The Los Angeles Lakers enter training camp building yet again toward the future, but this particular future is much more concrete than in previous years. Instead of setting the goal as developing a nascent core toward a nebulous end goal of success, the front office has targeted 2018 and a specific class of free agents as the grand prize of this season, hoping that what they show this season is sufficient to convince the cream of the 2018 crop to wear the purple and gold next summer.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that development is thrown to the wolves, especially with Lonzo Ball now leading the show and Brandon Ingram being given the stamp of approval by the front office for his work ethic. How these two grow this upcoming season will no doubt play a significant role in the decision-making process of the chief 2018 free agents, but the team also needs to make an impact on the win column and without a draft pick to play for, has no incentive to prize anything over victories.
The additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez, both likely better than any player on the Lakers last season not named Lou Williams, is a big step in this respect and should help significantly in making the team more competitive on a nightly basis. Caldwell-Pope’s ability to cross-match defensively and Lopez’s spacing at the five are particularly beneficial for Ball’s defensive load in his rookie season and overall offensive flow respectively.
And Lopez’s spacing also stands to aid Julius Randle quite a bit, as the latter enters a season that will undoubtedly be a huge inflection point for his future in a Lakers uniform. Constrained by their star search, the front office will likely need to see quite a bit of development from Randle to stick around, but there probably is little question that he’s the prohibitive favorite to get the starting power forward slot.
This leaves us with a fairly clear starting five, but not necessarily a great deal of clarity on what the rotation will look behind that group. The combination of summer league and the late summer free agent additions has left us with a number of areas of contention for how the rotation will play out, as the following depth chart (ignore the positions and placements as semantics for the moment) illustrates:
Projected Camp Rotation
|Positions||Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String||Fifth String|
|Positions||Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String||Fifth 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||Andrew Bogut||Ivica Zubac||Thomas Bryant||Stephen Zimmerman|
There is essentially no position on the roster in which you can point and identify the clear and unambiguous backup save for perhaps shooting guard, and that’s complicated in its own way because of Clarkson’s precarious place on the team due to his contract size. Combine in a predilection for smaller lineups from Luke Walton, and you have a panoply of positional battles to sort through, making the first preseason game this upcoming Saturday a fascinating early look into how the team views the roster moving forward.
Before then, however, we can engage in some prognosticating of our own and identify how we suspect the various areas of contention will sort themselves out over the next few weeks with the following inquiries:
Who is the backup small forward?
Ingram has all but been anointed the starting forward and the praise for his work this summer has been unceasing from the front office, but the answer to who occupies the spot behind him in the rotation at small forward has been equally opaque. Aside from a few notes here and there, Luol Deng and Corey Brewer have not been fixtures on the offseason news circuit for the Lakers, an unsurprising development on one hand but also one that is rather unhelpful in aiding our analysis of who is actually going to end up getting rotation minutes.
Naturally, the front office would prefer that Deng is wearing another team’s jersey on opening night since clearing his contract from their cap sheet is a prerequisite to chasing the big 2018 free agent fish, but it is currently far more realistic that he will have to slowly rebuild his stock over the course of next season. And he does have the advantage of still being serviceable defensively (+1.54 DRPM), something that remains a rarity on the roster. For a still fairly young team, he can be a helpful old hand to help settle down what should still be a frenetic bench offense in the halfcourt.
The issue there is that Deng fell off a cliff last season offensively to say the least, proving utterly incapable at creating any sort of offense and mostly relying on others to spoon feed him opportunities. On the flip side, the upside is that Deng failed to reach even his modest career average from long range (33.2 3P%) and returning to somewhere moderately close to that along with his cutting and work on the boards should be enough for him to eke out a rotation role along with, however unlikely, some trade equity.
In an ideal universe, Deng could rebuild that equity with time at the four, which is almost certainly his true position nowadays since he possesses the length and strength to check most modern fours and what’s left of his game plays better there as well. But with an utter logjam of more deserving candidates for playing time there, this isn’t really an option, so he’ll have to make do at the three, although the thought that he can still defend the spot helps.
