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Kobe Bryant is currently in China on what has become his yearly summer trek, engaging with fans, telling his story, and further embedding himself as the most popular basketballer in Asia. Seriously, when you watch clips of him there or see photos, he’s like a one-man Coachella. The fans there love him and he loves them back.

But while Kobe is planting seeds for future endeavors in China, his present in the US and with the Lakers remains front and center. There are many questions about the team he will return to, his ability to perform on it, and how much time remains in his career to still do it. Marc Spears of Yahoo! caught up with Kobe and got a lot of insight on these topics and more. The entire interview is well worth your time so give the full piece a read, but for our purposes, let’s unpack some of the more pressing questions:

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We have officially entered the dog days of summer. With no NBA on the horizon, the type of news we’re left with is Kobe visiting China to mobs of fans, a 52 year old Hakeem breaking out a vintage move in the #NBAAfricaGame and players dunking off phunkeeducks. Not exactly stuff with any sort of shelf life.

For me, though, during this long slog of the off-season, my mind will almost always turn back to roster construction and team building. The draft and free agency was a chance for the team to reshape itself with new talent. The initial trade market offered similar chances, with the Lakers diving in to nab a starting big man. The Lakers have done well, then, and reflecting on that is worth some time.

However, just because things have ground to a virtual hault, it does not mean there aren’t decisions to still explore, regardless if they’re viewed as minor. The team still possesses a depth chart showing a real glut in the front court and needs on the wing and, potentially, at point guard. Filling the back of the roster isn’t something the Lakers are used to worrying about, but for an organization still looking to make a substantial leap forward, all decisions carry a measure of import.

This includes the 15th roster spot, a spot currently empty which the Lakers plan to fill eventually. The question, however, is how the Lakers should fill this spot. From my seat, I see four possible scenarios:

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When your nicknames are “Mr. Clutch” and “The Logo” it’s pretty difficult to argue you might ever be considered underrated. Jerry West certainly is not that, but as time passes and the game evolves it is sometimes easy to forget just how good some of the players from previous generations were, West included.

Luckily, youtube exists and we are able to look back and see the ride range of skill and ability some of these players had. Special hat-tip to the Wilt Chamberlain Archive channel on youtube for always bringing the heat, including this career tribute to the long time Laker:

Comparing players from the 60’s and 70’s to players today will always be tricky simply due to how the skills from that era stand up aesthetically to how the players play today. How the guys back then handled the ball, the sophistication of some of their moves, and what can seem like less fluidity in their movement can lead to some people question how good some of these guys really were.

But when you watch the clip above, while some of that might apply to West, what really stands out to me was the complete game he had and how so much of what he was doing back then is found in today’s game.

The one dribble left/right and pull up jumper is a staple of today’s best shooters. The way he rubs off picks or uses a tight handle to get into the creases and finish with a variety of shot types are all things you find from similarly sized players today. The way he jumps into passing lanes, causes deflections, and makes secondary reads to get steals and blocks are all staples of the game’s best defenders.

In other words, let this be your reminder that Jerry West, for any era, was a monster on the court.

The 2016 off-season has long been on the mind of Lakers’ fans. This is the summer where Kobe Bryant’s contract is off the books, the summer the salary cap will jump to (potentially) $90+ million, and the summer in which a certain small forward currently living in Oklahoma City hits the open market. The Lakers have big plans for this summer so, while it is still a year away, it is not really too early to look ahead.

While we all look at the things listed above, however, one thing not often spoke about is the pending free agency of Jordan Clarkson. When Clarkson was signed by the Lakers after being the 46th pick in the 2014 draft, he inked a two year, non-guaranteed deal**. We all know what happened next: Clarkson, after starting slowly and getting minimal playing time, came on strong in the 2nd half of his rookie season and earned 1st Team All-Rookie recognition.

Now, heading into his second year, his summer league play showed continued development, he is slated to be a starter at shooting guard, and will end this upcoming season as a restricted free agent. In a recent article at ESPN, Kevin Pelton mentioned Clarkson as a player who could be in for a big payday come next summer (insider):

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There is a real possibility the Lakers will lose two franchise icons at the end of this upcoming season. The first, as we told you earlier, is Gary Vitti, who has announced he will retire at the end of the 2015-16 season. The second, of course, is Kobe Bryant. Kobe has not outright said he will not continue his career when his current contract expires, but a reading of the tea leaves leads me to believe his 20th campaign will be his final one.

