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3 key positional battles to watch for in Lakers training camp

There will be no shortage of competition for playing time during training camp with the Lakers this year. Here are three key matchups worth keeping an eye on.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

After a grueling five months, the Los Angeles Lakers are officially back! Well, close to being back, anyway.

The Lakers will tip off their training camp with media day on Monday, and then they’ll start getting ready for their preseason opener against the Denver Nuggets the following Sunday. With the exception of maybe Lonzo Ball, who will miss at least the first few days of training camp, everyone is expected to be available.

General manager Rob Pelinka has already gone on record saying the Lakers are leaning toward keeping their final roster spot open, but a Linsanity-esque training camp from one of the undrafted free agents could earn them a contract. However, as cool as that would be, it’s highly unlikely.

Instead, training camp will be a good test to see who deserves a larger role in head coach Luke Walton’s rotation, or in some cases, the starting job.

Pelinka made it very clear early on that outside of LeBron James, no one is guaranteed a starting job next season.

“We feel like we are going to have an open training camp in terms of competing and figuring out what is that best five to win and go deep into the playoffs and give ourselves a chance to win a championship,” Pelinka said, via ESPN. ”Obviously LeBron James is going to be a starter but the other four spots is going to be an open training camp decision.”

Luckily, unlike last year, there will be a number of interesting key positional battles to watch this year. Too many to count, probably, which is why I have taken the liberty of narrowing it down to just three. You’re welcome

Right now.

That’s what’s happening right now.

Let’s go.

Honorable mention: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope vs. Josh Hart

Okay so I lied I kind of have four. Anyway.

Fact No. 1: Josh Hart had a tremendous outing at the NBA’s Las Vegas summer league tournament, and probably deserves to be in the conversation for a spot in the starting five.

Fact No. 2: For the greater half of the regular season last year, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was one of the Lakers’ better players and there’s a decent chance he’s even better this year playing alongside LeBron James.

So why is this just an honorable mention and not one of the key positional battles? Because as close as the talent gap might be between these two, Caldwell-Pope still has a leg up on Hart.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

For starters, the Lakers paid KCP handsomely to keep him around — $12 million to be exact — and rightfully so. Caldwell-Pope is only 25 years old and would be a starter on at least half of the other teams in the NBA.

Perhaps Hart closes that gap and Caldwell-Pope becomes expendable by the time the trade deadline rolls around, but as long as he’s in a Lakers uniform, you can bet on KCP starting.

Lonzo Ball vs. Rajon Rondo

This will be one of the more interesting battles to watch as training camp unfolds, in part because of their ability, but also because of their availability. Namely Lonzo Ball’s availability.

Ball missed 30 games for the Lakers in his rookie season and will miss some time at the start of training camp because he’s been medically cleared by the team’s training staff for everything but 5-on-5. It’s unclear when he’s expected to be a full participant in practices, but if he misses a game or two in the preseason, Rajon Rondo could be a long-term replacement for Ball in the starting lineup.

It’s no secret that Luke Walton is really big on building units and teams. If Rondo is rolling with the starting lineup in scrimmages from the jump, Walton might be hesitant to mess with that chemistry, even if it comes at the expense of a clearly better player (see: Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. last season).

However, using that same logic, Ball should feel safe about his starting job. For all that has been made about it being an open competition for the other four starting spots, it’s safe to assume the returning starters will slide back in their respective positions.

Plus, if LeBron James’ NBA 2K lineups mean anything (they totally do), Ball has the King’s endorsement.

Lance Stephenson vs. Svi Mykhailiuk

Svi Mykhailiuk followed up his impressive summer league performance with a pair of solid showings for the Ukrainian national team at the FIBA Basketball World Cup qualifiers last week.

Through two games with Ukraine, Mykhailiuk scored a total of 37 points and shot 53.8 PERCENT FROM BEHIND THE ARC on 13 total attempts. Sure, you can argue sample size, but 1) how dare you? and 2) Mykhailiuk was crazy efficient from 3 in summer league too.

He’s legit, and if you won’t take my word, listen to Coach Pete, who is much smarter than I am, and says things I don’t understand sometimes.

If Luke Walton is looking for shooting on the wing, Svi is his guy, but they might look to see what they have in Lance Stephenson first.

Stephenson has the tools to be the “do it all” type of player the Lakers need, but he’s yet to put it together on a consistent basis. If Stephenson makes an impact with his high-level playmaking and rebounding off the bench right away, Mykhailiuk could be watching from the sidelines for most of the season.

However, if Stephenson is stalling the offense with his over-dribbling and/or takes ill-advised shots, expect Mykhailiuk to steal his role off of the bench.

The battle for the starting center position

NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Going with the assumption that the returning starters slide back in the starting lineup and with the knowledge that James is a guaranteed starter, the center position is the only starting spot up for grabs.

Does it actually matter who starts at center for the Lakers in 2018? Probably not, but it’s interesting because you can make a case for a few guys and why they should start. Let’s do that now.

JaVale McGee: Can block shots, played a key role in the Golden State Warriors’ title run last season, has a ponytail.

Ivica Zubac: Has played under Luke Walton for two seasons now and knows the system well, transformed his body over the summer, kind of looks like a large puppy

Moe Wagner: Can shoot the 3-ball, plays with an energy that is infectious, looks like Grant Goldberg if he was given the super solider serum from “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Air Bud: Led his team to a state championship in 1997, scores as efficiently as LeBron James, is a good boy.

We’ll find out what Luke Walton’s got planned soon enough, but regardless of what happens, training camp promises to be the most fun it has been in years.

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.

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