Previewing Los Angeles Lakers Biggest Training Camp Battles
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The Los Angeles Lakers experienced quite a bit of roster turnover this offseason.
An abundance of free agent signings now populate a roster that lost several key contributors from last year's squad.
Dwight Howard's departure ranked as the most prominent, but another starter from a year ago was jettisoned as well.
Veteran small forward—and resident screwball—Metta World Peace was waived via amnesty, leaving a void at the position.
That sets up the Lakers' most intriguing training camp battle to determine who will start at the 3 in 2014.
Here's a breakdown of how that and the team's other key depth chart decision will shake out.
The contestants for the critical role of Lakers' small forward will be Nick Young and Wesley Johnson.
As of now, Young has top billing on preliminary depth charts, but the decision won't be a simple one as neither player was on the roster last season, nor have they ever worked under current boss Mike D'Antoni.
Young is the slight favorite to win the job, as he's had the demonstrably better NBA career of the two.
He's got a prototypical shooting guard frame with excellent athleticism. He's a pure scorer who can make any shot from anywhere on the court.
The problem is he'll also take any shot from anywhere on the court.
A deplorable shot selection holds Young back from being a truly devastating offensive weapon. His biggest strength is his sweet shooting stroke, which D'Antoni can feature in his spread attack.
If Young sticks to shooting good, open looks, he can be a valuable cog in the Lakers offense.
Johnson, meanwhile, is kind of the opposite. He's got the shot chart you want from a complementary player at his position—a look at his heat map shows that he scores most frequently from the areas right around the rim and behind the three-point line—but without the skills to take advantage of it.
In a nutshell, Johnson can't shoot. He improved his shooting numbers between 2012 and 2013, but even that success only translated to 32 percent from the three-point line.
Johnson did make significant strides, however, in his long-two (16-23 feet) percentage, which rose from 33 percent two years ago to 41 percent last year, a mark good enough for 10th among all small forwards.
Who should start at small forward for the Lakers?
If he can continue to improve his stroke and extend his range, he'll be a trademark D'Antoni wing player.
Where Johnson can really stand out, though, is on the defensive end.
He's a better defender than the inattentive Young, a guy who can match up with either wing position and block a surprising amount of shots. Johnson held opposing threes to a 12.4 PER in 2013, per 82games.com.
Given the fact that D'Antoni is an offensive-minded coach, I'd expect Young to come out on top of this training camp battle.
With Howard gone, the starting center position is also up for grabs.
Duking it out to man the middle will be Jordan Hill and free-agent acquisition Chris Kaman.
Initial depth charts have the veteran Kaman in the starting slot—and he should be the favorite to win the job—but Hill will have something to say about that in camp.
Kaman is a former All-Star who's put up big numbers in his past. Last season in Dallas, Kaman posted strong per-36 minute averages of 18 points and almost 10 rebounds on 51 percent shooting from the field and 79 percent from the line.
He can function as somewhat of a go-to guy down low, but his points come from volume rather than efficiency. He's like a poor man's Al Jefferson, only his game is built more on jump shots farther away from the basket.
Kaman does provide a little bit of rim protection. He's a solid rebounder and above-average shot-blocker, though the blocks did fall off in 2013.
He's not very mobile and can be taken advantage of on pick-and-rolls. At this point in his career, he shouldn't be playing more than 20 minutes a game.
Hill, on the other hand, is still a young big with a little bit of upside.
He was a monster on the boards last year before getting hurt. Hill was on pace to lead the league in offensive rebound rate by a wide margin, and his total rebound rate would have ranked in the top 10 in the league.
When paired with Howard last year, Hill was forced away from the basket and took a lot of long jump shots, which is definitely not his game. Playing center and staying closer to the hoop should get him more easy looks where he can use his athleticism to finish.
Who should start at center for the Lakers?
The argument for starting Hill is that he's shown flashes of being a very productive player who just needs steady minutes to break out.
Furthermore, he's in a contract year. Handing Hill a heavier role will make it easier for the Lakers to assess whether he fits into their long-term plans.
At the very least he can showcase his talent for potential suitors who may be interested in dealing a draft pick for the free-agent-to-be if he shows significant improvement.
Handicapping the center race, I'd lean towards Kaman as the nominal starter, but expect a more meaningful contribution from Hill in 2014.
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