As the Lakers approach their regular season debut, one of the last items on their itinerary is slimming their roster down to what we presume will be the 15 players who will be members of the team on opening night. We discussed a few weeks earlier a few permutations on how this would play out, and amidst the hullabaloo surrounding the Lakers looking seemingly competent on both ends (thanks Byron!) and D'Angelo Russell making his best case that he is on the brink of a breakout year, we gained some clarity as to how the team's rotation battles and ultimate roster decisions will play out.
The biggest wrench thrown into our original analysis is that Nick Young made one of the most memorable and shocking swerves in recent Laker history by not only showing up to camp saying the right things and playing with the requisite effort of someone whose very place in the NBA hangs in the balance, but also followed up that talk with production on the court.
Young has arguably been the team's third best player during the preseason, playing within the framework of Luke's offense to get his points, killing it from range, and perhaps most shockingly of all, leveraging his solid length for a wing into good defensive play. Fear is certainly a powerful motivator, but most people in Young's situation are too weighed down by their past foibles to move forward and do what is necessary. Credit where it is due: he's surpassed his expectations and then some, more or less assuring his roster spot in the process (assuming that the front office isn't sending clips of his play to every team in the league as part of their continuing effort to trade him).
Indeed, Young's play has brought an unwelcome focus onto how his supposed replacement in Anthony Brown has utterly failed to make an impression save for a brief scoring flurry during garbage time of the first preseason game. The path of any fifth wing to consistent rotation time was, is, and will be complicated due to the structure of the rotation, but that Brown has simply failed to gain any headway during training camp is not an auspicious sign for his future fortunes. If Young is going to try (and be effective!) defensively, Brown's biggest argument for claiming playing time over him diminishes significantly. Even if Young's effort there wanes, Brown can't even begin to challenge his level of offensive utility either.
Brown, however, will probably end up sticking on the roster for no other reason than his contract is guaranteed and giving up on a prospect unnecessarily, even a 24-year-old one dangerously close to the end of his rope, is a decision unbefitting of a team in the Lakers' situation. As things stand, Brown has to hope for a trade or injury to clear a way for him into the rotation so he can make some impression on the front office, as his contract is not guaranteed for the following season. In the meantime, he'll presumably get more D-League seasoning, although one has to wonder whether any of this will help at this juncture.
On the discussion of cuts then, this brings us to Metta World Peace and Thomas Robinson. After the this-guy-is-starting-in-2016-what-is-happening weirdness with MWP earlier in the preseason, he's been a healthy scratch for the grand majority of the Lakers' games and it appears fairly evident that he was brought in chiefly to be a veteran presence the kids are comfortable with in camp.
As for whether MWP latches on with the coaching staff as a player development guy or tries to find a team still willing to take a shot on him elsewhere, that's still up in the air, but the former scenario certainly wouldn't be an unwelcome one.
In Robinson's case, he's unequivocally a better player than say Yi Jianlian, but he's also the victim of a numbers game in the frontcourt. As noted in the training camp preview, Robinson's path to the roster was to unseat Black as the primary backup center, and although Luke is still experimenting with rotations, it seems unlikely that this is going to come about. Black is simply the superior pick-and-roll option and rim protector, as well as coming in with a level of comfort with Luke due to their previous time together in Memphis.
Without this feather in his cap, Robinson is the fourth center in the rotation behind Mozgov, Black, and the smallball center of choice between Randle and Nance. And in the event of a catastrophic injury scenario, giving Ivica Zubac a look feels like a better use of the team's time in a developmental year than playing Robinson, who is on a one-year deal and offers the team no long-term utility even if he acquits himself well.
This isn't necessarily the end for Robinson's future in a Lakers uniform, as he could go to the D-Fenders as an affiliate player and await the opportunity for a 10-day should Yi, Black, or others get dealt at the deadline. Alternatively, he could ply his craft abroad with a NBA out in his contract and look for opportunities stateside during the same 10-day period. Getting back into the purple-and-gold is nevertheless quite unlikely but players that are invited to a team's camp usually stay on their radar for a while.
