Regardless of how one views the Lakers’ off-season, what cannot really be argued is that the Lakers have improved their talent base. A simple look at the players who have come in vs. the players who have departed spells this out pretty quickly:
In: Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Brandon Ingram, Jose Calderon, Ivica Zubac
Out: Kobe Bryant, Brandon Bass, Roy Hibbert, Metta World Peace, Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly
The only player on that out list who posted a PER over a league average mark is Brandon Bass. Bass played nobly as a back up C last season, playing well on offense overall while providing smart, rugged defense both individually and at the team level. He was everything fans would have wanted from a veteran leader and he will be missed.
However, beyond Bass (and Kobe*, who I will discuss later) the Lakers have essentially let go of players who were well below replacement level and have swapped them for players who are likely better than that. I understand that is not saying much, but when you are working up from a 17 win team, even marginal improvements matter a great deal on the bottom line. This is the new world, Lakers’ fans.
I don’t need to spell out the strengths of every single Lakers’ addition, as we have covered that ground already. But in Deng, Mozgov, and Ingram the team has added two veterans and the #2 overall pick in the draft. These guys will have their down moments, but they can play and do so at levels higher than the players they are replacing. Add to them Calderon who is another solid back up PG and Zubac who turned heads at summer league and was rated as a mid-first rounder by several draft-niks and the influx of talent is real.
Beyond the additions, however, the Lakers are bringing back young players who are expected to get better every year. In Randle, Clarkson, Russell, Nance, and Brown the team has 5 guys whose trajectory is still going upward on their development arc. Randle and Russell were high lottery picks who both (essentially) played their rookie seasons last year. Clarkson and Nance are older, but are excellent athletes, skilled, and still have room to improve. Brown is the wildcard of this bunch and it remains to be seen what he becomes.
Add it all up and the Lakers are in a vastly different position than they were last season. They have viable talent across the board which will all be competing for minutes. Beyond that, they have some versatility within their slotted positions which will put even more strain on their battles for floor time. Besides Calderon and Huertas (pure PG’s) and Mozgov, Black, and Zubac (pure C’s), every Lakers’ player remaining on the roster can play either up or down a position:
PG/SG: Russell, Clarkson, Lou Williams
SG/SF: Ingram, Brown, Nick Young
SF/PF: Deng, Ingram
PF/C: Randle, Nance
I understand it might be ambitious to list Ingram as someone who can play 3 positions, but until his body fills out and we get a better sense of he can defend (and who can ably defend him), I am comfortable putting him at any wing position — including stretch PF in small lineups. The same questions might exist with regards to Randle and Nance playing C, but when you consider Walton’s time in Golden State, the fact that the Lakers will want to run more, both guys’ ability to be grab-and-go players, and the general direction of the league, and I do not think it is a stretch to see either play spot minutes a C this year.
Now, take those hybrid players above and add back the pure PG’s/C’s to the mix. Suddenly the Lakers have a lot of players who look like they will deserve minutes. Maybe you can remove Huertas or Calderon from that mix and demote one to 3rd string PG right away — though I’m not sure which one yet. And maybe you can give Black the edge of Zubac early on despite the latter’s strong showing in summer league. Also, for argument’s sake, remove Nick Young, even though he’s doing his best to try and repair his image and recover his status as someone who can be on next year’s roster.
That still leaves 11 players for what will likely be a rotation where even finding minutes for 10 guys consistently might be tough. I mean, how do you juggle enough minutes for Russell, Clarkson, and both another PG and Lou Williams? Now, how do you do that if Ingram plays some SG too? The problem is even more pronounced at PF and C — especially if Deng plays some PF (and he likely will). With only 96 minutes to split between the two “big” positions, how do you manage to find floor time for Randle, Nance, Mozgov, and Black while also getting Deng minutes at PF?
In a way, these are good problems to have. The competition for minutes amongst the entire team will create an atmosphere which will force all the players to continue to raise their respective games and meet the challenge of the next man up. Luke Walton has said he wants to create an environment of competitiveness and practicing with an edge and one way to do that is to have a lot of guys who are capable of playing fighting for the limited minutes which exist in any given game.
That said, keeping everyone in line and generating the needed buy-in will be a challenge. Everyone wants to play, but everyone really can’t. There’s simply not enough minutes. It’s one thing to get that buy-in when the team is winning — like Walton and Kerr did with the Warriors. It’s quite another to accomplish this when the team is in the lower half of the standings as the Lakers are expected to be. How Walton manages this will be an important story-line this year.
Still, though, it’s exciting to think about what is possible this year. Not necessarily in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of the competition for playing time and how that can foster the type of environment where players improve. This roster has the types of position battles which will be worth watching all through camp and I can’t wait to see how it all shakes out.
*Yes, the Lakers lost Kobe. The name recognition alone can make this seem like a pretty big net loss. Combine that with his final game performance with his history as a Laker and memories can be skewed. In reality, though, last season Kobe posted a usage over 32 while providing a PER of under 15 for the season. That is…that is not good. A simple redistribution of his touches to players who can provide production more efficiently than he did last season will help the team on the floor in countless ways. Even if it doesn’t at the gate or on TV ratings.