The offseason is all but over for the Los Angeles Lakers, as Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka all but concluded their first splurge into free agency after bringing the camp roster to 19 with the addition of a number of young players and prospects. The Lakers lack the cap space to make any significant moves, whether it be chasing one of the few remaining restricted free agents of consequence or leveraging their space for assets as they did this time last year for Jose Calderon.
As a result, the team will likely be in a holding pattern until training camp, and while the specter of 2018 free agency looms ominously over several members of the roster— whether they be players on one-year deals or those who will almost certainly be cap casualties — chances are at the moment that everyone makes it to camp. We would be on the lookout for who LA signs to their second two-way contract slot, but it appears that this decision will be punted until camp so the team can dangle a carrot for good performers when final cuts come around.
The inevitable follow-up question is then who the team will invite for that 20th roster spot. To help elucidate this, observe the following rotation projection:
Projected Camp Rotation
|Positions||Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String|
|Positions||Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String|
|PG||Lonzo Ball||Tyler Ennis||Briante Weber||Alex Caruso (TW)|
|SG||Kentavious Caldwell-Pope||Jordan Clarkson||Josh Hart||Vander Blue|
|SF||Brandon Ingram||Luol Deng||Corey Brewer||V.J. Beachem|
|PF||Julius Randle||Larry Nance Jr.||Kyle Kuzma||--|
|C||Brook Lopez||Ivica Zubac||Thomas Bryant||Stephen Zimmerman|
The areas of possible rotation contention appear be twofold here: backup point guard and backup small forward. For the former, Ennis was only signed after the Lakers spent the majority of free agency waiting out several veteran point guard options, and he is on a minimum contract that would likely not overly vex the team should he need to be cut to open up a roster spot for a more deserving camp invite (cough) Weber (cough).
The Lakers, moreover, are dangerously close to repeating a problem that bedeviled the roster last season in that they only had one true playmaker who could consistently initiate the offense and get the team into their sets. The differences in D’Angelo Russell and Lonzo Ball’s games aside, this issue has the potential to rear its head again since the numerous secondary playmakers on the roster (Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Randle, and Clarkson) are all fairly flawed in this respect, leaving Ball as possibly the only above average setup man on the entire roster.
That the Lakers have three players competing for this spot would seem to preclude any subsequent addition here, however, and that the team has declined to sign any veteran option at this point bodes poorly for such a thing coming about by camp. Weber, who was a moderately serviceable setup man in the D-League this past season, would thus appear to be Ennis’ primary competition, and we’ll likely have to wait to camp to see if his defense and athleticism warrants him a spot over Ennis’ more traditional backup point guard skill set (read: it should on paper).
Backup small forward, on the other hand, has a more veteran cast vying for playing time, although Brewer’s severe halfcourt foibles and Deng’s tepid offensive play limit their appeal. Granted, their contracts make them both a near-certainty to make the roster barring a deal, and given Brewer’s utility as trade ballast and the sheer difficulty involved in moving Deng’s deal, a trade of either before the conclusion of camp would be quite surprising.
The team does have some incentive to play Deng if only to prove that he isn’t complete dead weight to the rest of the league when the front office ultimately attempts to dump his contract in anticipation of 2018 free agency, but finding minutes for him is hard, especially when small forward is not an ideal spot for him at this point in his career. Pairing him with a power forward who can make these distinctions a bit fuzzy in Kuzma would be a way to alleviate this problem, although this also requires rotation hijinks in order to make room for the latter.
The bottom line here is that the Lakers don’t have an awful lot of upside in sticking with the existing small forward rotation, whereas the chance that someone in the point guard group could work out is more likely, especially with Weber’s presence and Caruso lurking in the wings in the G-League. Beachem could possibly offer a similar level of upside, but he’s significantly more raw than Weber and there’s no guarantee that he even ends up with the last two-way contract (with Weber and Zimmerman also competing for it) or a roster spot outright (with Blue and again, Weber angling for one).
A small forward addition also has a significant plus over throwing another point guard into the mix in that the best free agent available for the former spot (Tony Allen) is significantly better than the anyone the Lakers could get for the latter (Deron Williams). And that brings us to Allen, who is somehow unsigned at this time in August despite still putting up solid defensive marks last season (+2.15 DRPM) at age 35. While the modern game has grown more and more unforgiving toward non-spacing perimeter players, Allen still possesses a top shelf skill that has utility on every roster and that he’s shown barely any signs of slipping on defense into his mid-30s says an awful lot about his ability to continue at this level next season.
While the playmaking aspect mentioned above is relevant, moreover, the team at least has internal options to address this through one of Ennis or Weber at point guard or (significantly more likely) one or more of Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, or Randle emerging as an unorthodox contributor in this respect. There is no comparable option to help the team in terms of perimeter defense, as the only remotely above average perimeter defender the starting lineup will feature is Caldwell-Pope. Ball had significant difficulty defending on ball (no pun intended) in Las Vegas, caveats about him cross matching with Caldwell-Pope extensively and usually checking the lesser perimeter threat aside, and Ingram was an awful defender last season.
Deng and Brewer do bring some positives to the table here in that they both are still somewhat decent defenders, Deng in particular doing some yeoman’s work here, although the fact that they remain putrid offensive options remain. This would seem like an odd point to bring up when attempting to talk up Allen’s merits, seeing as Allen is limited offense as well, but the latter outpaces both Deng and Brewer on the defensive end by a large margin, especially when discussing his degree of defensive versatility in checking several positions. That latter item is particularly important in that Allen can spell Caldwell-Pope and ensure that Ball is never checking a major perimeter threat, also maximizing Ball’s ability to do work defensively off ball (again, no pun intended) if the team is able to consistently hide him on weaker offensive players.
The Lakers could also obviate the need to play one of Deng or Brewer by running more three guard lineups, thus enabling Hart to enter into rotation, not an unwelcome outcome since it enables the team to give playing time to another young contributor. Hart, however, doesn’t offer Ball the safety blanket on defense that Allen would as noted above, and the team may very well clear the way for Hart regardless by dealing Clarkson at some point this season in order to clear the way for 2018 free agency.
In the meantime, Allen would appear to be a solid addition for a team that has no reason to tank and should be highly motivated to protect their best prospects defensively. This would appear slightly incongruous for a rebuilding team that perhaps should prioritize a younger player who could break through, even if there is no incentive to tank, but the team does have a need to present itself on the up-and-up for prospective free agents next offseason. In this respect, there likely is no remaining option on the market that would have a more pronounced impact in the win column than Allen, and one would presume he would be an attractive option to contenders come February should the need arise.
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