For his part, Brewer mirrors Deng’s strength defensively (+1.00 DRPM), albeit with more steals and gambling instead of Deng’s more low risk positional defense. This would seem to play well with a roster that wants nothing more than to play fast, further accentuated by Brewer’s proclivity for transition, a big plus for a team ready to embrace the Lonzo Ball pace paradigm. If Luke switches up from last year’s more conservative defensive scheme to something involving more trapping, gambling, and attempts at disruption, Brewer would certainly fit there.
This isn’t quite the Brewer of years past though, as his production in transition has tailed off as he’s gotten closer to and entered into his 30s. This makes his utter lack of utility in the halfcourt more glaring, as while Deng’s merely a substandard floor spacer, Brewer is a truly nonexistent one, shooting a dismal 28.3 percent from beyond the arc for his career. For a bench unit that lacks any decent floor spacers other than maybe Ennis (presuming he makes the roster) or Kuzma (if he manages to get rotation time), this might be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back: even super fast units have to play in the halfcourt every now and then.
With that in mind, discussing Kuzma is unavoidable here since the team has come out and said that they think that he can play small forward, which on its face makes a certain amount of sense. Kuzma can handle the ball well for his size, has decent passing instincts, and if he was anything during summer league, he was a top-shelf floor spacer. Assuming the latter element translates, that could be enough to at least push Kuzma into the conversation for playing time here given how anemic Brewer and Deng can be here.
The modern game presents us with a strong aversion toward making lineups bigger, not smaller, however, as the biggest obstacle here is that Kuzma will have to check opposing wings. He does have above average lateral agility as a four but that gets tested to an entirely different level if he has to track wings through screens as a primary responsibility. His offensive package, moreover, of spot-up shooting/closeout attacking/passing on the move is far more effective when utilized against bigger players who are less capable of defending in space; moving him to the three nullifies this since you now have to invert your offense and have Kuzma punish the smaller wing in the post, something that won’t be always possible depending on the lineup.
The flip side of this equation allows us to briefly discuss the possibility of Josh Hart taking some time here, as the team could much more plausibly go with three guard lineups in an effort to get Hart some playing time that might not otherwise be available with Clarkson in the backcourt. Hart does have experience checking bigger players courtesy of how aggressively Villanova switched assignments in its defensive system and if his shooting translates, and he could be a far superior option to either Brewer or Deng offensively. One imagines, however, that he’ll be more of a situational insertion in smallball lineups in this respect at least to start the year, so this discussion is probably best shelved until we confirm both Deng and Brewer’s joint ineffectiveness—certainly not an implausible outcome.
Going back to Kuzma, where the Kuzma-at-small-forward thing does possibly enter into the equation is how he helps out Deng should the two play together in a manner entirely consistent with modern principles by allowing him to be a pseudo-four on offense while they both check their natural position defensively. The above notwithstanding with respect to Kuzma’s offensive game playing better at the four, he does do a lot of wing-esque things on offense and you could see him running off screens for spot-up opportunities a lot, as well as possibly turning into an interesting pick-and-roll operator with his ability to handle and pass with time. Meanwhile, Deng gets opportunities closer to the basket, whether on cuts or putbacks, and can still spot-up to maintain overall spacing.
This formulation also works if Randle figures out how to shoot, so with this and the need to showcase Deng to a certain degree to try to recoup some sort of trade value for him, he probably has a good case to be the primary backup small forward, at least initially. Failure to improve his spot-up chops could cost him his spot eventually to Brewer’s better stylistic fit with the offense’s tempo, although one imagines that Deng will get every opportunity to at least give the appearance of competence before Brewer, Hart, or even V.J. Beachem as a two-way or call-up player later in the season get a chance to claim his playing time.
Who is the backup center? Will the team even have a backup “center”?
This question was somewhat moot right before summer league in Las Vegas sent this calculus into a tizzy as Ivica Zubac put on an entirely uninspiring performance for a second-year player, plunging his stock at a time in which he was supposed to be showing notable improvement. His situation only worsened with the signing of Andrew Bogut, who seems all too likely to make the roster as not only a veteran mentor in the Metta World Peace mold, but also someone who can challenge for real rotation minutes as a defensive counterweight to Lopez’s more offense-centered game.
