken with the last pick in the draft. His tenure might be severely endangered, however, by the presence of Upshaw, a bonafide lottery talent the Lakers have been slowly bringing along in order to keep him on the straight and narrow after years of personal issues. Upshaw had flashes of brilliance in summer league, but also looked like someone who hadn't played a serious game of basketball for years, definitely qualifying as a developmental project. That said, he's a hell of a prospect and the Lakers have seemingly invested quite a bit of time and effort this summer for him not to ultimately make the final roster.
Sacre's spot on the team is also hurt by Black, who showed enough last season to make it fairly apparent that he'll be the primary backup at the five. Although Sacre's positional defense and actual center size are nice attributes for a fifth big, he simply can't match Black's scoring and rebounding, and at age 26, there's precious little upside to mine here. As a result, if the Lakers are going to carry three centers, a likely outcome since none of the fours can consistently move up a position, it would make far more sense to have Upshaw as the third center riding the pine and getting time via D-League assignments rather than having Sacre doing the same without offering an iota of Upshaw's upside.
As has become apparent at this juncture, a good portion of the Lakers' training camp roster decisions come down to whether the team favors youth or veterans of various flavors. In the latter respect, some of the available choices make quite a lot of sense (Huertas) and others not so much (MWP), especially when the crop of undrafted free agents angling for a spot on the parent squad is particularly strong this year. If we were to maximize the number of young players that make the team, we would end up with a depth chart to start the season that looks roughly as follows:
|Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String|
|PG||D'Angelo Russell||Marcelo Huertas||--||--|
|SG||Jordan Clarkson||Lou Williams||Jabari Brown||--|
|SF||Kobe Bryant||Nick Young||Anthony Brown||Jonathan Holmes|
|PF||Julius Randle||Brandon Bass||Larry Nance, Jr.||--|
|C||Roy Hibbert||Tarik Black||Robert Upshaw||--|
Again, MWP is the fly in the ointment here, as you can only give him a roster spot by taking one away from one of the young players on the bottom half of the squad. Although Holmes wouldn't necessarily have to go in order to facilitate this -- both Brown and Frazier could end up being cut, for instance, and with MWP present to soak up 10-15 minutes at the three, you end up with more Kobe minutes at the two and generally avert the need for a fifth guard -- the most likely way that Metta makes the team is at Holmes' expense. The team showing reluctance to let go of Kelly's and Sacre's guaranteed deals would also complicate things, although given their smaller projected role in the rotation, it's less of a concern.
It's important throughout this process to remember that this is still a chiefly developmental season for the Lakers. While the team can't actively tank to keep their pick -- even having the worst overall record in the league, something they couldn't accomplish the previous two years with rosters worse than the one currently assembled, would only give them a 64.3 percent chance of keeping their pick -- neither is the team remotely close enough to making the playoffs such that they could justify sacrificing valuable playing time for their now well-defined young core in favor of veterans.
The endgame for the team this season shouldn't be victories in and of themselves, but rather measuring the progress of the team's young players, victories being a happy incidental result of such progress. How such a sentiment is reflected in the team's roster decisions will go a long way toward seeing the team's philosophy vis-à-vis the upcoming year.
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