The Los Angeles Lakers aren't set up for conventional success in the win column during Byron Scott's first season as head coach, but that doesn't mean forward progress has to elude the Purple and Gold entirely.
While the Lakers largely moved to maintain monetary flexibility this summer by inking veterans to team-friendly deals, last year's 55-loss debacle produced Julius Randle, the team's third-ever lottery pick and first since Andrew Bynum in 2005.
And in a stacked Western Conference, sources of optimism during the 2014-15 season are likely to be limited to silver linings. The most prominent of which could be Randle's emergence as a future franchise centerpiece.
But before labels can be bestowed upon him, Randle will need to prove his worth, as general manager Mitch Kupchak explained to reporters:
Unfortunately for Randle, amnesty signee Carlos Boozer stands between him and extended playing time in the Lakers frontcourt.
Inked to a one-year, $3.25 million pact in July via amnesty waivers, Boozer provides the appearance of stability at the 4. Particularly after the Lakers ranked 24th in power forward scoring last season, according to HoopsStats.
Despite posting a new career-low field-goal percentage of 45.6, Boozer remained a double-double threat (he totaled 25 last season), averaging 13.7 points and 8.3 rebounds during his final stint with the Chicago Bulls.
However, those basic box score statistics may represent nothing more than a thin veneer for a player whose effectiveness is dwindling rapidly.
Revered for his mid-range shooting capabilities, Boozer shot below 40 percent from both mid-range locations (10-16 feet, 16 feet-three-point line) last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, marking the first time he had done so in 12 seasons.
While he remained an effective shooter from the left elbow, mediocrity enveloped Boozer's production from nearly every other spot on the floor, as the following shot chart from Nylon Calculus illustrates:
Combine those evolving offensive struggles with Boozer's lack of defensive prowess, and the younger Randle may look like the more appealing starting option by the time curtains draw on his rookie season.
And if you want to be optimistic about Randle's prospects off the bench, just look at how Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau saw things when it came to Boozer and frontcourt mate Taj Gibson and imagine Randle in the latter's role.
Last season, the Bulls were three points better per 100 defensive possessions with Boozer off the floor, according to NBA.com. Additionally, the league's lowest-scoring offense was also 4.5 points better per 100 offensive possessions with Boozer off the floor.
As a result, the Bulls provided the younger, hungrier Gibson with a larger allotment of minutes (28.7 per game compared to Boozer's 28.2) despite coming off the bench.
|Boozer vs. Gibson: Average Playing Time By Quarter (2013-14)|
That brings us to Randle and his quest for a starting gig.
"We didn't decide, 'Well, [Randle isn't] going to help us this year, let's get a veteran,'" Kupchak told the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus. "We got [Boozer] to help us win games this year. Whatever Julius gets, he's going to have to earn."
Kupchak is looking to temper expectations and understandably so. After all, Randle faces an uphill climb in terms of adapting to the speed and physicality of the pro game.
But it's important to remember that Randle's skill set should equip him to make that adjustment slightly less painful.
Just take it from Kupchak.
"He's got super quick feet and I think if there's one thing you didn't see much at Kentucky, as you do watching him every day, is that he's got really gifted quickness, first step, [and] he loves contact," Kupchak said, according to Pincus.
No, Randle may not have a versatile range of offensive tools like the one Boozer's purported to possess, but his status as a physical force and athletic specimen should turn heads enough over the course of his rookie season to put him in excellent position entering year two.
Remember, Randle averaged 15 points and 10.4 rebounds as a freshman at Kentucky while leading the nation in total rebounding and ranking first among all SEC players in defensive rebounding percentage (24.7).
For a team that was inept at keeping opponents off the glass last season (L.A. ranked last in opponent's total, defensive and offensive rebounds), Randle's tenacity on the boards will be a welcome sight.
There's also the matter of Randle's positional versatility, which should help him stay on the court. Especially given how starved the Lakers are for committed wing defenders.
Outside of Wes Johnson and Xavier Henry, the Lakers are staring at defensive liabilities in Kobe Bryant, Wayne Ellington and Nick Young.
With the speed necessary to guard opposing 3s and the strength to body up 4s, Kupchak noted Randle could see time at both forward positions this season, according to Pincus:
He can defend small forwards. Do I see him right now as the prototypical small forward? Probably not. But I could see him bringing the ball up the court. I could see him seeing a gap, getting a step on a guy and making a play -- whether it's finishing or finding somebody that's open. Those are ball-handling skills that you wouldn't see power forwards have very often.
Detractors will point to the jump shot, which remains a substantial worry.
"Offensively, my biggest concern centers on his preferred shot selection, which is heavily interior-oriented. He made just 17.3 percent of his jumpers last season, having only taken 1.3 per game, per Synergy Sports via DraftExpress' Matt Kamalsky," Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman noted.
That said, it's important to remember Randle isn't confined to playing the role of a conventional 4.
Thanks to his unique blend of physical qualities, Randle is more than capable of making hay off the dribble, as he did throughout his time as a Wildcat.
As a freshman, Randle ranked first in the SEC in total free-throw attempts (289) while getting to the stripe 7.2 times per game.
Compare that to Boozer, who attempted 46.02 percent of his shots last season from mid-range, according to NBA.com, which resulted in the second-lowest free-throw rate of his career (.197).
And yet, given the way the Lakers have framed their one-year commitment to Boozer, it would be a surprise to see Randle supplant the 32-year-old as a starter this season.
Boozer's presence figures to relegate Randle to the role of second-unit contributor for the time being. But given all he has to offer, Randle should be able to carve out a nice rotational niche on a team in need of committed two-way players.
It's always tough selling patience when discussing lottery picks, but Kupchak has a point. Maintaining perspective is crucial, and just because Randle's status as a top-10 pick inflates expectations it doesn't mean he'll bypass the competition and get a pass to the top of the depth chart.
In time, the job will be his. That's what the Lakers' lottery commitment to Randle really means.
So if Randle can consistently attack the rim, crash the boards and display his positional versatility on both ends throughout his rookie season, the Lakers will have no choice but to think toward the future once Boozer's time as a stopgap starter in Tinseltown concludes.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless noted otherwise.