It would be fitting if Kobe and Vitti rode out into the sunset together since they share a bond that has been molded for 19 years and counting. One of my favorite pictures of Kobe is him walking with Vitti on the tarmac on the way to the team plane on a road trip from this past season:

kobe vitti

(Photo credit: Ty Nowell, Lakers.com)

In what may be their final season together, Vitti will surely be keeping a close tab on Kobe and how he progresses through the season. And, from the sound of it, he’ll be doing it while Kobe plays a different position than his customary shooting guard. From Mike Bresnahan in the LA Times:

Vitti is often an emissary between players and management. He recently met up with Bryant, with whom he shares a longtime bond.

“He was asking about our young kids, and I said, ‘You cannot believe how quick and athletic Jordan Clarkson is. He looks fantastic,'” Vitti said. “I said I personally thought D’Angelo Russell is going to be a star. He makes hard things look easy when he has the ball in his hands.

“Then Kobe said to me, ‘Well, then who’s going to play [small forward]?’ I looked at him and I said, ‘You.’ And with absolute, 100% confidence, he said, ‘I can do that.'”

Can Bryant, soon to turn 37, really do it? His last three seasons were cut short by injury and he became a part-time player last season, sitting out eight of his last 16 games for “rest” before sustaining a torn rotator cuff in January. He is under contract for one more season at $25 million.

“When Nash retired, that didn’t mean he couldn’t play in an NBA game. The problem was how much time did he need to get ready for the next game.” Vitti said. “He had lots of issues that prevented him from playing an NBA schedule.

“That’s going to be the big question with Kobe, and we’re just going to have to feel it out. It’s been a while since he’s played. We just need to see.”

After looking at the depth chart, we’d discussed the potential of Kobe playing some small forward this season. We’d even heard hints of this from Mitch Kupchak and Byron Scott. But it seems we’re getting it right from the horse’s mouth — or at least relayed by Vitti from the horse.

I don’t envision there being too much of a shift in terms of style of play from Kobe as a SF versus a SG. In the offense the team runs, it’s probably a bit better for Kobe to be the SF since it positions him on the wing to start possessions rather than at the top of the floor in the two-guard front many of the Lakers’ Princeton-based sets initiate from. In these sets, Kobe will likely get screened for by Russell and run a fair amount of two-man game and Triangle-like actions on the strong side with Russell and either Hibbert or Randle.

Playing in this spot will likely allow Kobe to post up more freely without having to skew the offense too much by bringing up a SF into a ball handling position (remember all those P&R’s you saw Wes Johnson run as a ball handler?) at the extended wing or at the top of the floor. Kobe, of course, will be much more comfortable handling those actions than a guy like Johnson, but his work below the foul line or in the extended post will likely continue to be his bread and butter — at least in the half court.

Where the team might have some issues with Kobe at SF is defensively, but, honestly, that’s not a new issue when it comes to Kobe. He may have to spend time guarding some of players he likely would have passed off to the other wing, since it is hard to imagine Clarkson guarding the LeBron, Durant, and Carmelo’s of the world. But, considering Kobe will likely be doing much less heavy lifting offensively and has always taken pride in guarding the top names, maybe he’ll give a bit more effort on that side of the ball this season.

Of course, we’ll just have to see how it plays out. My biggest hope for Kobe has little to do with how he plays at any given position, but him simply playing period.

The Lakers are a family business. Gary Vitti is Lakers’ family. The head trainer is entering his 32nd year with the team. It will be his last. Mike Bresnahan of the LA Times has the story:

Vitti will stay on for two additional seasons as a consultant, but will no longer travel with the team; will no longer be the guiding hand that oversees the Lakers’ health.

Some people are probably looking at Vitti stepping down, thinking to all the Lakers’ injuries over the last couple of years, and whispering to themselves that it is time for a change. I don’t agree with that notion at all (if you think Vitti could have prevented Nash’s leg being broken and nerve endings being frayed or Kobe’s achilles from exploding, more power to you).

Still the circumstances of his departure, likely are tied to the team’s horrendous run of injury luck. From Bresnahan:

So much has happened the last few years, so little of it positive. Vitti even called it “a nightmare.” Few would disagree, the Lakers continually losing Bryant and Steve Nash to injury, along with a slew of games.

