To say there’s not a lot of obvious depth at the small forward position for the Los Angeles Lakers is saying just a little. It’s a tale of “tweeners.”
Wesley Johnson is the clearest natural candidate, even if Mike D’Antoni did insist on using him as a vastly undersized power forward last season.
And then there's Xavier Henry, a young, athletic slasher who played three positions in just 43 games last season as a point guard, shooting guard and small forward.
Kobe Bryant has stepped into the 3-spot on a number of occasions in the past, depending on lineups. And Nick “Swaggy P” Young is also capable of playing the position—although he’s clearly at his best when letting it rain from his natural shooting guard role.
Even rookie Julius Randle—a 6’10” bull in a china shop—thinks he can play interchangeable frontcourt positions, as he mentioned soon after being drafted, according to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com:
A lot of the league is going to small ball, but the good thing about me, I'm interchangeable. I can play small ball because I can guard multiple positions because I can really move. But I think it's going to be an advantage for me to be able to take a smaller guy inside but also take a bigger guy on the outside.
But as Darius Soriano for Forum Blue and Gold points out about Randle, there are inherent problems with tall trees lineups that pack the frontcourt with size:
Put a 6’10” player on the perimeter and tell him to defend a like sized player who just so happens to be able to put the ball on the floor with skill and quickness and the advantage will almost always lie with the player who possesses the ball. Big players normally lack the needed lateral quickness to stay in front of such players. Add in the advantages that come with drawing that bigger defender away from the paint and the benefits to an offense only increase via better spacing for the entire team.
During the wild and woolly D’Antoni era, even 6’11” Ryan Kelly got to try his hand at small forward.
But the small-ball innovator has moved on now, and there is a new sheriff in town. It’s hard to see Byron Scott, with his fondness for traditional interior fundamentals, playing footloose and fancy-free as guys like Randle or Kelly try to make like Lamar Odom.
There is, of course, another wild-card factor. With only 13 players on the roster, the Lakers are likely to go into the regular season with another body—especially someone who could fill an obvious positional need.
This leads us to the rumor that won’t go away until it finally, and mercifully, does go away—that Michael Beasley, who has worked out twice with the Lakers, could somehow wind up as their starting small forward.
This is a recipe ripe for disaster.
Because what would happen if a rash of injuries were to hit and you were suddenly left with Swaggy and B-Easy playing alongside each other? Lots of buckets and unintentional hilarity for sure—but solid basketball? That's highly unlikely.
Or, as The Great Mambino recently wrote for Silver Screen and Roll, “It’s a really stupid idea.” He elaborates further:
Michael Beasley isn't a lottery ticket. He is a skunked bottle of wine. He's 25 years old, sure, but has alienated himself from his last three teams in six seasons. He couldn't stick with a Minnesota squad hurting for shooting swingmen, a rebuilding Phoenix club looking for any semblance of talent or a Heat team desperate for an explosive scorer off the bench. He would come to the Lakers needing to beat out a dozen other guys for a spot at either of the forward positions. Bringing him on isn't just an indictment that the Lakers aren't hitting on their reclamation projects, but an indictment of incompetence.
So take away all the positional musical chairs and the idea that Beasley could somehow shoot his way into the heart of a hardliner like Scott, and what do you have left?
It comes back full circle to Johnson—the most obvious choice for the starting small forward role. He’s got the size and the natural ability, can alter shots at the rim and is a decent perimeter defender as well.
He also has support from Scott, per Mike Trudell for Lakers.com: “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.”
As I recently noted for B/R, Johnson has been working out with the Mamba this summer. This is not a new development—per Jonah Ballow for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ official site, the former No. 4 pick met Bryant during predraft workouts in 2010 and has been mentored by him ever since.
Still, there continues to be a need for improvement. Johnson's 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game last season aren't markedly different from his nine points and three boards during his rookie campaign.
This season will be his last best chance to prove himself as a solid contributor in the NBA. If he can’t do it with the support and encouragement of Bryant and Scott, then it really will be time for Plan B.
Just as long as the “B” doesn’t stand for Beasley.