To say that this training camp has been greeted with more anticipation among Lakers fans than the past few years goes without saying: this is the proverbial start of a new era, with the Lakers' new core pairing with a dynamic, young, and promising head coach to lead them away from a Kobe Bryant-dominated epoch.
Accompanying this new transition is the establishment of a new hierarchy on the team that replaces the one that was centered on Kobe, for good or ill, for much of the past two decades.
For the most part, the greater contours of this new hierarchy are fairly unambiguous. To wit, Luke has spoken at length of the leadership and leading role that D'Angelo Russell will play on the team and the remainder of the young core, whether Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, or otherwise, will fall behind him on the totem pole to varying degrees, at least for the purposes of next season.
The team's veterans, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov in particular, are there to supplement the young core and aid them in their development, both in the locker room and on the court. Overall, the Lakers will go as far this year as their young players will take them and the roster is structured around that notion.
The current depth chart, in which the Lakers' young core dominates a fair chunk of the rotation, makes this evident:
|Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String||Fifth String|
|PG||D'Angelo Russell||Jose Calderon||Marcelo Huertas||Julian Jacobs||--|
|SG||Jordan Clarkson||Lou Williams||--||--||--|
|SF||Luol Deng||Brandon Ingram||Anthony Brown||Metta World Peace||Nick Young|
|PF||Julius Randle||Larry Nance, Jr.||Thomas Robinson||Travis Wear||--|
|C||Timofey Mozgov||Yi Jianlian||Tarik Black||Ivica Zubac||Zach Auguste|
Training camp, however, usually isn't about settling the bigger roster questions since those usually have been resolved earlier in the offseason. Russell is going to get the lion's share of minutes no matter how you settle the semantics of what guard position he should be listed at. Deng will start ahead of Ingram since Luke has already said as much. As woeful as his contract is, there remains little to no doubt that Mozgov will be the team's starting center on opening night barring injury or another similar unforeseen event. All of these stipulations and more are fairly uncontroversial.
The bigger question is how the team looks around the edges and what effect those small changes have on the larger rotation and the team's more important pieces. To illustrate this, let's look at the following minute allocation that yours truly thinks will reflect how the rotation ultimately pans out:
|PG||Russell (32) | Clarkson (6) | Calderon (10) | Huertas (0) | Jacobs (cut)|
|SG||Clarkson (24) | Lou (24)|
|SF||Deng (20) | Ingram (28) | Brown (0) | MWP (0) | Young (cut)|
|PF||Randle (30) | Nance (10) | Deng (8) | Robinson (cut) | Wear (cut)|
|C||Mozgov (26) | Yi (12) | Nance (10) | Black (0) | Zubac (0) | Auguste (cut)|
Obviously, a panoply of assumptions goes into the making of this chart and how we arrive at those assumptions is the subject of our discussion. References to this chart hereinafter will refer to it as our primary minute allocation.
Who wins the training camp battle between Jose Calderon and Marcelo Huertas?
The amusing aspect of asking this question is that a fair answer is neither. The rotation doesn't strictly need a third point guard, as you can plausibly envision the three primary guards in Russell, Clarkson, and Lou splitting the 96 minutes at point and shooting guard amongst themselves:
|PG||Russell (35) | Clarkson (13)|
|SG||Clarkson (20) | Lou (28)|
To a certain extent, this formulation is sensible. You want to play your best players as much as possible, Lou is significantly better than both Calderon and Huertas in an absolute sense, and having one of Russell or Clarkson on the floor at all times has the potential to obviate the need for an additional point guard.
The counterpoint here is that Lou isn't a perfect fit with Russell or Clarkson. While he's a capable spot-up shooter off the ball and does a non-trivial amount of playmaking, his primary instinct is to pound the ball and attempt to create an opportunity for himself. That player archetype is certainly useful but there's a fair question as to whether that's an ideal partner for Russell and/or Clarkson, both of whom either need the ball themselves or someone who can feed them the ball as they traverse screens, post-up, or spot-up.
Another permutation that includes neither Calderon nor Huertas has a wing player entering into the equation at shooting guard, most likely by taking minutes away from Lou. For the sake of discussion, let's use Brown as the wing of choice here:
|PG||Russell (32) | Clarkson (16)|
|SG||Clarkson (14) | Lou (24) | Brown (10)|
Again, Brown's a placeholder but he's not completely without his own merits. He's probably a better defender than anyone in this particular rotation, and his role player tendencies and spot-up focus allow him to play off Russell or Clarkson well as they run and initiate the offense. Of course, this is a somewhat theoretical version of Brown, as he has to prove that these projections meet the reality of what he's going to contribute this upcoming season. As we saw during summer league, this is still up in the air.