Zubac could still win back his rotation spot in camp, although this seems like quite the uphill battle at the moment given the level of play he has shown. He’s still hopeless in space defensively, not a great thing to demonstrate when Lopez is similarly so, and his once highly-dependable hands and post game were nowhere to be found in Vegas as he was ineffectual and — rarely is this appropriate but here it is quite apt — soft on the interior. His failure to follow up on the possible three-point range he flashed in the D-League in Vegas was essentially the final nail in the coffin.
And after safely dismissing Thomas Bryant (will likely spend the entire season developing in the G-League) or Stephen Zimmerman (who is so far down the rotation chart that you wonder whether even giving him a two-way is worthwhile; more on that later), we are left with Bogut, who had a dismal season with the Dallas Mavericks and Cleveland Cavaliers marred by injury and general ineffectiveness. He does possess the indelible advantage of greater familiarity with the system Luke is trying to implement than likely anyone else on the roster, however, and betting on a player with his defensive pedigree is probably a worthwhile shot, especially with every other potential pivot having notable defensive issues.
This noted, we should remind ourselves that this is 2017 and there’s no strict need for a true five in a backup role in the first place. With Luke, who has spoken numerous times on the need to play small and fast, the Lakers will undoubtedly employ small lineups in abundance as they did last season, bringing Randle and Nance to the forefront as options here to eat into the backup five rotation minutes.
Who you pick of the two is really just a stylistic choice, as it likely won’t impact their total playing time any, but the winner will probably get a significant boost in their case for sticking around, as any non-Ball or Ingram asset is probably considered superfluous to a certain degree in order to clear salary for 2018. The spotlight here has to be more glaring for Randle, who will become a restricted free agent and exert an oversized cap hold in 2018, potentially making the team’s free agent search quite complicated as a result if he’s not quite good enough for the Lakers to match any and all offers that come his way.
Part of him becoming good enough is showing his chops as a capable smallball five, something that eluded him last season since he didn’t really possess the defensive discipline to deal with the constant rotations and switches necessary to maintain the defense’s integrity. He certainly has the lateral quickness to pull it off as well as the strength to battle low on the block against most post players despite his well-documented wingspan issues, however much stock you put into that either way. His locked-in, ball-busting defensive apogee against Charlotte last December in which he tallied five blocks and was a rolling dervish on that end is the ideal he should strive for; how close he gets on average will be a useful barometer of his chances of sticking around.
Right along with that defensive improvement is the need for him to expand his shooting range, something that’s less needed at the five when he can share the court with four other shooters but still nevertheless highly useful when a fair chunk of the best offensive lineups fielded in the modern game are five-out. Randle flashed some surprisingly good—yet underutilized—midrange skill last season and we have been inundated with no shortage of clips of him hitting shots from behind the arc in the gym this past summer, the obvious caveat of needing to bring it all together in the actual games notwithstanding.
The combination of shooting and defense, along with the passing and improved finishing skills Randle incorporated last season should be more than enough to wreck his competition; Randle’s simply more talented than Nance when you really come down to it, but the latter has a pretty big head start. Most of that is defense and the virtue of not having a complicated free agency approaching next summer, but Nance is definitely well-ahead in the former respect, showing a lot more attention and discipline on his rotations even if he’s slightly inferior to Randle from a lateral quickness perspective.
Nance’s big issue is that he didn’t really change the greater calculus of who he is as a player last season: the exciting three-point shooting we thought would translate in pick-and-pop situations and allow him to carve out a much bigger role never materialized. Nor is he yet leveraging his immense vertical athleticism to
murder people become a more consistent presence in the pick-and-roll or to shoot much at all; Nance was frustrating at several points last season for being too unselfish, not an awful trait on a team of heavy usage chuckers, but still one that induced him to be lost in the mix too often.
