Welcome to the worst part of the circle of life for an NBA season. August. The dead zone. These truly are the dog days of summer.
Free agency, for all intents and purposes, is over. While there are some high profile restricted free agents still out there (*waves at Nerlens Noel*), most teams have filled their rosters. Teams are starting to use some of their 2-way contracts to snag players who have big team potential but G-League ability, but even these contracts are rare as teams still need to dole out their training camp invites.
Which leads me back to the Lakers. Here is their current depth chart (simplified for guards, forwards, and centers — note, Alex Caruso and his two-way contract is not included here):
Guards: Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jordan Clarkson, Tyler Ennis, Josh Hart, Vander Blue
Forwards: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Luol Deng, Kyle Kuzma, Corey Brewer
Centers: Brook Lopez, Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant
The additions of Ennis, Bryant, and Blue have brought the Lakers roster up to 15 players — even if these guys are in very different situations. Ennis will play, he’s the backup point guard. Bryant will likely spend a lot of time with the South Bay Lakers (SBL) to get minutes there, getting squeezed out of minutes by more senior players. Blue’s deal is only guaranteed for $50K, making him a prime candidate to be cut by the end of camp and end up on the SBL as either a 2-way contract player or just a regular G-League contract.
By the time camp starts, though, I expect the roster to jump to 20 players. 14 of those (everyone above, minus Blue) basically already being guaranteed a roster spot. The question is, then, will the Lakers actually keep any of those guys (and this includes Blue) on the actual roster, bringing them to the maximum 15 players?
Before we say what we think the team should (will?) do, let’s lay out the scenarios:
1. The team brings 5 more guys to camp, but at the end decides to not keep any of them for the main roster. This would allow the team to remain roster flexibility to add players in a variety of ways over the course of the season. Maybe someone gets waived at the end of camp by another team that the Lakers want to take a chance on. Maybe the team wants to make a 1-for-2 or a 3-for-2 type of trade where they fill that extra roster spot. Maybe they make a G-League call up. Or maybe, later in the year, someone is bought out and the Lakers want to add him. Having that extra spot can be useful.
2. The Lakers add a player who impresses at camp, but sign him to a non-guaranteed deal which doesn’t guarantee until later in the season. This gives the Lakers time to invest in someone who looks to have promise, but gives them the flexibility to still waive them outright, (likely) before the trade deadline in February. And, if the team likes a player enough, they could guarantee his deal for the full season and sacrifice some of that flexibility noted above for the value added by a guy who is proving to them his value every day in practices, the film and locker room, etc.
3. The Lakers sign a player outright from their camp roster, bringing their roster total to 15. They could still waive this player (or any player, really) if they needed the space to do so and all it would cost them is the money they pay out when cutting the player.
Of these three options, the third is the least likely. There’s just little reason to go this route with options one and two on the table.
I’d argue, then, that the Lakers would likely go with the second option over the first. This is what they did last year (Thomas Robinson made the team out of camp and they ended up keeping him all year) and it worked out well enough. Magic and Rob aren’t Jim and Mitch, but the roster numbers at the end of the bench can be more malleable and they should understand this well. If a guy is good enough to make your team, get him on board and then deal with the potential if finding someone better to replace him as time goes on.
If someone does materialize, you have the flexibility through a non-guaranteed deal to make that type of swap. Same goes for a trade materializing. There’s just little upside of adding more players who you think can A). play for your team in a pinch or B). add enough value in other ways to keep around for a while — or the entire season if that’s what ends up happening.