All this noted, the first minute allocation chart posted above has Calderon getting playing time and this likely will be a result of his superior outside shooting enabling him to carve out a spot. The system Luke is importing from Golden State puts a premium on spacing and there probably isn't a better floor spacer on the team than Calderon, even considering his flaws as a defender and his inability to create at his age. He also pairs well with Russell and Clarkson in theory, as he works well with them both on and off the ball, being still a capable enough passer to feed either of them while he initiates the offense and as previously mentioned, being a spot-up threat that aids overall spacing when they handle the ball.
Huertas lacks Calderon's versatility in this respect, as he's only a so-so floor spacer and requires the ball in his hands to take advantage of his biggest strength in his playmaking. Both Russell and Clarkson can, should, and will be used off the ball much more capably than last season, so Huertas' playmaking advantage isn't inapplicable here, but by the same token, Russell and Clarkson are going to run the offense with the ball in their hands a good chunk of the time and Huertas simply has limited utility when that happens.
Lastly (to preempt questions about this), Julian Jacobs doesn't really have a shot at the roster here, let alone a rotation spot. His size, defensive ability, and playmaking are pluses in his corner, but he has very limited range and will probably struggle to score at the pro level initially. He's certainly enough of a prospect such that his camp invite was a worthwhile endeavor to guarantee he ends up with the D-Fenders -- presuming that Jacobs is amenable -- but hoping for anything more than that is unreasonable given what we know about Jacobs at the moment.
Will a fifth wing manage to crack the rotation?
The semantics of who is considered a "wing" among the Russell, Clarkson, and Lou trio aside, two of those three will be the nominal shooting guards in the rotation and Deng and Ingram will be the team's primary pair of small forwards.
As with Calderon and Huertas above, there's no particular need for a third stringer to be part of the rotation here; the aforementioned foursome can fill the wings with no difficulty, as seen in our primary minute allocation. In fact, the deck is probably stacked even more toward a fifth wing than Calderon or Huertas since Ingram (whose development has to be one of the team's top priorities next season) can easily lap up any excess playing time on the wings here.
As is plain at this point, the main person imperiled here is Brown, who can't justifiably take playing time from Ingram and thus has to eke out a role by nabbing time at the two. The likely path forward for Brown is the second table under the point guard question above, in which Brown takes playing time away from Calderon and pushes all of the available point guard minutes to both Russell and Clarkson. Assuming that Deng and Ingram get roughly as much playing time as we project in the primary minute allocation, it will be tough for him to scrounge up minutes in this rotation.
Is this a safe assumption, however? Deng has infamously dealt with heavy minute loads throughout his career and might be due a relative rest every night or so, and Ingram could see fewer minutes on nights on which his teething issues are especially severe. This might crack open the door for a fifth wing but only occasionally; staying with the assumption that Deng and Ingram will dominate playing time here is nevertheless probably still a safe play.
This unfortunately leaves Brown out in the cold unless he knocks the additional point guards out of the rotation as mentioned above. Alleviating this issue otherwise would probably require trading Lou to open up time on the wing.
And speaking of assumptions, this discussion of a possible fifth wing focuses on Brown for good reason since the other options in Young and World Peace simply don't warrant consideration. On top of blowing up his own engagement and having chemistry issues with the Lakers' most important player, Young was terrible on the court last season, putting up career low shooting numbers and looking as indifferent as ever defensively.
Even if we grant him a mulligan because of the pervasive Byron effect, Young is still a high usage chucker who disdains passing to a comical degree, making him a poor fit to say the least for Luke's motion-heavy offense. Young's foibles were acceptable once upon a time when he paired usage and efficiency under Mike D'Antoni, but that appears to be a thing of the past.
As for World Peace, explaining why he isn't going to earn any playing time is rather unnecessary, but the more pertinent question is whether he might end up with a roster spot. To wit, Young's attendance at training camp is not necessarily a guarantee that he will be on the team by the time the season starts; while assuming that Young would before camp to free up a roster spot for another camp invite wasn't an unreasonable stance, the team very well could have determined that no one they could have signed could have cracked the rotation. Considering that Auguste, Jacobs, Robinson, and Wear neatly fit into the team's four-player allotment for their D-League affiliate, World Peace, as the last man standing among the bunch, could end up taking up Young's roster spot as an additional veteran presence and de facto player development coach.
Who will emerge as the primary backup center?
One caveat, however, in the aforementioned scenario is that one of the D-League options could win a roster spot outright and induce the Lakers to go with him in favor of World Peace or Young. If so, the guy with the best shot is probably Robinson, a former top-five pick who has never quite been able to surmount his issue of having a center's game in a power forward's body (although ironically, his measurements are almost identical to his fellow Kansas alumnus in Black). Given the utter logjam at the four, Robinson's only shot at making the roster will winning the competition to be the main backup five behind Mozgov.
