Early Predictions for Los Angeles Lakers' Rotation
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak retooled the roster during free agency by trading for Jeremy Lin, adding Carlos Boozer via waiver claim and retaining Nick Young and Jordan Hill, among other moves.
Lakerland wasn’t able to net big-name star Carmelo Anthony nor keep veteran Spaniard Pau Gasol. So what exactly will the Lakers’ starting lineup look like next season?
The point guard spot appears to be a two-lane race between J-Lin and an aging, injury-prone Steve Nash.
Shooting guard will continue to be Kobe Bryant’s domain, unless L.A.’s next coach (Byron Scott, perhaps?) finds it more fruitful to slide him down to small forward. None other than “Swaggy P” will otherwise man the 3.
Boozer has seniority for the power forward position, but the Lakers used their No. 7 overall draft choice this year on Julius Randle. He's the future of the Lakers franchise and needs meaningful minutes to develop.
Due to that, the frontcourt in L.A. just continues to get more complicated.
Hill and his $9 million annual salary will likely hold the fort at center, but nothing is set in stone.
Of the offseason moves, Bryant said, “I can sit here and tell you with 100 percent honesty that I’m happy with the effort the organization put forward this summer,” per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
Happy or not, the Black Mamba is no doubt aware the Lakers will be fighting an uphill battle for a playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference. Questions about the starting five only solidify that fact.
Point Guard Problem
Second-round pick Jordan Clarkson is merely going to try to carve a niche in the playing rotation as a rookie. Adding his youth and vivacity to the starting lineup as a means of moving another key cog to sixth man (either Lin or Young) makes sense, but it’s not a likely outcome.
That leaves Nash and Lin as suitors for the starting point guard spot.
Lin is younger, has dealt with fewer injuries and is a better defender than Nash. Still, the 40-year-old is prepared to go out fighting.
The former two-time MVP dealt with crippling injuries during the 2013-14 season, which forced him to miss all but 15 games. In a Grantland video documentary, Nash said the following of his nightmare season:
The reality is I could come in every day and say, ‘You know what? I’m just not right today,’ and just be injured. You know, and just be injured and ride out the rest of my contract, collect my checks. But while I’m not willing to retire and give up that last year of my contract, I’m also not willing to just sit back and say, ‘Yeah, you know what? I don’t quite feel it today.’
Nash’s body is betraying him during the twilight of his NBA career, but he’s still battling to return to form.
Whether or not his back will cooperate remains to be seen.
If Nash isn’t healthy, Lin is the obvious choice to start at point. Unfortunately, the Harvard product has proven to be better suited off the bench.
During 2013-14, Lin played 71 games (33 starts) compared to 82 starts the year prior. While primarily coming off the bench, his shooting efficiency was superior. He shot 44.6 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from three—both career highs.
Thrusting the four-year pro back into a starting role may not be ideal. Ultimately, however, the Lakers may be left with no choice given Nash’s injury woes.
Expect Lin to get the starting nod with regularity, while Nash plays in short bursts off the sideline.
The Small Forward Question
There’s no doubt the Lakers have enough depth at power forward with Boozer, Randle, Ed Davis and Ryan Kelly. Small forward, however, remains an area of concern.
Wesley Johnson is the only clear-cut 3 on the roster, but he’s already 27 years old and is a career 40.8 percent shooter. It’s become increasingly clear that he’ll never live up to the hype of being the No. 4 overall pick in the 2010 draft.
Young—who played the majority of his minutes at small forward last year—has been tabbed as the guy poised to take over the starting small forward spot, but Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley believes that isn’t the best option.
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.
Young was the biggest reason why the Lakers’ second unit ranked No. 2 in the league by scoring 42.3 points per contest, according to NBA.com. That was a huge turnaround from the year prior. It won’t be a strength for the Lakers if Young is thrust into a starting role.
With Young and (presumably) Lin starting the majority of games, L.A.’s second unit will be absolutely anemic.
Johnson only averaged double-digit scoring during months when he played more than 33 minutes per game. Nash rarely looks for his own offense, and Randle is an unproven prospect.
