A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. I was 700 words into the plethora of Los Angeles Lakers tall trees heading into training camp, and the team went and signed yet another wooly mammoth—Andrew Bogut.
The basketball world last saw the aging veteran when he snapped his tibia less than a minute into his first appearance with the Cavaliers.
But lest anyone think the oft-injured vet’s partially guaranteed deal is just an insurance policy, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reports the Lakers are “planning on him being a big part of the team.”
The trend away from goliaths has been well-chronicled in recent years—a pixilating pattern of Pac-Men floor-spreaders devouring pituitary freaks until all but a handful of leviathans remain, the rest now socked away in cyber vaults for the too-big and too-slow.
Yet, this most recently edited and revamped Lakers roster includes not one but four seven-footers.
You can also toss in rookie Thomas Bryant at the 5—no shrinking violet at 6’10” with a huge frame and an ungodly 7’6” wingspan.
Five dudes who collectively block out the Southern California sun. If management could meld the best parts of these titans into a single long player with the skill to stay on the floor in today’s NBA, it would. But at the very least, the team has positioned itself for financial flexibility and next year’s free agent class.
The first major revamp of the offseason occurred when D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov were traded to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez. It was an unexpected and controversial move at the time, but in doing so, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka spun the bloated contract of ice age throwback Mozgov into a favorable expiring contract.
In Lopez, they also got a seven-foot starter who wisely adapted his game last season, putting up 387 three-pointers and making a very respectable 134 of them. To put a finer point on it, the veteran center had previously attempted just 31 treys total during his entire pro career.
Pelinka wants Lopez to keep bombing from the perimeter, according to AP’s Greg Beacham.
“Luke’s system is predicated on having bigs that can stretch the floor and create space,” the new Lakers GM said. “I think he’s the perfect road map to our next generation of centers here, too.”
Whether those next-gen prospects yet exist in Lakerland is subject to debate.
A year of promising rookie development with Ivica Zubac seemed to head south in Las Vegas this summer—the 20-year-old looked weirdly out of sync, lumbering robotically down the court and too often missing badly with chippies at the rim.
The team would like to see Zu flushing harder at the rim, moving faster on his feet and shooting the long ball more. The one certainty is that the bar will be raised in a crucial sophomore season.
There’s also Stephen Zimmerman, the former McDonald’s All-American whose faint chances in L.A. probably got snuffed with Bogut’s arrival. Still, Zimmerman is quicker and far more nimble than Zubac. Plus, as Basketball Insiders’ Eric Pincus notes, Zimmerman was given a “summer contract that can be converted to 2-way, or $50k affiliate (G-League) player.”
The dark horse candidate in all of this is Bryant. The 42nd pick in June was a relentless ball of energy during Summer League—a rim runner who can also sink the rock from distance.
Luke Walton heads into his second year as head coach for a team that has long tried to find its way back to all those banners and trophies—a circuitous path marked by a parade of sideline leaders, player experiments, a seismic family shift and a bumper crop of draft lottery picks.
Yes, the wins have been elusive. But there was at least a glimmer of progress with Walton running a lively bunch that got off to a respectable 10-10 start before the wheels came off the bus. The hope was that this year’s model would continue evolving with an up-tempo offense consistent with the NBA’s changing landscape.
In other words, a steady diet of Julius Randle sliding up from the 4 in small-ball lineups, just as he did last season. Ditto Larry Nance, Jr with his ability to guard multiple positions. The addition of rookie energizer bunny Kyle Kuzma further pushed the power forward envelope.
Adding to the intrigue is the question of whether Brandon Ingram appears to have sprouted a couple inches, to around 6’11”.
You see the thought gears churning, right? Screw the trundling behemoths and run Ingram as a point center. But that’s still a distant dream and not grounded in realities as they exist—nobody wants to see young Brandon get his skinny pins crushed in the paint by an opposing timberland ogre.
Ultimately, the conversation comes back to two established players, the assumption that minutes are theirs for the taking and the knowledge that each is injury prone and closer to the end than the beginning.
From a contractual standpoint it’s a reasonable gamble, adding tested players on short term deals who can anchor a young team, perhaps even contributing to an improbable playoff run. Bogut, after all, has been there already with Walton during the Warrior’s 2015 championship season. And, there’s little doubt he offers defensive bonafides along with a great passer’s touch.
But there’s also that sneaking suspicion that his boney underpinnings will spontaneously combust the second he steps on the court, or worse, during an integral juncture further on.
Despite being rejuvenated by youth, despite acknowledging an inevitable evolution of the game, it’s hard to break free from the ghosts of giants and past successes—constant reminders haunting the Lakers rafters.
Is this a team moving forward or one earthbound by tradition?
Somewhere in the mist there still exists a place where tall trees shift and sway, whispering siren calls and beckoning the Lilliputians to come their way. But the winds shift and the forest stills once more. Because the game has gone another way.