As long as we have been waiting, it is hard to believe training camp is already here. So much has happened since Kobe dropped those 60 points in his epic career finale and so much of what has occurred has seemingly taken forever to transpire. Yet, media day is here and training camp right along with it.
The hiring of Luke Walton and the roster turnover has been covered in detail multiple times over. As has the change in rhetoric surrounding this new Lakers’ team, where expectations are about seeking improvement in play, development of young players, and trying to find an exciting brand of ball as opposed to harping on the playoffs or making a run that is unlikely with a roster not constructed to achieve that goal.
This is backdrop for camp, but it is not the entire story. The Lakers have 20 players heading to Santa Barbara and the ensuing competition — for roles as much as roster spots — will be worth our time and analysis every step of the way.
We already have a good idea of who the starters will be. D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson are no longer just the back court of the future, they are also the pairing of the present. Julius Randle will return to his PF spot and Timofey Mozgov — with his $64 million contract — will be the starter in the pivot. The only remaining intrigue was to be whether #2 overall pick Brandon Ingram would start over Luol Deng, but Walton squashed that pretty quickly a couple of weeks ago. The veteran will get the spot.
With the first five determined, the real competition starts with the next five. Three of those guys are already determined — or at least they should be. Larry Nance is a rotation player in this league and has earned a role as first big off the bench. Ingram is the next man in as the team’s prize from the lottery. Lou Williams might not have the cleanest fit on this roster, but his scoring punch, shooting stroke, and ability to draw fouls have value.
The next two spots, however, aren’t as easily projected. At backup point guard, the Lakers happily took on two future 2nd round draft picks to absorb the salary of Jose Calderon. Shortly after that trade, the team brought back Marcelo Huertas on a two-year contract. Those two will battle for whatever minutes Russell leaves on the table and I believe how training camp goes for both will be a major determinant in who sees the floor. Both players have strengths and weaknesses, but this mostly comes down to a choice between Calderon’s superior shooting and Huertas’ superior playmaking and passing.
While sorting out the backup point guard spot seems relatively straight forward, who plays backup center is not that way at all. After not getting a very fair shot as a backup last season, Tarik Black was re-signed this summer as the presumptive favorite to backup Mozgov. However, the recent signing of Yi Jianlian has thrown a monkey wrench into that scenario. Yi is a totally different player than Black which adds an element of style contrast beyond just being another viable option.
Further, the Black vs. Yi does not even account for rookie Ivica Zubac (who is more like Mozgov than either Black or Yi) nor the prospect of playing Nance or Randle at backup C in order to get them more minutes. In other words, the Lakers, in theory, have upwards of 5 players who could prove to be worthy of the backup C role (maybe not Zubac, but lets keep him here anyway) and each of them brings a slightly different skill-set with their own individual strengths and weaknesses to account for.
Will Walton want a pure P&R dive man (Black)? Will he want shooting (Yi)? Will he want upside with size, but also a steep learning curve (Zubac)? Will he want a more small-ball type of player who also needs court time in general (Randle or Nance)? The answer to these questions will lead you to the answer of who gets minutes, but I think it would be silly to expect it will be the same every night. In fact, simple logic and numbers (as well as some of the few things we know about Walton) tell us it won’t be.
Which leads us to the other key storyline heading into camp: as much as we think we know about Walton as a coach, we really know very little. Sure, we got a glimpse of his general approach and demeanor from his stint as stand-in head coach with the Warriors last season. But that team was a juggernaut and had a group of veteran players coming off a championship who wanted to repeat and show the world they were not a fluke. This season’s Lakers are not that type of team. They are, #actually, the exact opposite.
How Walton manages to create and maintain buy-in, how he deals with the differences between his young players who are on the rise and his veterans who have firm reputations in the league, how he deals day in and day out with a team which is not likely to win a lot of games…these are all things we simply do not know. To be fair, he may not even know yet.
What we do know is that Walton is already preaching what sounds like the three keys to making this team his: competition, fun, and culture. The first two of those contribute to the third, but all seem to be important pillars of the program he is trying to establish. So far, the results — at least from what we are hearing from the young players who are at the facility every day — is that it is working. Guys sound excited about coming into the gym and seem to genuinely want to play for Walton. That is more than can be said for the last head coach — at least towards the end of his tenure.
All of this contributes to a certain amount of uncertainty. But that also breeds an excitement which, if we’re being honest, has not really been present lately.
The Lakers head into camp without Kobe, but with a new coach, a new batch of veterans to help lead, and the same young players (plus Ingram) who are all looking to be major contributors to turning around a historic franchise. They also have an interesting mix of add-ons on make good contracts who would love nothing else than to disrupt whatever plan for a roster exists by butting in and showing that they can earn a spot too.
In other words, get ready for one of the more intriguing camps we have seen lately. The Lakers are not back to being a team which is likely to compete for a lot of wins, but that does not mean they will not be competing. Because, based on what the coach says and the way some of these camp battles are going to go, competition will look to be one of the sure constants of the next several weeks. I, for one, cannot wait.