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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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When Kobe Bryant has been discussed in relation to the Lakers’ recent draft picks and young talent, the word mentor is one of the first words likely spoken. During summer league, announcers consistently spoke about how much D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle could learn from Kobe — a process that, for Randle already began last year. Whether it is work ethic, training techniques, mental approach, strategy, or tactics on how to approach an opponent, the message is the same: Kobe can teach these young kids the game and they should take full advantage of this while he’s still on the team.

This, of course, is 100% correct. Kobe is an all time great and whatever knowledge he can pass on to the next generation of (hopeful) Lakers’ franchise players, the better. When Julius Randle speaks about how much Kobe helped him in his rehab via helping him to break down film and from a mental preparation standpoint, we all nod our heads and say “this is great”. It’s even easier to think of how he can help Russell in similar ways, especially since both players are guards and the amount of time Kobe has spent beating the types of defensive coverages Russell is likely to see next season and beyond.

While this aspect of Kobe’s role is important — and likely have the most lasting impression — we should not forget that Kobe will also need to help these players on the court.

Part of the reason why this doesn’t come up as much is almost surely because no one really knows how much Kobe has left. His last three seasons have ended via injury. When he was finally “healthy” to start last season, he had some flashes of brilliance as a playmaker and scorer, but also saw his efficiency plummet and his effectiveness suffer for longer stretches than any other season besides his rookie campaign.

Still, Kobe’s presence on the court and ability to impact the game will be important to the young players. We must remember that he’s the only playmaker on the roster not named Clarkson, Russell, or Randle. His ability to be a passer and set up man might be the difference between the young players having to create shots for themselves (or each other) exclusively, or having it done for them. His scoring and finishing ability could turn the types of passes we saw in Vegas go unfulfilled turn into actual points. His ability to bend the defense could give the young players the little bit of extra space that turns a contested look into an open one.

These might seem as though they are little things or only produce short term gains for the young players, but they matter in the larger scheme of their development. Young players need all the success they can get in these early stages and Kobe is likely the only veteran who can aid in that success most through his ability to actually make players better (at least offensively). Of course the young players will need to do this for each other as well and, over the course of their careers the chemistry they develop will do more for making the game easy than a single season of Kobe.

But, in this short term, Kobe will need to help too. And he’ll need to do it on the floor, in the games just as he’ll need to in the film room, in practice, and in the locker room as the mentor many expect him to be.

If you listen to D’Angelo Russell talk, he will mostly discuss ways he needs to improve. He’ll talk about needing to get stronger, cut down on his turnovers, pay more attention defensively, and on and on. He understands he’s young, is a work in progress, and that he did not have his best showing in Summer League.

But, even though Russell clearly could have played better, the flashes of what he can be were there. His court vision is sublime and his ability to see plays developing ahead of time got his teammates a lot of good looks over the team’s five games in Vegas. And while his shot wasn’t as accurate as it could have been, in the team’s final LVSL game against the Jazz, he got the hot hand and showed off some of the shot making that earned him All-American honors after his lone season at Ohio St:

What stood out to me most from the barrage of made shots is how effortlessly he shoots the ball. The ease in which he rises up and simply flicks the ball is a beautiful thing. In fact, it’s this motion and smoothness of his jumper that left me almost totally unconcerned with his shooting percentage in the Lakers’ previous four games.

What also stood out to me, however, was how often Russell was creating his own shot off the dribble and how this really is only one aspect of how he can score. While at OSU, Russell did great work off screens and also showed he could be a fine spot up option. In Vegas, the combination of the sets the team ran and his role as the primary ball handler didn’t allow these other parts of his game to shine through. Come the regular season, though, when he’s on the floor with Kobe and as he gains more chemistry with Clarkson and Randle, I do believe he’ll get to expand the ways in which he scores.

That’s down the line, though. For now, watch Russell cook in the video above again. He ended his time in Vegas the way we all like to, with the hot and hand and cashing in.

The Lakers wrap up their summer league play today, taking on the Jazz. This will be their 5th game in seven days, or basically enough time to get a rhythm and be a bit worn down after not likely playing much full court basketball of any import over the previous few months. Of course, one could argue the import of these games as well, so…

In any event, the Lakers are 1-3 to this point but are coming off their best game of the tournament in Wednesday’s loss to the Mavs. That game saw Julius Randle breakout, D’Angelo Russell show some fantastic playmaking instincts, Jabari Brown show off his all court scoring game, and Jordan Clarkson continue to look impressive as a shot creator and finisher. Add in the better flow offensively and a more team oriented approach to their sets and I think fans got a lot out of the game even thought it was a loss.

Heading into today’s game, my biggest hope is that these kids are able to build on some of those positive steps forward. As I wrote about heading into this process, I’m not so concerned about wins and losses or even the individual statistics of the players. I’m looking for positives in their games that can be carried forward into the regular season and whatever negatives exhibited are ones that can be worked on, learned from, and minimized going forward.

So far, I’ve seen little to really be overly concerned about while also seeing some positives that can be built upon. Yes, it would be nice if Russell shot better or if Randle did more work on the glass. I’d have liked to see Nance bury a mid-range jumper or two and for Anthony Brown to get a bit more burn (and get some more spot up chances). I’m not going to worry about these things, though. These are young players and we’re playing the long game, not looking for short term gains on players who are very far from finished products.

With that, enjoy the game today folks. It will be the last Lakers’ basketball we see for at least a couple of months. Hopefully the team can go out with a W powered by some strong performances from players they have so much hope for. But, even if they don’t, trust that the work will be put in so they can be better the next time we see them.