Lastly, we have Yi, who should stick on the roster for reasons entirely unrelated to his play on the court. Put simply, the marginal value of whatever a 15th man on the court can provide pales in comparison to Yi's value as a trade chip, period. As previously mentioned, Robinson, the most likely Yi replacement, will almost never play meaningful minutes because of where he stands in the rotation, so you're going to have to mine value from the roster spot in different ways. Generally, this could be from being a respected locker room presence (MWP), a developmental prospect worth keeping on the roster lest he get filched from the D-League (i.e. Zubac or one of the Jacobs/Auguste/Wear trio), or in the most pertinent example for our purposes, a trade chip that could help grease the wheels of a larger transaction (Yi).
Yi's contract has been documented in great detail here and elsewhere but the main point to take away from here is that the best case scenario for Yi was either that he cracked the rotation as a useful player or that he was utterly horrible. In the former instance, he'd (sort of) justify the money paid to him, insofar as a one-year deal is considered an overpay, and in the latter, he maximizes the value of his contract as a trade chip since the incentives are far less likely to kick in and guarantee more of the money owed to him.
How this works in a trade is pretty self-evident: Yi's deal can match salaries up to 150% of his contract value (~$12 million) and the receiving team waives Yi immediately to realize the relevant cost savings (at most ~$10 million). Even in the post-cap spike NBA era, this is still a significant chunk of change and you're going to find suitors amenable to cutting dead weight off their cap.
The value of Yi's contract also shouldn't be taken in isolation: he's purely salary ballast but he's also the most useful one on the Lakers' roster if they want to match salaries in any potential deal. Jose Calderon, Lou Williams, and Black are genuinely useful rotation players for whom the Lakers would want more-than-token assets coming back in order to offset their loss, Lou in particular given his combination of being cheap and coming into any situation with a readily identifiable role. To wit, constructing a deal around them is more complicated since the Lakers' expectations of what is coming back is higher: you're only doing a deal if suitors are willing to give up assets of a certain amount and/or quality.
Yi, however, is merely the grease by which any number of transaction types, small or large, could be consummated. His value in a bigger transaction involving several players is obvious, but the Lakers can also go after smaller fish that they see as useful but would be hesitant to give up Calderon, Lou, or Black for because of the aforementioned insistence on a certain level of assets coming back.
Half the battle in any given trade is getting the salaries to match -- go try to create equitable trades on ESPN's trade machine for ten or so minutes and this becomes immediately apparent -- and Yi's a unicorn asset in this respect since he's essentially an empty salary more flexible than cap space in these scenarios (since Yi could be dealt for any player making from ~$5.3-$12 million instead of only being able to accept contracts only up to the amount of available cap space).
Yes, the Lakers have been less-than-ideally-active at previous trade deadlines with players who they really should have gotten some sort of value for, but they couldn't have telegraphed their intent for Yi's deal via his contract structure any harder if they tried. And even if the front office doesn't manage to use Yi in a trade, the opportunity cost for having him on the roster is incredibly low: they waive him, conveniently right before you can start signing players to 10-day contracts (read: when one of the D-Fenders options is hopefully more ready for prime time), and use the roster spot for someone else. This is the kind of low risk, medium reward play the front office should be engaging in more and we should applaud them for doing so.
As such, this leaves Robinson and MWP on the outside looking in, meeting the most conservative expectation for the final roster if one observed the camp invites and expected the team not to rock the boat. Admittedly, this has occurred for unexpected reasons, namely Young's resurgence as a useful rotation player, but the structural factors against one of the camp invites managing to break through were considerable. This leaves us with the following likely depth chart (yes, yours truly still thinks that Lou isn't really going to be the starter on opening night):
|Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String|
|PG||D'Angelo Russell||Jose Calderon||Marcelo Huertas||--|
|SG||Jordan Clarkson||Lou Williams||--||--|
|SF||Luol Deng||Brandon Ingram||Nick Young||Anthony Brown|
|PF||Julius Randle||Larry Nance Jr.||--||--|
|C||Timofey Mozgov||Tarik Black||Yi Jianlian||Ivica Zubac|
This is certainly not the last word on the roster, as even if the front office doesn't execute the big trade expected of them to hasten the rebuild, the team now has a coherent philosophy and set of players around which to build around and complement.
As Luke and the team grow together, the types of players necessary to best facilitate that development will also become apparent and the front office will likely be more amenable to making affirmative moves in that respect than the kind of the pure asset management they haven't indulged in. However this turns out, the early returns from the Lakers' new era are promising and even if this optimism doesn't quite translate to the win column, the gears of progress are turning.
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