For how this plays out in terms of who gets the primary small ball five spot, one imagines that Randle has to be given the nod partly since he simply presents a higher upside vision of small units, especially with the super frenetic pace Ball will engender allowing Randle’s coast-to-coast skills to become even more relevant, but also because figuring out how much he’s improved adds considerable clarity onto how the team should deal with him going into 2018 free agency. This probably extends into how much of the backup five minutes he carves out anyways, as while it’s possible Bogut gets slightly more than a ten minute role depending on his health and opposing matchups, one imagines that going small only furthers the speed-and-quickness ethos Luke is attempting to instill.
How can Kyle Kuzma find playing time?
Luke will further receive an added incentive to go small because it is the clearest and most direct route to get Kuzma, by far the team’s best non-Ball player in Las Vegas, some real playing time. If you give one of Randle or Nance significant time as a small ball five and curtail the true center backup to a bit role, you can open up a roughly ten minutes or so role for Kuzma at the four with the vacated rotation opening, something that easily could increase if Kuzma continues to impress and starts cannibalizing Randle or Nance’s minutes directly.
The most direct route for that to happen is that Kuzma simply demonstrates that he’s a better shooter than either Randle or Nance, giving him a niche on the team that could make him a plug-and-play sort of player. There’s a lot less you have to do to earn time, especially on this team, if you’re reasonably capable of standing in a selected spot and hitting an open shot after one of the team’s playmakers feeds you the ball. Adding in attacking closeouts to that mix isn’t rocket science that will test Kuzma’s rookie year adjustment to NBA play, although making the correct passing reads on the move will no doubt take a fair amount of time.
Kuzma’s presence ultimately is probably making the possibility of dealing away one of Randle or Nance, along with other dead weight on the roster such as Deng or Clarkson, all the easier for the front office, so post-trade deadline, we may very well have a vastly rejiggered frontcourt rotation into which Kuzma can step in seamlessly. At the moment, the main impediment to him getting rotation minutes is the nominal backup five, so either Bogut or Zubac, and neither given what we know now is as deserving of playing time as Kuzma is.
It should be noted that guarding ourselves against the inevitable Kuzma regression — no really, he can’t possibly shoot that well in real games — is important and he might find the transition to real NBA play tough just as when he flourished upon encountering the longer line and a better spaced floor. Still though, as noted above, an awful lot of what he did in summer league can be duplicated at the next level without significant adjustments, and if this remains the case into the season, the Lakers might have someone really interesting on their hands.
Who gets the 15th roster spot?
With Bogut on the roster and likely to make it past final cuts for reasons mentioned above, the roster is technically full of guaranteed contracts otherwise for the main fifteen spots, so a better way of phrasing this question is, “Does Tyler Ennis deserve a roster spot over his competition?” Ennis is in the interesting situation of basically having a rotation spot by default since there are no other true point guards who can back up Ball on the roster that also has a fully guaranteed contract; you also have to wonder whether the team signed him as a sort of afterthought after failing in its attempts to secure a veteran backup in Derrick Rose, blessings in disguise notwithstanding.
Ennis’ rotation spot is technically dependent on how much point guard duties Luke believes that Clarkson is capable of handling, as the Magic Johnson and Pelinka-led front office went out of their way to explore that possibility last season. The results were arguably still highly inconsistent and lackluster, as Clarkson, outside of his rookie season in which Steve Nash must have continuously sprinkled magic pixie dust over him, has never been a conscientious playmaker capable of making consistent reads. Placing him with a pass-first guard probably makes a lot more sense than attempting to push a square peg into a round hole by making him the full-time backup point and replacing Ennis’ guard minutes with say Hart, who probably isn’t ready to initiate a NBA-level offense yet.
So for as long as Clarkson is on the team (don’t count on that continuing), the team will likely employ a traditional point guard backup, which, again, is nominally Ennis at the moment. Following his trade to Los Angeles, Ennis managed to ride some career-best shooting numbers to resurrect his NBA prospects after Houston looked prepared to send him adrift by declining his team option. The question of whether that shooting is sustainable is something that will follow Ennis going into this next season, as well as whether he can overcome a relatively tepid profile as a floor manager without any superlative skills; the modern game usually features combo guards or more unorthodox playmakers in place of the safe-but-don’t-rock-the-boat archetype Ennis represents.