Where’s the bench scoring coming from if not from Young?
Is starting Johnson the better choice if only to have at least one guy who can score in bunches off the bench? Not necessarily, but it's something Lakerland has to mull over.
At this juncture, however, it appears that Young and Bryant will trade off at the 2 and 3 depending upon defensive matchups.
Opting for Veterans
By winning the amnesty auction for Boozer, a 32-year-old veteran, it’s clear the Lakers aren’t ready to embrace any type of youth movement.
Until Bryant has officially retired, the front office is going to do everything in its power to keep the team competitive. In this case, even if it means giving the team’s 2015 first-round pick (top-five protected) to the Phoenix Suns. Tanking is not going to fly as long as Kobe is healthy.
The Lakers will lean heavily on their veterans to win games. Bryant, Nash and Boozer all have something to prove.
The Mamba is looking to silence doubters who believe he can’t bounce back from an injury-riddled campaign.
Nash is trying to stay healthy and win a title before his career comes to a close.
Boozer will attempt to show the Chicago Bulls were wrong for releasing him via amnesty.
In truth, the Lakers’ success will be tied to Bryant and, to a lesser extent, the freshly acquired Boozer. The latter has posted career averages of 16.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game on 52.3 percent shooting. If he can rebound to those figures, L.A. will have found a bargain pickup.
That may come at the expense of Randle, but Kobe doesn’t have time to wait for the rookie’s growing pains to subside.
Bryant is still the face of the franchise. Until that stops being the case, expect to see the older guys getting the bulk of minutes.
Apologies in advance to Randle, Clarkson and Kelly.
Plenty of Change
During the 2013-14 season, head coach Mike D’Antoni was forced to try out a comical amount of starting lineups because nobody could stay healthy.
Bryant missed all but six games.
Nash played only 15.
Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Young, Gasol—all missed chunks of time.
Expect the variation of lineups to continue into next season.
Part of that will be due to inevitable injuries. Of course, the next head coach might also just be trying to find a formula that works. He'll aim for a balance between starter production and bench firepower, which would lead to a great deal of experimentation.
Could a smaller lineup of Nash, Lin, Bryant, Randle and Boozer happen? If the Lakers would rather have offense and rebounding over rim protection, it’s possible.
A big wild card in this scenario is Jordan Hill. He played just 20.8 minutes per game in Mike D’s uptempo system last season, which was still a career high.
Assuming his allotment of court time is set to rise in a big way, questions will bubble to the surface regarding his long-term health.
Can he withstand the grind of an 82-game season with an increased role?
If the answer to that question is no, Lakers fans could very well see starting lineups that include Robert Sacre or a lazy Susan of Randle, Boozer and Davis.
The opposite narrative is much more favorable...
Career Year for Jordan Hill
Ironically, Hill is coming off of a career year.
As previously mentioned, he notched a career-high 20.8 minutes per game under D’Antoni. In that time, he shot 54.9 percent from the floor, scored 9.7 points and grabbed 7.4 rebounds per game. All of those numbers were career highs.
It appears Hill will be the Lakers' starting center from Game 1, so it’s time to expect the University of Arizona product to trump previous production en route to another career-best campaign.
During a three-year stint at Arizona, Hill’s role was steadily expanded.
2006-07 (Freshman): 4.7 points and 4.1 rebounds per game
2007-08 (Sophomore): 13.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
2008-09 (Junior): 18.3 points and 11 rebounds per game.
Think of the 2014-15 campaign as Hill’s junior season in the NBA. Yes, he’s been a professional for five seasons, but he was traded during two of those campaigns and was never truly afforded an opportunity to thrive.
Now, as long as the Lakers' next coach allows it, Hill has that opportunity.
Expecting 18 and 11 is wishful thinking, but it’s not far-fetched for Hill to notch consistent double-double numbers.
As long as the dreadlocked big man stays healthy, he’ll provide the Lakers with a much-needed interior presence to replace the outbound Gasol.