How Will Los Angeles Lakers Solve Glaring Small Forward Problem?

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How Will Los Angeles Lakers Solve Glaring Small Forward Problem?
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Relatively speaking, the Los Angeles Lakers have fared pretty well in their roster-rebuilding efforts.

With both eyes on the future and a mostly unwavering commitment to maintaining financial flexibility, the Lakers have limited their number of available avenues to external assistance. Backed into that corner, they've done a decent job of finding talent that mostly helps out now and won't cost much later.

The exception to that assessment is the small forward position. There, the Lakers are no better equipped than last season's 27-win outfit—and could be even worse.

If the 2014-15 campaign started today, gunner Nick Young could be in line for the starting gig. The 29-year-old returns to the Lakers with a new four-year, $21.5 million contract in hand, a deal he earned largely on the strength of his career-best 17.9 points-per-game scoring average.

Undoubtedly an explosive offensive weapon (career 18.5 points per 36 minutes, via Basketball-Reference.com), he might be a little too combustible for the team's still unnamed next coach. He's a gunner, but as his career .429/.377/.827 shooting slash shows, he doesn't hit his target with the most regularity.

And if his shooting stroke is off, he really struggles to positively impact the game.

Despite standing 6'7" and possessing what the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina dubbed "freakish athleticism," Young has never been much of a rebounder (career 3.1 per 36 minutes). He's been even less imposing as a setup man (career 1.6 assists per 36).

He can play better defense than most people realize, but his focus and commitment seem to waver at that end.

"Nick Young plays defense the way I floss," wrote USA Today's Nate Scott. "Flossing is not something I get excited about or pride myself on, but I am aware it’s important and try to do it whenever I remember. That’s how Young seems to feel about defense."

USA TODAY Sports

Young is an ideal second-team sparkplug. He can score in so many different ways, and he doesn't need other players to get him going.

But he's extremely volatile, and volatility is harder to contain in the starting lineup. Young needs to come off the bench, a situation that allows his leash to be lengthened on hot nights and the plug to be pulled early on his rough ones.

"If Young's your starting small forward, your team's unlikely to go anywhere of note," Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine wrote.

That fate was likely sealed for the Lakers as soon as they fell out of the Carmelo Anthony race, but "Swaggy P" the starter would take the guesswork out of it.

If he doesn't get the starting nod, though, who will?

Well, the Lakers brought back a pair of familiar perimeter faces on Friday, striking deals with both Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson.

At this point, both probably qualify as low-risk, low-reward investments. Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski later added that Henry got the same one-year, $1 million deal as Johnson, contracts that highlight how the rest of the league values these former lottery picks.

The good news is that Henry is coming off the best season of his career. The bad news is that his first three years were so disappointing that his big breakthrough consisted of only 10 points on 41.7 percent shooting, a 34.6 three-point percentage and a subpar 12.3 player efficiency rating, via Basketball-Reference.com.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Still, there were flashes of the active, aggressive, athletic player who impressed enough scouts and teams to be made the 12th overall pick in 2010. The problem was those came between frustrating bouts with the injury bug that ultimately led to him having surgery on both his left wrist and right knee in April.

"Henry brought a unique brand of physicality, skill and determination to the court," ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin wrote. "...If it wasn't for persistent injuries...he might have ended up being the brightest spot on the Lakers' roster."

That brightest spot comment needs some qualifying, though.

Henry shined not on a typical Lakers team, but rather with the one responsible for the second-lowest winning percentage in franchise history.

He also impressed because nothing was expected from him. He joined the Lakers on a non-guaranteed contract and wound up being serviceable. If more players would have outperformed expectations the way Henry did, this would not have been one of the league's worst teams.

Still, the jump from serviceable to starter is one the Lakers should not ask him to make. He needs to prove that he can score efficiently and stay out on the floor. In four NBA seasons, he has never played more than 50 games.

While Henry at least improved last season, it's hard to say the same for Johnson. Statistically, it may have been the best year of his career (9.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals), but those numbers seemed to be a simple reflection of getting major minutes in a stat-friendly system.

He may not have made any actual developmental strides, and you can't help but wonder if those will ever come for the 27-year-old.

As ForumBlueandGold.com's Darius Soriano observed, Johnson looked like the same disappointing player he's always been:

Like his career up to the point that he joined the Lakers, Johnson also showed an overall lack of consistency and remained a player who was over-reliant on his athletic gifts to succeed. If I could summarize Johnson in one sentence, he’s a player who makes more good athletic plays that good basketball ones.

If there's hope for Johnson, it's that he proves himself capable of handling second-team minutes. He's not a starter and probably never will be.

So, where else can the Lakers even turn?

There are a few other in-house options, but they sound more like creative stopgaps than permanent solutions.

General manager Mitch Kupchak said that Kobe Bryant could serve some spot duty at the position, via LakersNation.com's Serena Winters:

Bryant spent 32 percent of his floor time at the 3 in 2012-13, via Basketball-Reference. He'll probably help at the position again, but he'll get the bulk of his minutes where he always has, at the shooting guard spot.

Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times sort of offered up another possibility for a part-time small forward:

That feels like more of a summer league experiment than anything, though.

Scouts have worried whether Julius Randle has enough shooting range for the power forward position. Throw in the fact he doesn't have the foot speed for the perimeter, and he should not even factor into the equation.

Chances are, the Lakers are going to try to make this work with Young, Henry and Johnson splitting the bulk of the minutes. Still, Los Angeles looks like it wants to play for something this season, as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding observed, so it has to keep exploring other options:

The Lakers could consider searching the trade market, but it's tough to imagine that opening any desirable doors.

The franchise does not have a lot to give, and its unwillingness to take on bad, lengthy contracts could limit the number of potential trade partners.

The Lakers might get lucky and lure in one of the few free-agent forwards that has not been claimed yet. Perhaps someone like Al-Farouq Aminu or Jordan Hamilton will take a chance on getting major minutes on a marquee franchise. The market obviously isn't great for either one, so perhaps a one-year stay in Hollywood would help change that.

Bart Young/Getty Images

It certainly worked wonders for the bank accounts of Young and Jordan Hill.

If the Lakers can't get something done with a "proven" commodity like Aminu or Hamilton, they might have to hope a training camp invite forces his way onto the roster.

Maybe former prospects like Devin Ebanks and Tyler Honeycutt could use their summer league run to get a ticket back to the NBA. Perhaps an undrafted free-agent like C.J. Fair or LaQuinton Ross is worth a longer look come September.

Granted, these options aren't great, but neither are the pieces the Lakers have in place now. And while this team will have a hard time competing for anything in the Western Conference, it's clearly aiming to field a better team than it had last season.

The Lakers should improve in the backcourt with a (hopefully) healthy Bryant and a motivated Jeremy Lin. The frontcourt is younger and more athletic, plus veteran Carlos Boozer is on board to help guide those prospects.

But the small forward spot is a problem with no obvious solution. And that might not change any time soon.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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