The Lakers will have to rejigger their rotation in the absence of Avery Bradley in Orlando, and they have two new backcourt options to help fill the void.
The problem with both Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith is that neither is a like-for-like substitute for Bradley. And even if they were, they are both months behind the existing Lakers guards in terms of institutional knowledge, since neither has yet played a game for the team. As a result, Frank Vogel made it clear that he hasn’t committed to any specific roles for Waiters or Smith yet when he spoke to the media Monday.
“Obviously both of them are super talented, and they can play and they can contribute, and they can help. But we have a great deal of depth even without Avery on our team at the wing spot... Obviously with LeBron handling a lot of times as the point guard, you can play a lot of shot-making wings with him. So we’re going to have versatility. I don’t know exactly where they’re going to fit in to a rotation, whether it’s going to be both of them, one of them, neither of them on certain nights, those answers will play out over the two, three weeks of training camp, scrimmages and seeding games. But they’ll have opportunities in those seeding games to show what they do, and how they fit into this group.”
A few important things stick out from Vogel’s message. One is that it’s possible that neither Waiters nor Smith will have a consistent presence in the Lakers lineup. The team will presumably start Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in place of Bradley, and they already have Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo off the bench, so minutes won’t necessarily be available for the new perimeter duo. The Lakers have also beefed up their frontcourt with the addition of Markieff Morris, meaning Kyle Kuzma can slide over to small forward on occasion, blocking another potential avenue for Waiters and Smith’s playing time.
Secondly, the Lakers are 5.5 games ahead of the Clippers for the top seed in the Western Conference, and with no homecourt advantage in Orlando, there is no incentive to try to catch the Bucks for the best overall record. That means that the seeding games are essentially exhibitions as well for the team, and Vogel can afford to experiment with Waiters and Smith during those matchups.
Even though Waiters and Smith are officially on the Lakers roster, they haven’t earned anything yet. The rest of the players has made their case for why they deserve minutes, and given the Lakers’ record, those cases are pretty strong. Waiters and Smith are still unknown quantities. For now, they are luxuries, not necessities. They will given a chance to prove themselves, but on a roster that can probably compete for a championship, they aren’t guaranteed anything.