Training camp will usher in both new and familiar faces for the Los Angeles Lakers, including Byron Scott who starts a fresh chapter with a team that he won three championships with a generation ago.
As head coach, Scott will have plenty on his plate, including the task of choosing his starting players.
The newest sideline leader won’t have it all sorted out for months to come. But that never stopped the tradition of predictions. And while there will be different rotations and changes along the way, the following lineup offers a realistic best-case scenario for the season on the whole.
Point guard: Jeremy Lin
One of the arguments that can be made for starting Steve Nash is that it’s easier on his 40-year-old body to play at the beginning of the game and the start of the second half, when he’s loosened up.
But, there’s a larger argument about what’s best for the team. Nash could certainly start with Jeremy Lin playing major minutes off the bench. But the vagaries of age and chronic injuries are what they are. Nash simply can’t be counted on at this late stage in his career.
This needs to be Lin’s year to shine. The Lakers have a real opportunity to see if he can be a successful starter, not only now, but for the future. Forget that brief but incandescent moment in the spotlight with the New York Knicks or the challenges of a shifting role with the Houston Rockets.
As the Lakers' new guard said at his introductory press conference, per Lakers.com; "Now, my goal is I’m not trying to be a player from the past. I’m trying to make history again."
Lin is as smart as they come, is a fierce competitor and has good size at 6’3” for the position. He’ll willingly soak up knowledge from the master, and then take his spot.
Shooting guard: Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant turned 36 on August 23. He is exactly 10 years older than Lin to the day. Bryant has also played in 1,028 more games than his new teammate and has scored 29,127 more points. And that doesn’t include playoffs. The future Hall of Famer is also coming off two serious injuries.
Everyone’s waiting to see what Bryant’s game will look like when he finally returns to action. But of all the players on the roster, he is the only one who has a starting position carved in stone.
On Bryant’s birthday, Darius Soriano for Forum Blue and Gold wrote about the longtime Lakers star:
At its essence, basketball is a game of leverage and angles. The best players exploit physical and mental advantages to get to specific spots on the floor where the odds of success greatly outweigh the alternative. The amount of hours put in to achieve this mastery of body and mind to outplay an opponent is often what separates those who are considered very good in their era versus being considered very good for any era.
Kobe Bryant, whatever you think of him, has built his career on the idea that hard work and learning from his defeats and failures will get him where he wants to be.
And that is as succinct an explanation as any as to why a particular player should start for a team. You can also toss in an insatiable desire to win and the sweetest combination of jab steps and pump fakes in basketball.
Small forward: Wesley Johnson
This year’s roster doesn’t have a lot of defensive stoppers on it. But Scott will be making stops a priority nonetheless. As he recently said to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com:
You’re going to have to play a lot of help the helper to keep the ball from getting into the paint. That’s a lot of rotations, a lot of help, a lot of stunt and recover, where the guy with the ball sees one-and-a-half or two defenders every single time. You want to clog up the paint as much as possible and make the opponent take contested jump shots.
At the small forward position, Wesley Johnson has the athleticism and defensive ability to not only be a one-on-one defender, but to switch and cover for teammates. During his four-year NBA career, the former No. 4 draft pick for the Minnesota Timberwolves has been largely defined by not living up to high expectations. It was a bit of a surprise when the Lakers decided to bring him back this season, but his new coach sees the opportunity for improvement, as per the same Trudell interview:
I think Wesley has not played to his potential at all. He's shown signs, but I think the kid is so talented, I'm really hoping it can be a break out year for him. Now, obviously, he has to come to camp and win that spot, and that's on him.
Power forward: Julius Randle
Carlos Boozer wasn’t a bad pickup this summer for $3.25 million—that being the amount the Lakers paid through the amnesty bidding process. The perennial starter may be past his prime, but he can still score the ball and pull down boards. However, he isn’t the frontcourt star of the future in Los Angeles.
The Lakers’ firmament does hold such a place for Julius Randle, though. This year’s No. 7 draft pick is a left-handed scorer who can crush it in the paint or use solid ball-handling skills to create options from mid-range—a dribble-drive to the basket or a pass to the open man. Randle’s a strong all-around rebounder with a penchant for cleaning the glass on the offensive end—generating extra possessions for his team and putback attempts for himself.
The freshman out of Kentucky also has a bigger wingspan than many assumed—measuring 7’0" at the Chicago NBA Draft Combine, which, in relation to his 6’7.75” without shoes, is not bad at all. He’s not a finished product by any means, but there’s an obvious level of intensity present. Can he become a more complete two-way player?
As Scott said about the rookie, per the Trudell interview, "I see a young man that's raw, but he has great feet and great quickness for his size, and he's strong as a bull. You can tell that he wants to get better."
Randle may not be the starter at the beginning of the season, but it won’t be long before he claims that spot.
Center: Jordan Hill
Apart from Bryant, the easiest starter to predict is Jordan Hill at the center position. That is, unless somebody thinks it’s going to be Robert Sacre?
Hill has what’s known as a very high motor. He can be counted on for relatively short bursts of intensity and hard-nosed play in the painted area. However, during his five years in the league, the former No. 8 draft pick by the New York Knicks has never been given big minutes or a consistent role.
One of the obvious problems has been inconsistent development under his NBA coaches. He averaged just 10.5 minutes through 24 games in Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball system with the Knicks before being traded to the Houston Rockets. Hill played for Rick Adelman, followed by Kevin McHale in Houston, before being sent to the Lakers. After coming back from a knee injury, the 6’10” big man appeared in seven regular-season games plus the playoffs under Mike Brown.
And when Brown got fired after coaching just five games the following fall, Hill found himself unexpectedly tethered to D’Antoni once again. The combo power forward/center subsequently appeared in only 29 games that season due to a hip injury.
The 2013-14 campaign was Hill’s best yet in the NBA, despite an ill-defined role. He averaged 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game. But he could go from starter one night to garbage time the next.
Chances for redemption come in unforeseen ways in the NBA. D’Antoni resigned, Pau Gasol joined the Chicago Bulls and the Lakers decided to re-sign Hill to a two-year, $18 million deal. And then they hired Scott—the kind of coach who appreciates hard-charging, defensive-minded frontcourt players.
As Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding reported in July: "Scott puts a premium on defense and rebounding, and he believes Hill was underutilized as a Laker because of D'Antoni. Bear in mind how fantastic a newly acquired Hill was for Brown in the Lakers' two-round 2012 playoff run."
In looking at a starting group of Lin, Bryant, Johnson, Randle and Hill, one thing becomes clear—it’s a superstar toward the end of his career, surrounded by four young players who present incomplete pictures. One is a rookie, and the other three have yet to find their true place in the basketball universe.
What if this season is different? What if Bryant and Scott, with eight championship rings between them, can get these guys to fully buy in? And what if the Lakers become the team that could, when everyone else said they couldn't?
It is not an unreasonable proposition for this season’s starters.