To be fair, that might ultimately be what the Lakers want in a bench unit that has to balance Clarkson’s erratic decision-making, but the front office also took a shot on a significantly more dynamic option in Briante Weber, who is in some respects Ennis’ polar opposite as a much more boom-or-bust prospect. To wit, Weber offers a far more intriguing profile defensively as someone capable of disrupting opposing ballhandlers at the point of attack, a task he did with aplomb in college as the tip of the spear for Shaka Smart’s HAVOC defense; only a tragic, season-ending knee injury kept Weber from seizing the NCAA all-time career record for total steals.
The big bugaboo for Weber is the thing that has always bedeviled him during his career: his outside shot, which has never been good in a limited NBA sample size (career 1-15, 0.67%) or throughout college (career 40-148, 27.0%) but has managed to find some traction in the D-League (career 57-153, 37.3%). Combined with his slight frame causing him issues in traffic, Weber has usually struggled to score efficiently, although he does pass well, putting up a 29.6 AST percentage and coming sixth in assists per game in the D-League this past season.
We ultimately come back to Weber’s defensive ability against the point of attack though, as it is something that is sorely lacking on the roster; in the backcourt, only Caldwell-Pope is capable of a similar feat and among the roster as a whole, only Randle, Kuzma, and Caldwell-Pope really possess great foot speed. This also makes Weber a particularly good fit with Ball, who struggles here and would more ideally check wings, so the two can cross-match if they ever share the same backcourt with one another, ensuring that Ball is almost always checking the poorer perimeter threat thanks to Caldwell-Pope’s presence as well. Ball on a lesser offensive player also maximizes his own defensive utility since he’s able to bring his solid off ball defense to bear.
The battle here will thus most likely hinge on shooting, as it’s the chief feather Ennis has in his cap over Weber until the latter proves otherwise in camp. Weber certainly has the potential to bring more than Ennis to the table via his superior defensive pedigree and athletic tools, but the onus is on him to make the decision clear for the front office in every respect; while Ennis’ contract is certainly not large enough to make the decision to cut him improbable, the team to eat $1.5 million in guaranteed money is still a significant ask that requires Weber to prove himself worthy of the sunk cost.
Lastly, we should bring Vander Blue briefly into the discussion here, as his summer league play merits it, but it’s simply too difficult for Blue to escape the reality that the parent team benefits from his shot making skills significantly less than the Las Vegas squad because the former simply has a better corps of playmakers. Especially given Clarkson’s presence, pairing Clarkson with another chucker, notably a guy that doesn’t even begin to remotely approach Lou Williams’ efficiency, isn’t a formula for success.
Who gets the second two-way contract?
The last refuge for the remainder of the cap invites who fail to make the final fifteen is to follow Alex Caruso’s example and latch on as a two-way player who will spend most of his time with the South Bay Lakers in the G-League this upcoming season. The thought process here is fairly different than with a regular roster spot, however, since the player you sign to a two-way needs to: (1) be worth developing in the G-League; this is to say, you think that there’s potential to be unlocked from keeping this player around in your system; (2) be a good fit for the South Bay Lakers roster such that you’re actually able to give him playing time and not block either players the Lakers send down or other affiliate players worthy of time; and (3) be close enough to feasibly contributing, even if it’s just in a bit role, that the two-way is worthwhile since you’ll actually call that player up at certain points during the season.
Going with this criteria, the candidates that present themselves are Beachem and Weber, but let’s discuss Blue and Zimmerman first. Blue doesn’t seem to have a clause in his contract that would allow the team to convert his deal into a two-way contract, but even if he did, he still presents the issue of being a possession-eating sixth man type who’s probably not efficient enough in NBA play at age 25 to justify the investment. He also has the problem of playing at the exact position as Hart, who’s already struggling for rotation minutes, and will battle with Blue for time at either the G-League or NBA level.
Zimmerman is an easier one since if you think a combination of Bogut and heavy Randle or Nance small ball is going to eat up time at the five, then both Zubac and Bryant will be playing in the G-League quite a bit. This makes Zimmerman extraneous since he stands in the way of two draft picks of the parent team getting development reps; while it certainly isn’t improbable — nay, quite likely — that Zimmerman ends up with the South Bay Lakers anyways as an affiliate player, burning a two-way on him would be a waste since you can’t maximize his development time in the G-League and there will hardly ever be a reason to give him a call-up.