“When somebody gets hurt, I blame myself. That’s the Laker way — you’ve got a problem, you go in the bathroom, you look in the mirror, you start with that person,” Vitti said. “The one that really affected me and maybe even affected this decision [to retire] was Julius Randle. All of his doctors and his surgeon are saying that nothing was missed, but the guy goes out there and breaks his leg the first game [last season]. That one really bothered me.”

For me, though, when I think of Vitti, I think of all the positives he brought to the team’s myriad of injury issues.

I think of how he’s worked with Kobe over the years, often around the clock, developing and implementing methods to keep the Lakers’ prized player on the court and competing at the highest level. I think of him using a streamlined splint and tape job on Kobe’s index finger on his shooting hand during the team’s run to the title in 2010. I think of the “butterfly” tape job he did on Kobe’s ring and pinky finger to stabilize the fracture in the smaller appendage in 2009. I recall the story of Vitti working with Andrew Bynum on his running gait and having the big man develop strength in specific core muscles, helping him remain healthy during what was his best season with the team.

The other thing I think of is Vitti was also so much more than a trainer. In a feature on Vitti, Ramona Shelburne once reported that Vitti really only got three hours for himself each day — the other 21 hours were dedicated to the Lakers. Brad Turner of the LA Times reported that Vitti’s day typically started at least an hour and a half before the players would arrive at the practice facility:

If the players are scheduled to arrive at the Lakers’ training facility in El Segundo at 10:30 a.m. for an 11 a.m. practice, Vitti and his staff arrive about 9 a.m. They make plans for the day and on which players need therapy.

When the Lakers arrive, the training staff stretches and warms up the players.

During practice, Vitti is back on his computer documenting therapy reports, talking to Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak about injured players and getting ready for post-practice therapy.

Turner further explained that Vitti also had a slew of other duties for the team, ranging from making arrangements for their chartered flights to making sure the team had practice sites secured during road trips. I’ve also heard that Vitti is the man who secures and hands out hotel keys to the players while on the road. (Update: Vitti does, in fact, hand out the hotel keys on the road.) Vitti is also the go-between for players, coaches, and management, using discretion when necessary and working in the best interests of all sides. This isn’t a role that could be performed without unwavering trust in the man by everyone within the organization.

From Jerry Buss to Jeanie and Jim, the Logo to Mitch Kupchak, from Riley to Phil, Magic and Kareem to Shaq and Kobe and Pau and everyone else in between, Vitti has earned an maintained that trust. He’s done an amazing job not just at his primary job, but at all the others as well.

Gary Vitti is Lakers’ family. I, for one, will be sad to see him go.

A quick scan of the Lakers’ depth chart not only shows some holes the team should explore filling, but also a large overlap in the types of players the team possesses. Namely, the team has an abundance of players who do their best work with the ball in their hands as shot creators for themselves. Among the 14 players currently signed to contracts, no fewer than half are players who thrive (or project to) with the offense flowing through them:

  • Kobe Bryant
  • D’Angelo Russell
  • Jordan Clarkson
  • Julius Randle
  • Nick Young
  • Lou Williams
  • Jabari Brown

Most of these players are guards or wings, but the inclusion of Randle on this list adds a key front court player who, ideally, is also someone who you want creating shots for himself and his teammates.

In some ways, this is a nice problem to have. In season’s past, the Lakers’ offense has starved for shot creators and players who, when an offensive set breaks down, can simply take his man off the dribble or create the type of separation needed to generate a viable shot. Too often the team relied on Kobe to be the player who could turn stifled possession into a point producing one, but it seems this upcoming season the Lakers should have no shortage of players who can accomplish this.

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Free agency might not have been the smoothest ride for the Lakers, but through all the ups and downs they did pretty well for themselves by grabbing Lou Williams, Brandon Bass, and Roy Hibbert (via trade). These players have added veteran experience and tangible, useful skill-sets to a roster which needed some stability. All three players should help in the upward trajectory of the team and the Lakers, all things considered, are lucky to have them.

But just because these players have been added, it doesn’t mean the Lakers should consider their off-season over. Player acquisition is a 365 days-a-year job and, as we saw with the rumors of a Ty Lawson chase, the Lakers’ brass takes that job seriously. Looking ahead to next year, then, you can imagine the front office would still like make a move or two — regardless of what their public stance on this might be.

A simple look at the current depth chart gives us a look at what direction the team might need to go in:

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