Although the Lakers will head into the upcoming season with the most continuity they’ve had in recent memory, they are not exempt from the questions that linger around every team when they enter a new year.
The most pressing of those uncertainties fortunately revolve around the “good” problem of having depth. After bringing back the core of their roster this summer, the Lakers also added around the margins to bolster their chances at advancing even further into the postseason.
With any new additions also naturally comes the element of competition. The team will get their first taste of it when training camps open officially on October 3rd. It will be in these scrimmages where multiple positional battles could be decided as well as roles be solidified.
While there are many things that can already be written in permanent marker when it comes to depth chart, there are also key minutes and spots still up for grabs.
Let’s take a look at the most intriguing camp battles that could end up having ripple effects throughout the roster.
Starting point guard: D’Angelo Russell vs. Gabe Vincent
Perhaps the most difficult decision Darvin Ham and his coaching staff will have to make ahead of the season is who they give the nod to in the backcourt.
After his stellar year, playoffs and ongoing global showcase with team USA, Austin Reaves has all but cemented his spot as one of the the team's guards for the foreseeable future. Who shares the rock with him, however, will likely come down to a philosophical preference.
Once re-arriving to Los Angeles at the trade deadline, D’Angelo Russell proved to be everything the team had lacked at the lead guard position over the course of several years. Stylistically serving as the polar opposite of Russell Westbrook, the team’s former lottery pick scorched the hardwood, as he drilled 41% of his 3-point attempts and posted what would be the highest eFG% (58.8%) of his career in his 17 games with the Lakers.
Russell also meshed nearly instantly next to Reaves as the duo’s offensive games transcended the complementary attributes of even a jar of peanut butter and jelly.
Unfortunately, the combination of Russell’s defensive limitations and a cold shooting stretch in the Conference Finals left a sour taste in many mouths and clouded what was his otherwise pristine fit.
If Russell’s potential downfall was his inability to finish strong, his new teammate Gabe Vincent showed firsthand what the value of stepping up under the bright lights can be.
Following his impressive postseason run with the Miami Heat where he started 24 games, Vincent used his national platform to springboard himself into a lucrative deal with the Lakers in the offseason.
While he and Russell do share similarities in the sense that both can operate on and off the ball, Vincent’s hard-nosed style of play contrasts Russell’s more finesse approach and lends itself as more translatable when it comes to postseason basketball.
Supplanting Russell won't be easy however. Between his own new contract he signed this summer and the effectiveness he had with the starters last season, Russell is reportedly the “early favorite” to start at point guard.
Vincent could ultimately earn the spot if he outplays him in training camp according to the Athletic. In order to do so, Vincent will need to: 1) show he is a capable enough perimeter shooter to keep defenses honest and 2) hold up defensively against starting caliber guards on a nightly basis.
Russell likely should be the betting favorite to maintain the status quo, but Vincent could make it a difficult decision even harder if he can carry over his playoff performance into camp.
Starting small forward: Rui Hachimura vs. Jarred Vanderbilt
If the deciding factor of who starts at point guard comes down to play-style, what happens for the Lakers at small forward may be determined by fit.
When comparing Rui Hachimura and Jarred Vanderbilt in terms of their postseason play and aspects like talent, upside, contractual investment and sheer ability, Hachimura clearly has the edge.
This may especially be the case if the team goes forward with their rumored interest in playing lineups that feature another center next to Anthony Davis — which if is the case — will only compound Vanderbilt’s shooting limitations further.
In contrast, not only did Hachimura convert on an unbelievable 47% of his attempts from behind the arc in the playoffs to help offer spacing in this scenario, but also looks to have slimmed down in a potential effort to play more small forward this upcoming year.
While he has predominantly been more of a front court player in his career, Hachimura has had success when slotted on the wing. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers were 17.1 points better when Hachimura played small forward last season compared to power forward. The sample size was small though as only 32% of his minutes came at the three.
The case for Vanderbilt rests almost entirely on the defensive end of the floor. Although Hachimura had his moments, Vanderbilt’s ability to check multiple positions was a major release valve for the backcourt and LeBron James in particular. Whether it was Steph Curry or Brandon Ingram, it was Vanderbilt who the Lakers often turned to as their stopper regardless of the matchup.
His aforementioned limitations on offense ultimately put a ceiling on his playoff utility and could gum up certain configurations. But if the team decides to maintain the starting lineup and rotation that helped lead the team to Conference Finals, the combination of Vanderbilt’s energy, low usage, and defensive impact will continue to make him an attractive option in the starting five.
From a various standpoints, it may prove too difficult to keep Hachimura on the bench following his impressive postseason play and the team’s $51 million investment in him. That said, Ham may value Hachimura’s scoring punch off the bench and Vanderbilt’s ability to fill in the gaps within an already offense heavy group.
Can Hachimura flash more malleability on defense? Can Vanderbilt shoot it at a respectable enough clip? How does swapping each out impact the rest of the rotation? These are the types of questions that will require answers before a final decision can be made.
Backup wing: Cam Reddish vs. Max Christie
Outside of putting his final stamp of approval onto the starting lineup, figuring out the overall minute distribution of his roster will likely be among Ham’s highest priorities. This is especially the case when it relates to the team’s bench.
When doing the mental exercise of divvying up minutes for the reserves and when taking into account that a combination of Russell, Vincent, Hachimura, Vanderbilt, Jaxson Hayes, and LeBron James will all get some run in the second and forth quarters, making sure everyone remains involved is like solving a Rubik's cube.
While not as pressing as the camp battles that could determine critical positions, there is an opportunity for a player to crack into rotation with a strong showing in October, namely at at backup wing. It is here, either as the off-guard or wing, one of the team’s young players could solidify a role.
After years of “will they or won't they,” Cam Reddish finally joined the Lakers this offseason in hopes of revitalizing his young career. The organization has found recent success in buying low on former lottery picks by tinkering their roles and optimizing his strengths. The path for Reddish to follow in the steps left behind by Malik Monk, Lonnie Walker, and Thomas Bryant is simple — he needs to play defense, hit the occasional open shot, be athletic, and commit himself to helping wherever is needed in order to win.
Reddish, still just 24, has flashed the ability to do each of these over the course of his career, but has yet to put it all together for a singular season. If he can finally do it this year in Los Angeles, the Lakers will finally get the big wing they’ve sought after for years and Reddish could course correct his trajectory.
Standing in Reddish’s way however, will likely be another one of the team’s young players looking for an opportunity.
Max Christie dipped his toes into being one of the team’s backup wings in his rookie season. And while he experienced the expected growing pains along the way, he ultimately impressed with his 3-and-D ability and tenacious work ethic.
Since then, Christie has turned heads after undergoing a noticeable physical transformation and is fresh off a dominant showing in Summer League.
The 20-year-old not only displayed that his strong shooting numbers in his rookie season weren't a fluke in Las Vegas, but used his new chiseled body to create separation in getting to the rim and also disrupt the opposition on the other end. In many ways, Christie exhibited the exact attributes that teams have coveted in Reddish over the years.
Heading into what is a contract year, it would likely behoove both Christie and the Lakers to expand his playing time into a consistent role. But if they do so, this will directly hinder Reddish’s opportunity, who it’s worth noting also can hit free agency next summer.
Both can be contingency plans in case the other walks, and both can also simply serve as valuable depth over the course of an 82-game season.
Either way, there’s a real probability that Reddish and Christie will not only battle it out in training camp for minutes, but vying for a job that extends beyond this season.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.