Eliminating these two thus brings us back to Weber, who would no doubt fight for a two-way if he can’t beat Ennis for a regular roster spot. In Weber’s case, giving him the two-way makes sense since the Lakers simply don’t have a lot of equity invested in his position behind Ball; for instance, Ennis could very well hold onto his roster spot through sheer inertia and the power of his guaranteed deal but poor play during the season on his end and development from Weber via heavy G-League reps could induce them to call up the latter and give him a try during the course of the season.
Although a similar line of thought exists for Caruso as well, investing some additional resources in sprucing up a rotation position that doesn’t otherwise have existing assets wouldn’t be overly duplicative. It helps that courtesy of Caruso’s size, moreover, the two could easily coexist in the same backcourt in the G-League over the course of the season without damaging their respective development processes significantly, as Caruso can check smaller wings and work off ball next to Weber and they both could learn how to work with other playmakers.
A spot at which the Lakers truly have no equity—indeed, negative equity, if anything—invested in is backup small forward though, as unless you think Hart will play up a position an awful lot, you are expecting to see two players on the wrong side of 30 battle it out in a battle of relatively washed up veterans. This thus gives Beachem a big boost in his efforts to claim the second two-way spot, as he has a clear mandate for development as well as a path toward minutes on both the parent and G-League squads since as noted above, the possibility of both Brewer and Deng flaming out is fairly significant.
Beachem has a bit of Anthony Brown in him in that he truly has little else he’s banking on other than a narrowly defined 3-and-D skill set to take him to the promised land and make a roster somewhere. If everything pans out, then he’s probably a NBA player, but if not, his flaws are invariably too debilitating for him to pass muster. That said, good wings who can shoot and defend are probably one of the best commodities you can have, so keeping Beachem around for the chance he’s one of them is likely worthwhile.
All in all, Weber and Beachem are pretty close here since the former might be more ready to immediately contribute, although this naturally will turn on whether Weber can unseat Ennis outright on the roster. In an ideal world, Weber does so and you can then keep Beachem as the second two-way, but if not, then one imagines that the Lakers will try quite hard to keep around the loser of the Weber and Beachem battle as an affiliate player.
Compiling together the rough outlines of our answers to the above questions, we get the following projected rotation after final cuts:
Post-Camp Projected Rotation
|Positions||Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String|
|Positions||Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String|
|PG||Lonzo Ball||Briante Weber||Alex Caruso (TW)||--|
|SG||Kentavious Caldwell-Pope||Jordan Clarkson||Josh Hart||--|
|SF||Brandon Ingram||Luol Deng||Corey Brewer||V.J. Beachem (TW)|
|PF||Julius Randle||Larry Nance Jr.||Kyle Kuzma||--|
|C||Brook Lopez||Andrew Bogut||Ivica Zubac||Thomas Bryant|
The Lakers have certainly thrown curve balls at us in the past with respect to the players they have kept around on the roster, although to be fair, evaluating how the new regime will do so might be an exercise in futility. With fewer preseason games, we unfortunately simply have fewer pieces of clear evidence to rely on in making predictions and it might ultimately push forward how guys look in the practices as a stronger part of the process.
But for the most part, the possibility of a shocking swerve such as last year’s miraculous resurrection of Nick Young from possible camp cut to starting shooting guard seems remote, and we’re mostly picking around at the bottom half of the rotation and roster. Things such as Lopez’s injury could allow us to see deeper into the overall rotation but it is doubtful that it ultimately affects the greater structure of the roster.
In the end, this camp is in part about getting a glimpse into how Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka begin to carry out their vision for how to rebuild the team and position themselves best in the short-term for a roster that needs to show greater competitiveness in order to attract the top-tier 2018 free agents, as well as in the long-term with a team will likely field two very young blue-chip prospects as starters.
How Magic and Pelinka manage this balancing act in what will be their first full years as executives will tell us an awful lot about what the Lakers’ future looks like moving forward.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.