With the news that the Lakers have signed Marcus Landry to a make good contract for training camp, the team now has 15 players under contract. When you add Ryan Kelly, who due to his lingering foot issues remains unsigned, the Lakers have 16 players expected to truly compete for a roster spot heading into next season. Training camp should provide the insight we need to determine who fills out the roster and who is sent packing looking for that next, fleeting opportunity to fulfill their dreams by playing in the NBA.
But who wants to wait for camp to predict? Certainly not me. So, below is a completely way too early projection of who makes the team with a brief explanation of why I believe this to be true (including some notes on where they may fit into the rotation). First a couple of notes which may (or may not) influence the final decisions:
*As noted, the Lakers have 15 players signed to actual contracts and, if Kelly can prove healthy, will have 16 come time for camp. NBA rosters max out at 15 and in seasons past the Lakers have carried only 14 players on the roster, preferring to keep a roster spot open for flexibility purposes in trades or if the need to sign a free agent arises. Basic math implies of the 16 players, at least two will be cut.
*Four players have partial or no guarantees on their contracts heading into camp. Per Eric Pincus of the LA Times, Shawn Williams and Elias Harris have partial guarantees of $100K on their deals. Marcus Landry and Xavier Henry’s contracts are fully unguaranteed. We’re not yet sure what Kelly’s contract will look like, but with his recovery clouding the situation, I’d guess he gets a partial guarantee similar to what Harris and Williams got.
With all that said, that leaves 11 players on the team with fully guaranteed contracts. All 11 will make the team. This is not a question. If you doubt this, one only need to look back to last season where every player with a guarantee on his deal (including Darius Morris and Chris Duhon) made the team while players who showed as much or more during the pre-season but had no or partial guarantees (including Chris Douglass-Roberts and Darius Johnson-Odom) were ultimately waived before their contracts would be fully guaranteed. Remember, the CBA states that the Lakers would be paying the salary of any player with a guaranteed contract wether they keep them or not. And, since the Lakers are a tax team, that salary is (essentially) doubled. The Lakers aren’t in the business of paying people to go away, so they’re certainly not in the business of paying them twice.
Now, on to the projection…
Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant (whenever he’s healthy), Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill, and Pau Gasol. The big three of Nash, Kobe, and Pau don’t need an explanation — they’re the team’s best three players. As for Hill, he’s the team’s most active big man, both defensively and on the glass. He’s reportedly been working on his shooting range and he’s a natural defensive complement next to Gasol while also fitting well next to the Spaniard offensively, especially in the HORNS (double elbow) sets the team ran a lot of last year.
The surprise here is Wesley Johnson who will go from barely getting off the bench for the Suns to starting for the Lakers. Johnson isn’t the most talented remaining wing, but he offers what the others don’t — defensive potential. Kobe is at the point in his career where he can’t be asked to guard the other team’s best wing for every minute he’s on the floor. Johnson, however, is. He’s young, long, and relatively athletic. He’s also not going to be asked to expend much energy on offense, so he can pour everything he has into chasing the Kevin Durants of the world around.
The Key Reserves
Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, Nick Young, Chris Kaman, Jodie Meeks. Let’s start with Young and Kaman since their roles are easiest to define. Young, who would probably like to be starting, is a pure gunner whose skills are better suited to a reserve role where he’s not competing for touches or shots with Kobe. He can bring an offensive spark to the bench and be a bailout option when sets break down. Kaman is the clear first big off the bench and can either come in for Pau (hopefully) or Hill depending on the match up. He can also be an offensive focal point working both as a post up option and a spot up shooter in pick and pop actions.
Farmar, Blake, and Meeks will all be fighting for minutes together, with Meeks likely being the guy who suffers in terms of floor time. Both Farmar and Blake will see minutes at point and shooting guard, but I expect a rotation to shake out where Blake sees more of his minutes as a shooting guard while Farmar mostly plays point guard. I won’t guess at a minutes allocation for these guys yet, but it will be hard to play 3 point guards and even harder to play 6 players between the shooting guard and small forward positions (Kobe, Young, Johnson, Farmar, Blake, Meeks). So, I expect someone to get squeezed at both PG and SG and those guys will likely be Blake at PG and Meeks at SG. So, if you’re doing the math at home, I have Blake beating out Meeks for minutes at SG. If this is a surprise, it shouldn’t be. Blake, for all his faults, is a better ball handler and shot creator, had a better year shooting the long ball, and works just as hard defensively. Even though Blake is smaller, I don’t think that matters to Mike D’Antoni.
The Other Guaranteed Guy
Robert Sacre is the 11th guaranteed contract and he’ll likely remain the “break glass in case of emergency” big man on this team. I liked what I saw from Sacre in summer league and I think he could be a bit minutes rotation player in the league in the right situation. He shows good instincts defensively and is clearly working on his mid-range jumper and his finishing around the rim in order to not be a liability offensively. Fact is, however, that on this team he’s the 4th center behind Pau, Kaman, and even Hill (who would play C in smaller lineups). We will still get his celebrations, though. So that’s a plus.
Spots 12 through 14
Elias Harris, Shawne Williams, and…Marcus Landry. The first question is probably, really? Three guys who kind of, sort of do the same thing? Well, the answer is yes. As noted way at the top, Harris and Williams have partial guarantees on their contracts. This gives them a slight head start. Beyond that, however, Harris is a versatile forward who brings aggressiveness and a really live body to the floor. If he can start to hit his jumper with more consistency and continue to work hard on defense, he could even earn minutes. Williams and Landry do similar things and have similar back stories with Mike D’Antoni and I think that gives both an edge. Williams is a bit more athletic and, while in a small sample, has a better track record as a shooter. Landry, as noted in my analysis when he was signed, competes hard on D and the glass and has a solid offensive repertoire that fits today’s NBA.
Lastly, all three of these players have positional versatility that will serve them (and the team) well as both contingency plans for other guys on the roster and to promote a variety of lineups. I can envision groupings where any of these three are playing either small or power forward and, depending on their teammates and the opposing personnel, fitting in nicely on both ends of the floor. So, even though these three guys seem similar, there’s enough variety between all three to make them keepers.
Sorry guys, but you didn’t make the cut
Xavier Henry and Ryan Kelly could both easily make the team depending on how their camps go, but right now I don’t see it. With Kelly, I’m strictly looking at this from an injury standpoint. He was supposed to be healthy enough to be on the court by now, but he’s not. Meanwhile, the Lakers are having scrimmages at their practice facility and he’s not even signed to a contract yet. This isn’t an indictment on Kelly’s talent — as I wrote when he was drafted, I believe he’s a good fit for this team and could actually earn minutes should he make the team. But his injury uncertainty has him missing the cut right now.
As for Henry, it’s simply a numbers game. Once Kobe is healthy, the Lakers have a multitude of backcourt and wing options. When you add in the versatility of the 12 through 14 trio mentioned above, the space on the wing only tightens. I like Henry’s defensive potential and his draft pedigree, but at this point that hasn’t translated to actual production at the NBA level. The same can be said for several other players who I think make the team ahead of him, but them’s the breaks when you’re contract isn’t guaranteed and you don’t have any singular, identifiable skill that is NBA ready at this point.