And this is a particularly interesting fight since the competitors in Yi, Black, Zubac, and Robinson are all fairly distinct players who each bring different skills to the table. Yi is in theory a stretch five who could allow the team to construct five out lineups and go for broke offensively, but is also soft on the interior and the weakest rebounder.
Black is the best pick-and-roll player of the bunch, finishing with thunderous dunks when given space, and a solid rebounder despite his lack of size limiting his effectiveness in rim protection.Zubac is the most multifaceted presence, potentially combining post play, floor spacing, and rim protection all in one package, albeit the most theoretical and untested of the bunch. Finally, Robinson is as previously noted, a monstrous rebounder yet also a surprisingly poor finisher and so-so rim protector for someone with his athletic gifts.
Of this bunch, Yi comes out ahead at least initially since the allure of the five out lineups he creates is strong and he maximizes lineup versatility as a result. That said, this isn't a particularly strong opinion and the competition should be considered fairly wide open, although one likely assured outcome is Zubac riding the pine to start the year and tempering his rougher edges in the D-League.
This leaves the two Jayhawks in Black and Robinson as Yi's primary competitors and of the two, Black's better finishing and familiarity with Luke probably give him the edge, but if the lightbulb ever manages to switch on for Robinson, he has the talent to emerge victorious here.
For the sake of completeness, we will note the presence of Auguste, but as with Jacobs, he faces a very uphill battle to make hay here given that practically everyone else in this discussion is a flat out better player than him right now. Now, Auguste might emerge as a good option down the road, but that will be after a season or two honing his craft in the D-League, where he very likely will end up after the Lakers conclude training camp.
How will the team play going small?
All of the aforementioned discussion is for when the team is trotting out conventional lineups, but if we took anything from Luke's time from Golden State, it is that he will bring a strong smallball focus and overall attempt to achieve lineup versatility. A team with shooting at multiple positions, a half-dozen players who can start the break, and multiple playmakers should embrace smallball wholeheartedly and the Lakers are no exception here. The Lakers, of course, possess nothing remotely in the same plane as what the Warriors could summon, but there are enough multi-skilled players that Luke could experiment with quite a few wrinkles here.
These wrinkles will likely be limited almost solely to the frontcourt since there is only so much lineup chicanery one can accomplish with the Lakers' stable of guards. None of them possess the physical traits to move one spot up on the wing -- Russell has the length but not the bulk -- and the rotation doesn't really allow for them to move up in the first place. This leaves us with Deng and Ingram vying for smallball four playing time and Randle and Nance angling for smallball five work.
The smallball four choice is easy to resolve since Deng ably played at power forward last year in Miami and Ingram lacks the bulk at the moment to play there, but the smallball five one is especially intriguing since it really turns on how Randle and Nance ended up developing during the course of the offseason.
Randle is the better rebounder and more capable of aggressively pushing the ball to start the break, but Nance has the edge defensively, is thus far a superior floor spacer, and more able in the pick-and-roll. Again, this is the current paradigm as we know it now: a better outside shot instantly elevates Randle in this discussion and his greater mobility lends itself more to a switch-heavy defense should Luke elect to go that route. Conversely, Nance showed better chops at pushing the ball and throwing outlets during summer league, and due to his better fundamentals on defense, might be the guy better equipped to switch all the time.
For the moment, Nance deserves the nod since his current skill set is more suited for the spot, although this will likely fluctuate throughout training camp and the regular season. Indeed, the centers could push back against the presence of smallball fives at all, Yi in particular if he acquits himself well as a stretch five since that obviates one of the arguments for going small with Nance at the five. Luke could alternatively go with two of the four backup center options getting a timeshare behind Mozgov, but this is the more inelegant and unlikely choice here.
Altogether, the smallball lineup of choice to start the year will probably be Russell, Clarkson, Ingram, Deng, and Nance, a very switch-friendly lineup with a fair amount of floor spacing and playmaking chops. Needless to say, expect this to change frequently throughout the season as Luke gets familiar with his personnel and how they work together.
The overall theme to take away from this discussion is that several of the ancillary roles on the roster are wide open for whoever wants to take them. Success for the relevant actors here can range from simply a bigger role to staying on the team outright, but the competition here stands to be quite interesting, amplified by the team's overall youth and relative inexperience both on the coach and player side.
This is also a competition, moreover, that will depend quite a bit on how Luke envisions the roster moving forward. Should he desire another veteran presence, the team can make that possible by keeping World Peace; if he's especially enamored with one of the D-League quartet, the front office can manage that as well; and so forth. Save for keeping Yi as a trade chip, the edges of the roster are seemingly entirely for Luke to do with as he wills, and that early glimpse we will get into his thinking during camp will be some of our first major steps into the post-Kobe era.
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