Normally, the NBA preseason is a time for every player on a team’s roster to get at least a few minutes as coaching staffs give chances for younger or less established players to make an impression while veterans shake the rust off, warm up their legs and get used to a new system.
On Friday, in the Lakers’ first preseason game, the Lakers played nine players, which is a shorter rotation than head coach Frank Vogel played in four of the six games of the 2020 NBA Finals (Games 1, 2, 3 and 6), and exactly how many he played in the other two (Games 4 and 5). Kyle Kuzma, a player who actually figures to be in the rotation for the Lakers this year, played 38 minutes on Friday in a meaningless exhibition. For contrast, the Clippers played 18 of the 20 players on their roster.
This is not a criticism of Vogel, as he’s playing the hand he’s been dealt, and the players he has available. The Lakers opted to rest five veterans who they’ll need to lean on this season during the short turnaround — LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris — as well as a sixth, Jared Dudley. Alfonzo McKinnie also missed the game, and has yet to report to training camp as a result of what the team has only called an “excused absence.” Alex Caruso played, but left the game after nine minutes with a hip flexor strain that will also force him out of the team’s second preseason game on Sunday.
That makes eight of the Lakers’ 14 NBA players that were out or limited (not including their pair of two-way contracts, Devontae Cacok and Kostas Antetetokounmpo, who played). Seven players of those players just plain sat out. Teams can technically sign 15 NBA contracts and bring 20 players to training camp (including two-way players or camp deals for the final five spots) but the Lakers could only sign 14 NBA contracts until the midseason buyout deadline as a result of the hard cap (more on that here).
Seven of those 16 players just sitting out while an eighth was limited by injury is how Kuzma ended up playing so much, and how sophomore guard Talen Horton-Tucker got 37 minutes while Montrezl Harrell — another veteran forward that will likely play an even bigger role than Kuzma will — played 31 minutes. After the game, Vogel thanked Kuzma and Horton-Tucker for stepping up.
“It’s difficult to have such a short training camp and play such big minutes like (Talen) and Kuzma did, so credit to those guys for being in really good shape and carrying some of the load for us early in camp here,” Vogel said.
Earlier in the week, after the team’s Dec. 6 training camp practice, though, Vogel may have inadvertently revealed why them doing so was necessary.
“We don’t have our Exhibit 10 guys,” Vogel said. “We’re very much more shorthanded than we would have been this time last year, and we’ve just got to make the best of it. This is what everybody league-wide is encountering, and we’re adapting, and we’re going to make the best of it.”
According to Larry Coon’s invaluable CBA FAQ, an Exhibit 10 contract is able to be converted into a two-way contract, and is also a means for teams to provide a bonus that ranges “from $5,000 to $50,000 if the player is waived by his NBA team, signs with the G-League, is assigned to the NBA team’s G-League affiliate, and stays there at least 60 days.”
The “Exhibit 10 guys” that Vogel is referring to are likely some combination of Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson — who Shams Charania of The Athletic reported the Lakers had signed to an undrafted free agent deal — Stephen F. Austin State shooting Kevon Harris — who confirmed a report that the Lakers had signed him for training camp on his own Twitter account — and undrafted Oregon State forward Tres Tinkle — who Jeff Goodman of Stadium reported had signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the team, a report his father confirmed to a local radio broadcaster.
Update: After this story was originally published, there was another report that Kevin Harris had signed tonight. He would still (possibly) have to clear some protocols before joining the team, so it's not clear how quickly he could be available to play.
Kevon Harris signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Los Angels Lakers tonight, his agent Billy Davis tells me.— Ben Stinar (@BenStinar) December 13, 2020
Despite all that confirmation, though, the Lakers still have yet to officially announced any of these signings, which means they haven’t officially gone all the way through, no matter what has or hasn’t been agreed to. As Vogel volunteered, it’s left the Lakers short on bodies in camp, even if a Lakers spokesperson said on Saturday that the team had no comment on those reported signings.
So what’s the hold up that’s left the Lakers shorthanded? It’s actually pretty easy to put two and two together. JD Shaw of Hoops Rumors was first to report that the Lakers “are among the teams that have indicated plans of not participating” in the G League Bubble that’s currently being proposed, and given that the primary benefit to signing Exhibit 10 contracts is to earmark such players for an organization’s G League team, the Lakers may have gotten cold feet and/or be giving those players the opportunity to seek a better opening elsewhere, where they could catch on with a G League roster that will go to that bubble. They may also just want to minimize the amount of people in the facility to keep the risk of virus transmission lower.
Whatever the case may be, though, it’s clearly left the Lakers a few bodies short in practice and in games so far during training camp. They probably have enough young guys that want opportunities to make it work anyway, but it’s just another challenge for the team to deal with as they look to get through the shortest turnaround in NBA history unscathed.